Over the past two decades, UNCW’s Writers’ Week has hosted a number of big-name authors, including novelists Denis Johnson and Jonathan Franzen, Southern writers Ron Rash and Allan Gurganus, and former U.S. Poet Laureates Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith. 2019 boasts an Oprah’s Book Club honoree.
Ayana Mathis—whose debut novel “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” was chosen by Oprah in 2012—is just one of over a dozen writers and publishing professionals visiting UNCW November 4-8. As the Buckner keynote speaker, she’ll read from her work Thursday, November 7, at Lumina Theater, and discuss the craft of fiction in Fisher University Union the next morning. The reading highlights what organizer and poetry professor Mark Cox promises should be a fantastic week. “If you love literature, or are a closet writer, you need to come out and soak this up.”
Mathis took a circuitous route to literary stardom. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she worked as a waitress and magazine fact-checker before turning to fiction. A writing class in 2006 prompted her to apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she tinkered with memoir writing before beginning what would become her bestselling novel. In 2014 she became the first black woman to join the prestigious writing program’s permanent faculty.
Among those joining her at UNCW are Palestinian-American novelist Etaf Rum, nonfiction writer (and fellow Iowa faculty member) Inara Verzemnieks and poet Tomás Q. Morín. Four UNCW MFA program alumni also will be in attendance, and will participate in a panel Friday morning on the challenges and rewards of choosing a life of writing.
Writers’ Week is organized annually by a class of undergraduate and graduate creative writing students. Led by Cox, students help choose visiting writers, create promotional materials, act as events staff and shuttle guests to and from campus. They are granted an opportunity to meet and share their works with a visiting agent or editor. This year the group includes top literary agent Anna Stein, who works with ICM Partners in New York City. Stein’s list of clients reads like a “who’s who” of American literature in 2019. It includes National Book Award finalist Ben Lerner, emerging queer icon Garth Greenwell, and best-selling novelists Maria Semple (“Where’d You Go, Bernadette”) and Hanya Yanagihara (“A Little Life”).
“This is a rare opportunity,” Cox says. “The process of procuring an agent can seem difficult and mysterious. Hearing directly from a successful agent about how the process works can be very helpful.” Plus, he says UNCW students have been successfully connected with agents during Writers’ Week in the past. “You never know.”
The week also acts as a de facto showcase for Lookout Books, the acclaimed publishing imprint run, in part, by UNCW students. Lookout will celebrate the release of its latest title with a reading and craft talk by author Cameron Dezen Hammon (see Q&A, next page). Hammon’s book, “This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession,” chronicles her journey from being baptized at Coney Island as an adult to singing in a Houston mega-church to questioning the very foundations of her faith and marriage.
“We’re incredibly fortunate to have Cameron at UNC Wilmington,” Lookout publisher Emily Louise Smith says. “I think one of the main reasons her memoir is resonating among both religious and agnostic women is because no matter where readers fall on the spirituality spectrum, they’re identifying in some way with her story, with her vulnerability and courage in voicing her experiences of discrimination and harassment, of doubt and disappointment.”
Writers’ Week comes at an interesting time for UNCW’s creative writing department. In April, it suffered a profound loss when professor and founding department chairman Philip Furia died after falling at his Wilmington home. Furia was beloved throughout southeastern North Carolina as the host of WHQR’s “The Great American Songbook.” In October, Furia’s longtime friend and colleague Philip Gerard won the 2019 North Carolina Award for Literature—sometimes referred to as the “North Carolina Nobel.” The latter certainly will help raise the already-ascendent department’s profile. But as current creative writing chair David Gessner wrote in an email to students and faculty in April, it’s impossible to measure and replace an impact like Furia’s.
“If he hadn’t [disagreed with university leaders,] we likely would not have had a creative writing department,” Gessner writes, “since he was both the chair of English, and a full supporter of our breaking away into our own department, at the start of this program’s existence. He was, quite simply, our founder.”
The creation of a fellowship in Furia’s name will be announced at a special tribute during Writer’s Week.
For his part, Cox seems aware of the gravity of this year’s event. The professor, who began teaching at UNCW in 1999, was one of Writers’ Week’s founders. It was his idea to bring famous authors to what was, at the time, a nascent program. Still, he’s taking the 20th milestone in stride.
“This is just what we do,” Cox says. “It has become such a central part of our pedagogy, social fabric and community outreach that we sometimes take it for granted. It is good to remind ourselves how very fortunate we are to be able to offer these opportunities to students.”
Evening readings will be held at 7 p.m., followed by book-signings. Talks and panels will be held in the mornings and afternoons. All events are free and open to the public.
For a full list of events, visit uncw.edu/writersweek.
encore (e): Without summarizing, what would you say your book is about?
Cameron Dezen Hammon: Desire, feminism, faith and freedom.
e: What’s one thing no one tells you about being a first-time author?
CDH: Everything in publishing takes 10 times longer than you think it will … but it’s worth the wait.
e: What piece of art or culture that you consumed while writing your book had the most profound impact on its creation?
CDH: “Bluets” by Maggie Nelson.
e: What was the hardest thing about writing your book?
CDH: Revising the scenes that were the most emotionally complicated to live. They were hard to write but harder to revise.
e: If you could make any one person read your book, who would it be and why?
CDH: Phoebe Waller-Bridge! I’m obsessed with her. I have very detailed fantasies of her calling me on the phone to tell me she wants to produce a limited series of “This Is My Body.”
e: Is there anyone you’re afraid will read your book?
CDH: I think they already have.
e: What subject do you wish other authors would write more about?
e: What’s the first thing you did when you found out your book was getting published?
CDH: It’s a blur! I probably wept.
e: If you were to create a food or drink pairing for your book, what would it be?
CDH: At my book launch, we had the afterparty at a nearby bar and they created a themed drink called “Full-Bodied Sangria,” which I loved.
e: You’re organizing a dinner party. Which three people, dead or alive, do you invite?
CDH: Clarice Lispector, Adrienne Rich and Nina Simone.
e: Complete this sentence: Publishing this book makes me feel…
CDH: Thrilled, terrified, honored, happy and grateful.
UNCW Lumina Theater and
Fisher University Union
615 Hamilton Dr.
Free • uncw.edu/writersweek