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Bobbie Ann Mason
A Conversation

This interview with Bobbie Ann Mason was conducted by KET’s Guy Mendes, producer/director of Living by Words, on November 19, 2001.

Guy | Let’s start with how you felt about going off to college, to UK.

Bobbie Ann | Oh, I was desperate to go to college. I loved the whole idea. I loved being away from home and being in a big place with lots of people. I was drawn to that, and I was drawn to the idea that you could study all kinds of subjects. And I would read the catalog of courses and just dream about studying all the subjects. I hadn’t been exposed to French, for example. I was dying to take French. Or psychology. It sounded so mysterious to me.

Guy | When did you first begin to think about being a writer? Did you know in high school?

Bobbie Ann | Well, high school wasn’t an encouraging place for writing for me. My teacher wanted me to major in math, so I very dutifully came to UK and signed up as a math major. And I took algebra and trig and calculus the first year. And calculus lost me about halfway through, and meanwhile I discovered the school newspaper. And writing for the school newspaper was so exciting, and that’s what I wanted to do. And also, in freshman English I discovered literature, which I hadn’t done in high school. I had a wonderful professor, Professor Sheldon Gradstein, who did contemporary works in his freshman comp class. And so I was introduced to The Catcher in the Rye, which kids nowadays read when they’re 10 or something. And we read Hemingway and Steinbeck and any number of contemporary writers who opened up a whole world of literature to me.

Guy | I know you wrote for the Kernel [campus newspaper]—how did that come about?

Bobbie Ann | I was inspired to write for the Kernel, to write an op-ed column, because I had so much admired the humor columns of Gurney Norman and Hap Caywood, who were brilliant humorists on the UK Kernel, and that’s what I wanted to do. And so my sophomore year, I started writing little pieces for the Kernel. I think it was either sophomore or junior year that I got a regular column, and I just played around with words and ideas and had fun ... It didn’t have a name; it just got a headline, different things.

Guy | Do you recall any columns in particular?

Bobbie Ann | Oh, I have my UK stringbook with my Kernel columns. I saw myself as a writer, and I wasn’t very good at reporting. I took a lot of journalism courses, but I remember going to report on the law school, and it was totally out of my element. I couldn’t comprehend the law school. I was more interested in things that were funny and making sense out of things in world events.

I was very notorious on campus. I don’t know ... At that age you’re pretty proud of yourself for getting your name in the paper. And so I was in the paper quite a lot, and I was always trying to do something outrageous. I don’t remember anything really outrageous. But I wasn’t in a sorority, and being a country girl and having no background that would really introduce me to the world of the Greeks, I really didn’t know what they were about. They were cliques, and they were separate from the kind of people I’d always known. So I remember writing a column, a dismissive humor column about the Greeks that made everybody mad. I knew plenty of people who were Greeks, and they were friends, but the kind of world they moved in was something alien to me. And so I didn’t know that when you graduate from college you can use these little connections to get a job or go on to the next phase of your education, and I didn’t have those references and people to call on.

Guy | Let’s move on to the creative writing classes you took and Robert Hazel.

Bobbie Ann | When I was a sophomore, or junior probably, I took creative writing classes from Robert Hazel and realized that I wanted to write fiction. Robert Hazel was this personality that drew people toward him—people who wanted to say something, make a statement, and be an artist or whatever. He made being an artist or a writer sound glamorous and important. It was like, if you’re a writer, then you can be set aside from everybody else but yet not feel left out because you have your own little world. And as a writer ... Well, it was an identity I was seeking, and it seemed to suit the requirements I had. And the Bohemian appeal was very strong. He had a whole background in being a writer in Greenwich Village, and so that’s what I wanted to do. And he came on so ... in such an appealing way. It was seductive is what I’m trying to say. He seduced people into that world, and he gathered quite a few young writers who took that aim seriously—not necessarily to be a Bohemian in the Village, but really to be a writer, to write literature. And he opened up that possibility, and so I took two classes from him.

I think throughout his career, young writers gravitated toward him, and he fostered that sense of identity. And I don’t know how to explain it in terms of these five writers. I know that with Gurney [Norman] and Ed [McClanahan] and Wendell [Berry] and Jim [Hall], it was like a boys’ club, and he would have them over and read their manuscripts and so on. But with me it was more distancing. I was in awe of him, and he had a different idea of women and didn’t want to treat the young women in his class quite the same way. He looked at women writers a bit differently, to put it simply, and didn’t [give] the same kind of encouragement and feedback. So it was a little intimidating. But at the same time, you had the feeling he was in a world where he wanted to be. Robert Hazel was an extremely flirtatious personality, so he did have an eye for the women in his classes. So it was kind of hard to deal with that, but most of my thoughts about it are in retrospect. At the time it was just odd.

Guy | Can you tell me something about Hazel’s classes? Their format ...

Bobbie Ann | I think we read short stories. We read a book of Flannery O’Connor; we read an anthology; we read some other contemporary short-story writers that maybe we wouldn’t read so much today. And then we would focus on our own work, like a workshop. But I don’t remember, really, how it went. It wasn’t heavy criticism. I think I learned a lot from the reading and just from his ... It’s not a thing that would work today, his manner. But he would drop names, and he would talk as if he were really chummy with some of these well-known writers, which he wasn’t. But he would refer to Bill Styron, or Phil Roth, as if he knew them really well. And he didn’t know them, I don’t think, but he impressed that upon us and made us think that there was something glamorous about it. But at the same time, there was something serious about writing, too, and I think deep down we all got that, and it wasn’t a superficial thing. He had his problems with it. Maybe he was superficial about some of those values, but deep down he was a serious artist, and I think we picked up on that. David Polk was a student of Bob Hazel’s, and he’s a poet and friend of mine.

I probably didn’t write over a handful of short stories in college. And one of them from Bob Hazel’s class was published in the literary magazine, Stylus. Stylus was the arts and literary magazine, and it was the art students and the writing students and some things by the professors, I think. Lovely little magazine. It’s my first publication of fiction.

Guy | Can you tell me how you met the other four writers and what your relationship with them was over the years?

Bobbie Ann | I first met Gurney at the Kernel, and my memory is that it was either the spring of ’59 or the fall of ’59, when I had just gotten interested in writing for the Kernel. And he was around there a lot. He was a graduate student, and he had done the yearbook for ’58/59, and so I’d been aware of his columns. So I seem to remember him in his ROTC uniform; but if he was a graduate student, maybe he wasn’t. That probably isn’t a true memory. He was a poor graduate student, and so he would very often eat with people he knew at the student union. I remember that he ate meals with us at the student union a lot when I was a sophomore, I think, and he was a graduate student. And he was funny, and he had many, many friends, and he was somebody you always felt good about. So we’ve been friends since that time.

Jim was a few years ahead of me in school, so I did not know him at UK. I met him and Wendell together later on in New York City, when Wendell had a teaching job there, I think, for a year, and I met him and his family and Jim at that time. It was an arranged meeting, probably by Gurney.

See, I never met Ed. Everybody always thought I knew Ed, and for years people would keep me updated on “Ed”—Ed McClanahan—and what he was doing, stories about him. [But] I don’t think I met Ed until the late ’70s, in Kentucky, probably.

Gurney and I exchanged long letters for years and years and years. He had summer jobs on a fire tower out in Oregon, and he would write ten-page letters. And I’d write ten-page letters. And they were all abstract and full of notions about writing.

Guy | After you graduated from UK, what did you want to do?

Bobbie Ann | My real aim was to write fiction. I got out of school and, having none of those job connections I should have had and knowing that I could not just launch into making a living writing novels or short stories, I went to graduate school so that I could read literature. So I just fell into that and wrote term papers and a dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov. And towards the end of that process, I was starting to think about a novel. Well, in the middle of that, actually, I wrote a novel, and then it was after I got rid of all my graduate school duties that I started slowly to focus on fiction ... in Pennsylvania, after graduating from the University of Connecticut.

Guy | So did you have any contact with Gurney or the other writers during this period? Can you talk more about how you think of this group of writers—not as a school, but as ... what?

Bobbie Ann | Geographically ... Well, I was off on the East Coast, and all those other guys were on the West Coast, and then they drifted back to Kentucky. When I went to the East Coast, they were all on the West Coast. So I developed kind of independently, but there was always a bond, or there developed a bond between me and the others I hadn’t actually known at UK. And now I feel there’s a kinship, this cluster of writers that came out of a certain place and certain kinds of experiences. I don’t think that our writing is necessarily influencing, that there are cross-influences necessarily. But I like the idea that we came out of this one nest, however you describe that. It’s tempting to analyze it, but I guess there’s no way really to do it. It just happened. And that may have had to do with the times that made us think a certain way at that time and to give us the impulse to go out and become writers.

Guy | Let’s end on why you came back to Kentucky and what’s happening now. What’s the relationship between your generation of writers and the new generation coming up?

Bobbie Ann | I think the fact that there was this cluster of writers, this kinship, was in part why I came back to Kentucky. I was drawn back to that. I don’t think it was a school of writers that came out of Bob Hazel. I think it had more to do with inspiration and sense of identity that came out of him. It was encouragement that sent us off into our different paths.

There’s the feeling that ... Well, not to make it sound dismal, but we’re all getting older, and whole new generations are coming along. And I hope the fact that there is this group of writers locally available has some meaning and inspiration. If I could make so much out of just a couple of classes with Bob Hazel, I hope that the fact that we’re all here, these writers around here in some fashion, can mean something to young Kentucky writers who are coming along and want to have a stronger sense of themselves. The fact that this little group of Kentucky writers has survived this long—I hope that that would have some effect and inspiration for younger writers coming along.