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The Daily Tar Heel

Hillsborough attracts writers with its small-town feel

On any given Tuesday night, live jazz music permeates the walls of Antonia’s, a small restaurant in Hillsborough.

Waiters carrying trays of Italian food weave through the crowded dining room and out onto the sidewalk cafe.

And at a corner table, award-winning authors Michael Malone and Allan Gurganus eat and discuss their latest work.

“We love it there. It’s like Paris, our own cafe,” said Malone, a Hillsborough-based novelist and Emmy-winning television writer.

When Malone bought his house in Hillsborough more than a decade ago, he joined a flourishing community of more than a dozen nationally recognized novelists and essayists who call Hillsborough home.

A Southern culture

Many writers cite Hillsborough’s location, small size and Southern soul as reasons why they located to the town.

“It’s just a great little town with tons of writers. It’s remote, and though we are close to downtown Hillsborough, it seems removed from things,” said author Jill McCorkle, who released her sixth novel in March and lives in a renovated farmhouse in Hillsborough with her husband.

This rural setting has attracted many of the town’s writers.

“As a writer I wanted a peaceful, quiet community. The history of the town mattered to me and I chose the state capitol from the 1750s,” said Gurganus, an influential novelist and essayist.

Malone also said authors tend to be found in clusters.

“The more there are, the more there are going to be,” he said.

And Hillsborough’s proximity to major universities is also part of the attraction.

“Hillsborough has a lot of Southern writers and is a very Southern town. The Southern culture feeds their creative energy,” said UNC alumnus John Claude Bemis, a children’s novelist and the 2013 Piedmont Laureate.

A creative community

David Payne, who has authored five books, said there is a sense of understanding between writers in the community.

“I think everyone knows everyone else and we see each other socially,” Payne said. “I think people are also very respectful of other writers’ privacy and give each other space to do their work.”

As one of the newer authors in the area, Bemis said other writers have been a source of advice.

“The other writers are very generous. I’ve found that a lot of them have been very supportive and helpful,” he said.

Malone characterized the community as a powerful force, as well as a distraction.

“When writers get together it’s like a nuclear reaction — it builds upon itself. We can read each other, we can talk to each other, and we can avoid writing with each other,” Malone joked.

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A literary gateway

Hillsborough’s literary community extends beyond just those who write.

Sharon Wheeler, owner of Hillsborough’s independent bookstore Purple Crow Books, interacts regularly with the authors.

With 550 square feet of space, Wheeler’s small store is a home to both writers and readers of local literature.

“I try to keep all the authors’ books in stock all the time. I think it’s one thing that helps this bookstore be successful,” she said. “It’s a niche you can’t find elsewhere.”

Gurganus and many Hillsborough authors frequent Purple Crow to see the new stock and check in on Wheeler.

“Sharon Wheeler is an answered prayer. Few towns this size have a living breathing heart that is a viable independent bookstore,” Gurganus said.

Malone said the store is also a gateway for visitors to learn about and experience the literary community.

“When people come touring colonial Hillsborough, she will bring them in and show them her three shelves of local authors,” he said.

And Wheeler said Hillsborough’s authors don’t hesitate to give back to the town and the community that has influenced their writing.

She said she is often able to get local authors to sign books for interested readers — and they’re always happy to do so.

Bemis, who previously taught elementary school and plays several instruments, caters his book releases to children and often visits schools.

“At John’s book releases he’ll play and sing and get children to sing with him,” Wheeler said.

Malone said he and his wife hold casino night fundraisers throughout the year to support causes like the local Burwell School Historic Site.

And for more than a decade, Gurganus and Malone have put on an annual performance of A Christmas Carol at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.

Gurganus plays Ebenezer Scrooge while Malone portrays all of the ghosts.

“That’s really the core of who I am, personally. I want to bring people together,” Malone said. “And the arts have proven a great way to do that in this town.”

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