WALTER readers gathered at Whitaker & Atlantic March 25 for an afternoon of inspiration and humor with North Carolina writer Allan Gurganus. The Rocky Mount native is a New York Times bestselling author, most notably for the novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. His essays and stories have won the National Magazine Prize and been honored in Best American Stories; and his next novel will publish next year.
Over arugula-endive salad and prosciutto-and-steak tartines, Gurganus engaged the audience with stories and wisdom from his experiences – as a North Carolinian as well as an esteemed writer. Most of his writing is set in the fictional city of Falls, North Carolina, which Gurganus noted shares traits and elements with many towns in his home state. “Some say you can’t go home again, but I say you can’t get far away from it.” He spoke of his Rocky Mount upbringing with high regard, from his public education, which he credits with preparing him for the Ivy League, to the small-town Southern church culture, which he credits as inspiration for many of his novel topics.
Gurganus originally studied painting in college before ultimately settling on creative writing. He lent sage advice to aspiring writers: Unplug, even in this day and age, and sit down to write. Period. “Give yourself away to the luxury of imagination. … Reading and writing are like inhaling and exhaling.”
Following dessert, guests received the real treat: an exclusive reading from Gurganus’s in-progress novel, The Erotic History of a Country Baptist Church, set to publish in 2019. The novel encompasses centuries in the life of an imaginary small-town church, taking a close look at congregation dynamics, its relationship with the larger town community, and well-meaning piousness. “Everybody who writes fiction is writing about ethics. … I want to explore how we can be enlarged by something while understanding how pathetic it can be at the same time.” Gurganus said he’s worked on this book for decades, and that it might be his “best yet.” The audience, rapt (and laughing for much of the time), chimed in with questions at the end, and then queued to purchase books and have beloved copies signed by the author. Many lingered to chat long after the event concluded, having known Gurganus for years or wanting to share a connection to his work. “The luckiest thing in the world is to to feel lucky,” the author said.