The Blue Banner

The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

The Blue Banner

The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

The Blue Banner

Literature find its place in WNC with the help of writers and educators

The Village of Saunook Overlook is on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a central location in WNC.

Writers and educators in Western North Carolina, influenced by the region’s nature and history, continue to promote reading and writing within their specific regions of contemporary American literature.

“I think I’ve always kind of been writing,” said Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, a Cherokee writer, speaker and educator. “When I was at Smoky Mountain Elementary School, we had phenomenal teachers that encouraged creative writing, and I feel like I got really hooked when I was in the seventh or eighth grade.” 

Saunooke Clapsaddle said she attended Yale University as an undergraduate and the College of William and Mary as a graduate student. She published her first novel, “Even as We Breathe,” in 2020, and it is the first novel to be published by a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. 

“When people would ask for recommendations, they’d ask for native literature in general, they’d ask for Cherokee literature, and then specifically they’d ask for Eastern Band literature,” Saunooke Clapsaddle said. “I can give you some non-fiction, I can give you a little bit of poetry, maybe a short story or two that was published locally. I can’t give you a novel, and that’s really frustrating.” 

Saunooke Clapsaddle said she joined the editorial board for the University Press of Kentucky where she currently works on Appalachian Futures, a book series where she helps identify Native American writers for publication. 

“For Cherokee specifically, it’s involvement with Confluence (an indigenous writer’s workshop) and getting that started to promote new Cherokee writers,” Saunooke Clapsaddle said. “I’m also the president of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, so that’s my service to the state of North Carolina in terms of writers.” 

Saunooke Clapsaddle said being a full-time writer is not economically profitable, and writing a novel means playing the long game. Currently not on contract, she makes a good deal of income from speaking engagements and teaching workshops. 

“I was trying to go the traditional route of having a manuscript, querying agents or small publishers, and then I went to something called a pitch slam in Asheville where they bring in different agents,” Saunooke Clapsaddle said. “And you sit down for like five minutes and pitch a book, it’s like speed dating, and I had hit it off with an agent that I really liked.” 

Saunooked Clapsaddle said she signed with an agent after the publication of her first novel, and the agent will be representing her for her next book.

“I’m right in the editing phase with my agent right now,” Saunooke Clapsaddle said. “It is set in contemporary Cherokee with a female protagonist. There’s a few things going on, one is that there is a backdrop of looking at how storytelling has influenced who we think we are as Cherokee people, and so I use these epigraphs and another character to kind of talk through them.” 

In her next novel, Saunooke Clapsaddle said she will explore concepts of land and what is done with it, as well as the role of Cherokee women within Cherokee, North Carolina and United States politics. 

“We are a matrilineal society that currently have no women on Tribal Council or any executive office right now, so something’s up,” Saunooke Clapsaddle said. 

After graduate school, Saunooke Clapsaddle said she returned to Western North Carolina where she began looking for jobs in the area. 

“I always tell people that a lot of people spend their whole lives trying to retire to Western North Carolina – why wouldn’t I just be here to begin with,” Saunooke Clapsaddle said. “Despite challenges, it does feel like a healthy community compared to other places, the natural environment itself does that, but also just this sense of a community that has been here since the beginning of time.” 

According to Alex McWalters, a writer, educator and professional musician who currently resides in WNC, college was his best way out of suburban Atlanta. 

“I was looking at schools in places that I thought were more appealing, and I went to Boone, which is where App State is, and just sort of knew immediately,” McWalters said. “It felt a little strange, Boone is a pretty small town, so it felt very worldly to me in a way that was maybe a little uncomfortable at first.”

McWalters said he studied journalism his first year at Appalachian State University but was drawn to creative writing during his sophomore year. 

“I just felt generally better about the world living in Boone, and the natural beauty of that place, it truly did inspire me,” McWalters said. “I was also sort of discovering writers that were of that area in some way or another. I think I read Thomas Wolfe for the first time my sophomore or junior year, and Thomas Wolfe was from Asheville and reading a writer who was from this place I was getting to know was really exciting to me.” 

McWalters said Joseph Bathanti, the poet laureate of North Carolina from 2012 to 2014, was his English professor. According to McWalters, he looked up to Bathanti because he published and promoted his own work and McWalters wanted to do the same. 

“He was life-changing,” McWalters said. “He was such an influence on me as a writer and as a reader, and it was because he seemed to have read everything. There was nothing that I came up with that he couldn’t discourse with me about.” 

After graduating from ASU in 2008, McWalters said he moved to Asheville and began performing with his band River Whyless. In 2017 he joined the low-residency MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College which occurs every semester but does not require students to attend class for the full semester. 

“You go to residency, which is 10 days every semester where you’re on campus with students and faculty, and you’re having the experience of being together, you’re seeing lectures, you have workshop, but after the residency is over, you’re paired with a faculty member or mentor, and that person is the person you correspond with for the rest of the semester and you’re sending work to them and they give you feedback,” McWalters said. 

After completing the MFA program, McWalters said he helped establish Punch Bucket Lit. in 2022, a literary nonprofit and reading series based in Asheville. 

“It began as a monthly reading series and we host two readers, a poet and a prose writer, and now we’ve expanded into a podcast,” McWalters said. “As of last month, we’ve decided we’re going to try to put on a literary festival in September of this year.”

The weekend festival will have readings around Asheville, McWalters said. Most events will take place in the River Arts District, while the main events will take place at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts. 

“Western North Carolina has a weird amount of literary culture,” said Clint Alexander, English teacher at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva, North Carolina. “In the Cullowhee/Sylva area, there’s like four nationally recognized authors that have best sellers going around. There’s a literary festival that they do every year just over at Western (Carolina University) that brings in tons of people, and they have little readings over at City Lights (Bookstore) with new writers every week.”

Alexander said traditional publishing is much harder now, but non-traditional publishing is easier than ever thanks to self-promotion and a writer’s ability to organize their own events. 

“There’s a lack of cohesive community in general American society,” Alexander said. “With everything moving online, people are wanting that real connection.”

Before teaching English in Western North Carolina, Alexander said he taught in a rural area of West Tennessee and then in Oregon. 

“In a class of 30, you’ll have one or two that’ll be super into it, I’d say 50% are tolerating it, and they are there because the state is requiring it, and the rest of the chunk is actively resisting,” Alexander said. 

Smoky Mountain High School puts on a writing contest every spring, Alexander said, with City Lights Bookstore sponsoring the contest. 

“I’m not sure how many students wanted to enter the contest, but if they’re in my class they have to enter,” Alexander said. “My favorite is always when they’re surprised at themselves, and they end up actually being proud of the work because they took the time to do it. A lot of the time it’s just that little push.”

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Blue Banner Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *