WALTER’s Book Club with Allan Gurganus
by Jessie Ammons
photographs by Jeremy Lange
The writer Allan Gurganus recently revisited essays he’d authored in the ’70s, two articles from his time at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop that were published in The Atlantic. This was a treat, as Gurganus had lost his scans of the pieces, and they’re both pre-online archives, so a former student went to the Library of Congress to dig them up. Gurganus says they were a pleasure both to receive and to reflect on. “I was greedy with language, so eager to please – but they were good. If a student turned that in to me today, I think I’d be ecstatic. It’s the kind of thing you can say when you’re 70.”
When you’re 70, sure, and also when your repertoire includes five novels and dozens of essays, most of them award-winning (and those are just the published ones); when it includes faculty positions at Stanford, Duke, and Sarah Lawrence, and time spent teaching at the Michener Center at the University of Texas-Austin and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But Gurganus is ever a student and a teacher, an observer and a participant. Revisiting his own decades-old work was timely, Gurganus says, because he’s neck-deep in writing his next novel, set to publish in 2019.
Gurganus will take a break to discuss his career and his upcoming novel with Walter readers at a book club event March 25. The lunch at Whitaker & Atlantic is sure to be lively and candid, as the new book is entitled The Erotic History of a Country Baptist Church.
History has been a longtime “back-burner” project, Gurganus says, the one he plugs away at and sets aside, then returns to before setting aside again. The book is set in Falls, North Carolina, a fictional small town featured in Gurganus novels, and follows one small-town baptist church from inception to modern-day. If the title is any suggestion, the perspective is bound to be sardonic. It is inspired by regional history, but, its author insists, fictional. “Nothing is entirely imagined, and nothing is entirely true.”
An imaginative sensibility has guided much of Gurganus’s work. The Rocky Mount, North Carolina native went to college to study painting before serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Books kept him company on navy ships. So when he returned home he took to studying and then teaching creative writing, instead. His first novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, was published in 1989; it was on The New York Times Best Sellers list for eight months, won the Sue Kaufman Prize from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was adapted into both a made-for-TV play and a one-woman Broadway show. The novel remains arguably Gurganus’s best-known title. His subsequent novels and articles – typically lyrical, Southern, dark, witty, folkloric – have certainly not lost any momentum.
Nor has his pace slowed. Since the early ’90s, soon after Oldest Living was published, Gurganus has lived in Hillsborough, North Carolina. He writes from 6:30 or 7 a.m. until 3 p.m., six days a week. Prior to Walter’s Book Club, Gurganus will retreat to Yaddo, a creative community in Saratoga Springs, New York. He hopes to join us creatively refreshed, and we’ll all settle in for an afternoon of dialogue and storytelling. “I should have some characteristic pages of the new novel to read aloud,” Gurganus says, “Coming attractions.”
Tickets are $75 each and include a three-course lunch with wine pairings. A selection of Gurganus’s books will be available for purchase and to be signed by the author. To learn more about Allan: allangurganus.com