Ivy Hall, the 1883 red-brick Victorian mansion that now serves as the writing center for the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, stands on a hill at the corner of Ponce de Leon and Piedmont Avenues like a beautiful ghost of Atlanta past. Restored to its period glory over four years by SCAD’s historic preservation students, it’s also a young institution actively engaged in raising the city’s, and its own, literary profile.
Much of the ambition to connect to the New York publishing world and unite a local community of writers comes from Georgia Lee, Ivy Hall’s energetic and fashionably elegant director. Lee has welcomed a string of acclaimed authors to the center since she arrived in 2009, among them Margaret Atwood, Colson Whitehead, Bret Easton Ellis, Gary Shteyngart, Augusten Burroughs and Karen Russell. The legendary and prolific Elmore Leonard and his novelist son Peter Leonard were just in town to discuss the differing writing processes of two generations. Noted Atlanta author Thomas Mullen, the 2012 Townsend Prize-winner known for his fantastical tales, will conduct a workshop for SCAD students and give a public talk on January 31. Master realist and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford, whose fiction traverses the American landscape, will speak on February 7.
“I want this to be a writing center for the community,” says Lee, an award-winning reporter who spent 21 years at Women’s Wear Daily and first came across SCAD as a journalist, writing about its extensive architectural preservation work in Savannah. “I can imagine literary salons here,” she muses, sitting on a damask sofa in Ivy Hall’s parlor.
She is also a closet fiction writer, currently penning a coming-of-age novel set in Atlanta in the 1970s, when 10th Street was the hub of the local counterculture.
Ivy Hall began conducting workshops for writers last year in conjunction with the annual Decatur Book Festival, focusing on why an online presence is important and what formats writers might consider. From the rhetorical question of why platform is important, the focus shifted to the process of how-to. In August, as the workshop approached, interest was so strong that Lee had to turn away several dozen people because the event could accommodate only 65 participants. The free, daylong program featured presentations by media-savvy local authors Joshilyn Jackson and Hollis Gillespie, along with SCAD faculty members — and breakfast and lunch thrown in with Lee’s signature flair.
Noting the popular demand for practical instruction in using online tools, Lee followed up with a “writers’ boot camp” in December. This time there was a $45 charge, and the event was held in SCAD’s state-of-the-art digital media center. The workshop, which Lee now plans to offer twice a year, covered the nuts and bolts of navigating social media, the rise of e-books and independent publishing, new ways to fund literary projects and the basics of building one’s own platform — a primer, in short, on the ongoing revolution in publishing. Participants finished in the computer lab, where they built their own blogs.
Lee has, in fact, astutely realized that the biggest thing that Atlanta writers both want and fear is technology. (It helps that she’s a writer herself and can begin with a little navel-gazing.) Should a writer have a website? A blog? How to tweet? Self-publish? Via e-book? Leveraging SCAD’s edge in digital media technology and its writing program’s focus on writing for the Web, the workshops have brought writers flocking.
Lee is also growing Ivy Hall’s local roots in more traditional ways, filling in the calendar with homegrown literary talent. There’s a quarterly series featuring local and regional poets, and she has made overtures to collaborate on future programs with institutions such as the Goat Farm Arts Center and Web publications such as ArtsATL and Burnaway. She is also contemplating ways to make Ivy Hall a community resource outside of classroom hours. There’s the possibility, for example, of making it a meeting place for writers’ groups and book clubs.
The mansion is a sumptuous sanctuary built by the Peters family, railway moguls who were instrumental in founding Atlanta. With its coffered wooden ceilings, carved pulpit on the landing and magnificent handcrafted fireplaces, it brings a panache to literary events that few settings can rival. Lee’s directive to bring in “the best of the best” writers, with a budget to match, has meant that SCAD students benefit from workshops and round tables with visiting literary stars and that the public is treated to readings and talks free of charge.
But brief appearances by great writers don’t generate an ongoing relationship with a community. To forge that connection, Lee has worked to broaden her audience and put it at the center of her efforts. For one thing, she has strayed from her own taste in fiction to appeal to a younger crowd with graphic novelists, film writers (Joel Cohen of “Toy Story”), cultural critics and pop culture figures. When Bravo cable TV host Andy Cohen spoke last summer, the attendance, she says in amazement, was “phenomenal.”
Next year she plans to visit the major New York publishing houses to try to persuade them to send more of their authors to Atlanta during book tours. How can they continue to think of the city as a literary backwater when it hosts the largest independent book festival in the country? And then, thinking local again, Lee plans to host an all-night writing party in conjunction with National Novel Writing Month. Though there wasn’t enough time to pull it off this past November, she envisions a kind of collective jam session for local writers participating in the popular online challenge to knock out 50,000 words in a month.
As she evolves in her role as literary impresario, the ideas seem to come in a rush. “I think it’s an exciting time,” she says, “not a time when the book is dying. There may not be vinyl records or eight-track tapes or whatever anymore; the delivery method is changing. But the opportunities and the content are exploding.”
Check the Ivy Hall calendar here for upcoming events.