Doing Better at Doing Good

Let authors with NC ties fill your summer with meaning

July 6, 2013 

North Carolina’s reputation as a hotbed for fiction stretches all the way back to the 1800s, when William Sydney Porter – later known as O. Henry, author of such classic short stories as “The Gift of the Magi” – grew up working in his uncle’s drugstore in downtown Greensboro. A few decades later came Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe, a pioneer of autobiographical fiction and arguably our state’s most famous writer.

The second half of the century produced Duke graduate William Styron, who explored the devastating legacy of the Holocaust in “Sophie’s Choice.” Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” offered a haunting meditation on violence and redemption set during the Civil War. These award-winning works and many others by such luminaries as Reynolds Price, John Ehle, Kaye Gibbons, Robert Morgan and Lee Smith have demonstrated fiction’s boundless potential for exploring profound moral questions and exposing us to unfamiliar worlds.

This remarkable pipeline of talent seems likely to keep flowing. The creative writing programs at N.C. State University, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Wilmington and Warren Wilson College all rank among the best in the nation, helping nurture future generations of novelists and short story writers and attracting premier authors to faculty roles.

As summer nears its zenith on this Fourth of July weekend, many of us are searching for a few great reads. And once again, writers with sophisticated social consciences and strong ties to North Carolina are delivering the goods.

Ben Fountain, a North Carolina native who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke School of Law, was a finalist for last year’s National Book Award with “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” a novel that follows a small group of war heroes through a wild Thanksgiving Day in Dallas. Fountain’s story takes a hard look at the realities of the Iraq War and the glaring disconnects between the soldiers who fought it and an American public that was largely sheltered from it. If you like this book, you can’t go wrong with “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” the debut story collection about life and death in the Third World that launched Fountain from obscurity to literary stardom at age 48.

Suspense and tragedy

Holly Goddard Jones, who teaches creative writing at UNC-Greensboro, recently won praise from The New York Times and USA Today for “The Next Time You See Me,” her suspenseful debut novel about a young woman who goes missing in rural Kentucky. As a tough economy continues to marginalize many of our fellow Americans, Goddard Jones gives us a glimpse of the world we have wrought, taking us deep inside the struggles and complexities of a small, hard-scrabble Southern town.

What if we could go back to the beginning of the celebrity culture that consumes so much of our nation’s attention today and see how it got started? That’s what Therese Anne Fowler does in “Z,” her new, best-selling novel about the sensational life of Zelda Fitzgerald. Zelda and her husband, famed novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, were 20th century America’s original glamour couple, fueling incessant gossip and press coverage as they partied their way from New York to Paris to the French Riviera. They both came to tragic ends, with Scott dying of a heart attack in Hollywood at age 44 and Zelda in a fire at an Asheville hospital where she was being treated for mental illness. Fowler, a graduate of N.C. State’s creative writing program, brings it all to us from Zelda’s perspective, providing a memorable tour of the perils of life in the fast lane.

Emotional intelligence

If you need any further incentive to crack open one of these books, the scientific evidence of fiction’s positive impact on our brains is mounting. A number of neuroscience studies have shown that frequent readers of fiction significantly enhance their emotional intelligence – an ability to grasp others’ thoughts and feelings that correlates strongly with leadership success.

Or as cognitive psychology professor Keith Oatley told The New York Times, “Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.” In the midst of a long, hot summer, reading them is also a great way to show our support and appreciation for homegrown talent.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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