A Choir of Hillsborough Voices: Small-Town Literati

BY Elizabeth Woodman

It is hard to isolate any one feature that attracts so many creative souls to this small town nestled along the banks of the Eno River. Perhaps it is the town s fractious historical roots (18th-century Hillsboroughans had no truck with tax-happy King George and didn t miss a chance to prove it) or the towering courthouse clock that chimes almost on the hour or the blocks of handsome brick buildings or the soft ripple of that mighty (well flowing) river or the chorus of voices that fill Churton Street on warm nights when diners and revelers line the sidewalks.

Hard to say.

This much is clear: The town has recently experienced a migration of writers painters photographers musicians and other artists. They have transformed the once-sleepy Colonial-era town into a 21st-century artists  colony.

Just walk into CupAJoe on a Saturday morning and you might see noted photographer Elizabeth Matheson talking with writer Frances Mayes she of  Under the Tuscan Sun  fame as novelist Allan Gurganus author of  Last Confederate Widow Tells All  and well-known landscape painter John Beerman wave hello. On the sidewalk across the street from Purple Crow Books a pop-up bluegrass band and cloggers entertain a crowd drifting down to the weekly farmers  market. In the audience one can spot popular young adult author John Claude Bemis and novelist and short story writer Jill McCorkle.  

Gallery openings plays musical performances and author readings fill town calendars. On a given weekend one might attend a packed room to hear Lee Smith read from her latest novel   Guests on Earth   or catch bluesman Ironing Board Sam at a local venue or take in a new art exhibit at one of the local galleries.

Hillsborough holiday traditions include the two-person performance of  A Christmas Carol  by novelist and Emmy-award-winning television writer Michael Malone and American novelist Allan Gurganus at a gothic church of the correct Dickensian period.

Every other October Hillsboroughans clear their schedules for the town s tour de force: the larger-than-life Handmade Parade. For an afternoon Churton Street fills with giant paper-mache puppets — butterflies and monsters caterpillars and blue herons and all manner of humanoids — many ambling along on stilts. It s pure Hillsborough: a celebration of imagination marching down the street.

In her  27 Views of Hillsborough: A Southern Town in Prose & Poetry  (2010) Hillsborough resident Elizabeth Woodman (Eno Publishers) has collected musings from more than two dozen Hillsborough writers who have contributed fiction verse research and reflections.