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Literary activist organizes "grassroots" Novello 

When Mecklenburg County officials told the library system it had to gut its budget — practically at the last minute of the budget process, no less — that was bad enough. When the library responded by drastically slashing its branches' hours, it got worse. But when the Novello Festival was put on hold, it was the last straw for Dr. Mark West.

An associate professor and associate dean at UNC-Charlotte, West is pretty soft-spoken, so he didn't react the way many library fans did at the time. He didn't get mad; he got to work. The result of West's work will be on display the first and second weekends of October, when more than 30 Charlotte writers will give free readings, both at the Main Library and the Levine Museum of the New South. It will be the largest gathering of readings by Charlotte authors in the city's history. The festival will also present children's and young adult book events and readings. (To see the complete schedule, visit www.plcmc.org.)

West told us, "I've always thought the Novello Festival was one of the best things Charlotte has to offer. So I started thinking about what could be done until there's enough funding to bring it back. I wanted to see if the city's tradition of having author readings in October could be salvaged.

"I thought it would be a good idea to organize a kind of grassroots Novello," West explained, "or a tribute to the Novello Festival, with local authors. You can think of it as the Charlotte writers community getting together, extending their support and keeping the spirit of Novello alive. Charlotte has a lot of very good writers, so I started calling some of them to get a preliminary idea of who would be willing to take part in a new, local festival. I told everyone they would be reading for free, with donations from the audiences going to the library. The response from writers was fantastic."

Writers by the handful immediately agreed that West's idea was a good one and volunteered their time and services. "It was very gratifying," said West, "so the next step was to talk to the library and see what they thought."

Library management was very supportive, and the festival — A Tribute to Novello — came into being.

Book lovers will have their pick of types and genres of lit-ra-chuh, and — unlike at many lit fests — there will be no concurrent readings, so anyone can see and hear as many authors as they wish. Panels of writers, grouped into various categories, will present a wide range of the city's writing talent. Novelists like Judy Goldman, Aaron Gwyn and Pat MacEnulty (subject of a recent Creative Loafing cover story) will make up one of the panels, while short story writers, poets, mystery authors, and purveyors of fantasy fiction will have their own dedicated panels as well. And in an innovative move, local romance writers, often the Rodney Dangerfields of lit festivals, will also be recognized with their own panel.

In the interest of full disclosure, yours truly will be one of the writers taking part in the festival; I also suggested a couple of writers who will be taking part. I'll share the stage with Mary Kratt, Tom Hanchett and Mike Lassiter on Friday, Oct. 1 at the Levine Museum, as part of a panel of writers who focus on history in their work.

Usually, the Novello Festival Press showcases its new books during the Novello Festival. This year, NFP will use the grassroots festival to introduce two new additions to its catalog, on Oct. 2 and 9. There are also multiple children and young adult events scheduled for Oct. 9 at the Main Library.

It's fairly easy to moan and groan about what happened to the county's terrific library system, but West's approach — buckle down, work the phones and do something — is more difficult, especially for someone already negotiating a busy schedule. Luckily for Charlotte, he voluntarily took on the job. There aren't many literary heroes these days, but for now, Mark West is Charlotte's.

John Grooms is an award-winning writer and editor, teacher, public speaker, event organizer, cultural critic, music history buff and incurable smartass. He writes the Boomer With Attitude column, news features and book reviews, and contributes daily content to the CL news blog (www.theclogblog.com).

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