The Beatrice Interview

Robert Morgan

" The writing of Gap Creek was like writing a poem, the recovery of all kinds of experiences that I had not thought about in years."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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In January 2000, Robert Morgan received a call from a woman who had read his most recent novel, Gap Creek. "I didn't know who I was talking to at first," he told me as we chatted in his hotel room this October. So when she invited him to come speak at her book club, he says, "I was thinking this is somebody down in South Carolina that I'd met on a book-signing tour. So, I said I'd be happy to if I was in the area, knowing I'm in upstate New York, hundreds of miles away. She said, 'Where are you?' I said, 'Upstate New York.' She said, 'Oh, I'm up north, too. I'm in Chicago.'" That's when he realized he was on the phone with Oprah Winfrey, and she was about to make his book the next selection in America's largest book club. As he told a reporter shortly afterwards, "It's like all heaven has busted loose at once." Now he's in the midst of his most extensive book tour ever, and he also has roughly fifty times as many readers as he had before.

RH: What has stayed the same about your writing life?

RM: When I can get to it, I think the writing has stayed the same. Right now I'm greedily getting back to the novel I was working on when Oprah called. I take my laptop with me and work in the hotel rooms. I don't think my lifestyle will change very much once the book tours are over, except that I will go on half-time teaching in the next two years, and then semi-retire, so I will hopefully have more time to write and to read. I've been so busy, I haven't been able to read all the new books I want to.

RH: Oprah's selection of Gap Creek, also, I think one of the aftermath effects is that it's also helped more readers discover your short stories as well.

RM: Right. The first two books of short stories, The Blue Valleys and The Mountains Won't Remember Us, have come out in paperback this fall. They're reaching a new audience. The paperback of the earlier novel, The Truest Pleasure, has gone through six printings since Oprah selected Gap Creek.

RH: One of the challenges in writing Gap Creek was getting the voice of Julie, the narrator, just right.

RM: I began the novel several times and had to put it aside because the voice that kept creeping in was the voice of the narrator of my previous novel. I was like an actor who had spent so much time with a part, I couldn't get out of it. Jenny, the narrator of The Truest Pleasure, is much better educated, much more confident of her ability to talk; in fact, she relishes words. Julie was not very well educated and was reticent, had little confidence in her voice, so it would have to be a different kind of a narrator. It took me until the spring of 1998, when I was Davidson College, living in North Carolina again for the first time in many years. Maybe it was hearing the idiom around me. I realized I could let this narrator be halting. Say very simple sentences and say from time to time, "I don't know how to tell you this. I don't know how to say this. I don't talk well. I work. I do things with my hands and my shoulders." Once I realized that, I started writing and, in fact, I wrote the first draft in about three and a half months.

RH: From reading your stories, I can tell that voice is an important aspect of your writing.

RM: It's the key for me. Some writers are more plot- oriented; I think of the story in terms of the voice of the narration. Once I get that, then I can go with it and let the narrator tell the story. The great breakthrough for me in writing fiction came in 1989, when I was attempting to write a novella based on the life and death of my Uncle Robert in World War II. He had been killed in a B-17 crash. I did a lot of research on B-17s, on the Eighth Air Force, on American airmen in England at that time. I studied manuals of B- 17s. I interviewed pilots. But when I started writing, I got bogged down in the technical details and I thought, well, why don't I let his fiancée tell part of this tale. So, I started writing and I started imagining this woman now in her seventies in a nursing home, looking back at 1940 and 1941, seeing her fiancé off to the war and then getting the telegram. And it was so scary writing in the voice of a woman. I realized that I had to give everything to it, that I had to erase myself and had to become like an actor, be totally involved in the character of the narrator. Then I realized after writing 23 page, that it was the best I had ever written.

RH: One of the images in that story, "The Mountains Won't Remember Us," is that of the woman whose fiancé dies in war and later remarries and then the fiancé's comrade comes to see her. That image seems to have stuck with you, because it pops up again in another of your stories set in the Vietnam War era. Is there a personal connection to that scene for you?

RM: Uncle Robert was killed about a year before I was born. I was named for him, and I grew up in his shadow. Everybody compared me to him. Everybody told me how tall and handsome he was and how the girls all liked him, what a good Christian man he was. Everybody said I looked like him. I acted like him. One of his buddies did indeed come back to visit his fiancée, found she was already married, and wouldn't tell her anything about Robert. That always seemed like a double pain. Here was the one person who could have told her something about what happened to Robert and he wouldn't. So it is indeed tied to family history, and to this particular person that I've always felt very close to and felt conflicted about. He was like an ideal. He was a martyr. I couldn't live up to that. Maybe that's why I couldn't write "The Mountains Will Remember Us" from his point of view--he was not a living person to me, but an icon of virtue and courage. But I could write about the fiancée, who was a more ordinary person.

RH: Gap Creek also has a personal element, in that it's loosely based on the early years of your maternal grandparents' marriage.

RM: I knew my grandmother a little bit when I was a kid. She died when I was about three, but I can remember her. She would keep me while my mother was working in the cotton mill. When I wrote the book, I'd try to imagine what these people might have been like when they were seventeen and eightteen in a very different world. The only incident that's literally true in the book is the first one, the death of Julie's younger brother. Almost everything else is made up, the flood, the fire. The hog killing scenes are written from my own experience. As a kid, I helped out with hog killing, and many of the other things she does, :he sawing of wood, carrying the water, boiling of the clothes in a pot outside.

I tell people my whole life has been a research for Gap Creek, and not just because I grew up on a little farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains and actually did many of those things. After I moved to Cornell in 1971, out of homesickness, perhaps, nostalgia, I became a student of the Appalachian region--county histories, regional histories, histories of the Cherokee Indians, histories of mining of the geology, of the botany of the area. I really became a student of southern mountains once I left them, in a way I probably never would have probably had I stayed there.

RH: Many of these stories, then, are recreations of a world that you'd been away from for decades by the time you wrote them.

RM: As much as 45 years in the world where we didn't know a car or a truck, kept our milk and butter in the springhouse. I have a theory that a culture becomes particularly available for treatment in fiction when it's been lost. Hawthorne can really go into a Puritan New England, for example, once it's gone and he's living in the beginning of the Industrial Age. That world of rural Appalachia has really gone--the mountains are still there, the waterfalls are still there, but the people that used to live there, that knew no other world except that, they're gone.. Television, education, people moving in from outside, all kinds of things have completely changed the area.

I also believe that this is why the book has been popular. At this particular moment in our culture, as we are immersed more and more in the digital world, it means something to a lot of people to commit with the past, to establish a sense of community with the past that has been lost. We feel better, we feel we're connected to other people, not so lonely, not so isolated.

RH: Even with your memories and your extensive research, it must be a challenge to recreate that lost world in prose.

RM: It's scary, but it really is a great pleasure. It occurred to me after I finished Gap Creek that one of the reasons I had got into the experience of writing it so intensely was that it enabled me to peel away the years of studying language, writing literary criticism, teaching classes, and get back to those voices that I heard as a kid. It's something that I have--I won't say repressed, but sort of buried; to recover that is one of the most intense poetic experiences. In that sense, the writing of Gap Creek was like writing a poem, the recovery of all kinds of experiences that I had not thought about in years. The smell of scalded skin on the hog when you pour boiling water on it before you scrape it, the experience of lying in the leaves and looking at the sky receding beyond the trees above you...physical experiences that I did not live for a long time and found myself recovering through language.

RH: I wonder if younger writers, in a world that's increasingly urbanized but more importantly more mediated, have had fewer of those types of experiences available to us.

RM: When I began as a writer, I really wondered what I had that I could write about. My favorite writers wrote fiction set in Moscow, Paris, London. All I knew was this little farm in the Blue Ridge mountains and the university. Over the years, as I've worked at writing, developed as a writer, I kept discovering this material that I had. I discovered that instead of having a dearth of material, I have an overwhelming amount of stories, information, characters, to write about, and I'm still amazed by that discovery: that I can turn a family story, my own low experience, killing hogs or carrying water from the spring, into literature.

I think that everybody has more experience than they can ever use in their writing, if they look at it closelyy, and for everybody, it'll be different. I don't think there's any one kind of experience that's better than another. But I do think that this kind of subject matter chose me because I knew something about it and I am, for some reason, driven to recreate it. I tell my students I have one foot in the nineteenth century and one in the twenty-first. Very talented writers, though, can, at any time that they want to, recreate a sense of the past. They don't have to have lived there. It's a matter of giving yourself to what you know about people, the times, the customs, the language, and it's really a matter of talent. If you have enough talent, you can write a story about a Danish prince if you'd never been to Denmark, or war on the plains of Troy even if you're a blind man. It really is mostly talent and the willingness to do it honestly, to get into the story using everything you know.

RH: Who are some of the writers who have inspired or moved you most?

RM: When I was about thirteen, living in this little valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Henderson County Library started sending a bookmobile to Green River Church every first Monday afternoon. I went out there and I just couldn't believe the number of books. It was from that that I got immediately Little House on the Prairie, Jack London, Royal Canadian Mounted Police adventure stories, and then Dickens, Oliver Twist, David Copper field. One day I went out there and saw this big gray book called Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, who I knew had come from Nashville. I started reading it,and like all the young readers who fell in love with the story, I thought I was Eugene Gant. His story was my story. Then I discovered I was born on Wolfe's birthday, October 3rd, and I really felt a kinship. In rapid succession, I discovered Tolstoy's War and Peace and then Hemingway. It's Hemingway who may have had the greatest influence on my early writing in the way he talked, the concision, the direction, implicitness, the use of dialogue to imply events that are not described.

Another very important moment occurred after I became a poet and was hired to teach poetry at Cornell University. In January 1977, I turned on the television and found a play about a boy in a cotton mill in South Carolina, a very angry boy who had lost a foot and was hobbling around. I couldn't believe the accuracy of the speech, the dialogue. It turned out afterwards to have been written by Cormac McCarthy. His play really planted a seed which stayed with me for three or four years. I began to think about going back to prose writing, fiction writing. I saw what you could do with accurate speech and dialogue.. I wrote fiction stories, pieces of novels, the original version of The Truest Pleasure from 1981 to 1985, and finally, in '86, a friend who edited a magazine said, "I hear you're writing short stories. Why don't you show me one?" I showed him a story and he said, "I want to publish that." Boy, did that thrill me.

I summoned up the courage to send stories out to other magazines and they started getting accepted. So, in 1988, I put together a collection of stories called The Blue Valleys and sent it to Peachtree Publishing because they published Southern fiction. Three weeks later, I got a postcard back that said, "We think we want to publish this book." I thought, What did that mean? I waited a week to call them up and said, "Well, do you want to publish it?" and they said, "Yeah, we want to publish it." It came out in spring of 1989, and in two weeks it got more reviews than all my books of poetry put together. I got a rave review from The New York Times, which had never paid any attention to my poetry. I had struck this note, people were responding ,and it was just exhilarating. I was quite exuberant that I could write fiction and could publish it and people would respond to it. I really got going.

RH: You mentioned Peachtree, and Gap Creek was originally published by Algonquin in hardcover. They're both small presses, outside the New York center of the literary universe, but they've worked out very well to you.

RM: Well, they were what I had, and I was very lucky to have them. They're very good publishers. They stay by their writers even if they don't make lots of money for them. Gap Creek has been very good to [Algonquin]; it's now sold 800,000 copies in hardback. But I've also been very lucky with Scribner, who are the most attentive publisher I've ever worked with. They keep you informed at every stage of what is going on. Of course, I realize, that's partly because they're bigger. They have the staff.

RH: How about contemporary writers?

RM: I haven't read much of anything very recently. I've been too busy. But I think that we are living in one of the great ages of fiction writing. And it's a privilege to be publishing fiction at the same time as writers like Cormac McCarthy and Tim O'Brien, Larry McMurtry, Carol Shields, Joyce Carol Oates. In fact, many of the best writers of our time live in North Carolina, my native state--Reynolds Price, Doris Betts, Lee Smith, Allan Gurganis, Clyde Edgerton, and Fred Chapell, my former teacher.

When I was in college, I was told by people who seemed to know that the novel was dead, that the future belonged to more experimental forms. They could not have been more wrong. All these writers I just mentioned just burst on the scene in the late '60s, the early '70s, and '80s.

RH: You're in the midst of your new novel.

RM: I was in the midst of it when Oprah called in January 2000, and I got so busy, I had to put it aside for a while. But I'm back at work on it and I'm hoping I can finish it this winter. About all I can tell you is that it's set in the 1920s and that some of the same characters that appear in The Truest Pleasure and in Gap Creek appear in it. I hope that reflects the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, as it was in the Blue Ridge Mountains, far away from the world of Gatsby and Al Capone, but a very violent time, too, because of Prohibition and bootlegging. Members of my family were involved in in moonshining and bootlegging. One of my cousins actually did two stints in the Atlanta Penitentiary for making corn liquor. He's now eighty years old, and he came roaring up to the house in his pickup truck when he heard that I'd published a book called Gap Creek. "The next time he comes home," he said to my mother, "you tell Robert to come see me 'cause he don't know nothin' about Gap Creek." And I'm sure he's got some good stories.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Allan Gurganus | Complete Interview Index | Mary Morris

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan