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Gurney Norman
A Conversation

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Guy | What were Bob Hazel’s classes like? Bobbie described you all as “Bob Hazel and The Boys’ Club”—drinking beer and ...

Gurney | Oh, definitely, definitely, definitely. And the fact that we four men all gravitated to the West Coast and went through the Stanford writing program, [that was] a big part of our bond. My friendship with Bobbie had nothing to do with that. I just thought Bobbie was so funny and smart. I was a senior when she was a freshman, I think. But just through our writing and hanging around the journalism building, we became friends. And so, I don’t know if Bobbie had even met my three men writer friends that we mentioned until about 1965 or ’6, something like that.

I’m so glad that Bobbie has told this part of her story because, well, there’s no doubt about it. I didn’t think about it at the time, and I don’t think it was all positive that writing students would get a lot out of their teachers, you know, if they’re male teachers, and that’s OK.

Well, Bobbie, you know, has always been very intense in an intellectual and literary way. She’s wonderfully educated, for one thing—significantly, in my terms. Bobbie has a Ph.D., which is its own struggle, and she managed that, and it was part of her path. I don’t think she aspired to be a professor so much, but she never lost her drive to write. And in her mid-30s, she moved into this determination to get published at the highest level. I saw this in Bobbie at the time. I had great respect for her.

Guy | Bob Hazel’s class—did you all go to the Paddock and drink beer with ...

Gurney | Oh, yes, quite a bit. A description of the Paddock Club at the corner of Euclid and Rose in the ’50s says a lot about the climate and the times here in Lexington in those years. The Paddock was this old frame building that seemed to have been a kind of a hamburger joint up front, and then someone built a huge room on the back. And the manager, I guess the owner, would run a tab for students for the whole semester. And so everybody just trusted him completely. And so people would just go in there and drink beer, buy pitchers of beer, hamburgers, bowls of chili, all this stuff, and it was all in his head, or he was making notes, and you didn’t think about asking him how much you spent that night. And so this was hugely popular with students. And then in December, you know, you owed somebody 200 or 300 bucks, which was tough.

But on Friday nights, especially, this is how I ... I didn’t hang out at the Paddock much. I wasn’t into that kind of partying until maybe my senior year. But on Friday nights, the Paddock Club was the most interesting and fabulous quasi-Bohemian place that you could find—based not on espresso, but on beer. And at some point in the evening, the theater people would show up. And then later on, some librarians would show up and sit in a corner. And then the painters would come and the writers, people in all these classes. And it was just the creative community ... could be a hundred people on a Friday night—first to get something to eat and have your early beer, and then it just cooked down into just a great party ’til midnight or something like that. And then there was all this crosswise visiting, and it just became a mix. And it was just thrilling to meet actors and actresses and theater designers and singers, and certainly the painters. I used to go in and visit fellow students who were painters, and I just love the Fine Arts Building and the Guignol Theater. I was very, very close to those venues on campus and hung out in that building.

And then it happened, several times that I remember, that by about 11:30, singing would break out. Somebody over in the theater crowd would come up with some kind of song. And then a few drunken student writers would sing; we would sing our song. And it was a little bit of competition in it, but of the very congenial kind. And then the other people would come, and so then people would ... These different groups would all sing different songs at the same time. It was hilarious. It was a great spirit about it. So the Paddock Club was Grand Central Station as I knew it.

Guy | Well, let’s move on to California.

Gurney | I feel the need to say more about the classes.

Guy | OK. How would it work? Would you work on a piece, bring it in and read it in class and then ...

Gurney | Well, the format was pretty much the same. Hollis Summers would have everybody, as soon as we came in—in the middle of the day, maybe 1:00 or 2:00 pm—we would sit down, about 15 of us, and he would have us write a thought, just express something in a few words. And he would collect them and then read them to us, without saying who wrote them. And he would just read these thoughts aloud. We just immediately let go of the world outside the classroom and were now in an environment, a language environment, where there was just such pleasure in hearing the words that the people around you had written. And then he would read our stories aloud back to us ... at least once each during the semester. And he had an open door to his office, so I felt totally free to go and check in with him. And his editing and his response [were] very precise, very helpful.

[In] Bob Hazel’s class, you’d put your feet up on the table if you wanted to. He would put his feet up on the table. Hollis would never do that. So it was much more laid-back, to use an old ’60s term. And we drank coffee in the class. I don’t remember there being any coffee or anything like that [in Summers’ class]. And also, Bob and his wife at the time would have little social events, modest ones.

The first time I went to such an event, that’s where I first had a chance to socialize with Ed. I wasn’t sure I liked Ed over in the department, but then in that setting—a bunch of young writers hanging around with their teacher, sitting on the floor, and maybe there would be jazz—we had a social aspect to it that bonded us all really, really well.

Guy | That led in part to your following your friends out west. Tell me how that came about. We were talking about your friendships with Ed and Wendell and Jim. Did that lead you, in part, to follow them to California, and how did that come about and what happened out there?

Gurney | Well, of course, I was still an undergraduate when Wendell and Tanya [Berry] went to California. I think it might have been ’58. And I was impressed. I didn’t understand what the writing fellowship was. I just knew that he was out at Stanford. And I didn’t know Wendell very well then. I knew Tanya quite well; we were in a class together, and [I] otherwise knew Tanya and her parents, particularly her mom. So, we didn’t write. I was not a close, corresponding friend with Wendell.

So I stayed in the writing classes. I was continuing to work with Bob Hazel all through my junior and senior years, and Wendell, of course, was gone. And I was friends already, though, with Ed and Jim. And then Jim went to Stanford, just to work on his master’s degree out there. And I remember I stayed on the UK campus an extra year after I graduated. And I had an opportunity to do that. I thought that I would write a book that year. I was 22. And there is a picture that—I’m sorry if it’ll break my train of thought, but there’s a picture that I have that I took of myself seated at my typewriter at this point, clearly working on a great novel.

But in any case, I was on campus this fifth year. And I was trying to write a book. But I was also auditing, just hanging around, in one of Bob’s writing classes and working with him independently. But I saw myself as being a weekly newspaper reporter the rest of my life; that’s what I thought I would do at that time. I’d had summer jobs with the Hazard Herald, and they had been very successful.

But in December, as the semester was ending, Bob Hazel ...

Guy | In September of the year, you were about to say?

Gurney | No, in December, as the semester was ending, Bob Hazel said to me, “Gurney, I think that you ought to apply for this fellowship out at Stanford.” And I resisted. I said, “No, no, no. I’ve got some other plans” and so forth. He said, “No, I think you should do it.” And I really resisted it. And the one time in the years that I knew Bob, he got tough. He claimed authority and got a little mad at me. He said, “No, you’re going to do this.” And I was chastened, and I thought, “Well, OK, I guess.” And so I sent away for the forms to apply to Stanford’s writing program and filled them out and put them in an envelope, addressed and stamped and everything. And then went on Christmas visiting among various families down in the mountains and forgot all about it, and it wound up on the floor of my car. It had to be postmarked by December 31st. And I found myself down in a little town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. And I saw that it was the 31st of December, and it was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. And I saw that thing down in the trash in my car, and I thought, “Oh, my gosh.”

So I retrieved it and brushed the popcorn off of it. And there was a mailbox in this little town on the sidewalk, and I stuck it in there, just to do what I’d been told, just to do what Bob had said. And it was about three months later that word came, you know, that I’d been accepted into that program and that so had Jim.

So, I’m always indebted to Robert Hazel for so many things. But for that last gesture ... I mean, it totally transformed my life. And so it was by such a thread that this fateful turn in my life hung.

And so then I don’t think I took courses in the springtime. I just sort of hung out. But I started making my preparations. I had a ’51 maroon six-cylinder Ford—eight-cylinder Ford—a ’51 Ford. And I tried to get it road-worthy, and all through the summer I was preparing to go to California. And then when the time came, I said goodbye to all the people that I knew. And at the end, I stopped by the Herald office, ’cause I loved all the people who worked there, and Mr. and Mrs. Nolan, who owned the paper, had been so good to me. And I said goodbye and got in my Ford car, which was loaded with my belongings, and started down the Main Street of Hazard. And I got exactly one block and stopped at a light. And when I started to go again—I had it in first gear—the gears just ground and broke.

So I’m sitting there, and I thought, “Well, this is going to cost a lot,” and then I had no first gear. And then I thought, “Ah, what about second gear?” And I put it up in second gear, and it ran quite well. And I just went on to California, and it didn’t occur to me to go to a service station to have any mechanic look at it. I just drove with two gears in the spirit of adventure.

And so I drove this car. Oh, the story of that trip is its own epic journey, and I don’t know if it belongs in our present agenda, but ...

Guy | Well, did it end up later in Divine Right’s Trip or ...

Gurney | Well, not identically. What happened was, I drove easily enough to Nevada, but then I was looking at the Sierra Nevadas. And I was down on the southern end, and I looked on the map and saw a two-lane road. I thought, “Ah, a rustic road.” And I would just go this [route] and it dropped down into the Bay area. But what it was was an old logging road that had been paved, and it was about a lane and a half wide. And [with] only two gears, I made the Ford go all the way up 40 miles of switchbacks. Then it was no longer glamorous to be on a rustic road. And I got within sight of a sign that said “California,” and the car would not go up anymore. And so I had to figure this out. So I took it up as far as it would go, got out, unloaded all of my stuff, which included a set of barbells, a footlocker full of books, all this heavy stuff. And I went back down the hill and tried it with an empty car—failed. Got back up to my stuff, but it would not go over. Of course, I would have been in worse trouble if it had gone over, ’cause I would have been stuck in the deep mountains.

So I went back down to this little turnout, turned the car around, and I said, “I bet ...” They say that reverse gear is as strong as first gear. And I decided I’d back over the Sierras. And so I just roared back up toward that sign up there, got back to my pile of stuff, and reverse went out. So I now had no reverse. But I still had two gears, but I was pointing the wrong way. And finally a guy in a pickup truck came, analyzed the situation, and he just knew what to do. And he said, “Pull your car over here, jump in my truck, and we’ll go back and get your stuff.” And we did: loaded it, threw it in his pickup, came back down, put it all back in my car. And he said, “Follow me,” or something like that.

And in the two minutes, three minutes, four minutes that this all happened, I had to go all the way back to the desert floor again. And then this time, I drove on up to the Lake Tahoe area where the grading was modern, you know, big four-lane system.

So, me and that old car ... I’ve thought about what kind of attitude does it take to ... While you’re trying to leave your hometown, and you lose first gear, and you don’t even consider letting a mechanic look at your car. If it would go with second gear, well, that’s a ....

Guy | Well, talk some, would you, about your experience at Stanford, your classmates, Mr. [Wallace] Stegner. And then I want to lead to Perry Lane, the Pranksters and your trip, and how that came about.

Gurney | OK, good. Well, chronologically, I finally did get my red ’51 eight-cylinder Ford car to Palo Alto. And Jim Hall and his then wife, Joan, were already living there. And so I called them first thing. No, first thing, I drove up on the Stanford campus and saw palm trees for the first time.

So I stayed the night with Jim and Joan. The next morning I went over to the housing office over there and immediately found a little redwood cottage down in South Palo Alto, and I just moved right in. And suddenly, within a couple of days, I was all set up. And so I had great luck. Then a few days later, school started. I had the option of taking regular ... doing regular academic work while I was on my writing fellowship. But I declined to do that. I just wanted to write. And so I had a lot of free time. I sat down immediately and started writing, or trying to work, as soon as I had my little cottage.

But when our class met, I met on that occasion the famous critic Malcolm Cowley. So Mr. Cowley was our teacher. We had about a dozen people in the class. And a few of the people ... Everybody was very young. I think I was 23 by now. But Ken Kesey was in there. He was 25. Larry McMurtry was 25. Jim Hall was about 25.

A writer that is not often mentioned who was a member of that class was an Australian writer named Christopher Koch. He was working on a novel that I helped type for him because he didn’t know how to type. So I typed the first 40 pages for him sometime within that year. They lived in San Francisco. The novel turned out to be The Year of Living Dangerously. That became a Mel Gibson film. And I remember the opening scenes from Chris’ book, and then forgot all about it. And then saw the movie 25 years later, and I thought, “Where have I seen this before?”

But in any case, Christopher Koch was there, [and] a writer from Scotland—two writers from Scotland, a man and his wife: Robin MacDonald and his wife, Joanna ...

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