Friday, February 26, 2010

Margaret Atwood charms Davidson

I loved that the renowned Margaret Atwood brought her handbag along when she took the stage for Davidson College's annual Conarroe Lecture Thursday night. When it was time to speak, the 70-year-old Canadian author placed it beside the podium and proceeded to charm her audience.

Her subject: Influences in her writing that she never would have suspected were influences at the time. Her time studying at Harvard, for instance, served her well when she wrote "The Handmaid's Tale." She used the campus as the setting for the bestselling dystopian novel. Harvard folks were quite sniffy about it when the book was published, but they got over it, she says.

Other highlights:

  • Among those in Thursday's audience: Atwood's Harvard roommate in the 1950s, Charlotte's Mary Irving Campbell. Atwood attended a meeting of Campbell's book club before her Davidson talk. She told me before the meeting that she was really looking forward to the lemon squares.
  • Atwood has become adept at twittering. "Being on Twitter is like having fairies at the bottom of your garden," she said. You don't see them, you don't know where they are, but sometimes, when you ask questions, you get answers. "They also pass on quotes from me, some of which are not quotes from my work."
  • The question of a title for her latest book, "The Year of the Flood," was much debated by her American and British publishers. Her original title was "God's Gardeners," a reference to the eco-friendly religion that's central in the book. The American group nixed it, worrying that U.S. readers would be turned off, assuming it was "a religious book."
If you're hankering for more of Atwood's wit and wisdom check out her website. You'll find tips for overcoming writer's block and a most wonderful poem that describes why she no longer writes book blurbs.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

New novels from N.C. writers

Asheville author Wayne Caldwell's new novel, "Requiem By Fire" (Random House; $25), is in stores this week. In this story, Caldwell returns to the Appalachians, also the setting for his well-praised debut novel, "Cataloochee."

In "Requiem By Fire," residents of a mountain community must decide whether to sell their land to the government for the creation of a national park or risk financial peril.

"As in his debut," says Publishers Weekly, "Caldwell again attributes rich historical background to a dizzying array of colorful, authentic Southern characters in an unhurried story about resiliency and the unifying power of community."

Caldwell speaks at 2 p.m. March 6 at the Gaston County Public Library.

Charlotte's Jean Houghton-Beatty recently published "Stoney Beck" (Boson Books; $17.50), about a young woman in Charlotte who travels to a village in England to discover the secrets of her past. It's Houghton-Beatty's second novel.

"The Wind in the Woods" (Canterbury House; $15.95), a new novel by Rose Senehi, is out on Monday, March 1. Senehi, who lives in Chimney Rock and Murrells Inlet, SC, sets her novels around southern families trying to hold onto their land against the forces of development. Her previous book: "In the Shadows of Chimney Rock."

Charlotte's Steve Godofsky has written "The Liberation of Henry Belmont" (Eloquent Books; $23.95), a story of a man who learns he has ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and decides he'll spend the time he has left fulfilling his fantasies.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The girl who broke the library rules

Sometimes, en route to one story, I stumble on another. That happened last week, when I was interviewing Vanessa Work Ramseur for a piece I'm writing about Kathryn Stockett's "The Help," the bestselling novel that explores the lives of black maids and the white women who employed them in early-'60s Mississippi.
The book was written by a white woman. Ramseur is African-American, and her mother once worked as a domestic for families in Davidson. So she had some interesting things to say about "The Help." To explain them, she was telling me about growing up in Cornelius in the 1960s, not far from where I live now.
When she was young, she told me, Cornelius's library was whites-only. Black readers were supposed to use the book mobile.
From a young age, Ramseur, 56, was an avid reader. But even when she was young, she understood, at some level, the stupidity of a policy that said her books couldn't mix with white people's books.
And so, in her own small way, she protested. More than once, when her books were due, she rode her bike to the white library on Catawba Avenue and stuck them into the slot. She still remembers the librarian coming out the door to scold her as she sped away on her bike: Vanessa, you know better than that! I'm going to tell your daddy!
When Ramseur got her master's degree, she returned to Cornelius's library to show the woman her diploma -- in library science.
Ramseur is now a senior manager for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library. She still remembers the librarian's response when she showed her her master's in library science: You gave me so much trouble. I should have known you'd be a librarian.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Rock Hill fantasy writer leads a double life

After years in the closet, urban fantasy writer Kim Harrison admitted recently that she was leading a double life.
Harrison was her pen name. The best-selling author of “White Witch, Black Curse,” known for her flowing red hair and Goth-black wardrobe, was, in reality, Dawn Cook of Rock Hill, wife and mom, diehard introvert.
As happens with many pen names, Harrison created hers so readers could distinguish her different book series. Since 2001, she’d been publishing classic fantasy, filled with kingdoms, princesses and magic, as Dawn Cook.
But in 2004, she published her first urban fantasy, “Dead Witch Walking.” The world of urban fantasy has been described as the supernatural erupting in the everyday. So the characters have computers and cell phones, just like us. But Harrison’s main character, Rachel Morgan, also happens to be a sexy bounty-hunting witch who goes after vampires, werewolves, banshees and demons.
Readers loved Rachel, propelling Harrison’s last three novels to New York Times best-seller lists. Among fantasy lovers, Harrison became a star.
It was nice. And unexpected. Dawn Cook majored in biology in college and avoided English classes. She had begun writing for fun, never imagining she’d become an author with more than 2.5 million books in print.
But fame also brings expectations. Book signings might attract 200 or more people, eager to meet Kim Harrison.
And so Cook’s pen name began to take on a life of its own.“To get me out in front of a bunch of people, I have to put on my best face,” says the 43-year-old author. When she puts on her makeup, pulls on her boots and dons a black, flowing duster, “I just draw out aspects of myself braver than the part that sits in front of the typewriter.”
“Putting on my Kim,” is what she calls it.
Over time, the Kim persona has become more subtle, evolving from leather and what Harrison refers to as “butt-kicking boots” to more sophisticated black attire. But, she says, it has always reflected a part of herself.
Harrison plans several more Rachel Morgan novels. The eighth, “Black Magic Sanction” (Eos; $25.99) is out Tuesday. The book tour will launch at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Charlotte, at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in SouthPark.
And yes. We’re not sure yet about the outfit, but Kim definitely will be there.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What's the ugliest word in the English language?

Welcome to my blog, the place to visit for news about Carolinas books and authors . Even before I began covering the books beat, I knew the Carolinas had a rich literary history. But I’m still amazed at the writing talent we can claim.

Did you know, for instance, that Rock Hill is home to a fantasy writer with more than 2.5 million books in print? Check back here later this week to hear her story.

Along with writing about Carolinas talent, I’ll give you a heads up about authors coming to town. (Margaret Atwood’s at Davidson College Feb. 25. And the price is right: Free!)

I’ll also muse occasionally about reading, literary trends and one of my favorite subjects: the English language.

I was fascinated, for instance, by the “On Language” column in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. In it, Grant Barrett describes the case for “cellar door” as one of the loveliest phrases in our language. Who knew?

Here’s a word at the top of my ugly-word list: “Blog.”

Sounds like the child of of blob and slog, first cousin to soggy.

How’d it originate? As shorthand for “web log,” coined, we can guess, by someone who doesn’t dwell on the musicality of language.

I’ve tried to think of a better substitute for this thing I’m writing, but I’m coming up dry. Cyber journal? Ick. couldn’t even give me a synonym for “blog.”

“No results,” it said. “Did you mean bog?”