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Gurney Norman
A Conversation

This interview with Gurney Norman was conducted by KET’s Guy Mendes, producer/director of Living by Words, on November 28, 2001.

Guy | To begin with, tell me your name and where you’re from.

Gurney | Gurney Norman, and I’m from Hazard, Kentucky.

Guy | When you were growing up, were there books in your household? At my house, there was Reader’s Digest and that was about it.

Gurney | No, we had a lot of books. My mother was a teacher and a professional woman. And my dad was a miner, but a very literate fellow, very intellectual, interested just in things. And so I think of the Bible stories—those stories I remember best of what we read because of the pictures ... they were illustrated, you know, in these Bibles—and newspapers and some magazines.

But I lived mostly, growing up, back and forth between two sets of grandparents. My father’s parents were coal-camp people, and my mother’s parents were hillside farmers. And my grandfather, Musick, on my mother’s side, was an underground miner for 40 years. But he also had a very, very fine mind. And he liked to talk about ancient Egypt’the Pharaohs and the pyramids—and of course, that’s all in the Bible, but it’s also in encyclopedias. I had access to encyclopedias, and I read them. I just browsed in them all the time. Oh yeah, plenty of books and reading material.

Guy | So you were from the Eastern Kentucky mountains, but you weren’t isolated?

Gurney | No, no. I think that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the realities of life in the coalfields and the mountain regions, and that many clichés have developed, mainly through writers and media representations. But this whole idea of being isolated: Undoubtedly, many people were isolated. But, you know, I was born in 1937, and World War I had happened. So the young men had been in the fighting in France. And then the Spanish Civil War was going on exactly when I was born. And so there was a lot of movement, and movement in the mind, interest in other parts of the world.

I remember enjoying so much hanging around with my dad on days off with all his buddies, these miners. And they would all be clean and have on a nice clean shirt, and they were enjoying being out in the sunshine. And their talk was ... It was excellent, it was wonderful. I could listen forever. And the best part about it for me was the humor.

I remember a hundred times, probably, these friends of my dad’s—you know, I was like 4 and 5 and 6 years old—but one of his buddies every now and then would grab the seat of my pants, and he would say, “Well, I can tell you’re going to be a miner by the slack in your pants.” And this was a kind of teasing that was very benign. But I just remember everybody being articulate and very creative with language.

I don’t know that going on to college and university supported that natural beauty of speech. I think the opposite, really, as we’re obliged to learn the standard and formal speech. But I just remember my dad as someone who had an inquiring mind, and he had one year in a business college and I think should have been an accountant or something like that. But, you know, my parents married in the height of the Depression and had three children in four years. And then my dad was on unemployment. The whole thing, his part of it, crashed ... and then, the war came.

Guy | Could you tell me your parents’ names?

Gurney | My father was Howard Norman. And his parents were Gurney W. Norman, and I’m named after him with “V” as the middle initial. And my father’s mother was Flora Lewis Norman. She was from Knox County, around Barbourville.

And these were mountain people who had certain talents. My grandfather Norman was a white-collar worker; he wore a tie. And he was the manager of the company store in Allais, Kentucky. And my mother ...

Guy | What, Kentucky?

Gurney | Allais, A-l-l-a-i-s. From 1915 to the early ’50s, it was a thriving coal camp: major production, huge tonnage coming out every year. And so anyhow, my mother was born Thelma Musick, M-u-s-i-c-k. This is a big name. You know, many people have this name in southwest Virginia, in Russell County and Wise County, Buchanan County, over in southwest Virginia where the coal is.

Guy | When did it strike you that you might want to be a writer yourself? Was it early on or was it ...

Gurney | When I was 15. From the age of 15 I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I started writing stories at that time. My dad had died in January of 1953, and I was 15. And, you know, that was an emotional upset. I don’t think I showed it, but I remember soon after he died I just felt this need to write stories. And I showed them to a teacher, and this teacher was not very patient with the idea that I would spend my time writing stories, but also had a way of recognizing and being pleased, also, at the same time. I mean, in terms of school, I don’t know that she liked it much, but in terms of just being a neighbor and friend, she was pleased that I had this side of my nature.

So anyhow, I was very clear from age 15, and it’s never varied, never shifted. The early forms—in addition to my secret writing of fiction—my primary outlet was with the school newspaper and the yearbook. And so I guess in my senior year of high school, I had done ... anything in writing for this little mimeographed newspaper called The Highlights.

And so that’s why I came to UK: UK had a serious school of journalism.

Guy | Tell me about your secret writing. What were you writing about?

Gurney | I was writing dark and gloomy stories. One story had to do with a boy whose uncle ... who had some kind of cruel uncle. You know, I probably read David Copperfield or something. Anyhow, there was a flood coming, the rain—it was always the rain, Poe or somebody—and so it caused a flood. And then there’s this big final scene out on a bridge. As the bridge breaks up, the bad guy perishes. And somehow the boy hero emerges heroic. I mean, that was my subject.

So I was writing ... The subjects were just imitative of stories that I had read. But between the lines and behind the little stories, it’s clear that I was working out a psychological thing. Still am, by the way.

Guy | What were your expectations upon entering UK, and how did that jibe with the reality on the ground?

Gurney | Well, I’m sorry I don’t have any negative experiences to report. But I had a great feeling about it, and UK had a ... Of course, it was very small at the time. We had 8,900 students, I think, in 1955, something like that. And it was mostly an all-white campus, and so it didn’t occur to me to have any kind of racial analysis. By the end of my school years, of course, it had become a huge issue and opened their heads.

But when I got here, I was excited. I lived in Bowman Hall; I had three great roommates in this big space. And, except for just being on my own—I was kind of solitary and lived in my head a lot. But I was a B student, very happy to have B’s. And rather than do all the extra work to make A’s, I just had a creative side. Of course, I realize we don’t want to put this on KET to discourage ... to send all the students off to write stories.

But about coming to UK ... I came down at the end of August in 1955. I had spent the summer as a construction worker in Dayton, Ohio, and so I was real strong and in real good shape. I weighed about 150 pounds. And I just enjoyed the social part. I just met people and ... in my sophomore year, began to get really involved with the Kernel [campus newspaper] and with the yearbook.

So my major was journalism, and my actual work was working in training, you know, for the publications I mentioned. But I had this private side where I would go off, and I was still thinking about my family. And I don’t know how I wound up with a sunny disposition, because there were a lot of knocks in my parents’ lives that affected us kids. But maybe it was a way of just negotiating the world, you know: Just be cheerful.

Guy | So, I understand you were a humor columnist for the Kernel.

Gurney | Well, I was a columnist and a satirist. But I also had other subjects for my column. My column was called “Much Ado.” Of course, the joke was, you know, “about nothing.” But humor came first. It was the easiest and most fun. And the columns are in print. I mean, the old volumes exist in the library. So we may have to look at some of them.

Guy | Any that spring to mind?

Gurney | Well, for one thing, there was a big United Mineworkers strike in Eastern Kentucky—huge thing. And in the end, Governor [A.B.] Chandler called out the National Guard, which set up an encampment on my old high school grounds. And it was a very serious thing. There was arson and some shootings and some stuff. This was the year Robert Kennedy came to UK, and he was, you know, the union investigator of the Teamsters. And he gave a talk in Memorial Hall. It was all about the unions and how bad the union leaders are and how there is Mafia control—all that stuff. But he didn’t say one word about [coal companies] big time, a hundred miles away. And I always thought, “I don’t know if I like this guy or not.” He seemed facile. Later, I came to admire him a lot, of course, but at the time, he just seemed like a punk kid.

So anyhow, that aside, I just wrote a column about the strike. And it may have been the most serious attempt.

I also wrote another column on the occasion of a movie from England. It was about working-class struggles. It was the period of the angry writers in the ’50s in England. It was a black-and-white, gritty world, and all about class. But it had illicit sex—didn’t show the sex, but there was sex outside of wedlock. And the keepers of purity in Lexington censored it; they succeeded in censoring it. And so I wrote this column in which I summarized all the other movies that were playing at the time. And it was just non-stop mayhem, murder, blood, and so forth. And they passed the morality test, of course. So that was a very serious thing for a 21-year-old to be doing.

But my funny ones, I don’t remember them so well right now. But I could direct us to them, so we’ll have to go look at that. That would be fun, yeah.

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