Born on a farm in Canton during the Great Depression (1936), he rose from his modest upbringing to attend Duke University. He became a writer, a jack-of-all-trades within the craft, zigzagging between forms of literature as often as the calendar sheds a new year, a seemingly subconscious move that proved victorious, in terms of his precision of knowledge and passion for the craft — a modern day Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine, always sure of his strength and the momentum that would surely carry him into the next project or endeavor.
The mastermind behind several novels, innumerable collections of short stories and poetry, Chappell has received accolades from the Academie Française and won the Aiken Taylor Award, Bollingen Award, T.S. Eliot Prize, and recognition from the National Academy of Arts and Letters. He was bestowed the title of North Carolina Poet Laureate (1997-2002).
Chappell also wore the hat of professor for 40 years at UNC-Greensboro, a position that influenced the creation of the Master of Fine Arts in writing program at the institution. His time there eventually led to him receiving the O. Max Gardner Award for teaching.
The Smoky Mountain News recently caught up with Chappell as he prepared for readings in Haywood and Jackson counties as part of his book tour. He spoke of his latest work, his bountiful career, and how the key to being a writer resides in being aware of “the moment” before it passes you by.
Garret K. Woodward: You have a new book out. A Shadow All of Light. What can readers expect?
Fred Chappell: Well, it’s supposed to be fun. It’s a fantasy novel, and in a very different key than the way I often write. It’s in the vein of Robert Louis Stevenson.
GKW: What do you like about that genre of fantasy?
FC: I like the freedom of concepts it can give you, where you get an idea and you can really carry it through. The idea in this novel is that shadows are detachable and can be used as commodities — traded, bought, sold.
GKW: It’s reality and subconscious, where nothing is too off the wall.
FC: It’s possible we know more asleep than we do when we’re awake.
GKW: So, you have a birthday coming up, huh?
FC: Well, I’m looking the other way, to tell you the truth. [Laughs].
GKW: What do you think about turning 80?
FC: Since I can’t help it, there’s nothing I can do to stop it. But, I’m hoping 80 will be a very lucky number.
GKW: You’ve been a writer pretty much your whole life. What do you see as your writing habits and your craft as you’ve gotten older?
FC: Writing is very much like starting from scratch every time, because the projects you’re working on now aren’t usually helped by the kinds of things you had to learn to do with the project you last worked on. You have to get reborn pretty often.
GKW: What are your writing habits?
FC: It depends on what I’m working on. If I’m working on a long prose piece for a novel, I have to have a certain calendar — so many hours per day, so many days per week, and so many pages per week. With poetry and short stories, I have to wait for it to hit me.
GKW: And with poetry, you kind of just get hit with the lightning bolt of an idea out-of-nowhere, and you jot down the words before they escape your thoughts.
FC: You don’t volunteer for poetry — you just get drafted. [Laughs].
GKW: Do you still get just as excited being a writer?
FC: Well, I write a lot of things on consignment. Some of the assignments are not as lively as one would like, but mostly everything is a challenge, so it’s all new. If I have to write three pages a day, I’ll make a fresh start on the pages everyday with each paragraph. For me, it’s always a challenge, always interesting. I’ve never found it to be a grind.
GKW: Your career has such versatility. Is that something that just evolved, or did you pursue other genres in hopes of honing your craft within the genres you initially liked? I think to become a better writer you should try other forms of writing.
FC: I agree with you that cross-fertilization is very important. That’s why I think poets should read as much science as possible, and fiction writers should read as much poetry as possible. Both of them should learn music, and mathematics. Everything goes in the hopper, and it’s up to you on what comes out.
GKW: What’s your connection, physically and emotionally, these days to Haywood County?
FC: I have many vivid memories of Haywood County, and [my wife Susan and I] go back as often as we can, as a matter-of-fact. You see the mountains right outside of Statesville heading west, and it’s always like a chord out of Beethoven. It’s really something. It’s so real that it’s unreal.
GKW: What do you see as the place of writers in this modern world of distraction, noise, and short attention spans?
FC: The best thing is to not join in on it, but to keep steady where you are. We’ve been scribes since 5000 B.C., and I don’t see any reason to let up in these traditional matters. People are losing the knack for reading, at least it seems when I’ve been talking to them. But if you can get them to read the first few pages, they’re sunk, and they’ll be readers for at least an hour or two [that day]. A lot of us can be overwhelmed because there’s just so much out there today, but a lot of it is really terrific.
GKW: What is it to be Southern Appalachian and a writer, where the landscape and culture affects the writing so deeply?
FC: Well, for one thing, literacy came late to a lot of Southern Appalachia. So, the idea of reading and writing was exciting and novel. And it became a great thing to become a writer, where if you were a writer, you were like a movie star, in a sense. The other part is that people in these mountains like language, we like words and we like what people have to say — “Have a drink with me and we’ll talk,” kind of thing, you know?
GKW: What has a life as a writer taught you about what it means to be a human being?
FC: It’s taught me humility. It’s taught me patience, for one thing, as to never trust my first impression of anything. And also, to listen — to shut up and listen. Well, you always have the grand themes — life and death, war and peace, love and hate. But, what you focus on as a writer is the moment-to-moment, the specifics of every possible moment, and you try to observe as much as you can — before it’s gone, and before you’re gone.
Want to go?
Poet and novelist Fred Chappell will read and sign his new fantasy novel A Shadow All of Light, at 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 13, at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. He will also host a reading at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 14, at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville.
In the book, a young man sets off on a journey to become the apprentice of a master shadow thief. His mysterious master challenges him with difficult mental and physical tests, setting in motion adventures with con men, monsters, ingenious detection, cats, and pirates.
Chappell is a former professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He was the Poet Laureate of North Carolina from 1997 to 2002. His 1968 novel Dagon was named the “Best Foreign Book of the Year” by the Academie Francaise. Chappell’s literary awards include the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Prix de Meilleur des Livres Etrangers, the Bollingen Prize, and the T. S. Eliot Prize. He has also won two World Fantasy Awards.