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Kingsport natives, authors return to share new books

staff report • Oct 6, 2012 at 6:29 AM

Kingsport natives and siblings John Shelton Reed and Lisa Alther will be back in their hometown Oct. 15 to discuss their latest books as part of a free program sponsored by Friends of the Kingsport Public Library.

The event will be held at 6:30 p.m. in the Kingsport Higher Education Center Auditorium, 300 W. Market St. Refreshments will be served. Books will be available for purchase and signing.

Reed is William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a co-founder of the Center for the Study of the American South and the quarterly “Southern Cultures.” He has written or edited 19 books, most of them about the American South, and was recently Chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

In his latest book, “Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s,” released in September by LSU Press, Reed introduces William Faulkner’s circle of friends — ranging from the distinguished Sherwood Anderson to a gender-bending Mardi Gras costume designer — and brings to life the people and places of New Orleans in the Jazz Age.

In the years following World War I, the New Orleans French Quarter attracted artists and writers with its low rents, faded charm and colorful street life. By the 1920s, Jackson Square had become the center of a vibrant, if short-lived, bohemia. A young Faulkner and his roommate William Spratling, an artist who taught at Tulane University, resided among the “artful and crafty ones of the French Quarter.” Reed begins with Faulkner and Spratling’s self-published homage to their fellow bohemians, “Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles.” The book contained 43 sketches of New Orleans artists by Spratling, with captions and a short introduction by Faulkner. The title served as a rather obscure joke: Sherwood was not a Creole and neither were most of the people featured. But with Reed’s commentary, these profiles serve as an entry into the world of artists and writers that dined on Decatur Street, attended masked balls and blatantly ignored the Prohibition Act. These men and women also helped to establish New Orleans institutions such as the Double Dealer literary magazine and Le Petit Theatre.

The positive developments from this French Quarter renaissance attracted attention and visitors, inspiring the historic preservation and commercial revitalization that turned the area into a tourist destination. Predictably, this gentrification drove out many of the working artists and writers who had helped revive the area.

Alther is the New York Times best-selling author of seven novels, one novella and one memoir. She graduated from Wellesley College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature and after attending the Publishing Procedures Course at Radcliffe College and working for Atheneum Publishers in New York, she moved to Hinesburg, Vt., where she has lived for 30 years, raising her daughter. She currently divides her time between Vermont and New York City.

Her latest book, “Stormy Weather & Other Stories,” is probably as close as Alther will ever come to writing an autobiography. These stories, written over the course of her career, are set in the three places that have meant the most to her.

The first five stories reflect Alther’s early years growing up in the Southern mountains — close to nature, using animal imagery to make sense of her world. Four stories are set in Vermont in the milieu that shaped her as a young adult. Marinated in the politics of the 1970s — the back-to-the-land days of hippies, communes and the Women’s Movement — these stories portray the optimistic explorations of alternative models for parenthood, relationships, and sexuality that flourished during those years. The final three stories are set in new York City, where her characters, unmoored by nature or by tight-knit communities of like-minded friends, search for meaning within the privacy of their own souls.

All the stories are loosely linked, with a minor character in one sometimes emerging to play a major role in another.

Most of the stories were published in journals or anthologies, though three are previously unpublished. “Birdman and the Dancer,” the novella that closes the volume, has been published in Dutch, Danish and German, but appears in “Stormy Weather” in English for the first time. Inspired by a series of monotypes by the French artist Francoise Gilot, it was written while many Americans were mesmerized by the television coverage of operation Desert Storm in 1991. It embodies Alther’s metaphoric response to the Gulf War, and to violence in general.

For more information, call the library at (423) 229-9489 or visit www.kingsportlibrary.org.

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