Carolina In My Mind

Allan Gurganus: How I Write

Allan Gurganus’s debut novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, became an instant classic when it was published in 1989. In his long-awaited follow-up, Local Souls, Gurganus returns to Falls, NC, to present three novellas about the new South. He talks to Noah Charney about using different handwriting for his manuscripts, why he doesn’t outline, and how he made his father proud.

Mark Lennihan/AP,Mark Lennihan

NC: Where did you grow up?

AG: I was born in Rocky Mount, NC. The town of 24,000 proved a great place to spend the first 17 years of life. But, after that, onward, outward.

NC: Where and what did you study?

AG: After a sound public education, I attended Penn and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. After being drafted into the military and studying Indonesian, I emerged as a writer, not a painter. I then worked with Grace Paley at Sarah Lawrence and John Cheever and Stanley Elkin and John Irving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Where do you live and why?

I spent 12 years in Manhattan before moving to a North Carolina village of 5,000. It recalls my hometown circa 1957. When I daily walk to the post office, gossip adheres to me the way some flower-visiting bee accumulates weightless saddlebags of pollen. This town has all the goodness and badness on earth, Blake’s “universe in a grain of sand.” In its adulteries, philanthropies and bankruptcies, I see family resemblances.

Of which of your books are you most proud?

The Practical Heart was published one week before the World Trade towers collapsed. Book reviewing and all else in our culture stopped dead-still for half a year. I went on the book tour anyway. But I felt like the apostle Paul going unto the catacombs where scared believers hid and prayed. We talked about freedom and literature but not my new book. I do think the work’s title novella and its longest piece, “Saint Monster,” contain some of my truest, most succinct prose. But, of course, my latest, Local Souls, is the best to date.

Describe your morning routine.

I rise at 6. Strong coffee helps me face the paper edition of The New York Times. It daily challenges my own capacity for faking anything deranged enough to sound true. I work till 2 p.m. unless I am in the throes of finishing something. I rewrite to be reread. There is a stillness in the early hours that feels to me the clearest, healthiest drug humanly available. At that hour, I still hang between dreaming, a childish finger-painting freedom, and the sheer ambition of the unconscious.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

I still use Pelikan sepia-brown ink in a fat Mont Blanc given me by a reader. I write first drafts on yellow legal pads. The ink comes out in a wide channel that takes four minutes to dry. I like to see my desktop covered with face-up yellow pages drying like paintings in the sun.

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What is your favorite item of clothing?

My dermatologist urges all white folks in the South to wear hats. I own 40, from ball caps to brimmed straw ones. But my all-time most memorable item of clothes was a pair of green corduroy trousers I wore for nine months of art school. The cuffs had flecks from every good or bad oil painting I did. I felt myself become a sexual being in, and because of, those pants. I wish I had saved the scraps.

Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers.

Isaac Babel’s Collected Stories. Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Barry Hannah’s Long, Last, Happy.

What is a place that inspires you?

Since childhood I’ve been obsessed with Easter Island. I finally got there three years ago. It is less than nine miles long. There are no fences. The island has 5,000 people and 7,000 horses, most running wild. One full-moon night, a friend and I dragged our hotel bedding to the great stone heads, the moai, some 24 feet tall. I’d found the one that seemed most my friend (“Harry”). I slept under his gaze and protection. So far out into the Pacific, stars are not dots but whole hornets’ nests of light, rounded as those granular beacons van Gogh painted. I slept like an infant, guarded by the god of my choice. (Like all gods, he was man-made, and the holier for that.)

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.

Narrative emerges as life does, only in the heat of struggle. Books written to outline taste like microwaved toast. (It may be brown, but it’s not toasted). Grace Paley wrote, “Characters deserve the open destiny of life.” Once a novel’s time-period grows clearer, some 90 pages in, I will map out charts of birth and death dates, or some intervening historical incidents. I even try to vary the handwritten typography to reflect changing historical periods. I’ll do anything to make my emerging story more shadow-casting real.

What do you do when you are stuck or have temporary writer’s block?

The hardest part of writing narrative is stopping and starting it. So I simply continue. That way, a bad day is not the end of the world, and a good day seems less unusual. Like weather, pressure is always with us. I have never heard of “bus-driver’s block” or “fourth-grade teacher’s block.” That term seems the invention of people who have lost faith in their own voices and subject. They prefer seeking a medical explanation. Writers, if they are writers, write. That is how you shall know them! When they stop they become something else. Bitter, constipated, envious. A poet said, “Critics are to writers what ornithologists are to birds.”

Do you have superstitions?

I kiss all four corners of any mailed manuscript or love letter. But not packets containing quarterly-estimated-taxes.

What is something you always carry with you?

That favorite fountain pen, plus a pocket watch and chain inherited from a gambling great-uncle.

What phrase do you over-use?

“How could anybody with even half a mind be Republican?”

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I am the father of six children. In NYC, during the impoverished ’70s, I worked as a callboy for a sperm donation agency. They wanted someone blondish, blue-eyed, with advanced degrees, and six feet of height. I still await news of my offspring, especially now that their college tuition years are behind them.

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

I started publishing stories in The New Yorker and elsewhere when I was 26. I’d published 30 stories when, with me now age 42, I finally released my first book, the novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. (As a child I had been told, “Don’t speak until you have something to say.”)

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

My father, on a golf course in Florida, was asked by an IBM exec if he could be related to a writer with that same curious Welsh last name. “My son,” Dad said, as the executive pulled my novel out of his golf bag, and asked for Dad’s autograph. Why does this so matter to me? Because it was the first time my father ever seemed to understand the scale and value of my imagination. He had wanted me to go into insurance, sure I would starve as an artist. He was an American maimed by growing up during the Depression then the War; financial terms were the only values he trusted or understood. As soon as Dad autographed my book—with his name, not mine—he at last accepted me. I was 42 years old.

What advice would you give an aspiring author?

Read your work aloud daily. Read it once a week to your friends. Provide the wine yourself. Use only active idiosyncratic visible verbs. Action always outranks information. The young novelist’s best advice comes from Henry James: “Dramatize, dramatize, dramatize.” (Yes, he needed that word three times to make his point!)

This interview was edited and condensed.