Where is the literary capital of North Carolina?
Hillsborough? Pittsboro? Chapel Hill? The big cities like Charlotte, Asheville and Wilmington? Or the Triangle or Triad?
It was none of those last weekend when the center of literary activity was Rutherford County where Isothermal Community College’s president and former Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton persuaded three of America’s best writers to appear. The college’s top-notch broadcasting students and staff recorded programs with the authors for UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch. The college’s radio station, WNCW, which serves all of western North Carolina and parts of South Carolina and Tennessee, also got involved.
Like many North Carolinians, I worry about the condition of rural counties like Rutherford and small towns that are still struggling with the loss of their textile mills and other factories that brought jobs and financial stability. Therefore, I was amazed when I drove down Forest City’s vibrant Main Street. Canopied with lovely trees, the street is lined with busy shops, eateries and offices. Crowds fill the sidewalks. It looked like a scene from the 1950s and seemed like a living museum of those times.
People in other struggling small towns should visit Forest City for inspiration and ideas about how to cope with their challenges.
Meanwhile at Isothermal in nearby Spindale, Dalton’s team, in addition to training students for work in broadcasting, concentrates on giving students marketable skills to equip them for the jobs that are available now and for ones that could be available to an educated and trained workforce.
At Isothermal’s well-equipped television studios, South Carolina author Mary Alice Monroe was talking about her new book, “The Summer Guests.” It is set in the horse country surrounding Tryon in Polk County, just west of Rutherford. When a hurricane threatens to overrun the coastal homes, diverse groups of people and horses make their ways to safety at a friend’s horse farm in Tryon. Inspired by her real evacuation experience, her compelling stories provide a tribute to the Tryon community.
A central feature of “The Summer Guests” is the nearby Tryon International Equestrian Center, a massive collection of training and performance venues as well as accommodations for 1,400 horses.
Dalton and his wife, Lucille, took a group of UNC-TV staff and friends to the center for supper. I expected a nice restaurant at an empty facility, just like a football stadium on a non-game day. Wrong! The center was full of appealing restaurants and shops and was crowded with parents and lots of children, some riding a glimmering carousel, just like a very sophisticated county fair, this one pumping dollars into the local economy.
Back at Isothermal, two other best-selling writers recorded interviews.
Kristy Woodson Harvey, who grew up in Salisbury, went to college in Chapel Hill, and now lives with her family in Beaufort, is publishing books at the rate of about one a year. With her stories set in North Carolina, she is taking the book world by storm. At Isothermal, she gave a preview of her upcoming novel, “Feels Like Falling,” which will come out in the spring. It will take us into the life of a successful businesswoman whose life is jolted when her husband suddenly leaves her.
Perhaps the best-known of the three authors at Isothermal was Cassandra King, who talked about her marriage to the late Pat Conroy and her book “Tell Me a Story: Life with Pat Conroy.” Her insights and memories will be a gift to Pat Conroy fans when her program is aired on North Carolina Bookwatch sometime early next year.
Today, maybe, Isothermal is back to normal, no longer the literary capital of North Carolina, but it can always be proud of what it does every day of the year, student by student, preparing its community for a better future.