For the act of writing, it’s all about place

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 15, 2016

By Deirdre Parker Smith

SALISBURY — “Carolina Writers at Home” came out in 2015, and it remains a book I recommend to anyone who cares about good writing and interesting authors.

Some of them came to the Rowan Reading Rendezvous and shared what is was like to write about their spots, their personal spaces or habits.

Meg Reid, editor at Hub City Press in South Carolina, was looking for a way to celebrate the publisher’s 20th anniversary. She wanted to celebrate the writers they’d published, and the thriving climate for writers in North and South Carolina.

She got the idea while house sitting for Clyde Edgerton, whose writing room is entered through a closet. When she pitched the idea for writers to write about their spaces, “they went in so many different directions,” Reid said. “There are so many books with pictures of writers’ desks,” so she wanted a slightly different approach.

Photographer Rob McDonald coaxed the writers to open their homes fully to him. He took amazing, personal photographs that speak more than a thousand words and the writers warmed to him.

“I have a strong sense of place,” said novelist Elizabeth Cox. She grew up in Chattanooga, on the edge of a river, which was surrounded by mountains. “I never got over it. … Every morning I woke up to mist over an island. … The mist, the mountains, I still see it. It’s still in me, with me.”

She read part of her piece from the book and said, “Things sublime are often lost.”

She likes to be far away and isolated. Her writing room is at the back corner of her house, looking over woods.

The objects on her desk remind her of “the condition of imagining.”

Joseph Bathanti, former poet laureate of North Carolina, said he is obsessed with place. He came to North Carolina at 23 after a life in one of the last Little Italys in Pittsburgh, Pa. “We were very provincial, very isolated.”

But the people in North Carolina are citizens of a state, he said. He’s been to all 100 counties and during boring faculty meetings, he writes down the name of each county, while his buddy names all the kings of England.

Bathanti lives in Vilas, in the N.C. mountains, and he’s been in that house longer than anywhere else he’s ever lived. “I loved all the houses. I remember then keenly.”

Finding the house in Vilas was a miracle. They had looked at 17 houses when they found the 1969 home. He had been commuting to Appalachian State University from Statesville.

All the property is vertical. They wondered where they would garden and what would happen if it snowed. It’s a green house in a green land. “Altitude works on the psyche,” he said. It has affected his writing, the fauna, the terrain, the close sky, the snow. “Living in Appalachia seduces me.”

Josephine Humpheys, whom we associate with the South Carolina Lowcountry, studied at Duke University and later Yale. She wondered as she grew up, “Do I have to have just this view, just this place?” No, she decided. she loved North Carolina but ended up in Connecticut. “Nothing made me feel at home. It was dark and cold, no one understood my jokes. … I called an old boyfriend who was living in Austin, Texas. I asked him what it was like there.” He told her it was warm, he was playing the guitar and smoking grass. “Will you marry me?” she asked him. “And we did.”

And they’re still married and now living back in her hometown of Charleston, S.C.

“It’s important for me to live in a place, but it’s still a little uncomfortable. You need a spur in your shoe. If you’re happy, you don’t write. You need something to make you wonder.”

She writes in a gabled attic room. “I identified with Jo in ‘Little Women’ who wrote in an attic.”

Humpheys has a house full of stuff. When she was a child, her mother worked at a museum. She found it was hard to write with all her collections around. But her house has a buzz that inspires her. She has a studio. where she says she writes “clean. At home I write messy. I love the messy.”