Hardly a blip on the literary map a decade ago, Atlanta has become a prime location for aspiring and professional writers, a creative oasis for literati. The local writer’s dilemma may be less about whether to use the past or present tense in a novel than whether to attend a word smack-down at the Write Club or listen to storytelling at Manuel’s Tavern. Or how to divide one’s time between the Decatur Book Festival and the Writers’ Track at DragonCon, large events that both occur on Labor Day weekend.
Local writers agree that Atlanta is not only the literary heart of the South but an inspiring place with distinct advantages over other large cities. If writers are attracted by the lower cost of living than, say, San Francisco or New York, they may be won over by the warm, supportive character of the local writing community.
“People [are] pretty ego-free about getting together, talking, bouncing ideas off each other, comparing notes,” says Thomas Mullen, the 2012 Townsend Award author of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers and The Revisionists, who moved from Washington, D.C., to Decatur in 2008. “It’s important for one’s art and sanity when you’re spending so much time and energy in an otherwise lonely pursuit.”
Poet Karen Head, whose most recent collection is Sassing, says that there isn’t a “class divide” between unpublished writers trying to break into the field and working, professional writers, so it’s easy to make writing friends.
Adds Clay Ramsey, president of the Atlanta Writers Club: “Atlanta writers translate this legacy of Southern culture into their writing lives. [The community here cares] less about publishing at all costs and more about contributing to the welfare of all writers in the area, with the recognition that we are fellow travelers on the same path.”
Unlike in more competitive cities, a writer doesn’t have to follow rules or a specific formula for success, says Osayi Endolyn, a journalist and recent graduate of the MFA in writing program at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. Another plus: “It’s small enough that you can still make a mark here.”
A writer-friendly city depends on well-read readers. Head, a Georgia Tech professor, describes Atlanta as eager to “embrace new voices,” and Daniel Black credits its diverse bibliophiles with the successes of his four novels, including his Townsend Award-nominated Perfect Peace. “Book clubs are as numerous as streets named Peachtree,” jokes Black, a professor at Clark Atlanta University.
Atlanta writers often find camaraderie, support and industry information at local book festivals and writers’ conferences. In just eight years, the Decatur Book Festival has become the largest independent book festival in the country, attracting more than 450 authors and an estimated 75,000 book lovers every Labor Day weekend.
Daren Wang, co-founder and executive director of the festival, ascribes its impressive success in such a short time to a vibrant local writing community. “Not only does the community provide great programming at the festival, they also evangelize to their colleagues,” he says. “The DBF would collapse without them.”
In return, Wang hopes the festival has helped the local writing community find itself. “I knew there were many writers here, but I think the DBF has helped them discover each other. Those connections and that community help everyone become better writers.”
The nearly century-old Atlanta Writers Club holds monthly meetings and sponsors the Atlanta Writers Conference, which brings in eight literary agents every November and May to critique manuscripts, hear pitches and inform attendees of the latest news in publishing. The Georgia Romance Writers also hold monthly meetings and an annual conference, “Moonlight & Magnolias,” with workshops on craft and panel discussions with editors and agents.
This summer, the GRW’s parent organization, the Romance Writers of America, will hold its national conference in Atlanta. Nicki Salcedo, whose debut novel, All Beautiful Things, will be published later this year, believes that networking is one of the keys to being a successful writer. “Being part of a network where people care if you write … is better than [receiving] any [specific writing] advice,” she says. “I need to spend my [time] with writers who send me away energized and wanting to write more.”
While Atlanta serves as a generous host for large-scale literary events, smaller, more intimate gatherings abound. There are frequent readings at A Capella Books, the Carter Center, Bound to be Read, Charis Books & More and other bookstores. True Story, founded by Kate Sweeney as an intimate, informal showcase for non-fiction writing, takes place at Decatur’s Kavarna coffee shop. And then there are the gatherings at restaurants and bars.
“There’s a lot of wisdom, and laughs, in a last-minute beer session at Manuel’s [Tavern] with a bunch of gray-haired fellows,” Endolyn says. “It’s nice of [the more experienced writers] to let me hang around.”
Jeffrey Small, whose second novel, The Jericho Deception, will be published next month, believes that what makes Atlanta good for writers is no different from what makes it a good place for anyone. “[It’s] a great place to live and work,” he says. “From [its] diverse population to the [vibrant] arts scene to our great natural resources and thriving economy, Atlanta is simply a dynamic city where a writer can become inspired.
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