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Gurney Norman
A Conversation

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Guy | Was Kesey working on Cuckoo’s Nest?

Gurney | ... and Peter Beagle was a very important member of that class. He was 20 years old, from New York, and he had published a novel. It was called A Fine and Private Place; hilarious book. And so Peter was way out in front, at age 20, with his novel already in print.

So, Kesey was working ... Every month or so, every few weeks he would bring in a chapter of this book about this mental hospital, this veteran’s mental hospital. And the writing style and the visionary quality were original for most of us. We had never read anything like that.

But it was fun. By the middle of that semester, we were starting to have really a lot of fun together. After class, which was about two and a half hours, the whole class would just adjourn, including Mr. Cowley—and later, our teacher was the Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor—and we would go and drink coffee up in some cellar or somewhere on the campus and maybe stay three hours sometimes. And then when coffee was over, several of us would wander on over to Perry Lane, which is this little Bohemian community at the edge of the Stanford campus. Some graduate student, Bohemian, would have cooked rice and beans. Everybody lived on rice and beans and cheap wine.

And so the class would sometimes go on to midnight in these different forms. And we met twice a week. So this was a very rich experience. And for me, it was like ... At the time, it was everything I wanted.

But my writing wasn’t very successful. I was trying to write a novel. And it was when Frank O’Connor took over the class in the winter quarter that I saw that the short form—short story, short fiction—was where I belonged in trying to write. And so I let go of writing novels and concentrated on writing short stories.

Mr. O’Connor was very generous, and I wound up ... I didn’t read to the class at all in the fall. I was shy. I didn’t have any good things to read. But I read five stories to the class in the winter and spring quarters.

And otherwise ... It was Frank O’Connor, who was from County Cork in Ireland, who wrote about Irish peasants, who pointed out to me that the world I was trying to describe, which was the Kentucky coalfields, was very similar to the world that he had written about. I had not read Mr. O’Connor until I got in his class. So this meant everything to me. And he also directed all of us ... A few of us resisted Mr. O’Connor, as he was very eccentric and maybe too doctrinaire in some of his literary opinions. But he talked to us about Chekhov and Russian writers, and this opened that whole world up to me. And some of the Irish writers, and some of the French writers and the Russian writers appealed to me greatly. And so you can see how my education was just continuing, broader, deeper, better.

UK had been a great place. I was very well prepared to go to this class by UK. Not just as a place where I had excellent coursework, but my participation in the student publications; my affiliation with Stylus, the literary magazine; and above all, just the informal conversation of my mentors and my friends and many people who have not published books, but who were very important in our classes at UK. I was very well prepared to be in this class at Stanford and thrived on the social aspect of it, as well.

I think the Perry Lane story has been told many times. But basically, the housing had been Army barracks at a training camp in World War I. And when the war was over, they had all been, you know, boarded up. They were about the size of one good bedroom, but it housed a squad of soldiers. And so somebody had moved about a dozen of them over to this little lane under these big live oak trees next to San Francisquito Creek, which is a wonderful little natural world around it. It was students looking for the cheapest housing. And so the artsy Bohemian crowd had lived in those shacks, and people then had fixed them up. So now all of these sort of very brilliant Stanford graduate students, artists of all kinds, lived there. And the Keseys lived there, and other friends that came to be very primary points in my life.

Not all of the people who influenced me and who were so great, you know, published books or got famous or anything like that. I’m always aware of the people who are present, not so much in any kind of limelight. And in the end ... I said that iconic figures confuse things more than they illuminate things. People, society, seems to have a need for icons and heroes and all of that. But I’ve always felt closest to just the folks at the party or the folks in the class. And I could say a good deal more about that, but ...

Guy | Well, the Merry Pranksters were sort of birthed in Perry Lane, right?

Gurney | Yes, Perry Lane was the natural home of the artist crowd, and for many, many years. But in 1963, a real estate outfit bought up about half of the Lane and tore the shacks down and built an apartment complex in there. So about half of it was gone. And then everybody scattered. Some lived very nearby, some moved far away, this network of friends I’m talking about. And Ken and Faye [Kesey] moved over on the Coast Range, over the mountains, toward the coast to LaHonda. But I wasn’t in California for the post-Perry Lane stuff. But it figured in everybody’s education and [in] the richest kind of conversation.

Guy | Well, let me ask you to kind of line out how your affiliation with the Whole Earth Catalog came about and how Divine Right’s Trip came about.

Gurney | OK. As I said, I had been away from California. I was there for some military experience; but basically, after I left California, I came back to Kentucky, and that’s when I worked for the newspaper—’64 and ’65, and at other times as well. But after going to Connecticut to be a babysitter and trying to write, and after working for the Forest Service, living in the lookout tower in the Cascade Mountains, I was back on the West Coast. I thought I would ... In 1966, I thought I would go back down to Stanford and see my old buddies. Ed and his family lived there at that time.

And so I went just for a visit. And stayed 14 years. So, it was in ’66 that all the cultural stirrings, particularly in California, had begun, but the press didn’t discover it until a year later—’67 is when the whole concept of “flower children” and “hippies,” that word, started being used, in ’67. And ’67 was when Time magazine paid attention to the Haight-Ashbury. The Haight-Ashbury had been going on for years as another Bohemian community.

And so I just showed up to stay in ’67. I went back down again to visit my friends. And in 1967, I realized I wanted to just live there. And so I started meeting all this new wave of people who had not necessarily been part of the Stanford writing program. No, no, vaster than that ... hundreds of people who were experimenting with their lives. And one of them was Stewart Brand. And Stewart was an entrepreneur, very brilliant—genius, really—who was a radical in the sense [that] he thought of things that hadn’t been thought of before and then acted on them. One of his slogans, or statements, to me was, “I think we should act out our visions rather than just wallow in them.”

And so he somehow came into just a little bit of money, and with that he started an actual business called a truck store, which would drive around the desert and up and down the coast, taking tools to the hippie communes. So it was like a circuit rider with an actual truck.

After one summer of doing that, it became clear that this was a very inefficient way to get tools to people. So he decided to start a store there in Menlo Park. And the store would have a catalog, like Sears Roebuck, full of all of these interesting products—most of them books, actually, but all kinds of other actual products, like good tools and camping gear and boats and goats and quite an assortment of things that certain people would want. And once it started, I had my newspaper experience to draw from. So I volunteered and started working for Stewart just as a volunteer reviewer of books.

I was interested in earthworms at the time, so I wrote an article about earthworms, and otherwise reviewed books about alternate ways of living, and also about gardening—I knew something about organic gardening. So I was a kind of a gardening, organic gardening person. My interest was there, and I knew how to write a book review. So I became useful in this whole enterprise as a contributor, contributing editor, I guess.

And at one point Stewart asked me to edit an edition of this magazine associated with the catalog. Between the issues of the actual catalog, there was a smaller publication called Whole Earth Catalog Supplement. In any case, I edited two issues of that for him. And by then Stewart and the whole enterprise had become so successful ...

Guy | You were editing some supplements to the Whole Earth Catalog ...

Gurney | So I had done this editorial work for Stewart Brand and Whole Earth Catalog. But then Stewart realized that this catalog was starting to make money and that it was on the verge of making a lot of money. And as a radical economist, what this meant was that it’s time to go out of business. And so he conceived this idea of publishing a compendium, something 400 pages big in large format, and let it have the “best of” the previous issues of the catalog, plus all kinds of new material. And I was invited to the meeting at which this was being planned. And the idea was just to go out of business in grand style and with a splash.

So we were sitting around the table and talking about this thing and [Stewart] asked for ideas. And I said, “Well, I think the entire last Whole Earth Catalog should be a novel.”

Well, everybody chortled about that, but then Stewart said, “Well, I don’t think the whole thing can be a novel, but it could have a novel in it.” I said, “Yes, and it will be a novel about the counterculture,” or something like that. And Stewart said, “Fine, will you write it?” And I said, “Yeah.” And that was all we needed to say. We all shook hands.

So I devoted the next year to working on this book, and Stewart didn’t involve himself. He didn’t censor me. What I turned in went right into the book. So I guess the experience of writing Divine ... and it turned out to be Divine Right’s Trip. The name, you know, draws on the way the counterculturists mythologized their lives and took mythic names or names from nature.

I created this character called Divine Right Davenport. And his original name was David. And so it’s just the story of a hippie kid, about 22 or 23 years old, from Kentucky, who had been part of the ’60s cultural revolution. And like many people, by the end of the ’60s ... I was writing this in 1970; the ’60s, then, technically had just ended. And my character then ... I presented him as a burned-out case. He was exhausted from all of his excesses, and his life was in a shambles, and now he is driving his Volkswagen bus with his girlfriend called Estelle. They’re trying to make a trip from west to east—without having a plan; they just know that they need to be on the road headed east. And so the story just follows his, or their, adventures, episodically. It’s a picaresque story. And the whole thing winds up back in Kentucky, where, alone now, Divine Right has to deal with his demons. He has to ... In mythic terms, as Joseph Campbell, the scholar of mythology, puts it, “He had to complete his hero journey.”

And so he has to return to Kentucky, and the old home place where he lived with his grandparents has all been strip-mined. And so the wastage of the land was a metaphor, in a way, for his own sense of personal wastedness. So then, you know, the story plays out and turns into a big return home and reconciliation with his past, et cetera. So I can’t say much more, but that’s the gist of the story.

Guy | Where are the ...?

Gurney | Well, the main event in the last part of the story is that the relative ... The one relative that Divine Right finds still living on his old home place, although it’s been destroyed by mining, is his uncle, whose name is Emmett. And the uncle is dying. So he tends his uncle, who is dying. And this is an instance where this irresponsible kid takes responsibility and has compassion for someone. And it’s a very intimate thing to help someone die. And in that, the young man recovers his own life—that would be psychologically, but also practically, because he, in effect, inherits this old ruined farm.

And so he’s inspired into trying to restore this farm that has just been gouged out by strip mining. And his method then is to raise rabbits and to collect the rabbit manure and use it for the pure fertilizer that you could plant a tree in.

And so he’s going to restore this old farm. It’s probably not a practical thing, but much about this kid and his generation was not practical. But it works at the level of metaphor, I think.

And so all is reconciled by book’s end. This, in my work, introduces the theme of the place of compost in literature as an idea that shows up, especially in Appalachian literature. Compost is taking the old and dead and breaking it down and then new life comes from it. And a human life can be seen in these terms. And I think I know something about that, but I also know so many people who had to bottom out before they could go on. So that’s what this story is about.

Guy | Where did the idea come from to put it on every page?

Gurney | Well, that was my idea ... implanting the catalog. I sat down with Stewart, and he had a dummy copy of the catalog—420 blank pages, oversized, on the scale of a Life magazine or something like that. And before I had written a word, we made decisions that each page would have a column—the right-hand column of a six-column double-page spread—and a chapter from the novel would appear on the right-hand side.

And so, knowing how much space there was, we measured it in column inches, on every right-hand page—that’s 210 pages where text would be. We figured out how much, or how many column inches, we would need. Then we had to decide the typeface and the spacing between the lines. So all these typographical decisions were made before the book was even begun. And it turned out that I needed a manuscript 250 words on a page, 420 pages long. And I had 12 months to do this in. But I used three of the months to take a big drive with my wife at the time, Chloe Scott, across the country in the back of a Volkswagen bus. But my trip in a bus was in a brand-new Volkswagen bus and a lot of motels. I needed my own comfort. So we, you know, took this trip, and I took my own trip as well.

And so I sat down and started the writing process, and I figured out that I needed 60 pages a month for seven months to get 420 pages. So that means three pages ... Two pages a day for 30 days gives you 60 pages a month. But who wants to work on the weekends? So I cut it to a 20-day work month and was obliged to create three pages a day. So it was much like Charles Dickens writing for the periodicals—you know, these long novels that he wrote episodically. I felt very moved by that and involved. And so that was the method. But the thing is, each little chapter is its own story, and I think it’s not in me to write novels in any other way except by short takes. So I was still appreciating Frank O’Connor’s advice about short fiction. It’s an assemblage of a lot of little short pieces.

Guy | Were you surprised at the reaction ... What kind of reaction did Divine Right’s Trip get?

Gurney | Well, it got a huge reaction. I still have hundreds of letters from readers. And I think all the initial readers ... Of course, the book first existed on the pages of this very strange Whole Earth Catalog. And the first printing was 100,000; that was sold in about a month. And within three years or so, it—the Whole Earth Catalog—sold 2 million copies around the world. I may be off a little on my numbers, but that’s how I remember it—huge. And a special category was created so that the National Book Award could recognize it as a book of the year.

But very quickly, within six weeks of the thing coming out in this countercultural format, I started hearing from publishers. And so, what was then called the Dial Press, a major New York publisher, and Bantam Books collaborated in bringing out simultaneously a hardback and a paperback. And then there was an English edition, and a couple of different editions of the book itself. And then more recently, Gnomon Press, Jonathan Greene’s Gnomon Press, reissued Divine Right’s Trip in 1990. So it’s still alive, and it still has an audience, and I hear from people. It’s a lot of fun. And I know that to write this book had a lot to do with me coming back to Kentucky.

Guy | Well, let’s switch gears and kind of wind up with some overarching comments about yours as a generation of writers that almost came out of nowhere. Kentucky is known for its high illiteracy rate, and yet out of the ’50s come the five of you all to put Kentucky on the literary map. I mean, a few people had done that before, but not as you all have done as a group. Talk about previous writers in Kentucky and successive generations, if you would.

Gurney | Well, the year 2001, I undertook to organize a celebration of creative writing at the University of Kentucky. It has mainly been a series of literary events, about a dozen of them. And as director of the Creative Writing Program at UK, I wanted to celebrate the tradition, the full legacy of Kentucky literature—and, for one thing, to spread the attention over a broader area than just the phenomenon of the five writers that came through UK in the 1950s that I had mentioned.

So I’ve written an essay, published by the M.I. King Library, part of the W.T. Young Library system at UK. And I wanted in this essay to look back and recognize the tradition, focusing on the 20th century, of writers from Kentucky who gained prominence and created enduring books. And it was no problem at all to identify 50-some writers whose books still have a certain kind of appeal and certainly are part of a very important record. The first half of the century features writers like, of course, Jesse Stuart, but also James Lane Allen and John Fox Jr., Elizabeth Maddox Roberts, primarily, and James Still. There are so many that I won’t name them all. But in the end, the literary event celebrates what has happened in Central Kentucky and here at the University of Kentucky.

Guy | Tell me about A.B. Guthrie.

Gurney | Well, I have now understood that the modern version of a creative writing program at UK begins with a novelist called A.B. Guthrie Jr., who was from Montana and who had been a newspaper editor and reporter here for the old Lexington Herald for 20-some years. But he also wanted to write fiction, and he just, on his own time, wrote a good deal of fiction. So A.B. Guthrie came into prominence with the publication of his novels based on the westward movement called The Way West and The Big Sky. And The Way West—published, I think in 1949—in 1950 won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in the country at the time. And also as he began to publish his books, he started teaching creative writing courses at UK. And his courses were important to many people.

One student who worked with him and who found some guidance from Guthrie was Walter Tevis, a young Kentuckian who began as a young man to write and found some training and help through the creative writing classes at UK and then began to publish in very prominent venues. Tevis, in the mid- and late ’50s, created this novel called The Hustler. And The Hustler then was made into an award-winning movie starring Paul Newman and George C. Scott called The Hustler. This is the movie that features Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats and Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, and it’s a great movie. It still to this day is a classic film.

And [Tevis wrote] a rather science fiction-type story—it was called The Man Who Fell to Earth. And this remains an important book, showing Tevis’ reach as someone who can imagine other worlds. And then, late in his life, in the early ’80s, one of his last books was called The Color of Money. And so, Paul Newman reprises his Eddie Felson role, and it’s Tom Cruise who’s the young pool hot shot.

So those writers were legendary when I showed up on the campus. Very quickly, young student writers would hear about these writers. And I think it’s fair to say that all the writers that I have mentioned benefited from a certain literary atmosphere that was very strong in Lexington and UK.

But quickly now, what I wanted to do was move the attention statewide—that this surge of literary activity and success has been a statewide phenomenon. And the writers that I’ve talked about—Berry, Hall, McClanahan, Mason, and myself, I guess—emerged through a certain creative climate in the ’50s. And everybody was very serious about writing. The writers that I’m talking about have been an unusual constellation of consciousness and intellects and creative gifts. And I think that through our generation there has been a great achievement in literary creativity. But also, in this series of events that we’ve had as part of this celebration of creative writing at UK, I wanted to put a focus on the young writers.

In a way, it has been a rich experience to get a frame around the writers who have given so much through, you know, the 1980s. Kentucky writers have flourished. And now, a whole new generation is coming on and showing great talent. And to mention just a few of those writers, I think of Lisa Koger, now of Somerset; Chris Holbrook, whose book of short stories, Hell and Ohio, is a masterpiece in my judgment, great work. And then Maurice Manning, a poet from Danville, Kentucky, and Davis McCombs from Munfordville, both of whom have recently won the Yale University Younger Poet of the Year prize, which is the most prestigious prize for a poet, young poet, in the country ... I think of George Ella Lyon and Lisa Kendrick ... and I just can’t list all the ones that I know. But all the writers that I’ve just mentioned, Kentucky writers, have gained a certain amount of prominence.

But I have a special place in my regard for very serious writers, very accomplished writers who have not gained a national reputation. And to me, Albert Stewart of Knott County is the best example of someone who has lived an exemplary literary life as a teacher and an editor and a working poet until the day he died. But he was shy. He did not seek attention at all. And so there’s a study to be made. It’s a little bit easy to talk about these writers who have made books and had a bit of light shown on them. But I think the real strength of literature in Kentucky is from the community of writers, well known and not so well known, but very powerful in the way that a thousand writers, or people interested in writing, or people who would go to the Kentucky Book Fair, or people who would organize literary events ... I just see all these many and varied folks who care about letters in Kentucky as having made a fabulous mark ... [They] have had an incredible achievement in creating the literary world in Kentucky as we know it today, which is as intense and of as great a quality as any, any other part of the United States.

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