Friday, November 30, 2012

Winston-Salem author pens new Thornton Wilder biography

Thornton Wilder’s most famous play, “Our Town,” was first performed on Broadway in 1938. Today, on the eve of its 75th anniversary, it’s the world’s most-produced American play.

Now, Winston-Salem author Penelope Niven reveals the man behind “Our Town” in a new biography. In “Thornton Wilder: A Life” (HarperCollins, $39.99), Niven explores Wilder, his close-knit family and his life as an artist.

Reviewers are praising her new work. Library Journal calls the book “Fast-paced and engaging.” Publishers Weekly describes it as a “seamless weaving of letters and journals that make up the full tapestry of the writer’s life.”

Niven, 73, grew up in Waxhaw. The town was rich in stories, she says, and the perfect place for a girl who dreamed of becoming a writer. Her other works include biographies of poet Carl Sandburg and photographer Edward Steichen, Sandburg’s brother-in-law. She loves exploring the lives of artists.

Like many readers, she discovered Wilder’s artistry in high school when she read “Our Town,” a simple, profound story of life and death in a small American town.

“I was convinced it was written about Waxhaw,” she told me. “How did Thornton Wilder know about Waxhaw?”

He didn’t, of course. But the fact that Niven saw her own world in the fictional village of Grover’s Corners shows why the play remains so popular.

Wilder, who died in 1978, won three Pulitzer Prizes – for the plays “Our Town” and “Skin of Our Teeth” and the novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”

Niven worked on the story of his life for more than a decade. It’s the first Wilder biography since 1983 and the first to use thousands of pages of journals, letters and records recently made available by Wilder’s estate.

Wilder’s circle of friends included many of the 20th century’s biggest names – Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway. And yet he was also a private person.

Wilder never married, and while he was intensely private and did not speak out for himself, many people believed he was gay. Also interesting: Wilder, whose full name is Thornton Niven Wilder, is related to his new biographer. “Our families come from the same little village on an island off the west coast of Scotland,” Niven said.
As “Our Town” turns 75 next month, expect to hear more about the play, and more from Niven. Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., will host the official anniversary celebration on Feb. 4. Niven, along with Tappan Wilder, Wilder’s nephew and literary executor, will speak there on Feb. 12.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Dogs and the writers who love them

Maybe you’re one of Ron Rash’s biggest fans. You’ve read all his books, from his debut short-story collection, “The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth,” to his latest novel, “The Cove.”

You know a lot about the man, but I bet you didn’t know this: He owns one of the orneriest, ugliest dogs you’ve ever seen.

I say this after reading Rash’s essay about his dog, Pepper, in a new book from Spartanburg’s Hub City Press, “Literary Dogs & Their South Carolina Writers.” 

The book includes 25 pieces by authors with S.C. ties, including Dorthea Benton Frank, Josephine Humphreys and Mary Alice Monroe, who introduce us to canines they have known and mostly loved. Some, such as a feral dog that novelist Dot Jackson refers to as “Yellow Dog,” were passing acquaintances. Others, such as Humphrey’s white poodle, Archie, are part of the family.

Then there’s Pepper (pictured at right). “Pepper was and is an amalgam of not only breeds,” Rash writes, “but also seemingly species: pointed bat ears, bulging salamander eyes, and a mouthful of small sharp teeth as you would find on a piranha.”

Pepper uses his piranha teeth to bite people. Lots of people. And yet, Rash feels a fondness for this unlovable mutt. I’ll bet readers will feel that fondness, too.

The book is $19.95. Its editors are Hub City Press Executive Director Betsy Wakefield Teter and John Lane, one of its founders. Some book proceeds go to an animal charity.

A book about bookstores
Once you finish reading about writers’ favorite dogs, you can learn about writers’ favorite bookstores.
In “My Bookstore” (Black Dog & Leventhal; $23.95), authors write about bookshops across the nation where they browse, read and shop.

Carolinas stores and writers are well represented. There’s Jill McCorkle on Chapel Hill’s Flyleaf Books, Laurent Dubois on Durham’s Regulator, Lee Smith on Hillsborough’s Purple Crow Books and Angela Davis-Gardner on Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh.

Bestselling young-adult author Carrie Ryan writes about Charlotte’s Park Road Books, and Ron Rash (again!) writes about Sylva’s City Lights Bookstore. In South Carolina, Mindy Friddle writes about Greenville’s Fiction Addiction store.
Ryan will do a signing at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 19, at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bestselling 'Shack' author visits Charlotte with new book

In 2007, William Paul Young self-published a book. He'd written it in six months while holding down three part-time jobs. Maybe you've heard of it. "The Shack," a novel that explores issues such as overcoming anger and recapturing faith, was eventually purchased by a major publisher. It has sold 18 million copies.

Now, Young, one of the most unlikely publishing success stories of the decade, is back with a second novel.

"Cross Roads," out Tuesday, Nov. 13, is the story of Anthony Spencer, a man who revisits the choices he's made in his life after falling into a coma. Reawakening into a surreal world where he's able to see through the eyes and experiences of others, Anthony faces the consequences of past actions.

His publisher, FaithWords, obviously expects another blockbuster. The first printing is a million books.

Young lives in Oregon, but he'll be in Charlotte to sign copies at 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, at Barnes & Noble at the Arboretum, 3327 Pineville-Matthews Road.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ryan Adams biographer at Park Road Books

As the Raleigh News & Observer’s music critic, David Menconi watched up close in the 1990s as Ryan Adams, once a small-time Raleigh musician, rose to become a Grammy-nominated star.

In “Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown” (University of Texas Press; $19.95), Menconi recounts a piece of Adams’ journey, describing his arrival on the Triangle music scene as a swaggering kid and tracing his development as a person, band member and, ultimately, solo artist.

Menconi will give a reading and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16, at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

Whiskeytown, Adams’ alternative country band, played regularly in Raleigh in the ’90s, in locales such as the Berkeley CafĂ© and The Brewery.

The word “Losering” in the book’s title refers to a song on the band’s 1997 album, “Strangers Almanac.”
Adams, who grew up in Jacksonville, N.C., left Raleigh after making “Strangers Almanac.”

 He made his solo debut album, “Heartbreaker,” in 2000. Menconi has written about music for the News & Observer since 1991.

Friday, November 2, 2012

'The Last Lion': Here at last, thanks to N.C. writer

Ever since I wrote two years ago about Paul Reid, the N.C. writer finishing the third volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, I’ve received periodic calls and emails, all with the same question:

When is it going to be published?

I got my latest query last month from a fellow named Tony in Canada. When I wrote back with the answer, he told me I’d made his day – possibly even his year.

Obviously, it’s Paul Reid who deserves the praise.

“The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965,” has been eagerly awaited by fans of Manchester and Churchill for more than 20 years, and it nearly didn’t get written. The book, by Manchester and Reid, is now available.

Manchester was the bestselling author of 18 books, including “The Death of a President,” about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and “American Caesar,” a biography of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

“The Last Lion,” his Churchill biography, was his magnum opus. He had begun work on the third and final volume. But then he had two strokes. With his health failing, he reluctantly gave up the project. In a poignant 2001 account, the New York Times described the author’s ill health and his response to fans.
“I have to tell them the book is not coming out,” Manchester, then 79, told the Times. “I tell them I just can’t do it.”

Finally, months before he died in 2004, he asked Reid, his friend, to complete the book for him.
Reid has lived since 2006 in Tryon, about 90 miles west of Charlotte. The book took him five years longer to finish than he expected. By the end, his advance, which he confirmed to be about $200,000,  was gone and finances were tight. “My family sacrificed a great deal for this,” he said.

But he’s pleased with the result. So are reviewers. Four major book review publications, including Publishers Weekly, have given it starred reviews.

“The long-delayed majestic account of Winston Churchill’s last 25 years is worth the wait,” Publishers Weekly says. The book matches the quality, the review says, of works by such esteemed biographers as Robert Caro and Edmund Morris.

Reid says he’s especially flattered by that reference to Caro, Lyndon Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer.

In 2010, I met Reid at his mountain home to talk about his daunting literary undertaking.
His unlikely background made his story especially interesting. Reid, now 63, was neither a Churchill scholar nor a biographer. As a reporter at Florida’s Palm Beach Post, he had never tackled any piece longer than a few thousand words.

Now he was writing a volume of more than 1,000 pages. Fans of both Churchill and Manchester had been waiting for it ever since the second volume came out in 1988. And they had high expectations.
That was intimidating enough. Not long after he started work, Reid realized the great man’s idiosyncratic research notes would be of limited use. He would have to do a lot of research himself.
I remember thinking as I drove home from the mountains after our interview: What a challenge that guy has.
Now it looks as if Reid was the perfect person for the job.

Over the years, Reid had written several feature stories about Manchester, and the two men had become friends. Both had grown up in Massachusetts and loved the Boston Red Sox. Manchester was a master at using details and anecdotes to bring history alive. As a former newspaperman himself, he liked having a writer with a reporting background finishing his work.

And Reid, like Manchester, loved history. As a teenager, he ordered a copy of the Warren Report on Kennedy’s assassination and subscribed to the Congressional Record. He already owned about 100 books on Churchill and World War II even before he took on Manchester’s book.

“My introduction to Churchill came almost six decades ago,” Reid writes in his author’s note. “On Saturday mornings I stood next to the stove as my father, attired in his old Annapolis bathrobe and a seaman’s cap, flipped pancakes and fried eggs while reciting along to Churchill’s wartime speeches, which he played on our old RCA Victrola. ‘Listen to Winston,’ my father commanded, stabbing the air with the spatula in syncopation with Churchill’s words. I listened.”

The final volume of “The Last Lion” is 1,232 pages. About 100 of those pages are Manchester’s. The rest are Reid’s. I asked Reid recently if the task of finishing another man’s masterpiece ever overwhelmed him. Did he ever doubt he could do it?

Reid is not a bragging sort, but he’s not given to false modesty, either. He thought about my question for a moment. And then he said no.

He recalled growing up in a family where Churchill was playing on the Victrola. He talked about how he made the task of writing 1,000-plus pages manageable by approaching each scene as if he were writing a feature story.

“It was a long, winding road,” he told me. He’s not a believer in fate. But in the end, he says, it turned out that the knowledge and skills he had acquired over a lifetime “were, coincidentally, just right.”