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Authors Discuss Spirituality and Writing

That's the Spirit: Southern writers search the soul of their work

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Authors Discuss Spirituality and Writing
Sun. Oct. 21, 3-5 p.m.
Free
Charleston County Library Auditorium
68 Calhoun St., Downtown

For Flannery O'Connor, the American South was a Christ-haunted landscape, a place of misfits, wanderers, and grotesqueries that could not properly be understood without exploring the prayers and loneliness of of its people who grasped for God in their desperation.

Great Southern writers like O'Connor, Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Harper Lee saturated their prose in the stuff of spirituality, the human longing for some indefinable otherness. In terms of world literature, one can scarcely discuss Fyodor Dostoevsky, Herman Hesse, or Aldous Huxley without evoking the otherworldly strangeness beyond the veil of human experience.

God, if you like.

On Sun. Oct. 21, three modern Southern novelists will ponder the question of what happened to spirituality in American (in particular, Southern) fiction. It's a big question, one that encompasses literary and social themes alike (while Sunday mass may have been represented common ground in the American South of O'Connor's time, it is often seen as a dividing line today).

The event, sponsored by the Sophia Institute and moderated by South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth, will feature authors Denise Hildreth, Beth Webb Hart, and Nicole Seitz. Each of the writers will read from her own work — novels set in and around the South Carolina Lowcountry — and discuss how they explore religious themes.

All three of the authors are published by Nashville-based Thomas Nelson, Inc., a publishing house with well over two centuries of history behind it that specializes in books that explore religion and spirituality. "Southern fiction is a really great place for us because the South, more than anywhere else, is very aware of its religious heritage," says Ami McConnell, fiction editor for Thomas Nelson. "You really can't treat anything that's set in the South without acknowledging that in some way."

Lowcountry native Nicole Seitz, freelance writer, illustrator, and author of The Spirit of Sweetgrass, and Beth Webb Hart, a rapidly emerging author in Charleston's literary scene who has gained serious acclaim for her novels Grace at Low Tide and Adelaide Piper, will be joined at the Charleston County Library by Denise Hildreth of Tennessee.

"The idea for the discussion fell into place nicely since Denise [Hildreth] will be in town to sign her latest novel, The Will of Wisteria, which is set in Charleston," says Marjory Wentworth. "I'm thinking of all sorts of questions that I want to ask them about their writing. People are interested in the process of being a novelist, of how novelists make decisions, whether they are story-driven or driven by a sense of place. This will be such an interesting discussion."

"There's a trend today in fiction to go to deeper places with people than just a 'good read'," says Hildreth. "That's a real gift as a writer. You don't dwell in surface places. You dwell in real-life situations, real emotions, challenges, and, often, real trials. Religion or spirituality is something that affords me a healing place in describing real world situations. I'm looking forward to the discussion. I think it's going to be a real treat."

"It will be a way to de-mystify some assumptions about how the spiritual is weaved into writing," says Wentworth. "I'm curious to see what they are going to say."

Odds are what is said will evoke that same sweetgrass and sea island longing for connection so well spoken of in Southern novels: wading into rivers and soirees with a mix of caution and delight and watching out for serpents in both. It doesn't take long to drum up talk of the spirit in the South.

And once it gets going, it just rolls on along with a life of its own.

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