Each new year brings out the list-makers, pundits and critics who catalogue everything from the year’s best movies, books, and music to predictions regarding politics and the economy for the next 12 months. With the exception of composing my own personal lists from the past year — “Ten Things I Would Have Done Differently” would be easily written — I lack the qualifications to compose any sort of compendium, including one for books, for 2013.
Yet I do find myself compelled to make a list of favorite books. Several readers of this column, and many of my students, have over the last years asked for such a list, and I would send them three or four recommendations, selections often plunked down without any real effort or thought. Having pondered the matter this week before the new year, I found myself wondering what I would put on such a list if I was, say, limited to a small shelf of favorite books.
Amy Ammons Garza has always looked out for her little sister, Doreyl Ammons Cain.
“Make sure you mention when the mural will be unveiled,” Garza said. “She’s always forgetting things.”
“I am not,” Cain countered with a laugh. “Ever since we were kids, she’s made sure everything I needed is taken care of.”
Showcasing the finest in Southern Appalachian and national writing talent, the Western Carolina University Spring Literary Festival comes into its 20th year with bevy of events, author appearances, readings and talks from April 8-11.
Since the publication of Wiley Cash’s debut novel A Land More Kind Than Home earlier this year, I have been listening to the buzz of conversation about this “remarkable new book” written by a Western North Carolina native. The book seems to be on everyone’s lips. Finally unable to resist my own curiosity, I bought a copy so I could see for myself what all the fuss was about. It only took the first few pages until I was hooked.
Dawn Gilchrist-Young doesn’t just read and teach books, she defends them.
As chair of the English department for Swain County High School, Gilchrist-Young is joining “Banned Books Weeks”, which is a nationwide celebration this week in honor of one of our greatest freedoms.
There is a refinement to Catherine Carter’s poetry, a sense that each poem is finished, polished and complete, worked exactly the right amount and not a jot too much. There’s also in Carter’s poems an edge, a whiff of wild abandon lurking just beneath the placid surface.
This accomplished poet once published a romance novel under a pseudonym. And Carter remains fascinated by this often-maligned genre: She hopes one day to write another romance novel.
“It really was fun, and I would like to do it again,” Carter said. “I might have to try other genres first, though — it’s the generic conventions that make genre fiction most fascinating, the what-can-I-change and still have it be genre? Is it still romance if the big good-looking dominant guy is a villain? Still mystery if the detective’s kind of a goof who doesn’t solve the puzzle by intellect? Still a western if the hero talks about his feelings without being tied to a stake first, or isn’t white, or doesn’t like horses? The only way to find out is to write the book, unless someone else has already done it for you.”
These paradoxical crafted-with-care, you-better-watch-out qualities permeate Carter’s just released book of poems, The Swamp Monster at Home, just as they did her previously published book, The Memory of Gills. That book won the 2007 Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry.
Carter lives in Jackson County and teaches in Western Carolina University’s English department. She directs the English Education program. Carter is married to Brian Gastle, the English department’s head and a specialist in both medieval literature and professional writing.
Louisiana State University Press published The Swamp Monster at Home. The 68-page book was released Feb. 13.
Dive into Carter’s poems, and you know instantly that here is a person who takes form seriously, even — or most especially — when writing free verse. Carter writes knowing, respecting and honoring the rules of her craft, and she knows exactly when she should consider breaking them. The poems she writes are influenced by traditional poetic form.
That respect for craft shines through the selection of poems in The Swamp Monster at Home.
Carter sounded amused and bemused when talking about students who buck learning form because they fear doing so will “cramp” their style.
“Imagine a carpenter saying that learning to use a plane is going to ‘cramp’ his style,” Carter said, shaking her head in disbelief.
Carter’s poems generally begin as a solitary line that she hears in her mind’s ear.
“If I hear iambic pentameter, I know this is going to be a more formal poem. If it is loose, that tells me something else about the poem,” Carter said.
At age 44, Carter’s poetry is more reflective and perhaps more inwardly open and vulnerable than those pieces she’s published previously. And sense of place is strongly evident, whether Carter is writing about her tidewater home of Greensboro, Md., or about living here in Western North Carolina.
“The sense of place has been a preoccupation from the beginning, but it is a story I can’t seem to stop telling,” Carter said.
Take some of the imagery in the poem “Hydro Plant Accommodates Rafting Industry:”
“All the long drive upstream,
the rocks were knobby-dry,
the stream lay sullen, low and slow,
in broken symmetry.
Its mortal bones exposed.
Its quivering, glinting flesh
was gone to feed the power grid,
its slender nervous fish
cringing in too-warm pools ...
“The temporary flood
was short as autumn love,
with months of dust on either side
no torrent could remove,
but lit the day as love will.
Briefly the stream put on
its spangled flesh to resurrect
the shrunken skeleton.”
Carter grew up in a family that cared about literature. Her father was a biologist and her mother an English teacher. Both are now retired.
“My parents really rock, they are world-class parents,” said Carter.
Asking a writer who has influenced their work isn’t a very fair question, though it’s not unexpected in an interview. The truth is, of course, that everything a writer has ever read influences their subsequent work. That acknowledged, Carter in particular selected the work of Thomas Lux as shaping her later development as a poet. Lux is an internationally recognized writer who teaches at Georgia Tech.
“He has a dark and funny sensibility that really speaks to me,” said Carter, adding that one of her most productive and fulfilling periods as a writer occurred during a workshop/retreat led by Lux.
Carter also spoke with admiration about fellow Jackson County poets and writers Ron Rash and Kay Byer. She credits Byer for persuading LSU Press to seriously consider her first book of poems.
“That they even looked at it was because of Kay, and I owe that to her,” Carter said.
Catherine Carter will read from The Swamp Monster at Home at 7 p.m. Friday, March 9, at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva.
That Time Again
While I wake in the black
Early morning, the morning
star is Saturn, burning
yellow and steady in the window’s
icewater square like a warning
flare. You lumber toward the shower
and returning day, while in the winter
night Saturn and I
stare at each other, wary,
cold as two diamonds.
You have left your shirt
on the quilt, its warmth
turning thin in the chill.
After a while I lean
out stealthy and quick and catch
it under the cover by its collar,
hide it against my side
where Saturn won’t see.
November Evening, Splitting Firewood
A neighbor drones his leaves away
with a leafblower, another combs
his with a rasping rake, while in my leaves
I stand ankle-deep, braced to the slow
swing of the axe. The damp heavy logs
are splotched bright with fungal jelly
like orange marmalade, like flesh if flesh
were the color of goldfish. Witches’ butter:
in old stories it means a hex.
Maybe I’ll scoop it off the log.
Spread it on my neighbors’ toast,
act for the lost leaves.
Maybe there’ll be a golden quiver, an alien
taste, and then leaves
sifting over their quiet bodies,
slowly covering them under. But I
am the only witch here now,
writing dark thoughts
on the dry paper that whispers
under my soles, changing cold weight
and wood into heat, into light the color
of witches’ butter.
They’ve never seen it spelled,
I guess, only heard it said
in church: so when they write it down,
the Promised Land, heaven, becomes this other
thing, the Promise Land. Their heaven
is the land of promises, where
eternal checks are always in the mail
and every morning finds us in the gym.
Where those jeans, you swear, make me look small.
Where of course Monsanto doesn’t plot
to own each seed of every spear of corn.
Where your senators really read your mail. Where
we’ll see the beloved dead again, and never wish
we hadn’t. And it’s the land where you and I
can each admire and like and love the other
forever, forever, I promise, forever.
Gary Carden didn’t realize he had an audience. He was coaching Lara Chew through a rehearsal of “Mother Jones,” a play he wrote three years ago about the famous American labor and community organizer. “Mother Jones” will be on stage for audiences in April.
Carden was seated in the front row of a small performance hall at the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University.
Chew attends the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Macon County, as does Carden, at least when he feels able to drive over the Cowee mountain range. Chew has spent many insomnia-ridden nights memorizing this more than hour-long dramatic monologue. For the most part, with only an occasional stumble, Chew’s rendition of Carden’s work sounded smooth and true. He mostly listened in silence.
Finally Carden interrupted.
“Drag that out right there,” he urged her. “Because that’s your theme.”
Chew nodded in understanding. She repeated the section again with more emphasis. Carden smiled appreciatively, apparently pleased with the result and the responsiveness to his suggestion.
Chew later discussed working with Carden, a Sylva native who has established himself as one of this region’s most-recognizable, best-known and best-loved wordsmiths through his storytelling, plays and short stories.
At the same time, Carden has earned a reputation for being, well, mercurial.
“He speaks his mind, and I appreciate that,” Chew said. “He wrote ‘Mother Jones,’ so he knows how it’s supposed to go. Yes, he’s easy to work with.”
Carden responded, “No, I’m not. I admit that readily.”
Then Carden added a self-assessment that he can “become irrational” if something blocks what he’s trying to accomplish artistically.
“Yeah, I reluctantly admit that I am a pain in the ass. I have been called a curmudgeon, a damned old geezer, ‘Gary Contrary,’ and a waitress in a local cafe calls me ‘Mr. Grumpy.’ I wish everybody loved me, and as one of my best friends tells me, ‘Gary, you are digging your grave with your tongue.’ But so be it. If you passionately love something and want to accomplish something meaningful, you are going to have to be a pain in the ass,” he said.
Carden is nothing if not complex. He’s a mix of a man, one who can be difficult but is equally capable of great love, generosity and tenderness; and of seemingly endless patience, as on this day with Chew.
How does a man become what and who he is? Carden has spent almost a lifetime, 77 years now, trying to answer that question through written and spoken words. He has told his story, in one form or another, a million times. The characters change, the context changes, the task remains unchanged: Who am I?
The facts that make up Carden’s life history aren’t easy. His father was murdered. His mother left for Knoxville, Tenn., ostensibly for “business school,” Carden said he was told.
“I grew up thinking that Knoxville was some magic place where my mother lived and I ran away several times, at the ages of 3 and 4, going to Knoxville,” he said. “On one occasion, I was taken to Knoxville. I now think my grandparents intended to leave me … but something miscarried, and they brought me back home with no explanation.”
Later, Carden learned that his mother had married a man she’d met in Sylva who had told her that if she came to Knoxville — without the boy — they would get married.
“My grandmother used to discipline me by taking me out on the front porch and pointing to a worn place near the banisters,” Carden said. “‘There is where she left you,’ she would say. ‘Now, I took you when nobody wanted you and you owe me.’”
These experiences profoundly shaped the future writer.
“Even when you are 77 you are still an abandoned child,” Carden said.
Dot Jackson is a longtime friend of Carden’s and an unabashed fan of his work. A former reporter who was twice nominated for Pulitzer Prizes for work at The Charlotte Observer and at The Greenville News, Jackson has authored several nonfiction books. Her novel Refuge was published in 2006.
“Gary has made the most of a painful early childhood,” Jackson said. “As did Pat Conroy with his quick-fisted daddy, Gary has trademarked the imperfect lot of the orphaned toddler. Fact is, he’s done it with such alternating heart, pathos and comedy that like most everything else he does, it’s pretty much a work of genius. And unforgettable.
“I remember realizing, as I read more of the stuff he was writing, that he was exceptionally good. Not the kind of ‘good’ that was learned, but the kind that is once-in-a-blue-moon born.”
Jackson remembers a young Carden expressing a possible desire to work in newspapers, where she spent most of her writing career. The South Carolina resident said being a reporter ensured her a decent living and the ability to write.
“But there was, involved in it, the business of give and take, learning to get all heated up about the fire at the trash dump, or ‘The Sewer Commission met on Thursday and took no action’ … This was not Gary’s world, and mercy kept him out of it,” she said. “He lived in a colorful, sweet-and-sour world of imagination. There were rainbows and clucking chickens and Cherokee bad words and sanctimonious uncles, and the stench of tanning hides that would have wrinkled a late-night editor’s brow — though the world would probably have loved it. Would have, and does.”
Creative ability is a mysterious gift to comprehend anytime, why some people have it and others don’t. So how to decipher the wellsprings of Carden’s vast talent? That mystery is even more unfathomable in his case than others. Because Carden’s family was not what you’d describe as the artistic set, with the possibility, perhaps, of his father.
“He was exceptionally gifted as a musician and was reported to be able to play any musical instrument and often composed melodies off the top of his head, a talent that both awed and disturbed my grandfather. He would sometimes ask him to repeat a melody that he had just played and my father would reply, ‘I can’t, Daddy. It’s gone,’” Carden said.
The remainder of his family Carden described as “the salt of the earth.” Which means not visibly artistic, or interested in the arts, or interested in helping Carden explore his growing passion for literature.
“No one read except my grandmother, who read Mary Rinehart novels and went to the movies each year to see ‘Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ and ‘How Green Was My Valley,’” Carden said. “There was a single bookcase in the house and it was filled with religious tracts, songbooks and They Were Expendable, a book about World War II.”
Carden was a lonely child. He had few playmates. When pressed, he’ll admit to being an outcast within his own family. Like countless isolated children have done before and since, Carden found what solace and comfort he could in books.
“I went to the barn and read and read and read,” Carden said.
When not reading, Carden listened to a small radio his uncle gave him, tuning into radio shows broadcast from the big city of Chicago straight into little Sylva. He memorized songs. He enjoyed comic books.
Eventually, and critically important to his development as a writer and storyteller, Carden discovered the novels of Thomas Wolfe. He felt in his bones the music of the Asheville writer’s “poetic language.” Carden remains as passionate today about Wolfe’s work as when he first read the novelist.
In his book Mason Jars in the Flood, Carden through one character noted that Wolfe wrote “about loneliness and loss,” the great contrapuntal themes that sound in Carden’s own life. The language, he wrote, was beautiful: “the words booming like the organ at First Methodist. I found myself responding to the sound rather than the meaning. ‘Lost! Lost!’”
Carden taught about Wolfe at one time to elderhostel students. Carden quit because, he said, it upset him when they repeated all of the “hackneyed criticisms” of Wolfe, such as “he over-wrote.”
You can thank Sylva’s Fire Department for Carden’s writing career. He started writing in the ninth grade when the fire department sponsored a contest.
“I won it by counting all the matches in a box and estimated the damage I could do with them,” Carden said. “I got a trophy that immediately turned green. The next event was another contest. I won six tickets to the first production of ‘Unto These Hills,’ and had no one to give them to since my family was uninterested.”
His first stories, as Carden tells it to audiences, were relayed to “my grandfather’s chickens in a dark chicken house when I was 6 years old. My audience wasn’t attentive and tended to get hysterical during the dramatic parts.”
Carden had polio and sclerosis. This worked to his advantage when it came time for college: He attended WCU on a vocational rehabilitation scholarship.
“There is no way I would have been able to go otherwise,” Carden said.
Carden graduated with a degree to teach English, which he did for 15 years in Georgia and North Carolina before returning to WCU for his masters in English and drama. The university later awarded him an honorary doctorate.
Carden then wrote grants for 15 years for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“It was easy to do and the money rolled in,” Carden said. “I’m not bragging because Washington was eager to fund Native Americans.”
Then Carden went deaf. He continued on with Cherokee until, Carden said, “it became embarrassing.”
“I had problems because I misunderstood what was said by contacts in Washington. Once, I remember that a consultant said, ‘How do you justify Mead?’ That is what I heard. I said I didn’t see what Mead had to do with anything, Mead being the paper plant in Sylva that was a major polluter at the time. We ended up yelling at each other until I realized that he had said, ‘How do you justify need?’ That is just a tiny example of what became a daily problem,” Carden said.
His deafness propelled him directly into fulltime storytelling.
“I was fine as long as I got to do all of the talking,” Carden said. “Then I started teaching elderhostel and most of the elderhostel sponsors were tolerant of my deafness.”
When talking or listening to people, Carden described his attempt to turn up the volume by turning his two hearing aids on full blast. Even then, catching what was said was multiple choices and simply guessing, Carden said.
“Sometimes I’d guess right, sometimes wrong,” he said.
A girlfriend of old paid three years ago for a cochlear implant despite, Carden admitted, an inability of the two to “talk for 30 minutes without shouting at each other.”
The gift transformed his life. Able to hear, his ability to function creatively exploded again into full bloom.
Writers work in different ways, some methodically and others more impulsively. Carden is in the latter camp. He often writes starting at 3 a.m., taking advantage of insomnia to do work more or less “on impulse.”
“Sometimes ideas bother me for months and even years before I finally break down and write about it,” Carden said.
Carden said he started out writing poetry, which he described without elaboration as “a terrible mistake.”
“I did a few inept short stories and finally gave it up until I wrote Mason Jars in the Flood,” he said.
Carden has written eight plays. Asked why has found drama so satisfying a form to work in, Carden explained there is something fundamental about being on stage that helps fill the hole of loneliness.
“When you are on there, people pay attention to you,” Carden said. “You get on that stage and people look at you, and you’re understood until the next day. In my mind it disproved my suspicion that I was worthless ... I was proving that I was ‘worth something.’ The problem is, this quick fix does not last. Within a day or so, the sense of being worth something fades, and you have to start looking for an opportunity to do it again.”
Carden has in the past decade started receiving long-due recognition. Awards and general accolades for his lifetime of work have started flowing in, pleasing those who have watched him labor for so many years. Among them is Joyce Moore, the retired owner of the popular City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. She was at a recent production of Carden’s “The Liar’s Bench” with husband, Allen.
“I’m glad Gary finally seems to be hitting the big time after all the years,” Moore said. “He’s an incredibly talented person.”
Mason Jars in the Flood won the Book of the Year Award in 2001 from the Appalachian Writers Association. Two of Carden’s dramatic monologues, “Prince of Dark Corners” and “Nance Dude” have been filmed and appeared on PBS and the Discover Channel. He’s a 2006 winner of a Brown-Hudson Award in Folklore.
Carden has become a speaker at various literary events, including an upcoming appearance April 13-14 at the Carolina Literary Festival in Wadesville, where he’ll talk about storytelling becoming drama.
• “The Uktena,” a Cherokee “mime” play.
• A series of Cherokee plays based on the Nunnihi, street chiefs, old myths.
• “The Raindrop Waltz,” an autobiographical play that has received national exposure.
• “Mason Jars in the Flood,” an award-winning book of short stories.
• “Land’s End,” three monologues presented as a complete play.
• “Belled Buzzards, Hucksters and Grieving Specters,” a play written with Nina Anderson.
• “Papa’s Angels,” written with Colin Wilcox. Made into a movie.
• “Nance Dude,” filmed with Elizabeth Westall.
• “Prince of Dark Corners” made into a movie for PBS and Discovery Channel.
• “The Bright Forever,” a play.
• “A Sunday Evening in Webster,” a monologue.
• “Signs and Wonders,” a play. Premiered in Highlands last year.
• “Coy,” a play that was originally a part of the trilogy “Land’s End.”
• “Mother Jones,” a monologue.
• “Outlander,” a full-length play about Horace Kephart and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It will have a full musical score and will be performed this June at the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville.
Reading Finnegans Wake on the best of days and in the easiest sections can challenge the most erudite of readers. The eight or so members of the James Joyce group certainly fall into that category. But this past weekend, meeting in a room at Sylva’s library, they found themselves flagging in a particularly dense thicket of Joysean obscurities.
“This one was good at manual arithmetic, for he knew from his cradle why his fingers were given him,” Barbara Bates Smith, a Haywood County resident, recited aloud. “He had names for this 10 fingers: first there came book, then wigworms, then tittlies, then cheekadeekchimple, then pickpocket, with pickpocketpumb, pickpocketpoint, pickpocketprod, pickpocketpromise, and upwithem. And he had names for his four love-tried cardinals: (1) his element curdinal numen, (2) his enement curdinal marrying, (3) his epulent curdinal weisswach, and (4) his eminent curdinal Kay O’Kay.”
When she finished, everyone sat silent for a moment, bemused or stunned or both. Michael Lodico said, breaking the silence, “I think it’s all so obvious.” Everyone laughed and got down to business.
And that business is understanding and discussing Joyce, one of the most important writers of the 20th century. Joyce challenges, provokes and mystifies. The Irish poet and writer requires an endless amount of both reader patience and reader work to untangle the literary concoction (some might say mishmash) of stream of consciousness techniques, literary allusions and free-dream associations. Not to overlook, either, the profusion of puns this native Dubliner loved to weave into his tapestry of words.
A frustrated reader and critic once described Finnegans Wake as “a 628-page collection of erudite gibberish indistinguishable to most people from the familiar word salad produced by hebephrenic patients on the back wards of any state hospital.”
The James Joyce group meets for a couple hours at a time once each month, sometimes in Haywood and sometimes in Jackson counties. Members are from each of those communities. To describe the people involved as meticulous, well read and intelligent somehow falls short. They have spent about four years reading Finnegans Wake together. Saturday’s meeting began on page 282 of this more than 600-page book. The group labored happily for two hours, progressing through the middle of page 287.
Joyce, you see, isn’t a writer you rush: in his case, ripeness truly is all.
The group started reading Ulysses. That required a seven-year commitment. Ulysses is Joyce’s most important work, and stands as one of the most, if not the most, important modern novels of our time.
Jean Ellen Forrister, a retired English teacher from Jackson County, started with the group about when they began reading and studying Finnegans Wake.
She said she loves the complexities of Joyce’s work, “the weirdness,” and finds untangling his writing akin to solving a complicated crossword puzzle.
“You get it to fit all together, and there’s that sort of ah-ha moment,” Forrister said, adding that reading and studying Joyce keeps a person learning and living.
In one section of Finnegans Wake irrational numbers played a role. Forrister soon found herself researching irrational numbers — which is a real number that cannot be written as a simple fraction — and entering into discussions about them with a friend who is a math teacher.
Reading Joyce can take a person down unlikely avenues indeed.
You don’t want to walk unprepared into a James Joyce group meeting, though member Karl Nicholas, who retired from the English department at Western Carolina University, apologized for doing just that. He had just returned to Sylva from attending an event honoring the poet Robert Burns, and had been sidetracked the previous evening buying tickets for an upcoming trip overseas.
Members of the group usually prepare for meetings by reading the text, and they cross-study using A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by mythologist Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, and Annotations to Finnegans Wake by Roland McHugh.
They also rely on knowledge and skills that members individually bring into the group. Nicholas attended Catholic school, so he helps with the Catholic references, Forrister said. Nicholas and Lodico both can aid others when there are Latin difficulties. Nan Watkins can untangle knotty musical references, and so on and so on. Talk to them individually and each demurs from special knowledge or contributions, of course: “The others are scholars; my contributions are ones of support and enthusiasm. I get by,” Bates Smith said modestly.
After Bates Smith’s rendering of the “he had names for this 10 fingers,” Forrister said,
“Here’s my question. OK, in this counting system that he has, is this something unique to the kids, some little weird thing a kid made up, or is this a tradition?”
An involved discussion about counting commenced. Counting in other lands, hand symbols for numbers used in the streets of other lands, cultural mistakes that can occur when people ill advisedly use their land’s hand signals in other people’s lands.
“The French of course include the toes when they are counting,” Sandy McKinney said, offering the fact as something well known by most people.
“We’re getting the trees, but what is the forest?” Dr. Steve Wall, a pediatrician, said finally as the conversation on counting wended onward. “What is this book about? We know naught.”
The next meeting of the James Joyce group takes place at 9:15 a.m. Saturday, March 24, at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville.
I missed a golden opportunity to see my name emblazoned on a book spine by not writing about Western North Carolina’s very own serial bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph. Many people suggested I turn my experiences into a nonfiction account. I certainly had the material and the background.
I covered that madman and the ensuing years-long manhunt in exhaustive blow-by-blow for the Asheville Citizen-Times, whose motto should have been “no detail too small to print.” (Today, by contrast, the newspaper might well consider using “nothing west of Asheville.”)
But, back to that rascally Rudolph and all his endearing reindeer games. Such as adding nails and tacks to bombs to ensure living victims were torn into as many bits as possible.
I wrote about Rudolph and how he ordered a deluxe Bible at the Christian bookstore in Murphy just before he blew up that policeman and nurse at an Alabama abortion clinic. I interviewed the bookstore owner in-depth and wrote the article in my best breathless, cliché-ridden Brenda Starr-reporter style.
I wrote about a threat Rudolph did not send (though we did not know at the time that someone else was seeking attention) to one of Murphy’s weekly newspapers. It was suggestively signed “the Army of God.” CNN and other national media outlets picked up what proved a non-story, and we at the newspaper were quite proud because this seemed proof of “owning the story” and of setting a torrid pace for everyone else to follow in panting envy.
I wrote about caves Rudolph did not hole up in when he did not hide in the Nantahala Gorge, complete with interviews with geologists who had never heard of Rudolph and extensive timelines and helpful maps about the region’s history of mining, hence the existence of the many caves not used by Rudolph.
I even wrote a piece, which I most fervently hope never again sees the light of day, for the newspaper’s parent company’s newsletter about how other Gannett newspapers around the country could cover big stories in an equally riveting style as mine.
I was, as you can imagine, suffering a full-blown case of Rudolph burnout when he was finally nabbed in 2003 Dumpster diving in Murphy. A book was out of the question.
By then, my interest in the Rudolph story rivaled my current level of passion for covering Macon County’s apparent insatiable appetite for initiating land-planning studies and fighting over them. The first time I wrote on that subject? Try 1992.
Even then, as a rank green cub reporter at The Franklin Press with a big dose of bravado and few skills to back the attitude, I suspected covering planning studies in Macon County might simply prove an exercise in burning newspaper space. Two decades later and I’m suspicious of precisely the same thing.
Hell, even most of the people I’m covering are the same people, often saying exactly the same things I quoted them saying three newspapers and two decades ago.
We — and this would be folks on either side of the issue, I don’t have a particular dog in that fight — often hug hello at meetings before getting down to business. It’s a familiarity that feels perfectly appropriate after our long, strange journey together. Like greeting extended family you never see except at the occasional funeral of some great aunt or great uncle, or hugging hello when everyone gathers to bury a cousin so far removed on your mother’s side that the exact connection isn’t fathomable even by the most ardent family genealogist.
A book about the various planning scrums in Macon County, however, would bore even those involved in the issues — not to mention me, the poor writer.
This leaves me to contemplate a one-year book. There is a sudden proliferation of taking on inspiring goals for one year and then writing best-selling books about these experiences.
One year of living biblically, one year of “test driving” the wisdom of the ages to discover the secret of happiness, one year of cooking every single recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
With this publishing explosion comes one-year improvement plans, too, such as one year of not buying anything new, one year of not eating processed foods, one year spent reading the “Five-foot Shelf” of Harvard Classics.
I understand what these authors are about, what they are “up to,” if you will. The one-year format provides ready-made topics and structures. That is very appealing for would-be writers who are short on good, original ideas.
Perhaps I could spend one year making various potpies, then write about eating potpies. I adore potpies, so that would be very enjoyable — but I shudder to think what I’d pack on in weight eating a potpie a week for a year.
I’m a voracious reader, so perhaps I could do something along that line … One year spent in bed reading whatever I wanted to, probably mainly British mysteries, with my food catered to me. I would, of course, condescend to get up to go to the bathroom as needed. That, in fact, could serve as chapter breaks.
The trouble with this outstanding idea is that my every-two-week bank deposit from The Smoky Mountain News might not continue in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed. But I’d be happy to dedicate the book “to my friends at The SMN, with many thanks for the literal support” if the newspaper’s owners would subsidize my yearlong break.
Plus, please, pay for an extra few months so that I could actually write what would — as inevitably as night follows day and local television reporters freely and without guilt lift stories from newspapers that are, in their books, too-small-to-count — be a runaway bestseller.
Though perhaps it’s not exactly the moveable feast Ernest Hemingway discovered in the cafés of Paris, the ambiance of The Coffee Shop in Sylva suits local writer Dawn Gilchrist-Young just fine.
It is here, in this 84-year-old, family owned, down-home restaurant strategically positioned near Sylva’s paper plant, Jackson Paper Manufacturing, that the Swain County native writes much of her work. One short story is now garnering national attention. “The Tender Branch” is this year’s winner of the High School Teachers Writing Award from the Norman Mailer Center.
Each morning, for two or so hours, The Coffee Shop customers such as Teresa Coward would notice the slim, studious-looking woman in one of the café’s bright orange-plastic booths, drinking cups of coffee with cream. A cup of coffee costs $1.25 at The Coffee Shop, including a refill; a side of apple, cherry, coconut, lemon or chocolate pie adds $2.50 to the tab.
“It’s home here,” says Coward, nodding in ready understanding as to why a writer would choose The Coffee Shop over some of the town’s more uptown, upscale café options.
Gilchrist-Young, caffeine satiated, would move on to write until noon at the public library. She didn’t want to command a table in the small café for too much time each day, inconveniencing owner Phyllis Gibson or waitresses such as Chessa Hoyle, livelihood-dependent on collecting the quarter and dollar tips left by appreciative, but working-class, customers.
This café is no stranger to Western North Carolina’s literati, at least the homegrown kind. Hoyle serves Sylva writer Gary Carden everyday. The late John Parris, of the “Roaming the Mountains” Asheville Citizen-Times column fame, was a regular here, too.
These days Gilchrist-Young calls the Village of Forest Hills in Cullowhee home. She lives there with her stonemason husband, Eric. Their daughter, Aaron, is attending Warren Wilson College.
The Norman Mailer award will put this unassuming writer, who has worked as an English teacher at Swain County High School for 14 years, on stage with former President Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel and Tina Brown, Newsweek’s editor in chief; and conceivably even Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones fame. Like Gilchrist-Young, Richards is a recipient of a Norman Mailer Center award, in his case for his recent book, Life.
Gilchrist-Young and the other Norman Mailer award winners will be at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City on Nov. 8. Additionally, she won $10,000 and a month next summer at the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony in Provincetown, Mass.
Gilchrist-Young is a meticulous craftsperson. Her story was one of but two written a couple summers ago. Each story required two months to complete, the length basically of this schoolteacher’s annual summer break.
“The Tender Branch” delivers on the tenderness promised in the title. But the story is equally rich in the horrors attendant for women immersed in domestic violence. That violence is presented here simply as True Fact: the story seems to say, ‘You see, this is how many women live, but that is not the whole of them.’
Gilchrist-Young’s story is set in Haywood County: Canton, to be exact.
“My grandma was mean, but I’m not mean like her, just vengeful like her, vengeful like a cat you’ve left locked in the house all day and thinking everything is fine until you come home and there’s a pile of shit right on your pillow,” her character says in a moment of raw self description.
Gilchrist-Young writes only in the summer. The remainder of her time is spent — and this is not purple prose, not hyperbole, but simple conveyance of more True Fact — giving of her talents and herself to the kids attending Swain County High School. She was once given a year’s sabbatical from Swain to teach at Western Carolina University, a 12-month gift, she says, from then Swain Principal Janet Clapsaddle and the local school board. They wanted this talented woman to find herself, to assess whether she’d be happiest teaching at the university level, or returning once again to Swain’s classrooms.
Gilchrist-Young opted for the latter, deciding that the high school needed her, the college did not; she notes this must mean she needs to be needed.
So Gilchrist-Young, each school day, walks into Swain County High School. And by her simple presence demonstrates that a homebred girl, who would marry at 18 and who was raised in a singlewide trailer in the Euchella community with four brothers and sisters by working-class parents, Wretha and Robert Gilchrist, is at the same time a sophisticated, highly educated woman. Her resume includes Columbia University and an MFA from Warren Wilson. And, of course, and maybe this is the most important True Fact about Gilchrist-Young, is a living, breathing, in-the-flesh writer the kids can talk to each day.
One’s upbringing is a part, not the whole; it is through parts, however, that we create a whole — that is Gilchrist-Young’s message to her students and one seemingly delivered through her writings.
“This is a Southern Appalachian woman,” Gilchrist-Young says of herself, an exclamation point on a conversation that includes discussions about stereotyping of mountain people, the suffocation of being dubbed a “regional” writer, and the equally True Fact that Swain County and other local school systems were (often but not always perhaps for everyone) truly wonderful places for aspiring writers, artists and musicians to find themselves growing up.
Finding the energy to both teach high school English and write is clearly a family hand-me-down, “the Gilchrist work ethic” personified, as husband Eric Young describes it.
Her father, now in his mid-70s, gets up at 4 a.m. and does masonry until his body gives out, sometime in the afternoon or evening.
“If he doesn’t work, he doesn’t feel like he’s living,” Gilchrist-Young says.
Her mother stayed home with the children, three girls and two boys, plus worked some in local factories and in the school’s cafeteria.
When the couple built a room onto their trailer, her father added bookshelves on either side of the fireplace. He and wife Wretha ordered a set of “The World’s 100 Greatest Classics” to fill the shelves. This was, for the most part, a family of readers.
“We were surrounded by these great writers,” Gilchrist-Young says. “Dostoevsky, Austen.”
The young girl would select books based on her attraction to the titles. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” she found offensive; “Sense and Sensibility,” on the other hand, had an attractive alliteration, and she discovered through that simple siren song the world of Jane Austen.
Her father, a Zane Grey zealot, passed his love for Grey’s Westerns and adventure stories on to his daughter, and “Riders of the Purple Sage” would become, as would her mother’s Ellery Queen mysteries, future literary touchstones.
There were nightly Bible readings. The sonorous prose of the King James version of the Bible became yet another touchstone for Gilchrist-Young. It would influence her writing ear as it has so many others. More deeply imbedded than even her parent’s love for literature — and the Bible, which in that household was not literature but True Fact — was the Gilchrist code, which goes something like this:
“There is an authority that is higher than law, and a goodness that is more important than anything else.”