BY Sandy Chambers
Thomas Wolfe. William Sydney Porter. James Boyd. Literary giants North Carolinians. We are deservedly recognized for our rich literary history.
“North Carolina is really distinctive as a literary state ” says Philip Furia chair of the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program at UNCW. “Writing has long been something that young people in our state aspire to do. They think ‘If a kid from Asheville [Thomas Wolfe] can become one of the great novelists of the 20th century I can do the same thing.’”
Furia believes that very few states can match what North Carolina offers with respect to support for writers. “UNC Greensboro launched one of the first MFA programs in the country ” says Furia who graduated from a similar program at the University of Iowa. “North Carolina now offers four MFA programs — at N.C. State Greensboro Asheville and Wilmington.”
The MFA program at UNC Wilmington began in 1995 with just three faculty members. Today the program has 14 faculty and 60 to 70 students. With more than 200 applications per year for the 25-30 available slots UNCW’s MFA program is very competitive. “Wilmington is so attractive to writers because of its physical beauty including the beach and its historic district ” Furia says.
Most graduates of the MFA program have published works. “Last year alone six of our graduates published their thesis books with national publishers ” says Furia. “It’s a great example to those just entering the program.”
We caught up with a few of the many award-winning North Carolina authors with Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach connections. We hope that you will be inspired by their stories.
Clyde Edgerton says he decided to become an English teacher after reading Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms ” in high school. “I hadn’t read much fiction up to this point ” he admits “and I was drawn to his style.”
Born and raised in a small town outside Durham Edgerton attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill but his plans to teach were delayed for five years after his graduation while he served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force. Edgerton then returned to college completing both a master’s and doctorate in English.
One evening in 1978 he was watching Eudora Welty read one of her stories on public television and wrote in his journal that night: “Tomorrow May 15 1978 — I would like to start being a writer.”
That deliberate decision — which he says was somewhat of a surprise even to him — marked the beginning of a prolific writing career. In addition to a plethora of short stories essays and reviews Edgerton has written eight novels and the non-fiction “Solo: My Adventures in the Air ” which recently won the 2006 Regan Old North State Nonfiction Award.
In addition three of his novels have been made into movies (“Raney ” “Walking Across Egypt” and “Killer Diller ”) and four have been adapted to the stage including the musical “Lunch at the Piccadilly ” with music by Mike Craver.
Edgerton says he was greatly influenced as a writer not only by Welty but also by Flannery O’Conner. “When I started reading their work I began to see connections to my own past and my own life ” he says “and that inspired me greatly to write my own fiction.”
Currently a professor in the creative writing program at UNCW Edgerton teaches creative fiction and nonfiction workshops. He is also a musician and plays in a bluegrass/folk band Clyde and the Rank Strangers.
In his reflections on why North Carolina has so many polished writers Edgerton says that unlike Virginia and South Carolina where large plantations were demolished after the Civil War North Carolina’s small farms continued to exist on up into the 1950s.
“Many of us who write fiction in North Carolina were somehow connected to those small farms and rural agriculture life ” he muses. “Then we had the cultural shock of going to college and watching the old agricultural South change to kind of an industrial society. That created a tension [in us] and one way to get rid of the tension is to write stories. I think that is true of a lot of Southern writers.”
Catherine McCall says her first book began as “random memories jotted in a journal while she was auditing a literature course on autobiography.” A graduate of Emory University and its medical school McCall moved to Wilmington in 1992 and opened a private psychiatric practice.
McCall says she always wanted to be a writer. “English was my favorite subject in high school and I kept a journal mostly of poetry ” she remembers. “By the time I finished my residency in medical school there was a burning inside me to write.”
McCall began auditing writing classes at UNCW and eventually enrolled in the MFA program. Her first book “Lifeguarding ” was her thesis for the program. The book which reads more like a novel is a memoir of McCall’s years growing up in the 1960s in Louisville Ky. in a house she says was haunted by the ghosts of her grandparents who died young and suddenly.
“The title of the book is literal as well as a metaphor for my life ” McCall explains. “As a teen I worked as a lifeguard and swam competitively as did my two siblings. But the book is also about how our family dealt with grief alcoholism and imperfections. My mother would always say to us ‘We have to stick together; we’re all we got’ — and so we guarded each other’s lives.”
McCall says having a community of writers in the UNCW MFA program and wonderful teachers helped her push past a wall she kept running into while trying to write on her own. “My greatest inspiration came from a visiting writer at UNCW Terry Tempest Williams whose commitment to the art of writing challenged me to write my memoir ” McCall says. “She was a pivotal person for me and she helped push me out of the shallow end where I was staying safe.”
McCall is currently working on a novel and a collection of essays exploring our personal relationship to nature and its healing power.
Philip Gerard fell in love with the North Carolina coast as a teenager when he came to the Outer Banks and Ocracoke Island to camp and fish. “My first novel ‘Hatteras Light ’ came out of my love for the Outer Banks ” Gerard says. His second “Cape Fear Rising ” is set in Wilmington where he has lived since 1989 writing and teaching in the Master of Fine Arts Program of the creative writing department at UNCW.
Gerard says he loves living near the water — “it’s not just the beach but the place where the water meets the land — the rivers the estuaries the coastal tidal marshes and creeks.”
Although Gerard worked his way through college he spent his summers hitchhiking across the country. “It opened up my world and taught me to be self-reliant ” he says. “Somewhere between the ages of 18 and 21 a young person has got to have an experience that breaks them out of the life they’ve been in and gets them into the life they’re about to enter. Mine was traveling during those summers.”
In addition to writing and teaching Gerard is a musician who plays the dobro guitar banjo and pedal steel guitar. He also loves to sail and with a sailboat dubbed Suspense it’s easy to see the impact of his early years spent reading authors such as Jack London Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway.
Gerard has a long list of writing credits including three novels four nonfiction books numerous magazine articles two environmental documentaries and several radio essays. He is currently working on a historical novel about Paul Revere.
Gerard believes the writer’s job is “to put into words what is worst — and also what is best — about us … and to inspire readers to greatness of soul and heart.
“All of my books tend to come back to a couple of themes over and over ” Gerard says. “First is that of the ordinary individual caught up in the extraordinary and second is the theme of community and how community reacts to some kind of threat.”
As a creative writing teacher Gerard advises his students not to try to make their writing too perfect. “Everybody’s first drafts are ugly ” he says. “Just get it down on the page work with it and learn something from everything you write.”
He also believes that the process is its own reward. “I love publishing books and seeing my name in print ” he says “but after you’ve been doing it for a while you realize that the most satisfaction comes from just writing something down on the page and really feeling like you got it right.”
Gerard’s aspiration as a writer is to write “lasting books” — which he defines as books that will be picked up in a library 100 years from now and still captivate the reader still cause the imagination to come alive with the vision that inspired the writing of the book.
“I think every writer wants to be immortalized ” Gerard says. “I think if you’re going to go to the trouble of writing books you want to make your mark on the world.”
Recently named the Southeast Tourism Society’s Travel Writer of the Year Lynn Seldon has spent the past 18 years as a travel writer and photographer focusing on the Southeast and the Caribbean.
Seldon says his career actually began 20 years ago when he was in the Army. “After a ton of cheap trips while stationed in Europe I sent a story on Crete to the Armed Forces daily newspaper Stars and Stripes and they bought it for $50 ” Seldon says.
Since then Lynn has covered the world and his own backyard with stories of outdoor adventure cruise-ship travel exotic ports and food and wine. His stories have appeared in more than 500 publications.
Seldon and his wife Cele call Oak Island home but since purchasing a 28-foot Winnebago they are on the road more than ever — traveling 20 to 30 weeks out of the year. “We love RVing ” Seldon says. “This fall we actually completed a six-week trip that retraced some of John Steinbeck’s route in ‘Travels with Charley’.”
Although he says his favorite place to visit is the next place he’s going Seldon confided that he has a special love for St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands because that’s where he and Cele honeymooned.
Seldon says he loves to write first-person experiential stories where he can tell exactly what happened on the trip. And he has had plenty of opportunities to do just that. His assignments have taken him to many exciting locations including a recent rafting trip on the Rogue River in Oregon. There were eleven paddling companies — all members of Adventure Gateway Seldon says. “Ironically one of the companies Wildwater was founded by Jim Greiner who lives on Wrightsville Beach. We’ve gotten to know Jim and his wife quite well. It’s this type of opportunity that keeps me traveling and writing.”
Wilmington is a wonderful setting for murder mysteries ” says Wanda Canada author of “Island Murders” and its sequel “Cape Fear Murders.”
“You have a historical setting and the deep dark Cape Fear River and marshes that could hide a thousand bodies.”
Canada says her first book started with the idea of what would happen if you found a body under a dock. Her second book is set at the Arboretum where she used to do volunteer work. “One day I noticed that the Japanese Tea Garden at the back of the Arboretum was very secluded ” Canada recalls “and I realized this would be the perfect spot for a murder.”
Before moving to Wilmington in 1991 Canada lived in Raleigh where her family owned a construction business. “We bought old houses and redid them ” she explains. “So it seemed quite natural to make my main character Carol Davenport a building contractor.”
While living in Raleigh Canada took classes at N.C. State where she had access to several North Carolina writers. She took a number of classes taught by Sam Ragan a former North Carolina poet laureate by poet Shelby Stephenson and by Guy Owen who wrote “The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man.” “I found North Carolina writers to be a great resource and very encouraging ” Canada says. “I do think North Carolina is one of the most nurturing states for new writers.”
With a third book in her murder series ready to be published Canada insists that fans have become very attached to her characters. “I didn’t anticipate that ” she says “so I can’t really murder off any of the good guys.”
Canada has participated in the annual Cape Fear Crime Festival since its beginning in 2001. “It’s a great resource for writers and fans alike ” she says. “Overall Wilmington is a great place to write and to write about because people are so supportive.”
Kevin E. Cropp
Wrightsville Beach author Kevin Cropp says he moved to the beach three years ago to lock himself in his room and finish his first novel “The Time Keeper.” Based on his own experiences growing up in Fayetteville Cropp says “My mom and I waited until right down to the wire to sort out our differences and my message in the book is it’s never too late. I receive letters in the mail all the time from people telling me how much the story meant to them. Recently I was at the beach when a woman approached me introduced herself and told me that since reading ‘The Time Keeper ’ she has been trying harder to get along with her son. That small comment was worth a thousand words. That is why I write and that is why I wrote ‘The Time Keeper.’ If nothing else comes of my first novel the years of work have already been worth it.”
Cropp graduated from North Carolina State and although he knew he wanted to be a writer since he was a child he avoided taking English literature or writing classes in college. “I didn’t want anyone to ruin it for me ” he says. “I didn’t want anyone to take the fun out of reading literature by making me analyze everything.”
After graduating Cropp rode a motorcycle from North Carolina to Alaska crossing the Yukon and ending up in the Aleutian Islands where he became an Alaskan king crab and salmon fisherman for three years. Based on those experiences Cropp says his second novel will be set in the Bering Sea and will be a sequel to “The Time Keeper.”
Being a writer has not been easy. “I can definitely relate to the starving artist scenario ” he insists. While living in Boulder Colorado rock climbing and working on his book Cropp didn’t have a job and friends would leave food on his doorstep. “And my sister used to send me Starbuck cards in the mail so I could get coffee ” he says.
An avid reader Cropp devours 100 books a year. His favorite authors are southern writers such as Pat Conroy. “Also Louis L’Amour has been a huge inspiration to me ” he says. “I carried ‘Education of a Wondering Man’ with me on my motorcycle trip across Alaska.”
Currently Cropp works full time designing network security software and still finds time to write four to six hours a day. “I set a goal for myself of 2 000 words a day ” Cropp says. “I do it every single day. Even if it’s one in the morning and I haven’t written my 2 000 words I do it before I go to bed.”
His first novel took three years to write and another year to get published and Cropp says he learned perseverance through the experience. “I thought I knew what perseverance was then it ran out and I had to reach in deeper for another year then even deeper for another eight months ” he explains. “Writing is definitely hard work but if you’re doing what you love it doesn’t seem like work.”
His aspirations as a writer? “Of course I’d like to win the Pulitzer ” Cropp says half seriously. “I read all the Pulitzer Prize-winning books because I know they’re great books. I know when I pick one up and read the first page that it’s going to be a great book. But I don’t think you can ever learn how to write a Pulitzer — it’s got to come from the soul.”
Cropp says his basic philosophy is to live one day at a time and every day do the best that you can do. “I know it may be a cliché ” he says “but I honestly believe it and that in the end the payoff for that hard work will come.”