Monday, April 22, 2013

New literary honors for North Carolina writers

"The Names of Things," a debut novel by UNC Asheville's John Colman Wood, is one of six finalists for the 2013 Chautauqua Prize, a national award that celebrates fiction and literary nonfiction.

In the novel, an anthropologist returns to Africa following his wife's death. He seeks to retrace steps he took with her years earlier while living with camel-herding nomads.

Wood knows this subject area well. He's an anthropologist who's done field research with Gabra nomads of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia.

Other finalists include "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," by N.C. native Ben Fountain. The winning book will be announced in mid-May.

This year's Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize winner is Kevin Winchester of Waxhaw. Winchester, who directs the Writing Center at Wingate University, won for his short story, "Waiting on Something to Happen." He'll receive $1,000 and his story will be considered for publication in The Thomas Wolfe Review.

Wolfe Prize honorable mentions went to Pittsboro's Ashley Memory for her story, "Once in a Blue Moon," and Jacob Appel of New York City for "Some Helpful Background for the Incoming Tenant."

Friday, April 19, 2013

Asheville's Dale Neal and 'The Half-Life of Home'

A simple, everyday garage sale opens Dale Neal’s new novel, “The Half-Life of Home,” but it’s a garage sale fraught with meaning.

Eva Wilder can’t wait to rid herself of the clutter her family has accumulated over two decades. But when her husband, Royce Wilder, eyes the items for sale, he sees memories, not junk.

This tug between past and present, and the complicated relationship most of us have with change, lies at the heart of Neal’s story.

It’s the second novel for Neal, 54, a reporter for the Asheville Citizen-Times. His first, “Cow Across America,” won the 2009 Novello Literary Award from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library.

“The Half-Life of Home” (Casperian Books; $15.95) takes place in two fictional N.C. mountain towns, Beaverdam and Altamont. (He borrowed “Altamont” from Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel,” where it stands in for Asheville.)

Neal sets his story in 1992. The Internet and digital technology haven’t yet transformed the world, but middle-aged Royce Wilder feels his once-secure life shifting beneath his feet. Raised in rural Beaverdam, he has moved to Altamont, a town that is becoming populated by transplants, strangers instead of neighbors.

His wife seems distant, his teenaged son, rebellious. And the family is struggling to finance a lifestyle that includes his son’s private-school education.

Pressure to sell family land grows when he learns his hometown emits dangerously high levels of radon gas. There’s even talk that the area could become a radioactive waste dump.

In Beaverdam, meanwhile, a rash of break-ins prompts suspicion that Wanda McRae, a troubled soul known as the Witch Woman, has been making forays into town from her mountain cabin.

Royce discovers the Witch Woman holds a secret about his family. He also learns to move forward.

Though more than a few Southern novels mythologize the past (such as “Gone With the Wind”), one message in this book is about letting the past go.

Neal recalls a great-uncle who said it was a lot easier to start a car engine than hook up a horse. Sometimes, Neal says, progress can be a wonderful thing.

 Neal will read twice in Charlotte on May 12 -- at 2 p.m. at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road, and 4 p.m. at the Wingmaker Arts Collaborative, 207 W. Worthington Ave, where he’ll be joined by fiction writer Kathryn Schwille and poet Gail Peck.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What to read when you're writing about drug dealing

For more than a year now, I've been working on a series about Belton Platt, a former Charlotte cocaine dealer known in the 1980s as Money Rock. (Read it at

Most of my information has come via public documents and interviews. But I've also been reading about drug dealing, urban America and Charlotte's history to better understand Money Rock's life and times.

I learned in "Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets" (Penguin Press; 2008), for instance, that there's no single business model for selling cocaine and crack. Sudhir Venkatesh, now a Columbia University professor, was a geeky University of Chicago graduate student attempting a sociological survey in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes when he stumbled upon members of a crack-selling gang known as the Black Kings. With the blessing of one of the gang's leaders, he embedded himself with gang members.

While Money Rock's cocaine operation was a locally-grown business, the Black Kings were more  a multi-state corporation, complete with a board of directors that held periodic meetings at a Chicago mansion. J.T., the college-educated middle manager who plays a starring role in the book, supervised about 200 men.

Venkatesh's book also explores the symbiotic relationship between gang members, administrators and residents of the now-demolished housing project. In the project, where police often didn't show up when called, the gang functioned as law enforcement, social services and local government. Like Money Rock, J.T. saw himself as a philanthropist: "He gave money to some local youth centers for sports equipment and computers. He willingly loaned out his gang members to Robert Taylor tenant leaders, who deployed them on such tasks as escorting the elderly on errands or beating up a domestic abuser."

 Closer to home, Tom Hanchett's "Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975" (University of North Carolina Press; 1998), showed me how inner-city Charlotte of the 1980s came to be.

Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, explains that Charlotte actually grew more segregated from the 1940s to the 1970s. He attributes this sharpening of race and class segregation to federal programs and policies that reshaped cities and often promoted racial and economic homogeneity.

Among those policies was urban renewal. Congress launched the program under the federal Housing Act of 1949 to replace slum housing with affordable new residences. But bit by bit, special interests changed the rules so that local governments could tear down “blighted” neighborhoods – “blighted” being a term defined by those in power – and replace the housing with government buildings, hotels or whatever they deemed a better use.

 Charlotte's urban renewal efforts bulldozed several African-American communities. The largest and best known, a once-vibrant neighborhood called Brooklyn, is now the site of government and office buildings, a hotel and a park. Urban renewal, which came to be known among black Americans as “Negro removal,” destroyed 1,480 structures in Brooklyn, including restaurants, small businesses and twenty-eight churches.

Poor residents forced to move from urban renewal areas ended up in other neighborhoods. You could argue that urban renewal basically created new slums in different places. And those impoverished areas were often the places where Money Rock sold his cocaine.

In "Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America" (Plume; 1996), I saw how one person's story can illuminate broad societal issues. Leon Dash's protagonist is Rosa Lee Cunningham, an illiterate heroin addict and former prostitute who lived in Washington D.C.

 Rosa Lee, who teaches her grandson to shoplift and sells drugs when she's desperate for money, is, at first blush, one of the most flawed characters you'll ever encounter. But Dash delves into Rosa's past and explores the culture in which she was raised to help explain why urban poverty persists through generations.
Dash succeeds, I would argue, and by the book's end, readers see Rosa not as a stereotype, but as a three-dimensional figure, and a sympathetic one at that.

After Part 1 of my series ran this past weekend, several readers commenting on my story faulted what they viewed as favorable coverage about a former cocaine dealer. Drug dealers destroy lives, they pointed out. And they are correct.

I'll say a couple things about that. First, keep reading. I'm not glorifying Money Rock. But by the end of the story, I think you'll see I've portrayed Belton Platt fully. He was not the world's worst person when he was a drug dealer. He's not perfect now that he's a minister. People are complicated. I also hope you'll end up pondering some of the same questions I've asked as I've researched this story. Like, why did a kid with potential see cocaine as his best chance for success?

Friday, April 5, 2013

April in Charlotte brings Ron Rash and a big book sale

The timing couldn’t be better for Ron Rash’s free appearances April 17 at Central Piedmont Community College’s Sensoria arts festival. He’ll speak twice, at 10:30 a.m. in Halton Theater and 7:30 p.m. in Pease Auditorium.

The New York Times’ Janet Maslin recently lauded Rash’s new short story collection, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” as his best book since “Serena,” his 2008 novel. That’s high praise, since Maslin has described “Serena” as “one of the greatest American novels in recent memory.”

And that’s not all. The movie version of “Serena,” starring Bradley Cooper and Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence in the title role, comes out this fall. Rash, who teaches at Western Carolina University and hails from Boiling Springs, will have much to discuss. Check out Sensoria’s full schedule of events:
Big book sale starts next week
What would John Grisham think about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library’s upcoming used book sale?

Would he be upset when he saw how many copies of his novels people have donated? There are a lot, Nikki Moore tells me. Moore is president of Friends of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

 My guess is that Grisham, bestselling master of the legal thriller would be pleased. The sale is, after all, an excellent cause.

The group has conducted a used book sale for years. But the fundraiser took on new importance when the recession prompted drastic cuts in the library’s materials budget, which went from $3.2 million in 2009 to $1.9 million in 2011. It’s now back up, near pre-recession levels, but with library usage up too, per capita book spending is less than it was in 2001.

This year’s sale, at 1330 Central Ave., next to Bistro la Bon, starts Friday, April 12, and runs through April 20. Check for hours and details. If you’re a Friends of the Library member, or if you make a $25 donation to become a member, you can show up 6-9 p.m. Thursday to get first dibs.

There will be thousands of books from which to choose – recent bestsellers, such as Stieg Larsson’s “Dragon Tattoo” novels and Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” lots of children’s books, good beach reads, books on tape and CD, DVDs – you name it. Grisham’s novels are in very good company. And you can’t beat the prices: Most items are less than $5.

Volunteers hope to match or even beat their previous fundraising record of $43,000 set in 2010.