Berry | Hall | Mason | McClanahan | Norman | TIMELINE

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Gurney Norman
A Conversation

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Guy | How did you get involved [in the creative writing program]? And I did this myself: I started journalism for a year and then worked at the Kernel, and it’s like, “OK, I’ve learned who, when, where, what, and how ... now what?”

Gurney | Right.

Guy | So I moved to literature.

Gurney | Right.

Guy | How did you get involved in the creative writing classes?

Gurney | In addition to my work with the Kernel and the Kentuckian, the yearbook, I continued to write my private fiction. And at some point, I think spring semester of my sophomore year, I got into Hollis Summers’ creative writing class. And I also had learned about Stylus, the literary magazine. And I researched it. I still have a copy of Stylus where I counted the words on a page. Inside each sentence, I put the number of words, ’cause I wanted to know how many words fit on a page. I still have that.

Hollis Summers was a big influence on me; he was great. For one thing, he was erudite and he was genteel, and he really knew Kentucky—he was from Eminence. But he was very cultivated and sophisticated. And that such a person would accept me and encourage me, you know, and occasionally ... Well, he let me know that he respected what I was doing. And I was writing about deaths and funerals and stuff and nowhere near done with processing a range of childhood experiences that ... I don’t know, some of them tragic, some of them traumatic. And so I have those stories, too, with his marks on them. But he was very encouraging.

Then, by my junior year, I actually had created a double major for myself, and I gravitated to the literature classes. I didn’t do too well in the upper-division classes. I tried a couple of those courses, but it was too much for me. One professor said, I’m sure just trying to terrify the unwilling out of his class, first day of class he said, “Read the works of Tennyson by Monday.” Well, I headed for the drop zone real quickly with that one.

But I really enjoyed the survey courses. And then I was a voracious reader. And I consciously started building my own library, that was another thing. So just think of me as somebody who ... By my junior year, I had an office. I was associate editor of the yearbook, and we worked all night up there. We just had keys to the building, and so I would sit up there and write ... work on stories.

And the teachers, which by now included Robert Hazel, and ... Bob Hazel is the teacher, the poet-novelist, that we all studied with—all five of us writers, Wendell [Berry] and then Jim [Hall] and myself and Ed [McClanahan]. And by the late ’50s, Bobbie [Ann Mason] was on campus. And so we all had the Bob Hazel experience, and it was a huge influence.

I’m sure others have said that Bob Hazel knew about abstract painting. It didn’t occur to me that writers ought to pay any attention to painting or to music. But he helped me see, just by the fact that it was his taste, and he had paintings in his house ... And he would welcome us to his house, just for modest visits. And so I saw what real writers were like and admired them.

Guy | What kind of guy was he? He was a different person from Hollis Summers.

Gurney | Well, he was. He fancied himself as young and mod and hip and on the radical side of things. Not politically so much, but in literary terms. I think Bob thought of himself as a cutting-edge kind of figure. And Dr. Summers was a classic in his whole style and his thinking, I think. Very broad-ranging in curiosity and in the ability to respond to all kinds of different students ... both teachers, Hollis and Robert.

So I had this great situation on the campus. Journalism meant a lot to me. I loved reporting, I loved writing features, I loved writing my column. And to be the manager of a big project like the yearbook is ... It’s a huge thing, and for someone who was like 19 and 20 to be getting that kind of experience of thinking in terms of a 300-page book, with endless detail and all the photographs, was just an incredible developmental experience. And the same was true with the creative writing thing. They were equal for me. And I just played back and forth across these fields and finally constructed my own self as some kind of writer that was neither and both. And that’s true to this day. I like to write fiction. I’ve published some fiction and have continued to write fiction as my primary creative outlet. But I had to make my own way. And it’s true that 40-some years later, I haven’t fit perfectly into any category, any of those categories.

There was an old musician, [a] coal miner, named Nimrod Workman, whose first record album is called To Fit My Own Category. And I felt that that was what I was trying to do.

But this brings me to a point that I’ve thought about a lot, and it’s that from all of these influences and interests—journalistic, literary, and so forth—I finally realize after many years that what I really, really emphasized and chose somehow, instinctively, with my whole life, is to be an adventurer.

Guy | Is what?

Gurney | To be an adventurer. And that’s an odd way. No one claims that what they are, anymore, is an adventurer. But as I look back, I see that that has been the one thing that I could say, better than any other label, defines how I’ve come to see my life.

Guy | An adventurer. What do you mean: an adventurer among words, or ...?

Gurney | Well ... well, no. In jumping out of airplanes ...

Guy | OK, let’s start ... OK, tell me how you’re an adventurer.

Gurney | Well, of course it’s taken me most of my life to figure out my life. And I see in looking back that from a very early age, I did things unusual for a boy. I had a certain freedom, because after the age of about 7, I did not have two parents. I did not live with my actual parents. I was close to them, and they were both hospitalized for some years. So I was supervised by grandparents. And grandparents don’t pay the same kind of attention that an alert parent is paying. You know, kids are very hovered over and watched anymore. But I had this space, and I understood that I could play one side of my family off against the other. So, for example, from the age of 12, I would just say to my Kentucky grandparents, “Well, I’m going to go to Virginia tomorrow.” And all they could say was, “Well, do you have any money?” And I always had money. I was very frugal; I didn’t buy one thing. And I would say, “Oh, yeah, of course I’ve got money.” I’d have, you know, $6 or something. And I would catch the bus. I had to change three or four times to go 85 miles ... took all day.

And then I would stay with my Virginia grandparents, my mother’s folks, for a week or a month or all summer. And then I would just decide it was time to get back to Kentucky. And so [I] also was hitchhiking 80 miles at age 13. So you see how I was making my own decisions and very much owned myself in that way.

And so then when I was 15 ... I had an older brother at the time named Jerry. And I still have a most wonderful sister, who is Gwen Norman Griffith, of Varia. And our older brother, Jerry, was able, being older and big and strong ... He would get summer jobs working on these construction projects in Ohio. And I was 15, and I was jealous. And I thought, “Well, I want to get me a job. I’m getting out of here.” And so, I just told my grandmother in Hazard that I was going to go to visit somebody in Covington. And I rode the bus up there, and the next day went out and got a factory job—a job in a ladies’ shoe manufacturing place; we made women’s shoes—and I worked all summer. I told them I was 18, and I rented a little apartment and made 80 cents an hour. And I survived and came home with a little extra money.

And it’s always been that way. I’ve driven across the country 20 times, most of them by myself. I love this solitary drive.

But then in the military, it was peacetime and we were all ... I don’t know; it was all pretty relaxed in ’61. And so since the Army life could get boring, I’d volunteer for airborne school, jump school. That was just such fun. It was a great thing to do.

And then, oh, just for another example of adventure, I worked for a couple of years for my hometown newspaper, the Hazard Herald. Great job, great times. I cut my teeth as a reporter for a weekly newspaper. But after two years ... My family was so relieved that I had at last gotten a job—I was about 26—that I had at last got a job and was settling down, had a place to live, a car, might even get attached to some lady. So everybody thought that I was very settled. But after two years, I announced that I was leaving, and I had to tell my grandparents that, “Well, I’m leaving my job and I’m going to Connecticut.” It was stunning, that announcement. And they asked, “Well, why? What are you going to do?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to be a babysitter and get back to my fiction writing.”

And then from there, I made a leap to working for the Forest Service, living in a lookout tower in the Cascades. Did that for two summers, four months each time.

Just stuff like that. And continued to ... I think in many ways, I’m still that way, which is just looking for where interesting experience is. And above all, trying to not get boxed in with daily life.

Guy | You jumped out of airplanes?

Gurney | Yeah, yeah. Yeah, well, I’ve made five jumps. It was, you know ... No serious member of an airborne unit would take jump school very seriously. And in a way, it’s embarrassing to even bring the subject up, because if all you do is go to jump school and make your five little jumps, and then you don’t go on to join an airborne unit, then you’re some sort of scum or something. So it was an adventure in my eyes and in my terms, but no serious airborne soldier would think much about it.

Guy | Well, back to your classes at UK in what Ed calls “creational writing” ... Tell me about some of your fellow students. There were ... The five of you, in particular, were from pretty different backgrounds.

Gurney | Oh, yeah. Well, let me do it chronologically:

Wendell Berry came to UK in the fall of ’52. And at some point in his first or second year, he found the writing classes and started the course, you know, taking the courses that were available. And then Jim Hall showed up the next year, ’53, and followed a similar path. I came to campus in ’55 and followed a similar path. I’m sure that by our sophomore years, you know, we were very serious about writing.

And it was at the end of my freshman year that I began to meet folks. I don’t know if Wendell has told the story of our first encounter. I tried to allude to it in my introductions at the reading in October. I was an 18-year-old freshman wearing my ROTC suit, going to a panel talk, a literary ... a literary panel talk. The subject was T.S. Eliot. I met Wendell on that day. And it’s memorable because we became friends and have stayed friends ever since 1956.

And so, one by one, we all got ourselves to the UK campus. Ed showed up as a graduate student ... I think it was in ’56 or ’57. And Wendell stayed on campus for a year of graduate studies. So there were these couple of years when all four of us were here as writers and as readers. And, we made ... I don’t know, they were exciting times. It was a time of ferment.

Guy | And this was in the boring ’50s ...

Gurney | Well ... But see, that’s another one of the clichés. The ’50s were not boring. But see, we all too easily accept these media buzzwords. And it would have to go against that grain, I think, to get anywhere close to reality and the truth. There’s never been a more exciting decade than the ’50s. But somehow it [isn’t] labeled as such. And it’s the kind of thing that needs to be investigated because all of these buzzwords and iconic figures and all of that ... I think all of that obscures the truth.

Just for example, to make a leap, when the media wants to treat the 1960s, the cultural revolution and the antiwar movements and so forth, it has a list—the media has a list of about 12 iconic figures who did stuff and got themselves registered by the media, in the media. They got in a database of some kind. And so when we think of the ’60s, we’re always shown pictures of Joan Baez and Abbie Hoffman, and others—you know, familiar people. And yet those guys don’t represent the ’60s counterculture and social ferment at all. They just are not representative. They only are available to an impatient media that no longer even goes out and tries to report on anything. It all has to, like, stream across the computer now. And those are the images from the ’60s that are in the computer. But the ’60s were not about that at all. And I could go on. It’s probably another subject, but I think of the 1960s as when massive waves of young, earnest people set out to try to find something about themselves and to go join something. And the unknown ones ... You see them; they’re in the background of some ... of some of the movies. But I’m kind of against icons because I think that the message is ... stuck. It’s not revealing of truth.

So I guess I got on a tangent by way of saying that I don’t think any of us thought that the ’50s were boring. My gosh, what could be more exciting than coming to the university and meeting people and participating in media?

So, I don’t think that we should say that we four men were any kind of tight group at that time. It would be an error for us to think of ourselves or for anyone else to think of ourselves as having been tight with each other as a group. We knew each other, we saw each other at some parties and things like that, and Jim and Wendell were close friends. But I just knew everybody in general and had, you know, an eager spirit to meet people and so forth. I think that we formed as a kind of a constellation of friends when we all went, in our times, to California. So I think it was much more innocent and unformed—the friendships in the ’50s.

Guy | But in the ’50s, the prevailing mode was button-down collars and fraternities and sororities ...

Gurney | Well, I don’t think so; I don’t think so. If we had 9,000 students, 1,500 of them might have been in the fraternities and sororities. I just think of all these kids from the small towns of Kentucky, just coming in from Crab Orchard and Blackie and all the small towns. And that’s who the real students were. Because other people are vivid in some way or working hard to cultivate a style, which you could say is ... You know, a preppy style, for example, is a style. Most of us had no style. We didn’t have a clue to what that would be about. We just earnestly, as rather naïve young Kentuckians, just enjoyed school. And as we got older in school, of course, taking it more seriously.

Well, here’s another little fact I’ll reveal about myself: I have never ever thought about having a career. And I feel so sorry for the young students today in the colleges and universities. I meet 20-year-old people who are just filled with anxiety about will they be able to afford retirement. You know what I’m talking about? There’s the angst level, and the tension level is really devastating, I think. You have 20-year-olds worrying about how they’re going to live when they are 65, and they want to sign onto something now. Man, I’ve never even thought about that kind of thing. Everything I’ve done has just, like, come up—something else to do. But it’s all linked together by my drive to tell stories I know or to make up stories or to, in other ways—like with photographs and television—to be expressive in that medium. I think it’s all the same.

And of course, this involves having to pretty much ignore the structures of the reward system. Many people feel that if they’ve published one book and maybe a second book, then they’re a failure if they don’t publish eight more books. Well, the heck with that. I think you do ... one should do ... or what I should do is do what seems right at the moment. And this has added up to some kind of career. I think I wouldn’t change a thing, really.

Guy | Back to the classes ...

Gurney | Yeah.

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