Thursday, July 24, 2014

Charlotte writer Rebecca Schenck in 'The Widow's Handbook'

Rebecca Schenck of Charlotte is one of the contributors to "The Widow's Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival" (The Kent State University Press, $38 paper). Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, writes the foreword. Schenck is the widow of architectural photographer Gordon Schenck, who died in 2009: Here is her excerpt, addressed to her late husband:

Come Saturday Morning

If we were in town on Saturday, of course we went to the Charlotte Regional Farmers' Market on Yorkmont Road. Longtime vendors knew that we would pick the vegetables with unusual shapes or colors that matched our pottery: red onions, turnips and eggplant. Sometimes cucumbers and gourds took the natural form of animals, which you loved tucking under your arm. 

The last time you were there, Mrs. Hoffman walked you to the car that I had pulled up close to her booth. A couple of weeks after you died, I took her your obituary, told the berry man and the flower man, didn't buy a thing.

The second time I went, Nise was back with her spring lettuce. When I told her you were gone, she hugged me and cried, handing me a mixed bag of red and green. She told me Lily had lost her daughter. I didn't recognize the name, but she's the artistic woman who placed the flowers beside the little vegetables on her table. I stopped to sympathize with her. Mrs. Hoffman gave me a jar of jelly and mailed me an Easter card.

Another week, I bought one tomato, one bell pepper, four yellow squash and a $2 bunch of blue ragged robins from the Asian family we liked so much. Gas prices are going up again, and I stopped on South Tryon to fill the Volvo. A woman at the pump noticed the flowers on the front seat and said they were pretty. I told her they were our favorites but my sweet husband had died; then I burst into tears. She said, "That's all right," and I said it wasn't.

Last Saturday, I went to the Farmers' Market again. When Mrs. Hoffman gave me pink peonies, I remembered your mother's talking about the peonies that bloomed the May you were born. At the plant shed I bought two Irene lantanas and stopped to tell the Celtic herb man that this year we have a full crop of his Kentucky Colonel spearmint. But you are not here. He was so sorry and handed me a pot of dill.

I came home and had what we liked best for a summer Saturday lunch: an ear of corn, a BLT and iced tea with a sprig of mint. I miss you.

Monday, July 21, 2014

'Major book deal' for former Observer reporter

In "a major deal," according to Publishers Market Place, former award-winning Observer reporter Paige Williams' "The Dinosaur Artist," was recently sold to Hachette Book Group at auction in New York. Slated for the fall of 2016, the book will tell of the global fascination with the fossils of deep time, "explored through one maverick's obsession with dinosaur bones and his quest to bring the illicit skeleton of a Mongolian Tarbosaurus bataar into the United States and to auction at Manhattan." The book grew out of Williams' article, "Bones of Contention," in a January 2013 issue of The New Yorker magazine.
Williams has traveled widely since her Observer days. I emailed her questions about her life and her work.

What gave you the idea for the New Yorker storyBones of Contention”?

I was sitting in a coffee shop in my hometown of Tupelo, Miss., reading the paper, and came across a brief about an amateur paleontologist who was en route to prison for stealing a dinosaur from federal land out west. The idea of dinosaur thieves made me sit up in my chair. I had no idea that the subculture of fossil hunters existed, much less that there was this whole rich back story that paralleled American history, global adventurism, and the rise of American science.

That one little blurb, in 2009, led to more or less a continual obsession with the subculture, and especially with the somewhat class-driven tensions within it, and the lengths (and risk) that scientists and commercial hunters will take in order to find, study, own, or sell the most spectacular specimens of earth history.

You might assume a story about fossils is static; in fact, the story of fossils in our culture is gorgeously dynamic. Fossils aren’t just alive in the imaginations of people who love dinosaurs; they’re alive in the sciences—with vital, morphing data about extinction and climate change—and, of course, on the marketplace, which is the source of such angst between commercial hunters and paleontologists.

One thing I was surprised to learn early on: the United States is one of the few dinosaur-rich countries on earth, and controversially unique in its approach to the conservation and protection of fossils. (If you find a T. rex in your back yard, it’s yours to keep. Good luck.) Anyway, if you’re interested in the full account of how the story came together, The Open Notebook did a wonderful piece about it.

You've recently moved from Boston to teach at the University of Missouri. What exactly will you be teaching?<

I’ve just taken a professorship at the Missouri School of Journalism, yes, to teach writing (and related courses) specific to the craft of longform narrative. It’s not unlike my work at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard (where I taught for the past four years and, for the past three, edited Nieman Storyboard), and at other universities, including NYU and MIT.

I’ve taught other courses over the years—criticism, investigative, feature writing—but longform narrative is my favorite. Across platforms, across media, storytelling is the mother. Learn how to tell a good story and you can do it in any journalistic form: video, multimedia, comics, audio, etc.

The Mizzou students are so driven, smart, inquisitive, and respectful—it’s going to be a joy and an honor, working with them. The alumni list alone suggests the kind of talent that Mizzou turns out: Wright Thompson, Seth Wickersham, Ann Friedman, Justin Ellis, Jim Lehrer, and the Observer’s own Tim Funk. Oh and hello, didn’t Brad Pitt study journalism there? He told Terry Gross he quit two weeks before graduation; he’s supposedly a credit shy of a degree. He’s welcome to come back. I’ll tutor.

Will you divide your time between Columbia and New York?

My magazine life is in New York, so I’m back and forth a good bit. I’ve always been a road type; straddling two or more worlds isn’t an unnatural concept to me. It satisfies the whole yin/yang thing, as well as the wanderlust. And because I lived in New York for years, well beyond my three years in grad school at the Columbia School of the Arts, the city still feels like home. Charlotte feels that way to me, too, and always will.

I understand you're working on a new piece for The New Yorker.

A piece on capital punishment. That’s about all I can say for now. It’s one of the more fascinating aspects of public policy and regionalism that I’ve ever encountered

What did you learn as a reporter at the O that has stood you in good stead?

How to be a reporter and how to properly value storytelling. During my time at the Observer, there were so many journalists who were exceptional at one or the other, or both, and who served as important mentors by osmosis. No one did more to open my eyes to craft than did Foster Davis, whose workshop handouts (New Yorker pieces, especially E.B. White) and gift books ("The Careful Writer"), I still tote around with me, city to city. Foster taught us how to see the storytelling possibilities inherent in the land of fact, and how, while working as information gatherers, to think, with equal energy, like writers.

I was also fortunate to have worked with editors who were good to me, and who let me try things. When Mike Weinstein finally agreed to be my editor, he once agreed to let me try an audio sidebar to a story about the celebrated storyteller Ray Hicks. The story was “Ray & Rosa: A Love Story.” Ray was a masterful teller of “jack tales” who lived on Beech Mountain. He sang these eerily beautiful a cappella folk songs.

This was 1998, pre-multimedia at our paper. I recorded one of Ray’s songs, desperate for readers to hear it. Weinstein found a spare phone extension, and I played the recording of Ray singing as the outgoing message. We ran the phone number in the newspaper, with the main story, and readers called in, just to listen. Early interactive, for sure.

You earned an MFA from Columbia. What was your specialty?

My MFA is in fiction. The Columbia School of the Arts’ writing program has an exceptional nonfiction track but I applied in fiction for a couple of reasons. One, the faculty was strong: Ben Marcus, Alan Ziegler, Binnie Kirshenbaum, David Gates, Richard Locke (hands down one of the best lecturers I’ve ever heard), Richard Howard, Victoria Redel, Sigrid Nunez, Kathryn Harrison, so many others. And the alumni, inspiring: Jonathan Ames, Susan Minot, Karen Russell (she was a year behind me but I’m listing her here because she’s terrific), Wells Tower.

Secondly, I wanted to immerse myself in that world with the idea of moving toward the art form After Journalism. I suspect that After Journalism is an illusion--one never really quits--but we'll see.

Paige Williams' Twitter link:

Friday, July 18, 2014

Governor's Circumvention 'Could Be Good Thing,' Says Network Director

This could be a good thing, in the long run," says Ed Southern, executive director of the North
Carolina Writers Network. He's talking about Gov. Pat McCrory's circumvention of standard
procedure in appointing the current poet laureate.

Such a bad thing could ever be a good thing?

"How often does poetry get this much press?" he asks. "How often does the poet laureate? Now, no one who's paying a lick of attention can claim not to know that we have used an effective process for selecting our poet laureate, that the laureate position is necessary and vital and much more than ceremonial, that poetry itself is necessary and vital and much more than pretty words, or that we have a community of writers in this state who will stand up and be heard.

"The bad thing would've been if this selection (or any new laureate) was met with a collective shrug." 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Former Poets Laureate 'Outraged and Deeply Disappointed'

Martha Waggoner of the AP reports that North Carolina's four former poets laureate have requested a meeting with Gov. Pat McCrory. Earlier today, the four -- Fred Chappell, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Cathy Smith Bowers and Joseph Bathanti -- issued a statement about their outrage:

"As former poets laureate of North Carolina, we remain outraged and deeply disappointed by the circumvention of the established process in place for a number of years to appoint the North Carolina  Poet Laureate, a cherished, time-honored, and crucial position in service to the citizens of the state. Instituted and administered expertly and transparently by the North Carolina Arts Council -- which has our unqualified support and loyalty -- the process insured that the poet laureate, ultimately appointed by the governor, was indeed a poet and educator of singular accomplishment, someone not only with a literary reputation in North Carolina, but beyond. The fact that that process was not recognized in the most recent appointment has resulted in disaster.

"Consequently, we stand at a crucial juncture in time for the literature and the writers of North Carolina -- not just its poets, but all of its writers, regardless of genre -- and, in truth, for literature and writers everywhere.

"Thus, we are dedicated to emerging from this crisis preserved and united as a state-wide community of writers, restoring the prestige and integrity of the Laureateship, and still enjoying our indisputable stature as one of the greatest states for writers and writing in this country."

Fred Chappell
Kathryn Stripling Byer
Cathy Smith Bowers
Joseph Bathanti

Monday, July 14, 2014

Former poets laureate take high road on McCrory's appointment

Kathryn Stripling Byer
Many poets in the state are incensed that Gov. Pat McCrory bypassed standard procedure in selecting Valerie Macon of Fuquay-Varina as the new N.C. poet laureate, to follow the current poet laureate Joseph Bathanti and serve the state for two years.
Macon, who's 64, and a graduate of Meredith College, has two poetry chapbooks that are self-published.

Other poets laureate, in this state and throughout the nation, typically have a stellar list of  publications, awards and honors.

But two former poets laureate, Kathryn Stripling Byer of Cullowhee and Fred Chappell of Greensboro, want to help support Macon.

"I feel it's part of my role as a former poet laureate to offer my assistance to the incoming poet laureate, no matter the violation of protocol that led to her selection," says Byer.

Chappell hopes that Macon's friends in the poetry community will show her the ropes and help her learn to talk to young kids about poetry.

"The idea (of being poet laureate)," he says, "is to spark interest in literature in general, in poetry in particular and in N.C. poetry especially. And to make sure the laureateship is representative and not just about herself."

That doesn't mean that Byer and Chappell are happy the governor circumvented policy.
Byer feels the violation damages our "strong literary reputation throughout the nation and damages the state of North Carolina."

Chappell calls the violation an "arbitrary seizure of power that's liable to result in unfortunate circumstances."

Sunday, July 13, 2014

McCrory bypasses N.C. Poet Laureate selection system

Big surprise.

Gov. Pat McCrory announced Friday that he's chosen a new poet laureate for the state of North Carolina to serve as "ambassador of North Carolina literature" for the next two years.

She's Valerie Macon of Fuquay-Varina, a New York native, a graduate of Meredith College and long-time North Carolinian with two collections of poetry, "Shelf Life" and "Sleeping Rough."

Both are chapbooks published by Old Mountain Press of Sylva, a company that advertises it's been "assisting authors (to) self-publish their books since 1992."

Macon has won awards from the N.C. Poetry Society, the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poets Series and the Writers Guild, Inc.

The surprise?

Only that McCrory completely by-passed the time-honored process of selecting this prestigious position, which includes a state-wide call for recommendations to the North Carolina Arts Council. The nominated poets then have sent a portfolio that included poems, a vision for the position, awards, publications and honors. In recent years, a committee of poets appointed by the Arts Council, has studied the portfolios, voted on the nominations and sent its recommendation or recommendations to the governor.

Traditionally, only then did the governor officially appoint the new poet laureate.

Macon will succeed Joseph Bathanti, who has served as poet laureate for the past two years.

I'll have more as the story unfolds.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Interested in writing romance novels? Myra Johnson offers inspiration

Myra Johnson
Six years ago, Myra Johnson of Charlotte had not published a single adult novel. Eight years later, she's the author of 10 novels (the 11th due in October), and the most recent one, "When the Clouds Roll By" (Abingdon Press), has just won the 2014 Christian Retailing's Best Award in the historical fiction category.

So what's her secret?

Long years of hard work, she says. Writing, writing, writing. Showing up at critique groups. Re-writing, re-writing, re-writing.

Then, a boost. In 2005, Johnson entered a manuscript in a contest and received a RWA (Romance Writers of America) Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Romance Manuscript.
In 2008, she read a notice that an editor at Abingdon Press was looking for unpublished romance writers "who had paid their dues."

Johnson sent a manuscript, and within a month she had landed a book contract with Abingdon. Within another month, she had a contract for a second novel with another publisher.

Johnson and her husband moved to Charlotte three years ago from Tulsa, Okla., to be near one of their two daughters, who was expecting her third child. They settled in an area just southeast of Charlotte, near Matthews, which also happens to be the locale of a recent trilogy of Johnson's: "A Horseman's Heart," "A Horseman's Gift," and "A Horseman's Hope" (Harlequin Romance).
The latest trilogy, which opens with the award-wining "When the Clouds Roll By," is set in Hot Springs, Ark., as World War I is ending.

Johnson is president of the Charlotte chapter of the American Christian Fiction Writers. If you'd like to visit the group, email her at