ONE BOOK, ONE COMMUNITY: Columbia takes center stage in new novel

Carla Damron strolled through the historic Trinity Episcopal Cathedral cemetery, stopping at a grave site with a small black fence surrounding it, the type of place homeless Joe Booker would have spent his nights.

Booker would make a bed of leaves then spread his tattered sleeping bag on top, cursing the mischievous squirrels who continually pestered him. When he wakes, he carefully clears the small area, the closest thing he has to a home.

“He won’t leave any speck of dirt,” Damron said. “It’ll all be clean before he leaves.”

Booker, in this case, is one of the main characters in Damron’s new novel “The Stone Necklace,” set in Columbia and selected for this year’s One Book, One Community initiative. The monthlong, citywide reading initiative kicking off in February encourages residents to read the same book at the same time.

Damron, executive director of the S.C. Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said she drew on her 30 years of experience as a clinical social worker to bring life to her troubled characters – like Booker, who is part of the often-ignored population of homeless and mentally ill.

“I definitely got inspiration from some of the folks that I worked with,” Damron said. “Some of those folks, they live remarkably difficult lives. We think we have stress. Imagine having voices everyday, imagine wondering where you’re going to sleep tonight because it’s going to be 28 degrees. It’s pretty astounding what they deal with every day.”

In “The Stone Necklace,” published by University of South Carolina Press, a car accident triggers a series of events that weave together the lives of a grieving widow, a struggling nurse, a young mother and a homeless man. The book explores the ways lives touch one another and how, together, people recover from even the greatest losses.

Damron said the book is about recovery, mirroring the state’s recovery from the Oct. 4 floods, while focusing on issues of homelessness and access to medical and mental health care.

“It’s a rough book in places, because people go through a lot of pain, but that’s life,” she said. “... We do get better. The flood waters leave. We slowly rebuild. ... We’re stronger for what we’ve been through. I think it’s true of all of these characters.”

When developing her characters, Damron said she immersed herself, sometimes eating and drinking like they would or visiting different places around Columbia her characters would frequent.

“Every character has a little bit of me in them, but with this book more than any others, the characters kind of come alive and then they’re very distinct people I know that live in my head,” said Damron, who also has written three mystery novels in which the protagonist is a social worker.

The book’s title comes from a stone a woman finds in her husband’s jacket after he dies, which she carries around as a good luck charm.

Damron, a Sumter native who has lived in Columbia since the 1980s, said readers will recognize familiar Columbia landmarks, parks and neighborhoods, though she said she might have tweaked or combined some of them for the book.

After determining she wanted to write more complex works, Damron approached USC Press with her book idea about two years ago. The experts there gave her guidance for her first non-mystery venture.

Jonathan Haupt, director of USC Press, said Damron’s book stands out because of the depth of the characters.

“Carla is an exceptional social worker,” Haupt said. “She just takes those themes and embeds them into the story, so you never doubt the authenticity of her characters’ situations they find themselves in. That all comes from Carla’s professional experience.”

Author and S.C. native Pat Conroy is the USC Press editor-at-large and has been a big supporter of her book, according to Damron.

“He wants this press to kind of shine a light on this state, the writers in his state and writers that are new or less successful than he is,” she said.

One Book, One Community is a partnership between One Columbia, Jasper Magazine and Richland Library, and its committee chose Damron’s book this year, in part because it was about Columbia. The initiative will include more than 20 events and programs throughout February and early March, which go beyond traditional book talks and signings.

“We hope that people find their way to the novel and the story, whatever way makes them most excited and most comfortable,” Haupt said. “Even if people don’t think of themselves as readers, there’s lots of ways to get into this novel.”

Listen to an audio recording of Chapter One.

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