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Literary Tourism: Asheville, North Carolina

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Note: Asheville is amazing, but there’s a pandemic going on, y’all! Please use this post to inspire your post-COVID travel plans. Know that if you visit literary Asheville before the pandemic is over, many of these experiences may not be available.

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina, Asheville is an eclectic city with a rich literary history. Often compared to larger cities like proudly weird Austin, Texas, and wonderfully granola Portland, Oregon, Asheville has a small town vibe with big city ambitions. Exploring literary Asheville will have you visiting local bookstores, national monuments, and historical locations alike. It’s an Appalachian adventure you should definitely embark upon!

Stops for Bibliophiles

A must-visit stop in literary Asheville is Malaprop’s Bookstore & Cafe. A powerhouse of an independent bookstore, Malaprop’s hosts readings, writing groups, book clubs, and other community events. You can browse their shelves for books by local authors like Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, Charles Frazier, and Ron Rash. If you’re looking for specifically Appalachian reads, try something by Frank X Walker (one of the Affrilachian poets). Or perhaps you’d rather check out novels by alum of the local university like New York Times best-selling authors Wiley Cash and Sarah Addison Allen.

Another great place to browse is the Battery Park Book Exchange. This dog-friendly bookstore and champagne bar is positively labyrinthine. As you wind your way through the bookshelves, you’ll come across cozy couches and spiffy little tables. Sit down and enjoy some wine, cheese, and chocolate as you peruse. I mean, used books + wine…who could ask for more?

A hop, skip, and jump away from downtown is peaceful Riverside Cemetery, the final resting place of Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). The grassy hills are a serene place to enjoy a picnic or pause for a bit of quiet reflection in this busy world.

Literary Destinations

Perhaps Asheville’s most lauded writer is Thomas Wolfe, whose mother’s boarding house still stands in downtown Asheville. You can visit the Thomas Wolfe Memorial to tour the house and learn about the author’s writing. While you’re in the area, you might as well check out the abundant shops and restaurants in the downtown area.

The Biltmore Estate. Photo by Anne Mai Yee Jansen.
The Biltmore Estate

If you’re looking for something a little more grand, head to the Biltmore Estate — a chateau-style 19th century mansion. The largest privately owned home in the United States, this stately abode is the setting for Robert Beatty’s YA Serafina Series. While you’re there, you can also partake in some wine tasting, visit the animals in the barn, or go take a stroll through the beautiful and extensive gardens and hiking trails. It’s a beautiful way to while away the hours. If you can find the time, sneak in a little reading next to a fountain or a waterfall.

For another grand (but slightly more affordable) building, pop over to the historic Grove Park Inn. This impressive stone building with a red roof you can see from across town features enormous fireplaces and authentic Craftsman furniture. As a premiere hotel in a town known for its wellness industry, it has housed some well-known figures. Snag a rocking chair on the front porch or venture through the lobby to enjoy a cocktail on the Sunset Terrace.

The Grove Park Inn also serves as the backdrop of Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle’s Even As We Breathe. Clapsaddle is the first published novelist of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). (If you’re feeling inspired, take an hourlong drive west to Cherokee, NC, where you can visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and learn more about the EBCI.) Of special interest for literature buffs, the Grove Park Inn rented two rooms to F. Scott Fitzgerald during the late 1930s as he suffered (and drank) his way through a rough patch in his career.

If you prefer being on the move, locally owned and operated LaZoom comedy bus tours (both standard and haunted) will get you laughing even as you learn about Zelda Fitzgerald’s untimely death in Highland Hospital. Located in the heart of Asheville’s downtown area, LaZoom blends history and comedy to make learning about Asheville super fun. (Did I mention you can bring your favorite local brew along for the ride?) A good read to supplement this experience is Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Alternately, learn more about the Fitzgeralds and the time they spent in Asheville.

Asheville area from the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Photo by Anne Mai Yee Jansen.
A view of the area around Asheville from the Blue Ridge Parkway

The area around Asheville is chock full of natural beauty. With that in mind, hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway for a while before detouring south of the Carl Sandburg Home National Historical Site. Just 30 miles south of Asheville, this little gem features hiking trails, a beautiful pond, and a gaggle of goats descended from Mrs. Sandburg’s famous herd. Of course, the icing on the cake for any literary tourist will be the guided tour of the Sandburg house. It has been kept almost exactly as it was when the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet lived at Connemara (the name of the 246-acre estate).

Local & Regional Authors

Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

It’s the summer of 1942 and WWII is being waged across the Atlantic. A young Cherokee man named Cowney Sequoyah has left the Qualla Boundary (the Cherokee people’s ancestral home) to work at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn, where Axis diplomats and their families are living as prisoners of war. When the young daughter of one of the diplomats goes missing, Cowney finds himself in the middle of this dangerous mystery. This page-turner is the first novel published by an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Black Bone book cover

Black Bone: 25 Years of the Affrilachian Poets Edited by Bianca Lynne Spriggs and Jeremy Paden

This collection features the work of the Affrilacchian poets. The term “Affrilachia” was coined by poet Frank X Walker to highlight people of African descent in Appalachia. This collection gathers over a quarter of a century’s worth of work by the Affrilachian Poets into one place. It’s a beautiful and powerful collection that asks readers to rethink hackneyed stereotypes of Appalachia.

garden spells cover

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

New York Times bestselling author Sarah Addison Allen has six books out and recently announced the completion of her latest book. My personal favorites to date are Garden Spells and Lost Lake, but all of her books are delightful reads. Her writing is characterized by its inclusion of magical elements and its focus on female characters. Love — familial or romantic — tends to be a central theme.

The Last Ballad book cover

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Wiley Cash, another New York Times bestselling author, has three novels out and When Ghosts Come Home is slated for release this September. Cash’s books are all page turners. His writing is characterized by its place-based focus and its thoughtful treatment of characters and the external factors at play on their lives. If you’re looking for something to read right now, The Last Ballad is the empowering story of Ella May Wiggins, a young Appalachian worker in a textile mill. Inspired by a true story, this novel is a beautiful look at labor movements.

Goodnight Asheville by Holly Myers

If you want a treat for the kiddos, this bedtime alphabet book will help the whole family reminisce about the experiences Asheville has to offer. With entries ranging from craft beer to the Western North Carolina Nature Center, this fun picture book has a little bit for everyone.

Interested in more Southern literature? Check out these posts:

15 Books About Appalachia to Read Instead of Hillbilly Elegy

What is Southern Noir? 8 Great Southern Noir Books

6 of the Best Audiobooks Set in the American South

The Best Southern Gothic Books, Classic and Contemporary

5 Southern Plays You Should Already Have Read

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