Trying to diagnose the Triangle's literary scene in 2014 is like using the same instrument to examine an eyelash and a distant cliff. Microscope or telescope, the focal length is hard to find; the lens blurs or cracks.
In most places outside of New York City, local literature is more nebulous as a scene than, say, theater or visual art. Because of the outsourcing tradition of publishing, many local and university presses have tenuous relationships with local authors, and vice-versa.
Plus, writers tend to balkanize themselves. The novelists are on their own imprints, internally clumped by genre. The poets are off in their own small-press and reading series world—itself an imbricate cluster of small coteries and affinities. And nonfiction writers are often holed up in the academy, seldom seen.
This situation seems especially relevant in North Carolina, home to a thriving regional scene as well as nationally noted authors. The former operate on the capital of social media activity, review-trading and crowdfunding, the latter on established publishing houses and mechanisms, with a broad blended range in between.
At the grassroots end of the spectrum, local authors avidly availed themselves of electronic publishing platforms, as well as of local bookstores in need of events to compete with online retailers and bars in need of bodies on slow nights. Genre writers, in particular, found strength in numbers this year.
For example, Eryk Pruitt published his crime novel Dirtbags as an e-book and a paperback on the small imprint Immortal Ink and then organized a Noir at the Bar event for local crime writers at Durham watering hole 106 Main. And we gave Bull Spec publisher Samuel Montgomery-Blinn an Indies Arts Award for crystallizing a community around speculative fiction in his magazine and in many bookstore events.
While the e-book is the natural medium of the new independent author, some found ways to reclaim the physical artifact. Raleigh filmmaker Nicholas Sailer recently achieved more than four times his $2,000 Kickstarter goal to publish A Story Each Day in sleek hardcover editions.
(Even big-name authors got in on the fun—Daniel Wallace, of Big Fish fame, went with crowdsourced publisher Inkshares for the November release of his illustrated storybook The Cat's Pajamas.)
And for Roses, Duke poet David Need and illustrator Clare Johnson turned to Durham's Horse & Buggy to beautifully letterpress print their translations and drawings of Rainer Maria Rilke's "Rose" poems.
The big regional success of 2014 was Raleigh novelist Kim Church's Byrd (Dzanc Books), a Southern coming-of-age novel set in the '70s and the present. It was well-reviewed in many local outlets as well as a smattering of regional ones across the country, finding strong footing in the lane between indie e-books and national contenders. Byrd is currently a finalist for the Crook's Corner Book Prize.[Update: It won.]
At the national level, one notes that none of the biggest novels of the year came from the Hillsborough old guard. Durham's Monica Byrne's gender-bending sci-fi novel The Girl in the Road (Random House) received national praise, notably from fantasy legend Neil Gaiman. Durham musician John Darnielle, of Mountain Goats fame, switched to fiction with Wolf in White Van, a grim but emotional tale about a disfigured young man who runs a vivid role-playing game—the book was longlisted for a National Book Award.
And UNC doctor turned fiction writer Terrence Holt, who impressed The New York Times (and the INDY) with his debut book of Poe-influenced short stories, 2009's In the Valley of the Kings, returned with Internal Medicine: A Doctor's Stories, and got the same seal of approval.
National success stories outside of fiction included Duke poet Nathaniel Mackey winning the prestigious (and kind of crazily lucrative) Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Raleigh artist Sandy Jarrell illustrating noted graphic novel Meteor Men (Oni Press), and UNC religious studies professor and bestseller-list homesteader Bart D. Ehrman bringing his pop textual criticism of the Bible to its climax with How Jesus Became God (HarperOne).
Instead of trying to wrangle all this niched and stratified activity into a best-of list, I'd like to wrap up the year in local books by highlighting (figuratively—don't write in library books!) some interesting titles you might have missed, mostly from the fall.
After all, if the amorphous N.C. literary scene has a defining characteristic, it's thin-spread diversity—a book for every taste, but few books to unite them.
Let's start with a novel about the love of novels.
In his debut, The Bookman's Tale, antiquarian bookseller and part-time Winston-Salem resident Charlie Lovett (he lives in England the rest of the time) invented a widowed, grieving antiquarian bookseller who has moved from North Carolina to England. (Some fearful symmetry, but don't worry—Lovett's wife, Janice, is fine.)
The protagonist, Peter Byerly, discovers a Victorian watercolor painting with a striking likeness of his wife, initiating a plot that tacks back to the age of Shakespeare, of which Lovett has expertise.
He's at it again in FIRST IMPRESSIONS (Viking; Oct. 20), finding loose threads in the contemporary world and tracing them back into the literary past. This time, Jane Austen subs for the Bard. As the young Austen works on the epistolary novel that will become Sense and Sensibility, she befriends an old cleric named Richard Mansfield (fictional) who has written a book of aphorisms (factual—Lovett cribbed them from an anonymous book published in the late-18th century).
Both texts have a profound effect on a bereaved contemporary book-lover—this time, an English woman named Sophie who takes a job at an antique bookshop in the hopes of buying back her deceased uncle's collection. As in The Bookman's Tale, death in life is the impetus to find life in books.
When two customers happen to ask for Mansfield's obscure Little Book of Allegories, Sophie is drawn into a mystery and a search that puts Austen's reputation (did she steal the plot of Pride and Prejudice?) and Sophie's life in danger. She also gets embroiled in a distinctly Austen-like love triangle.
Lovett has written a brisk, informed, ingenuous tale, enriched by evident enthusiasm for literary history and 18th-century printing techniques. He writes in the bright unlabored prose of someone driven more by love of reading than footnoted research. For him, books are repositories of secrets that take readers astonishing places, and First Impressions gives this bibliophilic obsession a slightly paranoid thriller twist. Call it The Gutenberg Code, but where the conspiracies are erudite and personal, not esoteric and mad.
Another notable publication from a part-time resident of Winston-Salem: John Ehle's novel THE LAND BREAKERS (NYRB Classics; Nov. 25) has been republished in the New York Review of Books Classics series.
Ehle, though not widely known today, is an important, interesting figure in our literary history. Born in Asheville, he taught at UNC-Chapel Hill for a decade after World War II, until Governor Terry Sanford hired him as a "one-man think tank" in the mid-'60s. He also wrote 11 novels and six nonfiction books, including 1965's The Free Men, a first-person account of desegregation struggles in Chapel Hill.
The Land Breakers was first published in 1964 by Harper & Row. It begins the seven-part "Mountain Cycle" of Appalachian historical novels that are Ehle's most lasting achievements. It details the experiences of early settlers trying to scrape out a bit of land in the Western N.C. mountains in the late-18th century; the first scene is set in a Morganton "which was little more than a long muddy street with poles stuck in the mudholes."
It's a sure thing for local history buffs and fans of a certain midcentury folk-literary writing style. Ehle's prose and dialogue have that particular blend of fineness and rough, can-do energy, with shades of Steinbeck and Faulkner, and it's fascinating to read this as a sort of prequel to Thomas Wolfe's novelistic accounts of the same region after the pioneer dust had settled.
I can't really review two of the best books of local poetry I read this year, Joseph Donahue's RED FLASH ON A BLACK FIELD (Black Square Editions; fall 2014) and kathryn l. pringle's TEMPER & FELICITY ARE LOVERS (Lost Roads Press; early 2014) because of conflicts of interest. I know and like Donahue, and helped publish a few of the poems from this book in a web journal some years ago; pringle is my friend. But their books are notable enough that it seems odd not to mention them.
Donahue, a Duke professor who has been quoted as an authority on poetry in several INDY articles, is a nationally renowned lyric poet who pauses his epic Terra Lucida cycle (we hear another volume is due this year) with a whopping 201 pages of nimbly metaphysical free verse and prose poetry.
And pringle, a Durham-based author of several books, won Omnidawn's prize for fault tree and the Besmilr Brigham Women Writers Award for this latest book of radically arranged telegraphic voices—though it's actually the first she wrote, as its Bush-era urgency attests.
Suffice to say that if you like brilliant, abstract lyricism and emotive experimentalism, you must read these (the Donahue is the more "accessible"). Take that with however much sodium your doctor prescribes.
One exceptional book of poetry I can unqualifiedly recommend is Thomas Meyer's ESSAY STANZAS (The Song Cave; Nov. 1). It's approachable yet magnificently sweeping, a bittersweet symphony.
Meyer lives in the southern Appalachian region of the state, and he has a significant history here. He was the longtime partner of poet Jonathan Williams, and together they ran The Jargon Society, which published lavish poetry editions, many of them associated with the Black Mountain Poets, out of rural N.C. in the mid-20th century. Some work they brought out would become very important, such as Charles Olson's "Maximus" poems.
Williams passed away in 2008, but Meyers still lives and writes in Scaly Mountain. In his new 140-page book, four long poems—perhaps you could call them movements—begin with the line "This won't amount to much" and then don't disprove it so much as show how a little can mean a lot. Simple, rolling lines conceal a reeling cosmic machinery. Meyers embroiders land and sky, man and beast, with potent mythic contexts, then hones down to acrid insights: "Pine, you clean and purify / and freshen and heal / but your bitterness / distracts."
But on the final page, the sometimes-troubled incantation comes to rest in italicized sweetness, on a closing declaration parallel to but redemptive of the first one.
Raleigh's Chase Allen Crosby published his first book THE GREAT AWAKENING (Oliver-Heber Books; Feb. 2014), a fantasy novella for young but advanced-reading kids that enthusiastic reviewers have compared to both Animal Farm and The Secret of NIMH—apropos of its talking animals and anti-factory-farming message. It's a nicely designed little volume, with an enticing painted cover, some interior illustrations and ink-washed fleurons between sections.
Goldsboro native Moira Crone, who now lives in New Orleans, set her novel THE ICE GARDEN (Carolina Wren Press; Oct. 30) in '60s small-town Eastern North Carolina, telling the story of a mother with mental illness and a daughter left to fend for her baby sister. Crone, a winner of the Robert Penn Warren Award, was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award for dystopian science-fiction for The Not Yet. But here, she locates the apocalyptic in the personal instead of the fantastic.
Lynn Chandler Willis of Randleman was the first woman since the late-'90s to win the Private Eye Writers of America's first-novel prize with WINK OF AN EYE (Minotaur Books; Nov. 18). "Pretty boy" P.I. Gypsy Moran, having lammed back from Vegas to his Texas hometown, is hired to investigate a suicide that starts to look like a murder, which naturally gets hooked in to other disturbing occurrences and brings back ghosts from his past.
Former INDY columnist Hal Crowther's AN INFURIATING AMERICAN: THE INCENDIARY ARTS OF H.L. MENCKEN (University of Iowa Press; Oct. 15) is an 80-page essay on the influential early-20th-century journalist, a cantankerous polemicist after the author's own heart. The gist of Crowther's case? Love him or hate him, Mencken mattered.
In REVOLUTIONIZING EXPECTATIONS (University of Georgia Press; Nov. 15), Warren Wilson professor Melissa Estes Blair studies the women's rights movement during the 1970s by taking a close look at several pockets outside of the Northeast. One of those is Durham.
Understandably, the Durham chapter emphasizes the nexus of race and feminism. Blair focuses on subjects such as League of Women Voters officer Gail Bradley, and argues that the movement was introduced here through existing women's organizations that had not been expressly feminist when founded.
Another notable book that has North Carolina as a topic rather than a point of origin is Joseph Andrew Orser's THE LIVES OF CHANG & ENG (UNC Press; Nov. 3), a nonfiction work about the original "Siamese twins," who toured the antebellum U.S. as curiosities. Then they retired in Wilkesboro, marrying two white sisters and having 21 children. Orser researches why the conjoined twins chose a relative backwater to set up house, beyond the evident appeal of finally escaping the public eye.
In THE LAST BEACH (Duke University Press; Nov. 2014), Duke professor and distinguished coastal authority Orrin H. Pilkey, with J. Andrew G. Cooper, draws on global case studies to show that the world's beaches are basically screwed, thanks to oceanfront development, mining, litter, pollution and giant killer mollusks. (I made up one of those.) The professors make one last plea to change course before it's too late, which it probably already is. The book comes with a blurb from Bill McKibben, so you know it's going to be really good, environmentally alarming and totally depressing.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Turning the page."