Despite moves from Argentina to Alaska, writer rooted in Kentucky

March 17, 2015

Nearly 40 years after he left Lexington in search of language, literature and academic adventure from one end of the Americas to the other, Johnny Payne said he still gets emotional each time he flies into Blue Grass Airport.

“I’ve lived many beautiful places,” said Payne, a novelist, poet and playwright. “But when the plane is coming in over those fields, I just get teary-eyed every time. This is the most beautiful place in the world. It’s kind of my mythic space.”

Payne has lived in nine states, Peru and Argentina. He now teaches English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he and his wife, Juana, and their three dogs live atop an isolated mountain in a yurt — a round wooden hut.

Their nearest neighbors are foxes and moose, and temperatures can reach 20 below zero. But, he said, Lexington got a lot more snow this winter than they did.

PaynePayne’s plane touched down Saturday for a visit with family and to give two talks about his newest book, “Vassal” (Mouthfeel Press, $16), a re-imagining of The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem from the 8th century BC.

He will speak at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Transylvania University’s Cowgill Center, Room 102, and at 7 p.m. Thursday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Both events are free and open to the public.

Payne’s 10th book grew out of re-reading The Odyssey and writing a poem about it that an editor urged him to expand it into a book.

“I was coming to terms with myself at this time in my life,” Payne said, and he identified with the ancient Greek hero Odysseus and his decade-long journey home. “A book can be very personal without talking directly about my own experience.”

Payne, 56, and I were friends at Lafayette High School, where he says Spanish teacher Marcia Miller was the best teacher he ever had. She gave him the confidence to go to college. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Indiana University, a master’s at the University of Alabama and a doctorate at Stanford University.

As a 22-year-old graduate student, Payne learned the Quechua language and traveled to mountain villages in Peru recording the stories of peasant farmers. He translated them into Spanish, and after finishing his academic project edited them into a book for Peruvian children.

“That’s the most unusual thing I did in my life, and it made me really happy,” he said. “I wasn’t trained in that area; I just did it. I could never do it now. I would have too much self-doubt.”

Payne taught at Northwestern University and started two master of fine arts programs in creative writing. The MFA program at the University of Texas-El Paso that he founded and directed for eight years is the nation’s only bilingual English-Spanish program.

“It was very quickly successful and probably the most significant thing I’ve done in my career,” he said.

Payne thought he wanted to be a dean, so he moved to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to head the College of Liberal Arts. Within a year, he realized he hated high-level administration and stepped down to teach and write.

He comes home occasionally to visit his parents, John and Joy Payne, but returns to Kentucky most often in his imagination. Six of his books are set completely or partly in Kentucky. A musical play, “The Devil in Disputanta,” is named for the Rockcastle County community where generations of Payne’s ancestors farmed.

His other books have been set in Europe and Latin America, including his first novel written in Spanish, “La Muerte de Papi” (2014). Payne recently finished a novel about an Irish serial killer in 1840s London, and he is working on a book of poetry about people’s complex relationships with technology.

Payne said he keeps returning to Kentucky in fiction not because of nostalgia but for the state’s rich storytelling possibilities.

“It really ripens in your imagination,” Payne said. “You kind of have an objective distance where you see it in your mind’s eye, and half of it you invent. It’s this quest of always finding a new Lexington and new Kentucky.”

Wendell Berry: Is anyone listening to Kentucky writers’ warnings?

January 31, 2015

150128KyWriters0027After being the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, Wendell Berry, right, talked with Julie Wrinn, director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. At left is writer Jason Howard,  editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly. Behind them, writer Bianca Spriggs. Photo by Tom Eblen


Elizabeth Hardwick was the eighth of 11 children born to a Lexington plumbing contractor and his wife. She grew up in a modest home on Rand Avenue and graduated from Henry Clay High School and the University of Kentucky.

From this ordinary Kentucky childhood, she went on to become a leading East Coast intellectual: an award-winning critic, essayist, novelist and founder of The New York Review of Books.

Hardwick earned a lengthy obituary in The New York Times when she died in 2007 at age 91. But if you stopped people on the street in Lexington today, I’ll bet at least nine out of 10 would never have heard of her.

That’s one reason the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning created the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame three years ago.

“This state has so many negative stereotypes that we have to battle every day,” Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen said in remarks at the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony Wednesday. “But the truth is, we have one of the finest and richest literary heritage traditions in the nation.”

Hardwick was one of six inductees at the ceremony, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd that included several acclaimed Kentucky writers likely to be chosen for the Hall of Fame someday.

Four other deceased writers inducted this year were: Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) of Louisville, who created “gonzo” journalism; Guy Davenport (1927-2005) of Lexington, a UK professor and MacArthur “genius” grant winner; Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), a black poet from Pike County whose work filled three books and was published in Harper’s Weekly magazine; and Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996), who taught at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.

They joined 13 other writers of the past inducted during the Hall of Fame’s first two years, including Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Merton, Jesse Stuart and James Still.

Most of the crowd Wednesday was there to honor Wendell Berry, the first living inductee. Berry, 80, of Henry County, has written more than 50 books of poetry, fiction and polemics. In the process, he has become an international icon in the land conservation and sustainable agriculture movements.

Luallen, who was appointed lieutenant governor two months ago after Jerry Abramson took a White House job, was probably a better representative of state government at this ceremony than Gov. Steve Beshear would have been.

Berry joined protesters who camped outside Beshear’s office in 2011 to protest state government collusion in the coal industry’s destruction of Kentucky’s mountains and streams. (Not that Beshear is unique; Kentucky’s governor and General Assembly have long been wholly owned subsidiaries of the coal industry.)

Luallen’s comments echoed the sentiments of many Kentuckians.

“When there are moments of darkness felt by those of us who cherish this land, a light has shown through that darkness, and the light has been the words of Wendell Berry,” she said. “Inspiring us, rekindling our spirit and reminding us of what we have lost as a people and what, without careful judgment and good reason, we have yet to lose.”

But in his acceptance speech, Berry gave a glum assessment of Kentucky writers’ consequence.

The state is “gravely and lastingly fragmented by divisions that are economic, social, cultural and institutional,” he said. “These divisions have given us a burdening history of abuse — of land abuse but also and inevitably of the abuse of people, for people and land cannot be destroyed or conserved except together.”

Berry complained that many good books by Kentucky writers critiquing the state’s problems have not received the media attention or sparked the public debate and policy changes he thinks they should have.

“This public silence ought to be a worry, especially to writers,” he said. “What is the effect or fate, Kentucky writers may ask, of Kentucky books devoted to urgent public issues — ‘Night Comes to the Cumberlands’ or ‘Lost Mountain’ or ‘Missing Mountains’ or ‘The Embattled Wilderness’?”

Afterward, Luallen said she thinks Berry underestimates those books’ impact. Without them, she said, things would be worse.

Berry’s speech gave a healthy edge to the evening’s celebrations. That was good, because another of the Carnegie Center’s goals for the Hall of Fame is to elevate the visibility and influence of writers in Kentucky’s public life.

Wendell Berry and his fellow writers are the conscience of Kentucky, not beholden to money or power. If we refuse to listen to them, we do so at our peril.

Wendell Berry first living inductee in Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame

January 10, 2015

111218WendellBerryTE0032AWendell Berry at home, December 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen


When the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning announced plans in July to select the first living member of its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, I wrote that the process should be a search for Wendell Berry.

Kentucky has many fine writers working today, but none can match the range, craftsmanship and international acclaim of Berry, 80, who writes and farms in Henry County, where his family has lived for five generations.

So the Carnegie Center’s announcement this week should come as no surprise. Berry will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 along with five deceased writers, who will be identified that night.

The ceremony at the Carnegie Center, 251 West Second Street, is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Kentucky Educational Television plans to live-stream the event on

“To be recognized in that way at home is a very pleasing thing,” Berry said when I talked with him by phone last week. “And a relieving thing, actually.”

The Carnegie Center, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy education, reading and writing, created the Hall of Fame three years ago to draw attention to Kentucky’s rich literary legacy.

In its first two years, 13 deceased writers were honored: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

hall-of-fame-logo-final-300x165Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center, said about 200 members of the public nominated more than 75 writers for the honor this year, including about 25 living writers. A short list was sent to a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council, which made the selections along with the Carnegie Center staff.

“Everybody pretty much said, ‘It’s going to be Wendell, right?'” Chethik said. “His command of all three major areas of writing — fiction, non-fiction and poetry — and his influence statewide and internationally brought us to him.”

Chethik said future classes of inductees may include a living writer, but not always. The criteria for all nominations is that a writer must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a strong tie to the state; and must have produced writing of “enduring stature.”

All of which makes Berry a natural for the honor. The former University of Kentucky English professor has written more than 60 volumes: novels, poetry, short-story collections and essays. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he received the National Humanities Medal in 2010 and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The major theme of Berry’s work is that people should live and work in harmony with the land and their community. “He is so rooted in Kentucky,” Chethik said. “He speaks for a lot of Kentuckians.”

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Berry’s 1971 book, The Unforeseen Wilderness helped rally public opposition to a plan to flood Red River Gorge. His 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, is a bible of the international movements for sustainable agriculture and locally produced food.

Over the years, Berry has participated in protests against nuclear power and coal strip-mining. He was among a group of environmental activists who camped in Gov. Steve Beshear’s outer office in 2011 to protest state government support for the coal industry’s destruction of Eastern Kentucky mountains.

A year earlier, Berry cut his ties to UK and withdrew his papers to protest the university’s renaming of the basketball team residence hall Wildcat Coal Lodge in exchange for $7 million in donations from coal executives.

“The actual influence of writers in Kentucky is in doubt,” Berry said when I asked about his activism, and whether he thought it would ever sway public policy.

“As far as the future is concerned, I don’t sit around and think about the future in regard to what I’ve done,” he said. “It seems to me to be a distraction from the things I ought to be doing.”

Berry said he has been busy writing poetry and working on several long-term projects. He also is writing a short speech for his Hall of Fame ceremony about “Kentucky writing and what it means to be a Kentucky writer.”

“Kentucky writers over the years have given us a kind of record of life in this state, what it has been like to live in it,” he said. “Sometimes they have given us very important testimony about things that were wrong.

“They have been an extremely diverse set of people, and I think the quality of their work has been remarkable,” he added. “I don’t think there’s any worry about it continuing.”

Carnegie Center asks: Who is Kentucky’s greatest living writer?

July 5, 2014

WendellBerryThe Carnegie Center is asking for nominations of Kentucky’s greatest living writer for its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. My nomination is Wendell Berry, shown here at his Henry County home in December 2011.  Whom would you choose?  Photo by Tom Eblen


The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has a new message as it seeks public nominations for its third class of inductees into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame: We’re not just for dead folks anymore.

In January, the center plans to add four more Kentucky writers who are no longer living to the 13 already in the Hall of Fame, plus its first living writer. So here is the question: Who is Kentucky’s greatest living writer?

“We are ready to show that great Kentucky writing is being created now,” said Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center’s director. “It just doesn’t exist in the past.”

halloffamelogoThe criteria for all nominations is that a writer, living or dead, must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a significant connection to the state; and must have produced writing of “enduring stature.”

Since he became director in 2011, Chethik has expanded the Carnegie Center’s mission of promoting literacy education, reading and writing to celebrating Kentucky’s literary heritage. One way has been by creating the Hall of Fame.

“People like lists,” he said. “They like awards.”

Nominations to the Hall of Fame are vetted by the Carnegie Center staff and inductees are chosen by a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council.

The first 13 inductees have reflected a diverse group of great writers spanning two centuries: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

“People have a lot of passion about who gets named to the Hall of Fame,” Chethik said. “We’ve even had some protests.”

For example, fans of two popular novelists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, James Lane Allen and John Fox Jr., have lobbied for their inclusion. So have fans of the late “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

They and others will be considered in the future, Chethik said, along with perhaps one living writer each year.

“I think we’ve got five-to-10 who are truly great writers working right now who are nationally known,” he said. “You can start making a list, but as soon as you start … well, I’ll leave it to you and others to make the list.”

I can think of several Kentucky writers who have produced impressive bodies of work over several decades, including Barbara Kingsolver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Sena Jeter Naslund, Nikky Finney, Gurney Norman and Gloria Jean Watkins, whose pen name is bell hooks.

Kim Edwards of Lexington has won many awards for her short stories and best-selling novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Louisville native Sue Grafton has attracted a national following with her detective novels.

There are many fine up-and-coming Kentucky writers, such as Frank X. Walker, Silas House, C.E. Morgan, Erik Reece, Crystal Wilkinson, Maurice Manning and Bianca Spriggs.

You probably can think of others worthy of consideration, too. But for me, this competition comes down to a search for Wendell Berry. No other Kentucky writer can match the quality, breadth and impact of his work over the past half-century.

Berry, who turns 80 on Aug. 5, has written dozens of novels, poems, short stories and influential essays and non-fiction books. A fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he won the National Humanities Medal and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The Henry County native and resident is revered internationally for elegant, no-nonsense writing that helped inspire the environmental, local food and sustainable agriculture movements.

Berry’s 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, has become a classic. The Unforeseen Wilderness in 1971 helped rally public opposition to flooding the Red River Gorge. In recent years, he has been an eloquent voice against destructive strip-mining practices in Appalachia.

That’s my nomination for Kentucky’s greatest living writer. What’s yours? Email your suggestion, plus your reasoning and any supporting material, before July 15 to Chethik at:

“We figure that when you’re arguing about who the best writers are, you’re in the right conversation,” Chethik said. “We want to spark conversations that will get more people to read more.”

William Wells Brown bio will reveal he wasn’t born in Lexington

February 19, 2013

“I was born in Lexington, Ky.”

That is the first sentence of the first chapter of the first manuscript published by William Wells Brown, the first and most prolific black writer published in the 19th century. And it appears to be wrong.

Rather than being born in Lexington — as Brown might have believed when he wrote the 1847 narrative of his life in and escape from slavery — he was born on a Montgomery County farm near Mount Sterling.

That is one of several discoveries Ezra Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas, has made as he has researched and written the first comprehensive biography of Brown.

Greenspan is now finishing the book, which he said W.W. Norton & Co. will publish in 2014. Also next year, The Library of America will publish the second volume of Brown’s writings that Greenspan has edited. William Wells Brown: A Reader was published by The University of Georgia Press in 2008.

“He is one of the great lives in American history,” Greenspan said of Brown. “He is being recognized now, and it’s long overdue, as being the leading force in 19th-century African-American culture.”

After escaping from slavery in 1834, Brown helped other fugitive slaves get to Canada. He taught himself to read and write, became a leading anti-slavery speaker and then launched into an impressive literary career.

Brown wrote the first published black novel, play, travelogue and song book. He wrote three major volumes of black history, including the first examining black service in the Civil War. He later traveled widely to advocate for temperance, education and social improvement of the black community.

Brown’s most famous book was his novel, Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter, which created a sensation when published in London in 1853. The title character is the daughter of a slave and President Thomas Jefferson. The book’s inspiration was the rumors that had long swirled about Jefferson’s now-proven relationship with his mixed-race slave, Sally Hemings.

Greenspan’s research included visiting places across America and Britain where Brown lived and worked. He came to Lexington last fall looking for evidence of Brown’s birth and owner, physician John Young. He found none.

Then, in an old copy of the Kentucky Gazette, he found a notice Young had placed telling of a smallpox epidemic in Mount Sterling. So he went to search Montgomery County court records “and Dr. John Young was all over the place.”

Greenspan also found records about the man Brown identified in his 1847 narrative as his biological father, Young’s cousin George W. Higgins, who married soon afterward and moved to Alabama.

Brown left Kentucky about age 3, when Young moved West to Missouri, settling on a large farm 60 miles west of St. Louis.

Greenspan found a lot of information about the white side of Brown’s family, but his slave ancestry remains sketchy — both in where his mother’s people came from and where they ended up. Brown’s beloved sister was sold South as a teenager, likely as part of the sex trade. His mother also was sold South, after a 17-year-old Brown persuaded her to make an unsuccessful escape attempt with him.

“Brown certainly had a sense of himself as a Kentuckian, even though the connections were loose,” Greenspan said.

He said his book would add a lot of information to what has been known about Brown and his work. But many aspects of Brown’s tumultuous private life, which included two wives and several daughters, will remain a mystery. Brown died in 1884 in Chelsea, Mass.

“Even though Brown was the most prolific black writer of the century, there are no private letters that have survived of Brown and his own family,” he said. “But the family was explosive.”

For Brown to rise from slavery, educate himself and accomplish so much is truly remarkable, Greenspan said.

“He was a person of extraordinary intelligence and perception,” he said. “Basically, it’s a story of native qualities and astounding life experience.”

Because next year will be the bicentennial of Brown’s birth, Greenspan hopes states and cities where he lived will organize commemorations. He hopes to return to speak next year in Lexington, where last fall he happened upon the new William Wells Brown Elementary School in the East End.

“I was so impressed by the way they set up the community center and the school together,” he said. “It’s exactly in the mold of Brown’s reform activities: education and community reform go hand-in-hand.”

Neil Chethik writes new chapter at Carnegie Center

September 4, 2011

Neil Chethik had been a newspaper reporter and a syndicated columnist, but he dreamed of writing a book. He knew he needed some help, so he went to the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

The first person Chethik met when he walked in the front door was Jan Isenhour.

“She was so welcoming!” he said. “I hope I can continue to project that for the Carnegie Center.”

On Tuesday, Chethik succeeds Isenhour as executive director, a post she has held since 1998. She is retiring after 19 years at the center to focus on her own writing, including her first novel.

Since coming in for help that day 14 years ago, Chethik, 54, has been a constant presence at the Carnegie Center. He joined the non-fiction creative writing group, and after finishing his first book, FatherLoss, he started leading it. He has been the center’s part-time writer-in-residence for six years and chairman of the fund-raising committee for five.

“Having worked with Jan for so many years, I have a trust in the direction we’re going,” he said. “We have an extremely firm foundation, and we are ready to launch from that foundation.”

Chethik plans to continue the center’s adult writing and language workshops, and literacy and arts engagement programs for youth, adults and families. Among other things, the center provides free individual tutoring after school for 140 children, many of whom are from low-income families.

He also envisions the center playing a bigger role in developing Kentucky’s great writers of the future. “There’s something about Kentucky that has always produced great literature,” he said. “Part of what I want to do is understand that and help drive it.”

The Carnegie Center is named for its 106-year-old building in Gratz Park, which was one of more than 2,500 public libraries that industrialist Andrew Carnegie funded around the world from 1883 to 1929. After Lexington’s main library moved to a new and bigger building on Main Street in 1989, the building was renovated and reopened as the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in 1992.

Chethik had moved to Lexington a year earlier when his wife, Kelly Flood, became minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church. (She is now an educational fund-raiser and, since 2009, a state representative. Their son, Evan, is a senior at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Lafayette High School.)

Chethik, a native of Ann Arbor, Mich., spent a dozen years as a newspaper reporter in Tallahassee, Fla., and San Jose, Calif. When he moved to Kentucky, he wanted to focus on his own writing projects.

He wrote a syndicated newspaper column about men’s issues for several years, then he started thinking about his first book, which grew out of his and his father’s experiences after the death of his grandfather. The 2001 book FatherLoss was recently adapted into a PBS documentary. His second book, VoiceMale, was published by Simon & Shuster in 2006.

In addition to practical advice about writing and publishing, Chethik said, his instructors and fellow students at the Carnegie Center provided a supportive community.

“For writers, it can be a lonely existence because we have to be alone when we’re writing,” he said. “Having a community of writers breaks that isolation and helps give us perspective.”

The Carnegie Center has become a magnet for many of Kentucky’s best-known writers, who teach, take classes and participate in readings and conferences. Chethik hopes to expand that community by involving more writers, would-be writers, professors, publishers and booksellers.

Chethik says he thinks the Carnegie Center should become a sort of capitol for literary arts in Kentucky, a state that has always seemed to have more than its share of great writers.

Think about it: Kentucky produced the first African-American novelist (William Wells Brown), the writer of the first American novel to sell a million copies (John Fox Jr.), the first writer to win Pulitzer prizes in more than one literary genre (Robert Penn Warren) and one of the pioneers of “new” journalism (Hunter S. Thompson).

The list of great Kentucky writers is long: James Lane Allen, Jesse Stuart, James Still, Harriette Arnow, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Hardwick, Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan, Bobbie Ann Mason, Sue Grafton, Richard Taylor, Barbara Kingsolver and many more. “And now we have this whole new crop of writers, such as Frank Walker, Erik Reece and C.E. Morgan,” Chethik said.

The Carnegie Center recently received a grant from the Lucille Caudill Little Foundation to have its first “books in progress” conference, in the spring. Among its goals, Chethik said, is to bring New York publishers to Kentucky “so they can see what we have and publish more of us.”

As a transplant, Chethik said, he marvels not only at Kentucky’s literary tradition but at how it keeps reinventing itself with such groups as the Affrilachian Poets and Holler Poets.

“There’s something about Kentucky,” he said. “There’s incredible natural beauty, a fascinating history and a sort of conflict about who we are. There are people all over Kentucky writing about who we are, and I think the Carnegie Center can be a home for them.”

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‘Captain Kentucky’ is back with two new books

May 31, 2011

After lying low for a few years, Captain Kentucky is back, resuming his epic quest to make the world safe for quirky characters and good storytelling.

Lexington author Ed McClanahan this week publishes a collection of stories from a creative writing class he taught at the University of Kentucky. And, in October, he will mark his 79th birthday with the publication of I Just Hitched In From the Coast: The Ed McClanahan Reader (Counterpoint, $18.95).

McClanahan might be known best for his 1983 novel, The Natural Man, the hilarious story of a teenage boy’s coming of age in 1950s small-town Kentucky. But McClanahan also is famous for the company he kept during the 1960s and 1970s.

Known by his hippie moniker Captain Kentucky, McClanahan was one of author Ken Kesey’s band of “merry pranksters.” Their psychedelic drug-induced shenanigans were chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his landmark “new journalism” story, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

McClanahan first attracted attention as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in 1962, which put him in California just as the counter-culture scene was blooming. He has published nine previous books and many magazine stories. In 1974, Playboy published his profile of Lexington music legend Carlos Toadvine, aka Little Enis, the left-handed, backwards, upside-down guitar player.

McClanahan’s long hair turned white years ago, but he has lost little of his zeal. That was clear as we chatted in his home office, which is stuffed with memorabilia from a colorful life enthusiastically lived.

McClanahan said he had tired of teaching after a long academic career at Oregon State, Stanford, the University of Montana, Northern Kentucky and UK. But he returned to UK to teach a creative writing class in fall 2009 after a two-decade absence.

Once he got to know his eclectic class of 13 students, McClanahan decided they should write and edit a book. The result is Horsefeathers: Stories From Room 241 (Wind Publications, $15), with a cover illustration by Lexington artist John Lackey.

McClanahan had been intrigued by the concept of writers editing one another’s work since he helped publish a California literary magazine four decades ago. “Our editorial policy then was that we never turned anything down,” he said. “We did have someone send in a 400-page novel that was awful. We managed to lose it.”

The writing students who contributed to Horsefeathers included a UK management professor and a 69-year-old woman “who wrote the raciest story in the book.” Class member Scotty Adkins, an English graduate student, helped organize the project.

Class discussions often continued over dinner, with McClanahan entertaining everyone with his tales about hanging out with writers such as Kesey, Hunter Thompson and Truman Capote. “Ed doesn’t have a snooty bone in his body,” Adkins said. “He takes the craft seriously, but he doesn’t take himself seriously.”

Readers can have their own McClanahan experience this fall. His new anthology includes 14 new and previously published pieces of fiction, non-fiction and stories that fall somewhere in between.

I Just Hitched In From the Coast includes the 2002 story, Fondelle, Or: The Whore with a Heart of Gold. It was inspired by an incident that happened to McClanahan during his first big adventure, hitchhiking back to Kentucky in 1954 from a summer of working on road crews in California’s Yosemite National Park.

McClanahan said a preacher had just left him in a swamp near Beaumont, Texas, when he was picked up by a one-armed asphalt salesman. The salesman was driving a new car he had bought for the prostitute he was taking to New Orleans to marry. McClanahan was quickly recruited to be the best man.

The wedding plans fell apart, and McClanahan, hung over from heavy drinking on Bourbon Street, decided a Greyhound bus would be an easier way to get home. Still, he had the presence of mind to have the bus driver drop him off just short of Maysville so he could thumb a ride for the last few miles.

The strategy paid off when a high school buddy witnessed his triumphal return. “Where you been?” the friend asked, giving McClanahan the opportunity to reply with all the sophistication a 22-year-old could muster: “I just hitched in from the coast.”

Today’s centennial of a great Southern writer

November 27, 2009

James Agee was born 100 years ago today, Nov. 27, 1909. He died only 44 years later, from a heart attack in a taxi while on the way to see his cardiologist.

You don’t hear much about Agee anymore, although you occasionally see one of the classic black-and-white portraits of him by Walker Evans (top) and Florence Homolka. He stares at the camera with piercing eyes and a shock of dark hair, looking a lot like another tortured soul of the era, actor James Dean.

The Knoxville-born writer didn’t live long, but he left behind an impressive body of work.

Agee is best known for two books: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in which he and Evans documented the lives of sharecropping families in Alabama in the 1930s; and A Death in the Family, a barely fictionalized novel about his father’s death in a car wreck when Agee was 6 years old. Published after Agee’s death, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1958.

As a prologue to the novel, the publisher included Agee’s 1935 prose poem, Knoxville: Summer 1915, a lyrical reflection on childhood innocence that begins like this: We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child. Samuel Barber set the piece to music in 1947 in a work of the same name for orchestra and soprano.

Agee also did a lot that most people have forgotten. He wrote articles for Time and Fortune magazines, the best of which Paul Ashdown collected in the 1985 book, James Agee: Selected Journalism.  Agee’s pieces included Time’s August 1945 cover story on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Agee was a pioneering film critic for Time and The Nation. His work was collected in Agee on Film, which film students still study. He wrote screenplays for two signature films of the 1950s, The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. The African Queen, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, earned Agee an Oscar nomination. He even tried his hand at acting and filmmaking.

I discovered Agee in the 1980s, when I was living in Knoxville and working as The Associated Press correspondent and, later, as a regional writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Agee’s descriptive writing is so vivid that he makes you feel as if you are there with him.

Although Agee left Knoxville as a teenager, he could never seem to get the place out of his head.

Knoxville: Summer 1915 and A Death in the Family are set in Knoxville’s Fort Sanders neighborhood, where Agee spent his childhood. The Agees’ modest Victorian home was torn down in 1962 after filming of All the Way Home, Tad Mosel’s play based on the novel, was finished there. The house was replaced by an apartment house for students at the nearby University of Tennessee. In the way Lexington subdivisions have sometimes been named for the horse farms they displaced, it was called the James Agee Apartments.

After Knoxville was made over by urban renewal, prosperity and the 1982 World’s Fair, it was becoming hard to find evidence of the sooty, gritty city of Agee’s youth. There were still a few places he would have recognized, such as the L&N train station with stained-glass windows that Agee described in A Death in the Family as “smoldering like an exhausted butterfly.”

A Death in the Family was Agee’s attempt to exorcise the childhood tragedy from which he never recovered. That car wreck shaped Agee’s life and work and gave Knoxville its most significant literary moment.

One day, out of curiosity, I drove to the northern edge of Knoxville, to Greenwood Cemetery, and searched for the grave of Agee’s father. It wasn’t easy to find, and the granite marker had been pushed askew by the roots of a large maple tree.

When I lived in Knoxville more than 20 years ago, nobody paid much attention to James Agee. That has changed, though. The city just finished four weekends of multimedia presentations, seminars and speakers marking the centennial of his birth. For anyone who appreciates good writing, his work still shines.

Appalachian writers find family, home at Hindman

July 30, 2009

HINDMAN — This is the season for family reunions in Appalachia, when people come home to celebrate kinship, community and the mountain culture that shaped their lives.

There’s a big reunion in Knott County this week. Many of the 100 people there have been attending for years, if not decades. Few are related by blood, but they’re family just the same, bound together by Appalachia’s storytelling tradition and the magic of words.

Ask participants at the 32nd Appalachian Writers Workshop what it’s like, and they use the word “family” a lot. They come for inspiration and advice on the craft from some of the best writers these mountains have produced.

The workshop was started by two Knott County writers, novelist and folklorist James Still, and poet Albert Stewart. Others associated with the annual gathering have included poet Jim Wayne Miller and novelists Wilma Dykeman and Harriette Arnow, author of the 1954 classic The Dollmaker.

“It’s a central part of my year that I never want to miss,” said novelist Silas House, who was a participant from 1996 to 2001 and has been on staff ever since.

Participants apply and submit writing samples in May. There are always more applicants than spaces; the 102-year-old Hindman Settlement School’s cabins can hold only so many people.

Each morning, participants gather in small groups according to interest: poetry, novels, short stories, nonfiction, memoir and children’s literature.

When I visited the workshop Tuesday, poet and writer George Ella Lyon was in one room talking about the challenges of publishing books for children. In another room, novelist Karen McElmurray discussed using memoir to explore universal themes. In another, novelists Ann Pancake and Laura Benedict explained storytelling techniques.

Afternoons are for group readings and individual coaching from the staff of published writers. Everyone eats together, then washes dishes. There’s writing time throughout the day, and bull sessions late into the night.

“It’s an intense week,” said journalist Jason Howard, who is here for a fifth year. “There’s a great sense of family, and a lot of spiritual detective work going on.”

Mike Mullins helped start the workshop in 1978, soon after he became director of the historic settlement school that now provides literacy and cultural enrichment programs. He marvels at the workshop’s success.

“I think there’s always a crying need for all of us to express ourselves, to tell our story, or a story we’ve made up,” said Mullins.

A few of this year’s participants are college students, but most are much older — academics and blue-collar workers, business people, housewives and retirees. Some are beginners; others have published several books.

Mountain life has always been a popular subject in Appalachian literature. But many now write about the mountains themselves and what has been happening to them over the past half-century. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been leveled by mountaintop-removal coal mining or scarred by strip-miners.

“What we do to the land, we do to the people,” said Don Askins of Clintwood, Va., whose poetry focuses on the coal industry’s environmental destruction.

House and Howard, who both come from coal-mining families, recently wrote the book Something’s Rising about opposition to mountaintop-removal within the region. Howard also edited a collection of essays, poems and songs called We All Live Downstream.

Many writers here are women who have raised families or had careers. “They come with this full lifetime of experience and a passion to write about it,” McElmurray said.

Benedict first came to the workshop 20 years ago. “I had only been writing for a year or so and I was looking for a cheap vacation,” she said. What she found was a calling – and a husband, Pinckney Benedict, who was on the workshop staff. “We didn’t start dating until after the conference, but I gather we scandalized a few people,” she said with a smile.

The Benedicts were back this week as staff members. He is a novelist and short story writer who teaches at the University of Southern Illinois and at writing workshops across the country. She recently published her second novel.

“There’s a sense of community, a spirit of cooperation here,” she said. “They read a lot, and they all take their work very seriously.”

But unlike some other workshops, Benedict and McElmurray said, the writers here don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s no “staff table” at meals, no caste system based on publishing success.

But Benedict has discovered one advantage to being on staff: “I don’t have to do dishes.”

Click on each photo to enlarge.