NC Arts Council Releases Guidebook on Literary Eastern North Carolina
Raleigh, N.C. (March 12, 2013) — Did you know that “Silent Spring” author Rachel Carson spent significant time studying nature on the North Carolina coast; Edna Ferber’s novel “Show Boat,” which became a hit musical, was inspired by a floating theater docked at Bath; and world-famous conjoined twins Millie-Christine McKoy, poets, singers, and the subject of a biography, are buried at Welches Creek Cemetery in Columbus County?
Those are a few of the many discoveries author Georgann Eubanks unearths in Literary Trails of Eastern North Carolina: A Guidebook (UNC Press, $22), the final installment in the Literary Trails of North Carolina trilogy, a project of the North Carolina Arts Council.
“I thought I knew a lot about the literary history of my part of the state,” said novelist Michael Parker, who draws heavily on his eastern North Carolina upbringing in his novels. “It turns out that with Georgann as my guide, I didn’t know the quarter of it. Not only is it vital to keep these stories of our heritage alive, Georgann does a great service to people who don’t pay attention to anything east of I-95, where it’s assumed the only culture is agriculture,” added Parker, who spent most of his childhood in Clinton and now lives in Greensboro, where he teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.
“Writers migrate to the center of the state, but I can name off the top of my head several who grew up within an hour of me -- Jill McCorkle, Randall Kenan, Kaye Gibbons, Allan Gurganus.”
Indeed, Parker, his neighboring eastern scribes, and more than 250 other novelists, journalists, poets, and playwrights -- famous and obscure, living and deceased -- fill the pages of this unique guidebook. Eubanks shares their stories and passages of their work while leading readers on 18 distinct driving tours, starting from Raleigh and including the Sandhills, inland farming communities, river and sound country, and coastal towns.
“My number one criteria was that the writer had to write about place,” Eubanks said when explaining her choices. From there, the personalities she reveals are delightfully varied, from best-selling romance novelist and New Bern resident Nicholas Sparks, who sets his dreamy dramas in coastal communities, to the late Harriet Jacobs of Edenton, whose memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was one of the first female-focused narratives about the struggle for freedom.
While a strong oral tradition informed Eubanks’ findings for Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains (2007), and a history of progress fueled Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont (2010), vast farmland and water inspired this eastern-focused volume.
“When I was researching the western guide, there were all these impediments to travel because of the mountains, so I thought this one would be easier,” said Carrboro resident Eubanks, who navigated the guide’s 45 counties with photographer Donna Campbell. “But it turned out to be even more challenging because of the presence of water.”
One of the book’s more mysterious waterscapes is the Great Dismal Swamp in the northeast corner of the state, believed to have been the hiding place of Nat Turner, the leader of a slave revolt in 1831. Now a national wildlife refuge with a visitor center, the wilderness area has drawn poets and authors, including a lovesick Robert Frost, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Styron, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and, more recently, Chapel Hill writer and musician Bland Simpson, who Eubanks calls “the bard of eastern North Carolina’s waterways” for such books as “The Great Dismal: A Carolinian’s Swamp Memoir” and “Into the Sound Country.”
Simpson, who is Kenan Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and a long-time member of the band Red Clay Ramblers, spent much of his childhood in Elizabeth City, on the Pasquotank River, and travels to the coast often. He explained that Eubanks dug deep into the natural wonders of the region, but did not ignore its sorrows.
“One thing impossible to overlook is that in this land of incredible beauty, we have people who are dreadfully poor,” he said.
Bearing witness to that, Eubanks includes a passage from “Into the Sound Country” about a cola-drinking bear near Currituck who Simpson comes to realize lived better than the area’s migrant laborers.
In some cases, the water itself is menacing, such as in the story of Princeville, the first town in the South founded and governed by ex-slaves and the focus of the children’s book “Princeville: The 500-Year Flood,” by Carole Boston Weatherford, a poet and professor at Fayetteville State University. The town, just south of Tarboro on the banks of the Tar River, was all but wiped out by floods from Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Today visitors can see a new town hall, but also remnants of the disaster.
To Weatherford, whose poems and children’s books uncover historical treasures much the way Eubanks’ guidebooks do, the disaster speaks to resilience, a lesson she passes along to young readers.
“I want kids to understand how much we need each other and also that home is a place, yes, but home is wherever your family is.”
Family and community surface frequently in Literary Trails, as Eubanks introduces readers to small towns used as settings for novels.
Chinquapin, a rural community east of Interstate 40, appears as Tim’s Creek in Randall Kenan’s “A Visitation of Spirits.” Describing his townsfolk, the novelist and UNC Chapel Hill professor writes, “They were fat and thin, light and dark, farmers, schoolteachers, plumbers, bus drivers, butchers, carpenters, salesmen, mechanics, barbers, nurses, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, lovers, friends. Here was community, not a word but a being.”
Kenan, who said he was excited that the Literary Trails series had finally reached his part of the state, enjoys shedding light on small town life.
“People have notions that are based too much on Mayberry and this idyllic nostalgia, and I want to reflect reality,” said Kenan, whose fiction often deals with what it means to be a gay African American man in the South. “As a writer, you realize your best material has been given to you, right there in your back yard.”
That’s certainly true for another popular eastern short story writer and novelist.
“To read Jill McCorkle is to get acquainted with Lumberton,” writes Eubanks as she takes readers not only to points of reference in McCorkle’s books, including the Lumber River (included in “Creatures of Habit” and “Carolina Moon”), but also to Meadowbrook Cemetery, where McCorkle’s grandparents are buried, and even to the author’s childhood home.
“I’m particularly thrilled to see the area I know as home so beautifully documented,” said McCorkle, who lives in Hillsborough and teaches creative writing at North Carolina State University. “A great advantage of growing up in a small town is that you have this microcosm of the world. In Robeson County we had people well off and we had poverty. We had an awareness of three races -- white, black, and Native American. So in my writing I go back to it again and again.”
In communities closer to Raleigh, Eubanks examines suburban and rural tension, a frequent topic in Margaret Maron’s popular mystery series featuring Judge Deborah Knott of fictional Colleton County.
“Colleton is a little bit of Wake, Harnett, and Johnston” counties, said Maron, who lives between the capital and Benson.
In the excerpt Eubanks chose from “Death’s Half Acre,” a longtime rural resident testifies in court about her free-roaming chickens. “I like eggs that have some color to their yolks and aren’t full of hormones and stuff and I don’t plan to quit just because city’s come to the country.”
Eubanks also mentions Maron’s connection to one of the state’s most important literary landmarks -- Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities in Southern Pines. The nonprofit cultural center was once the grand estate of novelist James Boyd and his wife, Katharine, who hosted literary luminaries including William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. Now the early 20th-century home, open to the public, contains sprawling gardens, the James Boyd Library, and the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, established in 1996 to honor the state’s rich literary heritage. Maron’s writing group, the Weymouth 7, holds retreats twice yearly at the center as part of its Writers-in-Residence Program.
“To know about the writers who have been there before us and with the Hall of Fame being there, it’s quite a powerful place,” Maron said.
Like all good reads, Literary Trails comes to a thought-provoking conclusion with a final stop at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on the Outer Banks, the site of Paul Green's long-running outdoor symphonic drama “The Lost Colony” and the state’s most compelling mystery. No one knows what became of the 16th-century Roanoke Colony, the first English settlement in present-day United States, but centuries of writers have offered their many versions.
“Literary Trails is about showing appreciation for all those keepers of stories across the state,” Eubanks said. “My hope is that readers will be curious enough to go to the original sources and make their own discoveries.”
Literary Trails of North Carolina is a project of the N.C. Arts Council’s cultural tourism program. An early leader in arts/cultural tourism the agency has developed trails featuring important arts assets, such as music, craft, and literature to brand the state as a place that sustains unique and significant arts resources.
Literary story ideas are located here.
You can find the companion website to the guidebook here: http://www.NCLiteraryTrails.org.
Books are available online at UNC Press http://www.uncpress.unc.edu/browse/book_detail?title_id=3247 and at books stores throughout the Southeast after April 1, 2013.
To arrange an interview with Georgann Eubanks contact Rebecca Moore at Rebecca.Moore@ncdcr.gov or (919) 807-6530.
Literary Trails of North Carolina is a project of the N.C. Arts Council’s cultural tourism program. An early leader in cultural tourism the agency has developed trails featuring important arts assets, such as music, North Carolina craft, and Cherokee heritage to brand the state as a place that sustains unique and significant arts resources. To find out more visit www.NCArtsTrails.org.