Western Carolina Literary Festival and Thoughts on Teachers and Novel Revision

I just got back from the Western Carolina Literary Festival at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, from where I’d hoped to do a new post, but, gosh-darn it, the lit fest was just too hoppin’ of a place. So now, back on flat land, I write to report on the festival, the climate and terrain, and whatever else nudges its way into this post.

The very excellent Catherine Carter and Brian Gastle picked me up at the Asheville airport Saturday evening and took me to dinner at the very excellent vegetarian/vegan restaurant, The Laughing Seed. We laughed, and we “seed” and were “seen” in  return. Catherine has a new book of poems coming out from LSU Press, and Brian is apparently a Renaissance man (he’s actually a Medievalist) as he not only chairs the English Department at WCU but also prepares excellent Ethiopian food, keeps bees, drives a snazzy sports car, and can perform Old English recitations. I greatly enjoyed my time with Catherine and Brian, who also drove me back to the airport on Wednesday. Catherine even made vegan sandwiches for me so I could have something to eat before my plane departed. I won’t soon forget Catherine and Brian’s warm hospitality.

Nor will I forget the good humor and care of the festival coordinator, Mary Adams, another member of the WCU English Deptartment, who happens to be a fine writer, and that most excellent of all human beings–a lover of animals. On Sunday morning, Mary took me to the home of Karl and Veronica (Karl is an emeritus professor of linguistics, and Veronica is, like Mary, a great animal lover) who on Sunday open their home to whoever wants to drop by for breakfast. The call the gathering “The Church of the Pina Colada” because from what I can tell that tends to be the drink of choice. Karl and Veronica were kind enough to indulge my nearly vegan diet by preparing blueberry pancakes with soy milk instead of the regular stuff and soy sausage patties and links. As we say in the small town social items of the newspaper from the place where I grew up in southeastern Illinois, “a good time was had by all.” I met actors, musicians, singers, and artists. And Kark had found morel mushrooms in his yard! In southeastern Illinois, one has to tromp through the woods, eyes peeled for those deliciacies. He had them by the baggie full.

Oh, yes, and there was a literary festival! Elizabeth Kostova started things off with a conversation with the book critic from the Asheville newspaper, a conversation in which several audience members participated. The next day, Ginger Murchison and DeLana R.A. Dameron read from their poetry. It was an extremely powerful reading and a fortunate pairing of poets. That evening, Don Lee read from his new novel that’s coming out soon, and it was one that the college students in the audience greatly enjoyed–a novel about the Asian-American experience and, as Don said, “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.” The next day, Tuesday, I read from my novel, The Bright Forever (thanks to Brian Lawrence for his generous introduction and his fine conversation and driving later), and it was a treat to have Bret Lott in the audience not only because I admire his work so much but also because he was one of the early supporters of TBF. That evening, Bret read from his own forthcoming novel, a sequel to his book, The Hunt Club. I think I’ve got Bret thinking now about a web site, a blog, Twitter, Facebook–the whole nine yards. If I can do it, Bret, so can you!

But the highlight for me was speaking to a group of 25 public school teachers at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching. These teachers were spending the week at WCU as part of their in-service training, and they were taking advantage of the lit festival. I and other writers paid them a visit to talk about the writing process, the teaching of writing, our own work, etc. I had breakfast with a few of them before my presentation, and I listened as they talked about how tough things were as far as salary and advancement. I hope it will shock you as much as it did me to hear that some experienced teachers were making around $34,000 a year. I can’t tell you how much I admire these people who set our young people off on a path of lifelong learning. It’s one of the most important jobs one can have, and, unfortunately, one of the most under-appreciated.

My mother taught third grade for 38 years. At the same time, she took care of my father and me. My father, as many of you may know from reading my work (particularly my memoir, From Our House) that my father lost both of his hands in a farming accident when I was barely a year old. He wore prosthetic hands from that day forward, and he continued to farm, but he had to rely on my mother for help with things like greasing the fittings on a combine, milking cows, etc. She did chores in the morning, taught all day, came home and, depending on the season, did more farm work, kept the house in order, the meals cooked, the clothes washed, and somehow found time to prepare her lessons.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about mothers today and everything they sacrifice and take on for the sake of their children. Mothers who are also teachers take on so much of the load of educating other people’s children. Being with the teachers in North Carolina reminded me of how much we need to champion teachers and to give them the respect and admiration that they so richly deserve. I did my shoe exercise with them, and they told some powerful stories about their own experiences.

Oh, and I managed to read through the novel that I’m revising, the one that I hope will come out after Break the Skin. My agent hasn’t seen this book yet. She’s only heard a little about the story. The title I’m giving it right now is, Late One Night, and its epigraph comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.

On this read-through, I concentrated on seeing how well the elements of the plot (there’s a bit of a mystery at the heart of the story) fell into place and were convincing. I changed a few things in that regard, concentrating on the logic of the narrative, but I also took note of some opportunities for enhancing the character relationships in a way that will, I hope, prove more resonant. I did a bit of work with the characters and their interactions today. Now I’m going to put it away and let it cool off again before I read it a second time. This time, I’ll be looking at what I can do do make the characters unforgettable and their situation something that will draw out the human heart, or as Faulkner said, “the human heart in conflict.”

Now I’m off to what I’m sure will be an excellent reading by visiting writer Rebecca McClanahan here at Ohio State.

More to come soon about all sorts of things. Cheers!


  1. Elizabeth on April 7, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    Sounds like a wonderful time. Love hearing about your travels and your life! Keep em coming!

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