In April 1996, Kentucky authors Bobbie Ann Mason and Ed McClanahan spent an hour each talking to students live via satellite about the writing process and how they earn their livings as writers. Students discovered what nurtured and inspired these successful authors, learned more about their daily work habits, and gained insight into how they turn ordinary experiences into novels, plays, and short stories.
In SignatureLIVE, Mason and McClanahan took questions from callers as well as from a studio audience of high school and college students.
In 1995, the two also communicated with high school students via a computer bulletin board for Kentucky teachers. Transcripts of those conversations are below.
Grade Levels: 10-12
Resource Types: Videos, PDFs, and articles
Writer Ed McClanahan, author of The Natural Man and Famous People I Have Known, answers questions from high school students about the writing process and about how his Kentucky roots influence his work.
Bobbie Ann Mason
Western Kentucky native Bobbie Ann Mason, acclaimed writer of short story collections and novels like Shiloh and Other Stories and In Country, answers questions from high school students about the writing process and about how her Kentucky roots influence her work.
Download the Signature Series Teacher’s Guide (PDF)
This guide provide resources for the Signature series episode featuring Ed McClanahan. Resources in the guide include a synopsis of the program, a reading, a brief biographical sketch of the writer, suggestions for writing assignments, and reading lists.
More About Ed McClanahan
The humor and style of Ed McClanahan’s work reflect his experiences growing up in Maysville and Brooksville as well as his “beatnik” years in early 1960s San Francisco. In Signature, McClanahan reads from his critically acclaimed novel, The Natural Man, which was compared to The Catcher in the Rye, and his autobiographical Famous People I Have Known. The program also includes excerpts from a film version of one of his short stories, “The Congress of Wonders.”
These questions and answers are taken from electronic messages between author Ed McClanahan and Kentucky high school students. They communicated on KET-Net, a dial-in computer bulletin board, in April 1995.
From: SUZIE SMITH
To: ED MCCLANAHAN (Rcvd)
Hello, Ed, from Suzie Smith and her classes — gifted/AP — at Marion County High School. We are betting you remember your day-at-the-park with us two years ago this Spring. I really wish you had been here last Friday — it was a kind of Ed-McClanahan-meets-man-besotted-with-full-moon kind of day. It seems that a twenty-five year old man, clasping a Confederate flag in his hands climbed to the top of St. Augustine Church spire on the day of the full moon. There he waved the flag, yelled something about O.J. and the trial, generally entertained a community lazy with spring fever. The kicker is he — after threatening to jump — was wearing a hard-hat in case he fell. Our driver’s education instructor had all drivers in every class roll by the church “just for fun” to keep tabs on the “big doings.” Thankfully, the guy got hungry or came down from his “high” and finally relented. Made the front page of the local paper, of course, and gave us all something to talk and write about for a few days. I thought of FAMOUS PEOPLE I HAVE KNOWN and how well this Jefferies character would have fit the text. So glad you are on line. Saw the KET production and loved it, being a big fan of Ed McClanahan and all … Suzie in Lebanon/ 1:50 P.M./one day before spring break and I-don’t-have-to-tell- you-what-that-means. My students will be writing.
From: ED MCCLANAHAN
Hello! My name is Ed McClanahan, and I’m pleased to be visiting with you on the KET-Net Writer’s Line. I’m the author of two published books — a novel titled THE NATURAL MAN, which is about small-town Kentucky high school basketball during the late 1940s, and an autobiography titled FAMOUS PEOPLE I HAVE KNOWN, which is mostly about my life during the 1960s and 1970s, when I ran into some very interesting characters. I have also published stories and articles in many magazines.
I was born in Brooksville, the county seat of Bracken County (in northeastern Kentucky) in 1932. I lived in Maysville during my high school years, and graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio in 1955; I received a Master’s degree in English from the University of Kentucky in 1958. I have taught English and creative writing at Oregon State University, Stanford University (in California), the University of Montana, the University of Kentucky, and Northern Kentucky University. I now live in Lexington, with my wife Hilda, who is a classical pianist.
I would be happy to respond to your questions about my writing, about my life as a writer, or about *your* writing, your goals as aspiring writers, etc. I’m also interested in discussing what you happen to be reading, and what effect or influence it has on your writing and thinking.
From: TOM HITER
To: ED MCCLANAHAN (Rcvd)
Ed: Welcome to KET-net! I feel I know you, from your work. I’m one of those “someday, I’m gonna do that” guys. I truly admire those of you who have done it! Keep it up. Tom Hiter
04-06-95 From: ED MCCLANAHAN
To: TOM HITER
Hey Tom! Don’t just say “Someday …” Get crackin’!
From: SCAPA LAFAYETTE
To: ED MCCLANAHAN
Hello Mr. Mcclanahan, my name is Karen FAulkner, and I am with SCAPA Lafayette. We are happy to hear from you. Our group is working on Youth Buys Survey, and a commercial. I personally have never read any of your books, but I propbably will now. I have heard of you in fact my Creative Writing Class just watched a movie about you. Well we would like to hear from you again so please respond.
Thanks, and have a nice day. Karen Elizabeth Faulkner.
From: ED MCCLANAHAN
To: SUZIE SMITH
Subj: REPLY TO MSG# 17291 (HELLO!)
To Suzie Smith:
Of *course* I remember our day in Lebanon! Hilda and I and Lisa (the late Lisa, alas) had a splendid time. Your account of the madman on the church spire reminds me of my first night in Maysville, in 1948.
I was 15, out cruisin’ with my new friends Gene and Johnny in Gene’s ragtop ’34 Chevvy flivver, mustard-yellow with painted fiery red flames blazing out of the radiator, rumble-seat (as the resident 15-year-old, I was in it), foxtails, ah-oogah horn, the works, straight out of Archie & Jughead …
So anyhow, there we are, putt-putting along down West 3rd Street, when suddenly we see the entire Maysville police force (which is to say, two patrol cars) assembled at the foot of the Maysville-Aberdeen (Ohio) bridge, with their spotlights trained on the tallest spire of the bridge, which is probably 200 feet above the water. Atop the bridge, we find out, is a guy locally (well) known as Wild Bill Dugan (son of Myrt Dugan, the original bag-lady, and an old soak named Juicy McDonald), who, under the influence of a copious infusion of gin, had climbed to the top of the bridge 30 days before, and had been assisted down, somehow, by the same police, but had inadvertently left behind a fifth of gin at the top of the spire, and after having served his 30 days (for conduct unbecoming a wino, I guess) and been released, has climbed back up … to retrieve his fifth of gin!
Which in turn reminds me of the several times my thirteen-year-old pals and I climbed the water tower (100 feet) in Brooksville, the better to spy upon a local couple who were reportedly going to make illicit love in the deep grass of the outfield of the high school baseball field, about an as-the-crow-flies mile from the top of the water tower, from which vantage point they’d have looked (if they’d ever showed up, which they never did) like a pair of trained fleas playing leap-frog on a distant cocker spaniel …
Well, Wild Bill made it down from the bridge, and I made it down from the water tower. But the Internet is higher, and scarier! Aieeeee!
All best — Ed McClanahan
More About Bobbie Ann Mason
The dislocating pace of social change is reflected in Bobbie Ann Mason’s novels and short stories, which are filled with both tragedy and quirky comedy. In Signature, Mason visits her hometown of Mayfield, KY, which is rich in the memories she has drawn on for her work. She discusses her award-winning novels In Country and Feather Crowns and reads from two well-received story collections, Love Life and Shiloh and Other Stories. The program includes an excerpt from the Norman Jewison film of In Country as well as commentary from Roger Angell, the New Yorker editor who encouraged Mason’s early writing.
The below questions and answers are taken from electronic messages between Bobbie Ann Mason and Kentucky high school students. They communicated on KET-Net, a dial-in education computer bulletin board, in November 1995.
From: Connie McElwain
To: Bobbie Ann Mason
To: Ms. Mason
In your story “Drawing Names”: What place in Kentucky did this take place?
Your story “Residents and transients” is very confusing, but how old are the lovers, because they act and talk very childish, but they seem old. And what year did this take place?
I’d like to know why you decided to write a story about a woman who loves to paint watermelons, and what inspired you too? I’d also like to know if you know Rick Trevino (the country singer) since he sings a song about “Bobbie Ann Mason”?
Questions of the story “Offerings”
What time frame or year is this story in?
What was he offering?
Did you live this story? and what are the offerings?
Why do you not want the grandmother to know all of this stuff going on?
How did you get the name of the title “Offerings”?
From: Amanda Murphy
Where did you get the idea in “Old Things” to put Paducah in this story, and have you ever spent any time there?
I don’t understand the ending of the short story “Love Life.” Why did you end it this way?
From: Connie McElwain
To: Bobbie Ann Mason
To: Ms. Mason
How do you come up with ideas for your characters and stories? I am also currently reading “In Country”; I was wondering if a real life experience was involved in the writing of that book?
To: Ms. Mason
On the short story “Graveyard Day”
How did you come up with this story?
From: Amanda Burns
Does Waldeen marry Joe McClain?
Have you ever been to Kentucky Lake?
What does the ending mean? And why does it end like that?
Why doesn’t Waldeen say yes to Joe when he asks her to marry him?
Answers to Student Questions
by Bobbie Ann Mason
I’ll take your questions in the order I received them:
To Sharon about “Drawing Names”: Most of my stories, including this one, are set in western Kentucky, the place I know best. I was born and raised near Mayfield, Kentucky. I don’t put my stories in the real Mayfield though — I often put them in an imaginary town I call Hopewell, which I imagine is near Paducah, just like Mayfield really is.
To Brooke about “Residents and Transients”: I’m sorry if you found the story confusing. Maybe you’ll find it less confusing if you read it again. In any case, the lovers are adults. They may sound childish because adults often do sound childish: when they are being playful, or when they are joking, or when they are being foolish, or when they let their guard down… As for when the story happened see my answer to Josh about “Offerings.”
To Lisa, about “Still Life with Watermelon”: It’s usually hard to say where ideas for stories come from. Sometimes I’ll just see something or hear a snatch of conversation or remember something, and I’ll get interested and wonder what it means, so I’ll start turning it over in my mind. So then I’ll make up a story about it to try to see what sense I can make of it. With “Still Life with Watermelon,” I had heard of an eccentric who collected watermelon paintings, and it made me wonder why someone would do that, so I invented a story about the subject. (As for Rick Trevino: I have met him. I went to hear him sing at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The song is not really about me, but it was named for me. The guy who wrote the song likes my fiction and the sound of my name.)
To Josh, about “Offerings”: I don’t recall that the story is set in any particular year. I wrote it in 1979, so the events could have happened then. But they could probably happen today just as well. Most fiction, if it is any good, is about how people really are, deep down, so it could be about people far away and long ago, or about people here and now, and it would ultimately be the same.
To Amy about “Offerings”: You’re asking a very good question, but I’m going to give you a tricky answer. You see, I don’t think I should decide what a story means and then tell you what to think. Instead, I think you should reach your own conclusions. A story should stand on its own; besides, the author can’t always be around to explain it. But I’ll say this much: We all take things during our lives (from the world, and from each other), and we also give things back. We receive and we offer. That’s the give-and-take of life. Sandra decides to make an offering to the wildcat, and if you think about it maybe you’ll see other offerings that she and other characters in the story make.
To Kandi, about “Offerings”: At the time I wrote this story, I lived on a farm a lot like Sandra’s, and I had a lot of cats there. (I still have a lot of cats. I love cats.) But otherwise the story is all made up. I’ve never been separated from my husband, for example, so I’m not like Sandra that way. In general, I don’t base many of my stories on real people or real events. My novella “Spence + Lila” drew pretty heavily on some real experiences, but my novel Feather Crowns is almost the only fiction I’ve ever written that was really closely based on real events. As for what the “Offerings” were, see my answers to Amy, Kristy, and Leslie.
To Kristy, about “Offerings”: Be sure not to mix up the author with the characters. I myself was not trying to hide anything from the grandmother. Sandra and her mother try to protect the grandmother by not telling her things that would upset her. They feel the grandmother is old-fashioned and frail, and might not be up to hearing about some of the sad things that happen in the modern world. Maybe their effort to protect her is a kind of offering they make to her.
To Leslie, about “Offerings”: The title must have come to me after I wrote the part about Sandra deciding that she wouldn’t mind if the wildcat took her ducks. Sandra decides “They are her offering.” As for what this might mean, see my answers to Amy and Kristy above.
To Amanda, about “Old Things”: Paducah shows up in some of my stories and novels since it is in Western Kentucky and that’s the area I write about most. (See my answer to Sharon, above.) In my novel “In Country,” the characters often like to go to Paducah to shop, for example, since it is the biggest city in the region. Referring to Paducah occasionally is a way for me to help readers to know in general where the events in the stories are taking place.
To Keely, about “Love Life”: This is another good question, similar to the one Amy asked. My answer is sort of like what I said to Amy. I hate to announce what the ending of a story means, because I don’t want to control what you think about it. The ending is partly yours to figure out. I’m not saying that the ending can have any old meaning anybody wants. But if you think carefully about everything that happened in the story, you should be able to see various implications in the ending. What I do when I’m writing is to keep a story going until I reach a moment when I feel everything in the story has come to a point where it all fits together and where the final words in the story shimmer, throwing a light back over everything that has come before. If the ending throws you off balance a little or puts questions in your mind, that may be a good thing — it’s part of the fun of reading a story and thinking it over. A good story should have a powerful emotional effect. You should feel something about the characters and their situation — more than you would feel if the author wrote a bare explanation instead of a fully developed story.
To Andrea: It’s hard to say where anybody’s ideas come from. The mind is a mystery — things just sort of pop out sometimes. Don’t you have this experience? For me, writing fiction is almost like dreaming — I imagine some people, then I just start writing to see who they are and what they will do. (See my answer to Lisa, above.) “In Country” is not based on any real experience of mine, except for one piece: At the end of the novel, Sam finds her own name on the Wall. I once found my name (or nearly my name) on the Wall: Bobby O. Mason.
To Shay, about “Graveyard Day” Your question is related to the ones from Lisa and Andrea. Take a look at my answers to them. I don’t really remember what led me to write about the characters or situations in “Graveyard Day.” I remember meeting someone who had a collection of walking sticks, including one that had been owned by Jefferson Davis. But I’m not sure what prompted the whole story. It may have been as simple as hearing that someone was going out to clean up a family grave site, and this got my curiosity going, so I imagined people getting ready to do the same thing.
To Amanda, about “Graveyard Day”: I don’t really know what happens to the characters in any story after the story ends. I didn’t write any further, so the future is unknown. I guess in this case, it’s up to you to decide what you think is most likely. Are Waldeen and Joe really in love? Will Waldeen straighten out her thoughts and feelings about Joe? What clues can you find in the story about these things? (Also, see my answer to Keely about endings.)
To Leigh: Yes, I’ve been to Kentucky Lake many times. My parents used to take my sister and me there for picnics when we were growing up. (See my answer to Amy about western Kentucky, and my answer to Amanda about Paducah.) Nowadays when I drive to Mayfield to visit my mother, I go past both Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake on my way.
To Stacey, about “Graveyard Day”: See my answer to Keely about endings. I know it may seem unfair for me to not just tell you what the ending of a story means, but I truly think it is best for you to reach your own conclusions. One way to think about the end of “Graveyard Day” is to ask yourself why Holly says what she does, and whether you think she is right.
To Renette, about “Graveyard Day”: Your question is related to Amanda’s, so take a look at my answer to her. But also, remember what is on Waldeen’s mind. She has had a bad marriage. This has to make her hesitate before taking the plunge again. And she is bothered a little about the fact that Joe McClain has the same first name as her former husband — it makes her feel like she might be repeating the old mistake if she marries a second guy named Joe. This isn’t logical, but it is how people think sometimes. Of course, she may not let these worries stand in her way ultimately. What do you think?