Did you know Carson McCullers has an international following of devoted fans?
We didn't either.
Read our exclusive interview with host Nick Norwood to learn more about this surprising phenom and the lineup of celebrity guests for Season 2 of the Carson McCullers Center's Weekly We of Me podcast.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Image published with permission from Columbus State University via the Carson McCullers Center.
Q: Nick, I want to start by asking you why you're so passionate about this particular project? It's phenomenal that you've had listeners from all over the world, but what speaks to you personally about a McCullers podcast?
A: Well for one thing, you know live events had been our bread and butter until the pandemic hit. We had guest lectures, salon concerts, and we collaborated at the center with tons of cool musicians. We have our visiting writing fellows do performances or readings, and then we also do by appointment house tours of the Smith-McCuller house. And that's just the stuff in Columbus. We also do many of those things in Nyack, but because of COVID, we were suddenly dead in the water and needed something new.
Last summer, I stumbled upon a podcast called Merriam Webster's Word of the Day. What I liked about this particular podcast is that it comes into your email inbox every morning. It's a different word every day, and they have a little song and do the same basic format every time. They say the word of the day, spell it, define it, use in a couple of sentences. Then, they give you some etymology about the word, and then they run the outro music. You're in and out in like two minutes. And I thought, you know, "I kind of like that. I I like that idea of it being a short format."
Around the same time, I had some other folks who turned me on to some other podcasts that gave me some ideas. Anyway, it all just kind of came together thanks to a lot of people sending me really great ideas during the pandemic.
Q: How'd you get it off the ground?
A: Well, I contacted some friends at the Schwob School of Music who I knew could help me with the technical aspects of starting a podcast. I also contacted the people in the McCullers world to ask them if they'd care to do an interview. Thankfully, they all said yes. That's really how Season One got rolling.
Q: What is the format of the podcast?
Our interviews usually run about an hour, but we break them up into segments that become the episodes. It typically happens pretty organically that we can separate the sections topically, then we invite each of our guests to do a reading of a McCullers excerpt for the final section of their interview. Each guest's segment usually ends up being spread out over two or three episodes.
Q: Who is your first guest this season?
A: Our first guest is actually Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz. You can imagine how fabulous her reading is. It's absolutely beautiful in her lovely British accent.
The first three episodes of Season 2 will be with Rachel Weisz. Then there's a book that just came out in 2020 called My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by a woman named Jenn Shapland. She had applied for our annual residency, and though we did not end up awarding it to her, we were all so interested in her project that we reached out to her anyway. We said, "Hey, would you like to come and stay in the house for a month? We can't award our typical stipend this year, but we can let you stay in the house for a month if you'd like."
Q: How wonderful. I'm sure she was thrilled.
A: Well, we knew based on her application that one of the things she wanted to do is to be in Carson's space. We also knew she would want to go through the archives at CSU while she worked. We figured we could offer her the opportunity, and we all wanted her to be able to stay here while working on her book. She was thrilled and accepted. While she was here, she recorded her episode.
So anyway, we've got some exciting interviews set for this season. There are more lined up, but you'll have to tune in to see who else we'll be featuring this season.
Q: You were speaking at a Cultural Arts Alliance meeting last year and mentioned that The Weekly We of Me received listeners from all over the world? How?
A: Yes, we have had a tremendous success with reaching people across the world. Many people in Columbus do not realize that Carson McCullers is very popular and has a following all over the globe. We knew that, but what we didn't see coming was the fact that they'd be so quick to discover a podcast about her. To tell you the truth, we can't figure out how the word got out.
Podcasting has become really popular worldwide and we have the luxury as English speakers of having our language as sort of the lingua franca of the world right now. Combine that with the fact that Carson's got a worldwide reputation, and somehow these people found the podcast from all over Europe, North America, South America, and Australia. I mean, it's been absolutely incredible. We've had listeners from 26 countries around the globe. Twenty-six countries! It's wild.
Q: That's amazing, Nick. So, how did you connect with Rachel Weisz? Did you know she was a McCullers fan?
I had no idea, but she is devoted to Carson McCullers. My encounter with her was actually very funny. When she called me, I didn't realize that she and Daniel Craig lived in New York. It's their primary residence. She explained that she had wanted to come to Columbus prior to the pandemic, but her film schedule simply wouldn't allow it. So because we have the house in Nyack, I said "Listen, I'm sorry you couldn't come to Columbus, but would you be interested in visiting the Carson McCullers house in Nyack?" She immediately said, "Yes, I would." And I said, "Well, I'm going to be there on these dates and I'd be happy to show you around." And she said, "Okay, I'll be there on this day at noon."
At the time, I figured she would be coming with an assistant or something. The house in Nyack is this big Victorian house and I had unlocked the door since we were expecting her. Sure enough, a few minutes after noon, I heard the door open and this British voice said, "Hello!" Off I went to welcome her, and I could see that someone was parking the car. About this time, she looks at me and says, "I hope you don't mind, but I brought my husband." So that was really cool because, you know, he's James Bond.
Q: Oh my goodness! How was that?
A: It was wonderful. They just couldn't have been more charming. I feel really grateful to her that she was willing to show her support of Carson's story and the Center as a whole. She was so genuine in her interest of Carson's life, and in what we do at the Center. She eagerly agreed to be our guest on the podcast this season, and I'm hoping having her on there will create even more of a boost for it.
Q: I can't imagine that it won't. What a special story!
A: It is. When you think about the fact that they have such busy international schedules, but they took the time to come out for a visit and ask questions... the fact that they did that? It's really beautiful.
Q: It sure is. Isn't it funny how much attention our city is starting to get like this? It's because of people like you working hard and saying, "Hey, this is a special place, and we want to share it with you."
A: Well, it's a wonderful place, and I'm glad our podcast is helping to spread the word. Who knows what it could all lead to someday?
Q: What do you mean?
A: Well, it's interesting to think about, isn't it? When we did the interview back in November with Rachel, my friend and colleague Matt McCable was the one who recorded it for us. He is our technical guy for the podcast. When we do Zoom interviews, the first thing we do is we get the person online and he checks their volume levels while we chat a bit before starting to record.
Rachel and I were talking before her interview about Columbus and she asked me, "So I heard they've started to shoot some movies down in Columbus?" And I said, "Oh yeah, we've got this whole deal..." and I explained to her a little about the film industry here. And she said, "Really? So what if you were going to do a period piece in Columbus? What sorts of periods could you do there?" So we talked a bit about that, and then it was time to do her interview. But honestly, who knows what conversations like that could bring?
Q: Clearly, we need to get her down here for a visit.
A: Agreed. If she's back in Atlanta sometime in the near future, I think there's a good chance that she'll come to Columbus. When I saw her in Nyack, the last thing she said to me was "I will be coming to Columbus. I've simply got to make the trip to see it now."
Q: Nick, I'm so glad to have you as a spokesperson for our city in this way.
A: Well, one of the things about giving people the tour of Columbus and talking about all of the cool things that are happening here is when you have people visiting from around the country or around the world and they're completely amazed. It's so gratifying.
For example, there's the poet named Nikolai Duffy who teaches at the University of Manchester Metropolitan in Manchester UK. CSU has a reciprocal agreement with that school now and we've had some of our professors go over there for a week at a time. We've also had their professors come here, and they've all been completely amazed by Columbus. Nikolai kept teasing his wife that they should just move here because they loved it so much.
Q: I love to hear that our city is making that kind of an impression on others - especially people from around the world. How wonderful to hear!
Nick, is there anything else you'd like our audience to know that I don't know to ask?
A: Well mainly I think for for your audience, the one thing that I would want people to know is what a big deal Carson McCullers really is. I've been trying to get people in Columbus to care more about her for a long time. Historically, she's gotten sort of mixed reviews from Columbus. I don't know if you know that, but initially, she had a sort of a bad relationship with Columbus because a lot of people felt that she was airing dirty laundry about the city.
But now, I think there are a lot of people that are proud of the fact that she's from our little town. Unfortunately, I also think that too few people in Columbus feel that way.
Q: I would agree with you, Nick. There's not enough buzz about her.
A: Not at all. She is nationally and internationally renown and has a dedicated fan base. I will also say that many of our guests are a little stunned that she's not a bigger deal in her hometown, or even in her home state.
So, I guess I'd like for your audience to know that Carson McCullers is one of the many incredible artists that are from this town, and that Carson really does have an incredible international reputation. She is much beloved.
I've given lots of tours of the Smith-McCullers house to people from all over the world. One of the things that has happened on numerous occasions is that I'll have somebody who might be visiting from another country, or even another continent, and they get emotional just being in the house.
A: Absolutely. I'm thinking specifically of this woman who came from Spain. I could tell as soon as she got in the house that she was emotional. I said, "This is the house that Carson McCullers grew up in," and immediately, you could tell that she was just barely able to hold it together. She just about burst out into tears and said, "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. You just don't know what this means to me to be in this house."
I think that more people in Columbus ought to appreciate the fact that this was Carson's hometown. More of us should be championing her work, and the impact she's had worldwide. She's yet another amazing artist that's come out of Columbus, Georgia. We're really happy to be telling her story at the McCullers Center and on this podcast, and we hope more locals will join us this season.◼︎
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