Now in its 11th year, the Public Library of Mecklenburg County's Novello Festival of Reading has become one of the most anticipated festivals of its kind in the United States. Over the years, Novello has become known for drawing big-name authors like Toni Morrison, Tom Clancy, Pat Conroy, Norman Mailer and Frank McCourt. Not so coincidentally, since 1994, Creative Loafing has presented Carolina Writers Night, an annual informal evening of free readings by some of the Carolinas' finest writers, in an attempt to shine light on some of our own substantial homegrown talent. In 1996, Carolina Writers Night became part of the Novello Festival, a partnership that will once again bring together a stellar selection of writers for the city's bookhounds (the event is co-sponsored this year by the Novello Festival Press). Carolina Writers Night is free, but it's often standing room only, so be forewarned and get there early.
This year, our salute to some of the Carolinas' finest literary talent will take place from 7:30pm to 9:30pm Monday at the Great Aunt Stella Center. This year's featured writers are Jill McCorkle, who will read from Creatures of Habit, her new collection of short stories; Joseph Bathanti, who will read from his novel East Liberty (winner of the 2001 Carolina Novel Award); and Allan Gurganus, who will read from his new collection of four novellas The Practical Heart.
In addition, the Novello Festival Press will feature local writers who have been published by the library's own publishing house, including former CWN reader poet Dorothy Perry Thompson, Observer columnist Doug Robarchek, memoirist Tom Peacock and more (see sidebar).
Jill McCorkle is the author of eight books of fiction, including Creatures of Habit, her latest collection of short stories, which is reviewed in this issue. A native of Lumberton, NC, McCorkle holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina and an MFA from the Hollins College Masters Program in Writing. She is an instructor in creative writing at both Duke and UNC. Five of McCorkle's books have been named to the New York Times Book Review's "Notable Books of the Year" list, and all of her novels have achieved widespread international distribution.
Joseph Bathanti came to North Carolina in 1976 as a volunteer for VISTA, working with prison inmates. Twenty-five years later, Bathanti is now an instructor at Mitchell Community College in Statesville and at Appalachian State University in Boone. An award-winning playwright, Bathanti has published several books of acclaimed poetry, as well as numerous short pieces. He has been a NC Arts Council Touring Artist, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Award in both short fiction and the essay. Bathanti's first novel, East Liberty was published by Banks Channel Books this month, and is reviewed in this issue. The book is based on Bathanti's experiences growing up fatherless in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Italian-American Pittsburgh.
A native of Rocky Mount, Allan Gurganus is most famously the author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which has since been adapted into a television movie and a stage production. He is also the author of two short story collections, 1991's White People: Stories and Novellas and The Practical Heart, published last month by Knopf. Gurganus, who now lives outside of Carrboro, NC, originally planned to be a painter before serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War. During his tour of duty, he says he read almost 1,200 books and conceived the initial concept for Widow. Gurganus later studied at Sarah Lawrence College and at the Iowa Writers' Workshop under Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Cheever. He is interviewed elsewhere in this issue.
By Joe E. Jeffreys
You can tell a lot about a person by the jokes he makes. Take Allan Gurganus, author of the best-selling Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. While discussing his new book, The Practical Heart, Gurganus answers the question, "What is your greatest fear?" with a joke.
"What is a faggot?" And then without missing a beat, answers, "A distinguished gentleman friend of the family who has just left the room."
His reply is quintessential Gurganus, slightly crude, a little off-beat, but delivered with enough Southern Charm to guarantee that no offense is intended. After all, it was Gurganus whose second novel, Plays Well With Others, about the effect of AIDS on a group of friends in New York City, was both roundly praised and criticized for the often laugh-out-loud manner in which it dealt with its subject matter.
The Practical Heart is no less bold. Gurganus' newest book is a series of four distinct novellas all set in the mythical small town of Falls, NC. The quartet, as the author explains them, tell the stories of "people who wander beyond the sign that says 'No Lifeguard on Duty.' They are about the sinners, the people who live in their own way, in some cases racially, in some cases sexually, in some cases aesthetically: people who know how to follow the rules and who prefer not. All the novellas are about those people with impractical hearts who have to be practical to defend them."