What does it even mean to read local?
That’s the question I’ve faced when thinking about how to cover the year in North Carolina books. It’s easy to answer in fields like visual arts, theater and dance: artists live here, settle here and share creative and social networks.
But the solitary world of writers is different – more dispersed and amorphous, with less emphasis on site-specific performance and more on the artifact that, if successful, unravels from its origins to become timeless and placeless, absorbed in the phantom state of Literature.
Without a dedicated gathering place like the theater or gallery, the authors of such books may not even know each other, let alone exist in a cohesive artistic community. The more famous a book becomes, the more national reviews and accolades it wins, the less distinctly local it becomes. Authors who publish with established houses, often in New York or other major urban centers, may live here or even establish their books here, but they do their work on the national stage.
I decided that the best way to conceptualize an entity called local fiction was to focus on the independent scene, which is why I asked Samuel Montgomery-Blinn, the Durham-based online magazine publisher Bull Specification, to take the INDIAList of Top 10 Local Books of 2015. Sam reads more local books, by far, than any I know; he is a tirelessly enthusiastic tracker, supporter and leader of the local enlightened scene.
I also thought it appropriate that the list be heavy on speculative fiction, a heading that encompasses science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and other genres on the fantasy end of the genre spectrum. It’s the predominant concern among freelance writers in the Triangle, those who eagerly and visibly host events, give readings, review each other’s work, and join forces on social media, from specific Sam events to nights detective novel Noir at the Bar. hosted by Eryk Pruitt, author of Southern Mysteries Dust bags and hashtag.
Many of these authors are self-published or work with small nimble Internet-born imprints, and while they don’t always earn the national reviews of Allan Gurganus or John Darnielle (including National Book Award nomination for Wolf in a white van last year was the Triangle’s biggest literary wink in a while), they’re the ones giving literature a palpable presence within the state rather than polishing its reputation abroad.
I hasten to add that I am not analyzing a problem. There is nothing wrong with the dissemination of authors of literary fiction. The remote publishing and distribution structure of the books means that the estate naturally tends to have a less strongly developed local terroir. Freelance writers may be the wave of the future, but it’s not a future that should replace the past. We can have our abundance of local authors creating literary culture in the field as well as those university-affiliated or MFA-trained who are sent around the world, and that’s all good for North Carolina.
Yet, as a writer in the region, I have sometimes wished for the same robust and diverse social networks and gathering places that other arts have – where writers of all stripes have a more common cause in the sense that they could do what they don’t do anywhere but here. Local genre writers very clearly imagine what this might look like, an achievement that deserved to be commemorated in our pages. But make no mistake, there were plenty of our state’s more traditional literary titles that made a local and national impact in 2015.
My favorite was David Joy’s Where all the light tends to go (GP Putnam’s Sons), which The New York Times called “a remarkable first novel” and “an extraordinarily intimate experience”. Coming-of-age tale arrested in meth-destroyed rural North Carolina, he asks to be seized breaking Bad references (mea culpa), but its arc curves in the opposite direction. Where Walter White plunged into a life of crime, Jacob McNeely, born into it, tries to swim up.
Rented by winter bone author Daniel Woodrell, whose country-noir he resembles, Joy’s book is driven by character rather than crime in a world that is dark and wild but full of heart. Fiction about the rural South is not one of my main predilections, but I was deeply drawn to Joy’s alert sensitivity to language and psychology, her simple, fast and harsh prose and her talent for drawing. scenes of eruptive violence as gruesome as they are horrific. how exciting. You feel safe in the hands of a writer who carefully leads you into danger, like someone you don’t see propelling you by your elbows, lightly but firmly, down a dark hallway.
Joy, a longtime resident of the Blue Ridge Mountains, studied at Western Carolina University with Ron Rash, another writer who brings a poetic sensibility to life’s worst Appalachian straits. Rash, whose acclaimed novels have been adapted into less acclaimed films (The world made right, Serena), is a New York Times bestseller whom the newspaper calls one of the great American fiction writers working today. In 2015, he published the novel above the waterfall (Ecco), a confident hybrid of prose and poetry. Dealing with an embryonic romance between a park ranger and a retired sheriff who each have heavy trauma in their pasts, it feels like typically pessimistic Rash fare. But it strikes hopeful notes that admit more of the human experience. “The danger is that if you’re always writing about darkness, you’re not being true to the world, because there’s a lot of joy and wonder,” Rash said. The Wall Street Journal. Readers will find both here.
Several titles from 2015 linger on my list to finish, based on the national responses to those. I don’t read young adult fiction, so I’m behind Chapel Hill’s Sarah Dessen, though she’s undoubtedly one of the most prominent writers in the state. As Rash brightened, Dessen darkened Holy anything (Viking Books for Young Readers), a TIME Top 10 children’s books of 2015, which finds its protagonist struggling with the imprisonment of his brother.
cold mountain author Charles Frazer called Liza Wieland land of enchantment (Syracuse University Press) “a beautifully written examination of dizzying insight into the intersection between art and life.” Wieland, the recipient of several regional awards and grants for his previous books, teaches writing at East Carolina University, and his technical skills are evident in the novel’s opening passages as he begins to deftly weave the fates of three artists together. half-breeds around 9 years old. /11, a lightning rod for a complex story.
What if the Dickens pastiche of Winston-Salem resident Charlie Lovett The New Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge (Viking), is half the bookish pleasure of the former antique book dealer’s bestseller The Bookman’s Story or his homage to Jane Austen, First impressions, I also have to keep it on the bedside table.
Of course, in a field dominated by prominent liberal arts and research universities, 2015 produced a bumper crop of notable nonfiction. Naturally, in an area like the South, a lot of it is about race. One of the best came not from North Carolina, but from North Carolina: that of Scott Ellsworth. The secret game (Little, Brown and Company) is an in-depth account of the South’s first interracial college basketball game, in 1943, between NC College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) and Duke’s all-white team. Duke’s medical school is also the setting for Damon Tweedy Black man in white coat (Macmillan), a heartfelt memoir about navigating racial bias in the halls of medicine.
Jason C. Bivins, North Carolina State Professor of Religious Studies The spirits rejoice! (Oxford University Press) is a groundbreaking and controversial exploration of the relationship between faith and jazz. Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurgency in the American South (AK Press), edited by locals Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford, is a radical history of slave uprisings, labor movements and other historic moments of resistance in the South. To write on the walls (Trans-Genre Press), published by AJ Bryce of Chapel Hill, is a crude but essential compendium of fiction, poetry and memoir by LGBTQ authors who draw on experiences so pressing and real that I felt compelled to mention the anthology here rather than among the fiction.
And on the lighter side of non-fiction, Irrationally Yours: Missing Socks, Pickup Lines, and Other Existential Conundrums (Harper Perennial), by Duke behavioral economics expert Dan Ariely, collects his advice columns from The Wall Street Journal, where he answers financial, social and existential questions in a humorous and scholarly way. Instantly recognizable New Yorker cartoonist William Haefeli provides illustrations.
Finally, two anthologies of essays made my dream of a true community of literary writers a little more real. Caroline Writers at Home (Hub City Press), edited by Meg Reid, offers insight into the homes of some of the Carolinas’ leading writers, including Jill McCorkle, Allan Gurganus and Clyde Edgerton, along with photographs by Rob McDonald. And Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers (UNC Press), edited by Marianne Gingher, features the likes of McCorkle, Lee Smith, Michael Parker and Belle Boggs celebrating or grappling with the place they call home. Both, especially the latter, are essential reading for anyone trying to understand what it means to read local, and what North Carolina literature is beyond the forms of the state’s geography and echoes of its heavy racial history.