How I got to Carnegie Hall

Not the one in New York, but the one in Lewisburg, West Virginia. I was invited to speak at the Lewisburg Literary Festival last weekend because Greg Wittkamper, the hero of “The Class of ’65,” lives nearby. More than 300 people came out to hear me in Carnegie Hall, one of a handful of performing arts centers built more than a century ago with Carnegie money. I have to admit that I was intimidated at first. It’s a theater, essentially, with a full stage and spotlights and a green room full of posters for artists who have played there: Wynton Marsalis, Harry Belafonte, Isaac Stern, Ralph Stanley, etc. After I had spoken for 20 or 25 minutes, I invited Greg on stage for a conversation, and he received a long standing ovation which moved him to tears and pleased me immensely. It was exactly the kind of book debut I had wanted for him in the place he has called home for more than 40 years. The rest of the festival was terrific. Kathryn Stockett was the main speaker and cracked everyone up with her stories about “The Help”; there’s something inherently funny about a woman who looks like a junior leaguer but sometimes has a potty mouth. There was also a Hunter S. Thompson lookalike contest; that’s Gary Godwin in the photo below, one of the contestants, with his wife Sallie, who happen to be Greg’s in-laws. “Why Hunter S. Thompson?” I asked one of the planners. “Hemingway was taken,” he answered. So let me explain that main photo above: Each author was asked to suggest a line from his or her book that captured its essence and could be reproduced in a banner on Lewisburg’s main street. I chose a line from Chapter 8, when Greg is confronted by a menacing group of boys after school who want to see him get his butt kicked. “My God,” he thinks, “am I going to get lynched? Are they going to stone me?” They tell me that they’ll rehang the banner every summer during the literary festival, so I guess I’m part of Lewisburg now -- like the street lamps and the stop signs. I like that.

Local hero

It’s good to see that Greg Wittkamper is finally getting some attention close to home. Greg, the main character in “The Class of ’65,” has spoken at two recent book gatherings near his nest in Sinks Grove, West Virginia. One was a party thrown on his behalf at Salt Sulphur Springs, a historic resort near the Virginia border, and the other was a book club in Lewisburg, a charming town near the famous Greenbrier Resort. (That’s Greg with some of the book club members.) There was a lively discussion about Greg’s plight as a persecuted teenager in Georgia, with one woman suggesting that he would have been better off if he had fought back against the classmates who were bullying him at Americus High for his religious and racial beliefs. Greg respectfully disagreed. As the author of the book, I’m with Greg on this one; it would have been a very different story if he had taken a swing at his tormentors -- less Gandhi than Rocky. The local attention will continue next weekend when Greg and I speak at the Lewisburg Literary Festival in an arts center called Carnegie Hall.