South Carolina Book Festival
The South Carolina Book Festival will be held May 17-19 at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. The festival’s panels and sessions run 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Each day is packed with speakers and discussions, including such sessions as “Page Turners: A Conversation with Mary Kay Andrews and Patti Callahan Henry” (Saturday at 11:20 a.m.); “Grit Lit” with Ron Rash and George Singleton (Saturday at 3:20 p.m.); “Pat Conroy Presents Maggi Schein” (Saturday at 2 p.m.); and “The Complete Poems of James Dickey” with Bronwen Dickey, Ron Rash and John Lane (Sunday at 2:20 p.m.) Visit scbookfestival.org for the complete schedule.
Creative writing isn’t for everybody, but an amazing number of people think it is.
“People with no background in writing wake up one day and say, ‘I’m going to write a book,’” says S.C. Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth. “I’ve spent my whole life writing as much as I can, and I don’t wake up one day and say ‘I’ll go do brain surgery today,’ or ‘I think I’ll go fly a jet.’”
Still, you never know if you’ve got what it takes unless you try. The annual SC Book Festival, taking place Friday through Sunday at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center at 1101 Lincoln St., gives a lot of potential writers that chance. They get to meet their favorite writers and test out their own literary ambitions.
Big names like Pat Conroy will be on hand, and people who read bestsellers might also recognize the names of Mary Kay Andrew, Richard Paul Evans and Patti Callahan Henry.
Readers looking for the tricks of the trade can participate in a number of writing workshops — some free, some charging $30 per person.
There are experts on self-publishing, “breaking writing blocks,” forging your way through the “blog-eat-blog world,” mastering character development and being your own best publicist.
For four of the writers at this year’s festival, it all basically boils down to this: Shut up and work.
“It’s the days you don’t want to write that make you a writer,” says Ron Rash, author of the novel Serena and the new collection Nothing Gold Can Stay. “The days that you would rather stick pencils in your eyes than try to write another sentence.”
On those days, he just waits out the frustration.
“In a way, I punish myself by saying, ‘You’re not going to be able to do anything else, so you might as well write.’ Because I’m going to sit there for two hours, and if I don’t write a word, I’m still going to be there for two hours.”
He likes the monastic approach. He needs silence, wants to hear himself think. He’s at his desk for four to six hours a day, usually in the morning. He does this every day but Sunday, and even then he tries to squeeze in an hour. And that’s in addition to his teaching duties at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C.
Usually, something happens — but he’s also prepared for nothing to happen.
“It’s not fun when you work on something a week or two and you realize that you’ve spent all these hours and it’s going to add up to nothing. But that’s just part of it. You have to accept that and keep going.”
His career has taken time. He started writing in college, but wouldn’t see his work in print until he was in his late 20s.
“I didn’t publish my first book until I was right at 40. It was a very slow process, and I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing. I was just learning my craft.”
Part of that education meant learning from the greats, like Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. Always a voracious reader, he recalls how Crime and Punishment had a pronounced effect on him when he first read it at 15.
“Before reading that book, I’d always entered a book. That was the first book that had entered me. To me, that was a really important moment, just to sense the real power of what a book could do.”
He counsels patience.
“I do think that writers — particularly younger writers — worry too much about getting published too soon. Instead of spending so much energy doing that, I think you’re better off spending as much time just making the work as good as you can.”
Ron Rash will talk about his collection Nothing Gold Can Stay on Saturday at 12:40 p.m. and be on panels at 10 a.m. Friday (“Literary Dogs”), 3:20 p.m. Friday (“Grit Lit”) and 2:20 p.m. Sunday (“The Complete Poems of James Dickey”).
George Singleton is a funny guy, and he’s got a stack of books to prove it, both offbeat short-story collections (The Half-Mammals of Dixie, Work Shirts for Madmen, and his latest Stray Decorum, among others) and novels (Novel and Drowning in Gruel).
For the past 15 years, he’s taught at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville. He starts teaching fiction at Wofford College this fall.
He prefers writing short stories, a form he came to only after a lot of trial and error.
He started writing at 21, while earning a philosophy degree at Furman University. From there, he pursued a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.
He wrote a novel that he said was so bad he didn’t even bother trying to get it published. It did give him a character, though, which he used for another novel, which also “sucked pretty bad,” but passed for an MFA thesis.
Then he took a minor character out of that one, and wrote another novel.
“Now I’m up to age 28 and I’ve never even mailed off anything.”
The perpetually mutating novel never went anywhere, but individual chapters did serve as the basis for short stories, which he began publishing in small journals.
He didn’t wait to hear if stories were accepted. He just kept sending them out.
“Editors finally started to say, ‘This didn’t make it, but send us more.’ And I already had a story on the tarmac, ready to send off.”
He eventually saw his work published in Playboy, Esquire, Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly.
When it comes to writing, he doesn’t really go for that solitude business. On any given day, he might be writing with his dogs barking in one ear and Hüsker Dü’s Candy Apple Grey pounding away in the other.
“The only people who sit around in a quiet room imagining far, far away places are prisoners and the criminally insane,” he said. “It ain’t this Zen Buddhist kind of stuff.”
Rather, it’s all about the starting pistol: the first line that will put events in motion.
“This morning’s was, ‘The man sitting next to me asked if I wanted to see a video of his wife taking a shower.’ So I got that line, and now I’m going to see where does that go.”
Awkward and uncomfortable situations: He treasures them.
“There’s a head start right there. I know that’s going to happen, because it’s not going to be a story if everything is just going dandy.”
He follows the advice of one of his former editors, Shannon Ravenel: End where you began, or close to it. Start a story at the apex.
“You can’t lead up to killing a man. You have to start out with, ‘He stood above the body of the man he just shot.’ Start right there, and then see what happens.”
Through the years, he’s had his ups and downs with agents, either because they didn’t get him or he didn’t get them. One wanted him to write novels. The next one was fine with short stories, but she was all about social media. She set up a blog.
Not his gig.
“I don’t have that much to say. I’m not that smart.”
Whatever might be said about agents, he found they do acquire good advances and take care of the PR end of things — which is why he’s skeptical of the trend toward self-publishing.
“It’s kind of difficult having your books in the trunk of the car trying to sell them,” he says. “I guess with the World Wide Web it makes it a lot easier, but I assume people who self-publish a book have a hard time getting them in bookstores — they’re not going to make any money off it. I think it would be tough.”
After all these years, he still takes nothing for granted.
“My advice is, goddammit, quit being so impatient. I started writing when I was 21 and my first book came out when I was 41. If you live long enough and you write enough, it’ll happen. It just will.”
George Singleton will be on panels at 10 a.m. Friday (“Literary Dogs”), 3:20 p.m. Friday (“Grit Lit”) and noon Sunday (“Southern Revivals”).
For Nadia Dean, author of A Demand of Blood, self-publishing was the only way to go.
“I knew, from the beginning, I had to do this myself,” she says.
She knew she had a unique story: the Cherokee War of 1776, which began after settlers violated orders from King George and laid claim to Indian hunting grounds. For the Cherokee, the war was about survival; for the settlers, it was a blow against the throne.
She couldn’t imagine that a major press would publish her, or that a university press would take on a new writer without a Ph.D. She didn’t think any publisher would lavish the kind of care on the book she believed it deserved.
Fortunately, she had her own and family resources to help her.
With a background in print and TV news journalism — having worked for the Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting and as media assistant for Patrick Buchanan’s 1992 presidential campaign — she set out on the trail of a 237-year-old news story.
Before she could write it, she had to master a steep learning curve. She traveled to the National Archives in London and other places, learning to read 18th century handwriting, and transcribing, cataloging and indexing hundreds of letters and diaries from British emissaries.
“I looked for every document that I could find that talked about the Cherokee in that time frame between 1775 and 1777.”
She tracked down the papers scattered from one state archive to the next of Colonel John Stuart, who served as superintendent for the southern district of the British Indian Department.
Now that the amply illustrated and annotated book has been published by her own Valley River Press, the work hasn’t slowed down. She has to sell it.
She has a website and video trailers to promote the book. She’s aiming for museum shops and re-enactment events.
“It’s a tortuous process,” she says, “but I think I’d be more tortured if I did not write.”
Nadia Dean will be on the “Historical Fiction and Narrative” panel at 10 a.m. Saturday.
However hard it is for any writer to make a living, it is doubly hard for a poet.
“There’s no advance for a poetry book,” says Marjory Wentworth. “If you’re really good, you may get grants here and there. But it’s not something you get into for the money — even though you may spend as much time on a poem or a group of poems as a painter will on a painting.”
She’s written three books of poetry: The Endless Repetition of an Ordinary Miracle, Despite Gravity and Noticing Eden. She has also written a children’s book, Shackles, and collaborated with political prisoner Juan Mendez for Taking A Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights. She’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times.
Doing what she loved and sustaining herself at the same time has been a double bind. When her father died when she was 14, her mother had little capacity to make a living.
“I always had that concern with how am I going to be a poet and make a living, because it basically has no value on the marketplace.”
So what’s a poet to do?
For Wentworth, it meant getting a Master of Arts from New York University, where she studied with some of the greatest living poets (such as Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky and Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Levine). She came back home and ran her own business for 10 years, Wentworth PR, which managed a diverse group of writers.
While she says she never saw herself as an academic, she’s now teaching creative writing and English at The Art Institute of Charleston. Between job, marriage, children and her role as the state’s poet laureate, time is at a premium for the creative life.
For people serious about poetry, there’s always the standard university route, but poets can become cloistered in a sterile academic setting.
“It kind of makes everyone lean over to this academically accepted kind of writing, which is good and bad,” Wentworth says. “American poetry can be marginalized by that, and just disconnected from ordinary language and ordinary concerns. People say they can’t understand it. I don’t know where all these people are going to work. There’s only so many teaching jobs, right?”
Her own advice to people who want to write poetry, or anything, is to write every day — and don’t just show your work to friends.
“I think of the brain as a muscle, and at least you’ve got that muscle working.”
Marjory Wentworth will be on panels at 10 a.m. Saturday (“Literary Dogs”), 12:40 p.m. Saturday (“Seven Strong”) and 2 p.m. Saturday (“Seeking: Poetry and Prose Inspired by the Art of Jonathan Green”).
The Power of Perseverance
If there’s one thing that seems to drive all the writers interviewed in this story, it’s desire — and a personal faith that success will happen.
“I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t think instinctively that there would be a strong interest in it,” says Nadia Dean.
But even if there isn’t an interest — a calculated gamble at best — dedicated writers still forge ahead. Marjory Wentworth bears no illusions that poetry will sell — but there’s a chance someone will read it and be moved by it.
George Singleton still gets rejection notices. “Some places, I’ve just learned that they’re never going to like my stuff, so I don’t waste my postage,” he says.
“A lot of places do, and I don’t understand why they do, but more power to them.”
Ron Rash said he’s seen the competition thin out since the days when he and Singleton were first struggling.
“He and I just kind of watched other people give up,” he says. “He and I were the last two standing of a lot of people that we’ve known who’ve been writing. A lot of it was just perseverance, patience and getting your share of rejection slips, which I certainly did, because we had to. It wasn’t even a choice. Just part of who we were.”