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I f there’s one thing writers participating in the Charleston Literary Festival can agree on, it’s that the 10-day gathering offers intimate learning experiences that often surprise them.  

“It’s a smorgasbord,” said Betsy Prioleau, who will discuss her new book on 19th century publishing powerhouse Miriam Leslie on Nov. 5. Joining her in the event led by historian Amanda Foreman will be a  21st century news powerhouse — Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.  

“The more you sample, the more you try, the more you learn. “Where,” Prioleau asked breathlessly, “in one place are you going to have so many brilliant minds collected? Where do you hear the top people explore the most interesting ideas?”

The festival kicks off Nov. 4 with three programs and is followed by two dozen engaging talks through Nov. 13 among some of the most prominent fiction and non-fiction authors around. It’s impossible to pick just a few “stars” of diverse programs that dive into everything from the curious behavior of animals to the curious behavior of Southerners.

Get inspired at festival

Celebrated historical fiction writer Bernard Cornwell, who lives part-time in Charleston, is excited to be in the audience to learn and get inspired by the intellectual authors talking about books and what they write.  

“I do love the festival!” he said in an interview.  “I have seen the care with which the organizers choose their guests across a wide range of genres — but always with quality in mind. The venues are spectacular, the audiences appreciative and the speakers have been fascinating and approachable.”

Cornwell said the festival generally hosts two types of events — discussions involving a famous guest with a wide readership — “and it’s a dull person who does not want to meet one of their literary heroines,” he said.  Or audiences are exposed to a new writer of a book on an important topic that draws a crowd.

“Either way the audience can expect a lively event with incisive and challenging comments, almost always spiced with humor.”

Unscripted nature of festival boosts engagement

Charleston librarian and noted author Harlan Green said because the festival is unscripted, it’s a real gem.

“The intimacy makes one feel more engaged and less of just an audience member,” he said. “And it’s the range of writers, in a confined space, in a limited time that raises the stakes, expectations and the excitement level.”

Green is looking forward to leading the final festival discussion on Nov. 13 at the Dock Street Theatre with Geoffrey Harpham and Alyson Cambridge to discuss perspectives on George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, an opera indelibly linked to the Holy City.  Harpham, who is emeritus professor of the National Humanities Center, will offer thoughts on his new book, Citizenship on Catfish Row.  Cambridge, a renowned American soprano who first sang the role of Bess at the 2016 Spoleto Festival USA, will offer thoughts and songs during the discussion.  

Foreman to lead Brown-Prioleau discussion

Historian and biographer Amanda Foreman will guide what is expected to be a lively discussion about powerful women in different eras.  Foreman starred in a four-part BBC documentary in 2015 called “The Ascent of Women.”  During the Nov. 5 forum, she’ll draw out Prioleau, author of Diamonds and Deadlines, and Brown, who wrote The Palace Papers which offers insights about power, influence and intrigue related to the British royal family.

“This festival is a remarkable gathering of people,” Prioleau said. “They’ve been able to attract the top talent and the discussions are fascinating.  I’ve been to other festivals.  There’s nothing like this one.”

Part of the allure of the Charleston Literary Festival for visitors is the Holy City itself, she said.

“Charleston itself is just one of the most beautiful historic cities in America with an amazing heritage,” she said.  “When you bring people into this amazing city, they’re totally floored.  They’re surprised to see such an intelligent, engaged audience.  And that makes it special.”

An example, she said, came during a 2021 event featuring new Spoleto Festival USA CEO Mena Mark Hanna.  

“What he taught us sitting there was that he was not only a musical virtuoso, but his bookshelf also was packed with provocative, intellectual books.  He was an engine of intellect and creativity and had this open exploratory mind.  He just absolutely blew me away.”

Prioleau described how her latest book on the life and power of publisher Miriam Leslie, who took over a leading publishing house when her husband died in the 1880s, was something unheard of for a woman at the time. 

Leslie was far ahead of her time, Prioleau said, adding, “Some of her ideas are still very fresh and new and useful. Tina Brown has that same flair.”

Amaker, Korelitz also to appear during festival

Former Charleston poet laureate Marcus Amaker will focus Nov. 4 on the meaning, expectations and impact of the poet laureate position across the world in a discussion with Andrew Motion, poet laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009.

“I’m hoping that the people who are privileged to come to town will take advantage of the festival’s surroundings,” said Amaker. “We are truly a unique city. I encourage the out-of-town authors to seek locals if they are looking for an authentic Charleston experience.”

Both poets will read from their works. 

On Nov. 6, popular author Jean Hanff Korelitz will return to the festival to talk about her latest literary page-turner, The Latecomer.  It’s a riveting saga about family secrets and transgressions, revolving around IVF-created triplets, their unwelcome surprise sibling and haunted parents. Korelitz will discuss the book with reviewer Summer Anderson.

“I never know where a conversation is going to go, but certain themes tend to emerge when writers and readers get talking,” Koreliz said. “Writing a novel is a mysterious undertaking, even for the person doing the writing, and sometimes an author just has to admit that she has no idea how she does it, even if she’s done it 10 times! 

“But one thing is always true: people who write books are people who read books, and people who read books love to talk about books,” she said. “I can guarantee that I’ll end up raving about someone else’s work, and I want to hear what everyone else is reading and loving, too.”

To see the program and learn about all of the authors at the festival, visit:

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