It’s been two decades since Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” became a publishing phenomenon. The tale of a Confederate army deserter’s odyssey near the end of the Civil War spent more than a year on The New York Times best-seller list, won the National Book Award, and vaulted first-time novelist Frazier, a Triangle resident who taught English at N.C. State, into North Carolina’s literary elite.
A 20th-anniversary edition of the book, released last month, offers yet another reminder of the first-rate work that writers with North Carolina ties have produced, not just in fiction but across all genres. Established voices have continued to excel while new ones are working their way to the forefront, a pattern that has repeated itself from O. Henry to Thomas Wolfe to Frazier to now.
If you’re looking for compelling narratives on a wide array of topics, there’s some emerging talent that deserves your attention before summer is over.
Stephanie Powell Watts, who studied at UNC-Charlotte, is earning rave reviews for her debut novel “No One is Coming to Save Us.” As Watts has put it, “Imagine “The Great Gatsby” set in rural North Carolina, nine decades later, with desperate black people.” Her previous collection of short stories about African-Americans in North Carolina, “We Are Taking Only What We Need,” won multiple awards for Watts, who teaches at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Ernest Hemingway, among the greatest masters of fiction, is the subject of a groundbreaking biography by Andrew Farah, chief of psychiatry at the High Point division of UNC Health Care. In “Hemingway’s Brain,” Farah offers what is billed as “the first forensic psychiatric examination” of the Nobel Prize winner, who endured increasingly severe mental problems before committing suicide in 1961. Drawing on Hemingway’s work, letters, and medical records, the book examines the numerous head injuries sustained throughout Hemingway’s life, from a shell that exploded near him in World War I to a plane crash he escaped in the 1950s by using his head to butt open a door.
Farah’s conclusion: Hemingway was probably driven to ruin not by bipolar disorder or serious depressive episodes, as previously thought, but by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – the brain disease caused by repeated hits to the head that has been found in a number of professional football players.
Farah isn’t the only one with North Carolina connections writing about Hemingway this year. Linda Wagner-Martin, the Frank Borden Hanes Professor Emerita at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has written “Hemingway’s Wars.” The subtitle, “Public and Private Battles,” reveals the premise: how the personal, psychological, and political conflicts Hemingway experienced affected his work and his life.
Another new and commanding voice on our state’s literary scene is – tragically – already gone. Nina Riggs, a Greensboro resident who taught poetry at UNC-Chapel Hill, died in February at age 39. “The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying,” a chronicle of her struggle with metastatic breast cancer, has earned acclaim since its release last month. Its title draws on a phrase from the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Riggs’ great-great-great grandfather. The book builds on a 2016 essay in The New York Times, “When a Couch is More Than a Couch,” that called attention to Riggs’ literary gifts.
Meanwhile, more established authors and publishers keep burnishing our state’s reputation for literary excellence. Ron Rash, a professor of Appalachian cultural studies at Western Carolina, published “The Risen” last fall, a novel that – like much of his well-respected fiction and poetry – portrays life in Appalachia, this time with a mystery set in 1969 that haunts a pair of brothers for nearly half a century.
A Winston-Salem publisher that specializes in short fiction and poetry, Press 53, is another gem. It performs an important service for Tar Heel literature with its Carolina Classics series, which re-issues outstanding books by North Carolina writers that have gone out of print. The series features five novels by John Ehle, a member of the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame. It also includes “The Scarlet Thread” by Doris Betts, a former UNC-Chapel Hill faculty member, and “Two of the Missing,” journalist Perry Deane Young’s account of two American photojournalists who disappeared during the Vietnam War.
Any of these books are worth your time and will remind you that, in a state rich with many resources, few of them have greater power to transform how we see ourselves and the world than our most gifted writers.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a Founding Partner of HQ Community, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.