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Closing the book
Story by Scott Dickensheets
As Carol Harter steps down from Black Mountain Institute, we talk with her about good writers, big money and the jerks who govern Hunter Thompson’s estate
Carol Harter affects a little comic vanity about the empty bookshelves in her soon-to-be-vacated office at the Black Mountain Institute. “Don’t get those in the picture,” she mock-urges a couple of times. Twenty-four boxes worth of her books are either on the floor or heading elsewhere, and the reality of that final transition lends an elegiac quality to the smallish, windowed room on the UNLV campus. Effective June 30, Harter will retire as BMI’s director, a job she stepped into in 2006 after 11 years as UNLV’s president — she sat in the big chair longer than anyone else, and has been the only woman in that job.
Most readers casually understand BMI’s impact on Vegas in terms of the top writers, scholars and cultural figures it brings to town, often to wrestle with dicey topics — politics, ethics, religion. But it’s had a host of other effects, too. It funds a big-name keynote speaker at the Vegas Valley Book Festival; it sometimes hosts off-campus events; and it’s brought some quality writers here on fellowships and as grad students, with a commensurate effect on the local literary scene.
Harter leaves at an auspicious time for BMI: KVBC Channel 3 owner Jim Rogers recently donated $10 million, which will let the organization expand its programming, boost the stipends for its fellowship and grad students and even award a major literary prize. Big things happening! Weird time to step away, no?
“You’re right,” she cracks, “I shouldn’t retire! I should stay here until I’m 80!”
Indeed, it’s not like she’s leaving-leaving, though she won’t be back-back, either. There’s no successor in the wings yet — BMI’s vigorous selection effort hasn’t yet churned up a suitable replacement. Harter will return, but only as a consultant.
Why retire now — seems like it would be an exciting time to lead BMI.
In fact, I’m so jealous of my successor already because not only will he or she have the better part of $10 million to spend, but we’re also moving, temporarily to the political science area, for about a year and a half, and then back here to 4,200 square feet, where we now have 1,400. Now, with both money and space, my successor is going to be very well off.
I guess it’s the moment for someone new to come in and take it to the next level. But also, I don’t want to talk about my age much, but I’m certainly there. I’ve worked 50 years, and it’s time. My husband’s just retired. We want to be able to do things like travel — you know, the kinds of things where you want to be healthy enough and your brain works enough to enjoy life. We don’t know how much time we’ll have left, and we want to live it well.
Looking back over your tenure, what would you say are the highlights?
No matter how much you think a program’s going to be terrific because you have really good writers or speakers, sometimes programs fall flat. And something you’re not quite sure about is spectacular — like “Was Jesus Married and Does It Matter?” You know, biblical scholars talking about the translation into Greek, and from Greek to Hebrew, and from Hebrew to Coptic could be boring. But it was the most wonderful panel. And the house was packed. But you just don’t know.
Jennifer Egan, I really enjoyed having her here. I enjoyed Derek Walcott. Jane Smiley, whom we’ve had several times. E.L. Doctorow, because I had already co-authored a book on him. The all-African panel — that was very good, with Chris Abani, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Wole Soyinka, who is our all-time favorite Nobel laureate. We’re doing a Sept. 11 program on human rights, and he’ll be here for that.
Were there writers you wanted to bring but couldn’t get them across the finish line?
We talked about Jonathan Franzen, but he wanted $30,000. It was right after Freedom came out — it may have been the timing, because when they hit, they know their market value is high. A couple of folks we just can’t afford — Tom Friedman and Fareed Zakaria, they’re $50,000 to $100,000. Even with new money we can’t afford that.
I recall some talk about BMI organizing a Hunter Thompson conference and then …
It fell through. What’s sad about that is that we went a very long way toward planning that, between us, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and R&R Partners, all of whom were pursing this, and we thought it would turn out beautifully.
Here’s the problem. You know Douglas Brinkley, the famous presidential biographer? He also is Hunter Thompson’s literary executor. We had him here for a day and a half — he was very enthusiastic about this possibility. And then he told us he had to go through the lawyers in Boston who actually oversee the entire estate. And they were aghast — is the exact word he used — at having anything high-toned here in Las Vegas. And we were aghast that they would think such a stupid thing.
And it was very sad because it fell through — they weren’t going to give their permission for us to do the kinds of things we were going to do. We had a wonderful plan. We were going to fill a hole in the calendar when we have low occupancy here — we were really gonna go national with this. You know who owns 800 boxes of Hunter Thompson’s work? Johnny Depp. And we were hopeful that Johnny Depp would get involved. So we had really big plans, and we couldn’t get to second base.
And for very bad reasons. How could anyone — the most famous and important book he wrote was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. How could Las Vegas not be the obvious place to do it? It just made no sense whatsoever.
What are some of the other challenges of running a literary organization like this?
We’re very grateful that the university provides four salaries, and the facilities — that’s a great amount of gift. But: They’ve left it to the director to raise all the rest of the money — for the fellows, the Ph.D students, the programs, everything else. That’s why we have to have a proven fundraiser. What’s interesting is that people claim they’ve raised X or Y, but it’s not always accurate. So we’ve been trying to find a person who has both an actual track record of fundraising and the capacity to do it here, in Las Vegas.
The pool of donors here for literary adventures is narrow — it’s narrow and deep. A Diana Bennett, the Rogerses, the Saltmans, Tom and Mary Gallagher. But you can practically name them — the big-time donors — on the fingers of less than two hands. We raise smaller money from lots of wonderful people, but the big dollars have to come from a fairly small number of people. There just aren’t that many folks attached to literary endeavors in the community. (Brightening) That’s part of what we’re trying to change! Increase that number!
In judging the success of BMI, should the community look for signs of a local impact? Because in your mission statement there’s very much an aspiration to have a global influence …
You’re very right to bring those two things up. I think our donor pool is going to remain largely local, because it’s the community folks who get to come to these events for free. We don’t see much opportunity among potential international donors, even though what we want to bring to the community has got an international scope. There’s a kind of dilemma there in that regard.
So what you’ve got to hope for is people who have a sense that we’re focusing on high-quality literature, that we may be bringing in many international figures, but that that is the way people broaden their sense of our world, and that that’s worthy of having a local base of support.
Just think about 10 years ago. There was no Desert Companion, there was no BMI, there was no …
There was no chance I’d see T.C. Boyle here …
True! That’s another person! Oh, I adore him.
One reason to bring him up is, that was a packed house. I had to sit in the back.
So speaking of BMI as a local entity, there’s a strong sense that Vegas isn’t a very literary place, but on the other hand, there’s a packed house for T.C. Boyle.
You know, what we’ve noticed is the different audiences we have. There was a jazz program, where we had the poet Ishmael Reed, we had Ellis Marsalis, we had Marlena Shaw and we had our student jazz band. We put this thing together and it was great. We had a completely different audience for that than when we did Irish literature and music. And “Medical Ethics” was a different audience than “Was Jesus Married?”
So you’re really serving lots of different audiences. We have a core of people who come to everything, maybe 50. After that, it depends totally on the program.
And when you add up all that stuff, you’re really covering a whole lot more territory. I think if they’re stimulated by that, and recognize their personal need and sense of satisfaction from listening to that, I think that’s a cultural education of the highest level. That’s our contribution, I hope, to the community.
Have you heard about our literary prize?
We’re going to give out the Black Mountain Prize in fiction, once every other year: $50,000. You don’t think that will get some national attention? (Laughs) We’re going to pay the judges $15,000 apiece, three of them, to judge the fiction of that past year. Hopefully we’ll get the best judges, with that kind of stipend.
We think that can go international, actually, because literary prizes don’t pay that much. The National Book Award pays $10,000. The National Book Award!
We’ve talked about April 2015 to do the first one — we may not do that. We need to find a replacement for me, and we want that person to be on board and ready to go with this, because it will be a big deal.
It’s another thing made possible by the Rogers donation. Another reason I shouldn’t retire! (Laughs)
According to accounts, Mr. Rogers had a hand in your departure as UNLV president. Now, he’s not only made this monster donation, but he was pushing you to be interim president. How did that relationship mend?
You know, I’m not entirely sure. (Laughs) I’m not entirely sure.
I will tell you this. Several things happened. When I first came to BMI, and Jim was still chancellor, and then right after he stepped down, the need to promote the southern schools, in terms of equity of funding from the state, became a major cause for him. It had been a major cause for me for 11 years. So Jim, out of nowhere, called and asked if I would help him write some white papers on that issue. And it was one of those moments where you didn’t know whether to hang up, say something unprintable or do what he wanted, for the sake of the university. I saw the value of it for the university.
So we produced a whole bunch of stuff. And I think during that period, whatever was there before went away somehow. It was always more him than me; I don’t know quite exactly what it was, to be honest with you.
Okay, so that’s one set of things. The second set of things has to do with Beverly. Beverly Rogers became increasingly involved in our work and became increasingly supportive and helpful. You know, she’s a rare book collector, she’s a wonderful scholar of Victorian literature and now very interested in contemporary literature. And I think she talked to Jim a long time ago.
I think Jim sees the capacity (of BMI) to be something really special, and that’s what Jim wants to do with his money. He wants to focus it where he thinks it can be best used.
It has to be spent in 15 years. We have a whole plan how we’re going to spend it. Now that presents a real problem for the next director. Because once you’ve expanded it … the next person is going to have to raise big money in order to make sure those things continue. And that’s a challenge.
Change of pace here. How many books do you read a month?
Depends on the month. Depends on the size of the books, too.
I’m always reading. I never stop reading. A couple years ago I counted, and it came out to a book a week.
Right now I can’t wait to start Peter Matthiessen’s new novel, and I have one by Aimee Bender. I always have a pile going.
Are you writing a book of your own?
Everyone’s trying to talk me into a memoir, and I may, I may do it. I have to wait for all kinds of people to die, though, and I’m old! I can’t wait for everyone to die, I’m gonna die first! (Laughs)
I have three things going in various forms. I have a novel going. I have a book about women in leadership. And I have a memoir going. The one I think is the best, actually, is the novel.
Can you give us a little preview of the subject?
No! Actually, it’s quite autobiographical, but I hate autobiography so I’m trying to say it’s not that. But you couldn’t fail to see that it is. I don’t have much written, and the best stuff is the stuff I almost can’t use. I’d have to move. (Laughs)
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