A cursory, highly subjective, we’re-sure-we-left-someone-major-out list of the biggest moments in writing in the past 10 years. We realize that these VH-1-esque catalogs are inherently incomplete and controversial, and so we apologize in advance for the numerous watercooler fisticuffs this is bound to incite in the coming weeks.
JAN. 19, 1999
Bret Lott’s Jewel is an Oprah Book Club Selection, gets big foam finger
Mt. Pleasant writer Bret Lott had been teaching at the College of Charleston for a decade when he got “the call.” With six books under his belt, he was well known … in the world of literary fiction and MFA programs. That all changed when Oprah Winfrey selected his novel Jewel, published eight years earlier, for her book club. Sales on Amazon took its rating from 1,069,713 to 1.
Sullivan’s Island brings Dottie Frank back to Sullivan’s Island
Dorothea Benton Frank’s husband didn’t want a vacation house on the island she grew up on, so she up and wrote a book to pay for one. Sullivan’s Island became the first in a string of beach-reading bestsellers, as Frank has proven she’ll go to any length to connect with her readers. One story going around is that she once saw her book in Bi-Lo and told the manager she’d sign copies. He announced over the intercom that Dottie Frank was in the store and she’d sign your book on aisle nine if you hurried over.
Booksurge, née GreatUnpublished, rejects the rejection slip
Originally called GreatUnpublished, the North Charleston-based BookSurge was launched in the spring of 2000. It was the bitter end of the dot-com bubble — not the optimal time to start an online venture. Charging a $99 set up fee, the print-on-demand operation was based out of what was then the Digitz print shop on Wentworth Street. Five years and thousands of authors later, Amazon.com bought it for $10 million, keeping headquarters at a large facility in North Charleston. Publishing packages for perfect-bound paperbacks now run $700 and up.
Crazyhorse rides into the College of Charleston
Founded in 1961, this now-venerable literary magazine had anti-establishment origins, calling for surrealistic poetry and out-of-the-mainstream writing, or “everything to help blow up the system.” Started in L.A. by poet Tom McGrath, it later moved to New York, Kentucky, Minnesota, and North Dakota before settling at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1981. In 2001, editor Ralph Burns asked his friend Bret Lott to take it over, and the College of Charleston took another big step away from its party school rep.
Pat Conroy makes up with The Citadel
Ever since his 1980 Lords of Discipline¸ Pat Conroy was persona non grata on the long gray line, perhaps only handing that honor over when Shannon Faulkner came along in the fall of 1995. (When Faulkner dropped out after becoming the first woman to matriculate in the school’s 153-year history, he paid for the rest of her schooling.) But despite this continued “betrayal” of his alma mater, in 2000 he was given an honorary degree. He returned the following year to give the commencement address, saying: “There were many years when I thought that Saddam Hussein or Jane Fonda had a better chance of addressing this class than I did.” He later called My Losing Season, his 2002 memoir about his days playing point guard for the basketball team, his “love letter” to the school.
Monday Night Blues becomes a weekly institution
Plucky poet Ellie Davis is nothing if not driven. Starting out at the old Café Lana on Cumberland Street, her Monday night reading series wandered like the Israelites in the desert for a number of years — High Cotton, Bar 145, Southend (kicked out when Denny Stiles read a poem titled “Screwing”), the Rooftop at Vendue (booted after a show by noted Spoken Word champ Jonathan Brown) — until finally finding its Canaan in the East Bay Meeting House, all the while sticking to its successful formula of featuring a selected writer with an open-mic following. Davis’s partners in blue (it’s really not that raunchy) have been Fred Holmes (who co-founded it with her), Fred Hudson, and Jim Lundy.
The release of Radio, based on a story by the best sportswriter you never knew lived here
Not many people remember a time when Sports Illustrated didn’t have to compete with ESPN, when sports coverage could include more brilliant, stylized writing from guys like Frank Deford and George Plimpton and less boo-yah. Gary Smith is a holdover from those days. It seemed no one knew an SI senior writer lived in Charleston until Radio, starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ed Harris, and Debra Winger. The film was based on Smith’s 1996 article “Someone to Lean On” about James “Radio” Kennedy’s relationship with the T.L. Hanna High School football team.
JAN. 28, 2004
Sue Monk Kidd is an answer on Jeopardy!
Released in hardback in 2002, The Secret Life of Bees was Mt. Pleasant writer Sue Monk Kidd’s first novel, if not her first book. (She’d written spiritual memoirs such as God’s Joyful Surprise and When the Heart Waits.) The paperback sold more than four million copies, but she says it didn’t sink in until she was watching a hotel TV and heard Alex Trebek say: “Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel is about this insect.” (The $600 question was “What are bees?”)
Charleston becomes a tourist destination for writers, too
While Spoleto has phased writing out of its lineup (festival director Nigel Redden was quoted as saying poetry isn’t one of the “lively” arts), the Porter-Gaud Visiting Writers Series, Ashley Hall School, CofC, and others have picked up the slack. The last ten years have brought Nikki Giovanni, Billy Collins, Sherman Alexie, David Sedaris, John Ashbery, David Berman, and Geraldine Brooks, to name a few. Poet Natasha Tretheway visited just before and just after winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize.
Carol Ann Davis of the College of Charleston’s creative writing concentration says she doesn’t even have to ask writers to come. “We basically now make up our (visiting writers) series based on people who contact us, and they’re really well-known people.”
Plus a few more we couldn’t fit in…
• New governor Mark Sanford names Mt. Pleasant poet Marjory Wentworth state poet laureate, proving writers and Republicans can be friends.
• The continued success of Carol Furtwangler’s Piccolo Sundown Poetry Series.
• Paul Allen performs at the Kennedy Center.
• Poet and kora player Kurtis Lamkin appears on Bill Moyers’ “Fooling with Words.”
• Edward Ball wins the National Book Award for Slaves in the Family, his memoir/apology/history about the 4,000 people his family once owned.
• Harriet McBryde Johnson, lawyer and disability rights activist, appears on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, leading to her book, Too Late to Die Young.
• Novelist Josephine Humphreys organizes “Beyond the Flag: Southern Writers Speak,” a free event at the 2000 Spoleto Festival. Blanche McCrary, Allan Gurganus, Sandra King Ray, and other writers comment on the rebel flag flap.
• The Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts is formed in the fall of 2004, with the goal of starting a writing center in Charleston.