People of Charlotte, please meet Paula Martinac. As a novelist, editor, creative writing instructor at UNC Charlotte, and writing coach at Charlotte Center for the Literary Arts, Paula is able to share her gifts and talents with others. Paula's story demonstrates intellect, grit, creativity, and impact while commemorating June's Pride Month. Pride Month empowers us to celebrate who we are individually, to live authentically, and to practice inclusivity and equality. The Queen City is fortunate to have such an accomplished contributor to the arts in our community.
Now let's get to know Paula's story!
You have earned many accolades. What are some of your notable accomplishments and titles?
I’ve written in just about every form you can imagine—short stories, novels, plays, nonfiction books, journalism, even a screenplay. My first novel, Out of Time, won a Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the American Library Association’s Gay and Lesbian Book Award. My fourth novel, The Ada Decades, was shortlisted for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction, and I think I’m prouder of that book than any I’ve written. In 2019, I was honored to receive literary fellowships from both the Arts and Science Council and the NC Arts Council, which made 2020 (despite the pandemic) a productive year for me.
You are the author of six books, one of which is set in Charlotte. Please tell us more!
When my wife and I moved to Charlotte, I started walking around NoDa, our neighborhood, which used to be a cotton mill village. I’m inspired by physical history, the places where people lived and worked, and the neighborhood still had the old mills and many of the original houses, although many had been added to and transformed.
On one walk, I spotted an elderly woman tending the azaleas around her tiny home. Soon after, a fictional character named Ada Shook, whom I imagined as a mill worker’s daughter, showed up in a short story I’d been trying to write. I pictured Ada growing up in a mill house a few blocks from me and inheriting the family home her father was able to buy from the company. The character insisted her way into my imagination and eventually demanded a whole novel, The Ada Decades (2017), historical fiction that spans the years 1947 to 2015.
As I wrote more about Ada, I realized she was a lesbian who had to be closeted about her relationship because she was a school librarian and her partner was a teacher. Their jobs were on the line. Still, they had a tight community of gay friends. I also realized Ada would have started her career just as integration of the public schools began here in 1957, so much of the novel addresses the intersections of race, class, and sexuality in one white woman’s life. Because the book covers seven decades of her life, Ada sees her neighborhood transform from mill village to arts district and all the changes that come with that.
In a sad postscript, just four years after the book’s publication, the home with the azaleas is gone, torn down to build a house five times its size—something we see happening with greater frequency in NoDa.
As a creative writing instructor at UNC Charlotte, what have you learned from your students?
Teaching creative writing might be the hardest work I’ve ever done. When we were teaching face to face, I would stand in front of 25 college students and be “on” for the next 75 minutes—almost like a performance. On a personal level, it has helped me as a writer to think and talk so much about craft, explaining fiction techniques to young writers and helping them figure out how a story is constructed.
And I really like the students. I become fond of them every semester, even when we’ve been engaged in remote learning. On their course evaluations, they say they appreciate my passion for writing and that I treat them like “real writers.” Some students always seem to form a community with each other. It’s very gratifying to me—students forging writing lives beyond the classroom.
I just learned that Charlotte ranks as the second most dangerous city in the country for Transgender women.
How can non students connect to the creative writing community in Charlotte?
I work with a terrific organization called Charlotte Center for the Literary Arts, in Plaza Midwood. They sponsor classes, readings, a writing studio, and lots of other great programs. Some programs are free, or people can apply for scholarships. It’s a really supportive group of writers. During the pandemic, everything was virtual, but we’ll be getting back to in-person in the fall.
The LGBTQ community in Charlotte is growing. How has it changed? Any challenges? Goals?
I think the biggest challenge right now is getting Charlotte City Council to pass an LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance. Asheville, Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro, and others have already passed these protections in a bipartisan way. Why can’t we? It’s especially important here, because I just learned that Charlotte ranks as the second most dangerous city in the country for Transgender women. Black Trans women and Trans women of color, in particular, experience higher rates of housing insecurity, unemployment, and violence. That’s not the kind of statistic Charlotte should want.
How long have you been married and where have you lived? What do you love about Charlotte?
My wife, Katie, and I have been together for 29 years. We met in New York City in 1992, long before marriage rights were available to us. We lived together in NYC and Pittsburgh before coming here. We legally married in Pittsburgh in 2014, but when we moved here that year, North Carolina didn’t recognize our marriage and we couldn’t be listed as spouses on the deed to our house. We had to pay a lawyer to have that changed after the state began recognizing same-sex marriages.
We love our neighborhood of NoDa, although it’s undergoing development fever right now that threatens its unique character as a historic mill village. I also love Charlotte’s proximity to both the mountains and the ocean, and that we don’t really have a winter!
Let's play favorites! What is your favorite...?
I’m not a coffee drinker (shocking, I know!), but Smelly Cat has excellent tea.
Our local indie bookstore, Park Road Books.
Reedy Creek Nature Preserve, which we didn’t learn about until we’d already been here about three years!
Charlotte Center for the Literary Arts, affectionately known as Charlotte Lit
I find this question so hard, which is funny for a writer. Maybe Jessmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, which is a heartbreakingly beautiful story.
I’m a history geek, so my new favorite is Clio, which is a guide to historical and cultural sites around the country.
Learn more about Paula by following the links below:
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