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A novelist from off (but not too far off) visits the Holy City to soak in its character and creative culture
I’ve never been the kind of author who’s glued to a chair. A background in journalism compels me to get out of my office and look for authenticity that a thousand Internet searches could never provide. I like to meet people, ask questions, taste food, smell the air, listen to music, discover new paths, and find an uncovered gem of gossip that will make my story ring true. I try to appreciate the uniqueness of the people and places that inhabit my fiction. So, long before I sit down to commit anything to the page, I get out to develop plotlines, gather character traits, and establish places solidly in my psyche.
For well over a year, I’ve been working on my fifth novel, which centers around a love triangle set in the art and culinary worlds of Charleston. I lived a couple hours north in Columbia for nearly three decades and have visited the Holy City often enough to give a tour that would make some of the guides jealous; but while writing last fall, I felt the call for more intimate details than I could conjure in my head. I needed to experience what it’s like to live on the peninsula as a resident, not a tourist—to immerse myself in the city’s culture and mores to develop a strong sense of place.
I had learned from a friend that Robert Lange Studios (RLS), a gallery tucked away on Queen Street half a block off East Bay, offers an artist-in-residence program. A residency is not a vacation but a gift for artists, a reprieve from daily obligations that chip away at creativity. While the gallery typically houses painters and sculptors and the like, I wondered if RLS would consider a “writer” in residence.
When I contacted co-owner Megan Lange, she told me they had a last-minute opening and requested a brief description of my project and a list of my ambitions for my time there. Within a few days, they accepted my proposal, and two weeks later, I moved into the smartly decorated, two-bedroom apartment that opened out to the second story of the gallery. And whenever the mood struck, I could wander out into that space, lounge on the comfy leather sofas, and just think.
By design, an art gallery is a contemplative place. RLS has dark wood floors, exposed ceilings, and brick walls displaying an incredible range of contemporary work, the perfect place to spark creativity. “Take time to reflect,” advised a silver gazing ball mounted on a column in the upstairs gallery. That is what I was there for, to be inspired, consider, investigate, and write.
I had only 10 days at RLS, so I needed to make the most of my time. It quickly became my ritual to wake early, sip coffee, and check e-mails to the rumble of delivery trucks arriving at the nearby restaurants. Around nine, I’d run to Waterfront Park, then down to the Battery. Once, I happened upon a fisherman on the seawall who proudly showed me a catch of spot twitching in his cooler. I was curious, and he happily explained his philosophies on bait, tackle, and depth for more than 20 minutes.
My running circuit took me by Colonial Lake, then over to Ashley Marina, where I jogged past yachts and sailboats with rigging pinging in the breeze. The dankness of a water-infused city was replaced by the fragrance of tea olive as I came back through historic neighborhoods. Near King Street, I heard the clang of construction and distant ship horns, both hopeful sounds of commerce.
While my runs offered encounters with residents as I took in the sights and sounds of the city, I also had prearranged interviews with artists, chefs, and a sommelier. One of my characters is a wine specialist, so I spent an afternoon with Patrick Emerson of Communion Wine Club. Around the wide French dining table at his Mount Pleasant home, we discussed the business of wine. We talked about “somm school,” market factors, grape varietals, and how convoluted some descriptions of wines had become.
Patrick was a charming conversationalist, and in his precise English accent, he shared his philosophy that wine is a democratic drink, one for the masses and not something that should intimidate. The lessons he shared on vintages, terroir, and the rigors of blind tastings will allow readers to learn alongside my main character as she develops the skills and knowledge necessary to become a sommelier.
One busy Saturday, I shadowed chef Frank Lee and his crew at Slightly North of Broad (S.N.O.B.). I was in awe of the kitchen staff’s solidarity despite the rapid pace in very close quarters. It was perfect vantage to give life to my fictional restaurant. Frank, a straight shooter considered by many to be the godfather of the locally sourced food movement, explained the importance of knowing your farmers and fishmongers. Much of what he said, tinged with his dry sense of humor, I translated directly into dialogue.
The following week, I was invited to a reception for surrealist Richard Hagerty at the City Gallery. The place was buzzing with a crowd of local Who’s Who—including then-Mayor Joe Riley; artist Mary Edna Fraser; novelist Mary Alice Monroe; and our state’s poet laureate, Marjory Wentworth—all admiring and discussing the other-worldly work. Inspiration struck as I visualized a similar scene in my novel.
Late one night, I had an intense conversation with J.B. Boyd, the painter who occupies the lower studio at RLS, as I watched him work. The next morning, I awoke to original songs being played on the downstairs baby grand by composer Brendan James, who had just popped in to see Robert and Megan. What a gift this residency had been! At every turn, I found passionate, creative people—artists, musicians, chefs, and sommeliers—who love what they do. And, lucky for me, they were eager to engage a writer with a notepad of questions.
In fact, every person I met had something to share, like a favorite dessert bar or beach spot. I was offered boat rides on the Stono, cocktails on piazzas, tours of gardens, and a plethora of personal stories. Charleston pulled back the curtain and let me in. After 10 days of research, my questions were answered with enough material to fill a couple more books I’ve yet to imagine. And, as if it were possible, I found Charleston more fascinating than ever.
Janna McMahan is the author of four novels, as well as numerous short stories and creative nonfiction pieces. After living in South Carolina 28 years, she recently moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, but she’s always looking for an excuse to come back to Charleston.