Allan Gurganus

Thursday, Jan. 17, 5 p.m., free

Duke’s Rubenstein Library, Durham

So voluminous is the literary ephemera of Allan Gurganus that it required the brawn of several members of the UNC wrestling team to haul sixty-two boxes from his historic home in Hillsborough to Duke’s Rubenstein Library. Gurganus is famed for his award-winning fiction, which sprawls across centuries and generations of characters; included in his archives are numerous drafts of his three titanic novels and four story collections.

Duke’s acquisition of the archive also highlights Gurganus’s life as a visual artist, from age twelve, when he began selling paintings, and continuing through his art-school stint in the sixties and his time on the deck of a Navy ship in the South Asian Sea, where he was drafted to serve during the Vietnam War.

This Thursday’s reading at The Rubenstein Library sets up the conclusion of the exhibit Allan Gurganus: A Writer’s Sketchbooks at Power Plant Gallery, which closes two days later. The INDY visited Gurganus at home to discuss his origins as an artist and a writer, the probability of getting struck by lightning, writing as choreography, and his magnum opus, The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church, which is slated to be released in two years.

INDY: What came first, writing or painting?

ALLAN GURGANUS: I started out as a painter. It was my safety as a child to go into my room with a pad and a pen and have some control over my life. It was such a relief to have absolute power over something. My dad was a respected member of the community but a very strict disciplinarian, so he really didn’t approve of my being an artist or that direction of life. He thought I would starve to death on the street and have to sell apples or something. He actively discouraged me from drawing and painting. Of course, that made me all the more adamant to do it. I sometimes wonder, if he had been a little more encouraging, if I might have ended up at General Motors or something.

Is that also the case with writing?

Yeah, he was fascinated to see how much I was going to make from a given book. I now realize he was really thinking of my best interests. He was deeply concerned that I was going to be so arty that I’d be unable to live or breathe, you know. It was a perspective that was shaped by the Great Depression and the difficulties he faced as a child. But in any case, it tapped into something that was very alive in me, and very exciting, just to make a mark on the page and let that mark lead to a second mark and a third, to evolve into a whole world, a whole universe. It was so thrilling. I never run out of energy for it.

When you were in the Navy during Vietnam, you found yourself sketching images of home. What kinds of images surfaced for you?

I was imagining the consolations of home life. My grandparents’ house, rocking chairs on porches, dogs and animals and good food, small-town life. My grandfather had a hobby farm. He was a businessman who lived in town, but he had a farm where we could run wild as children. And all that material, which would really be the sum and substance of my writing life, came back to me. When you’re ten thousand miles from home, that material seems very charged and real and becomes kind of mythological for you.

When you came home, would you say you continued to nurture the same visions?

I did, absolutely. The images became more surreal and more personable, even when I was in front of them. My work is full of exaggeration and comic overstatement. I’d like to think I have a sense of humor both off and on the page. I think comic vision is the thing that will save us in this world right now, because there’s so much tragedy on all sides.

You have a new book coming out. I’ve seen several dates floating around regarding its inception. When did you begin writing it?

I’ve been writing it since the seventies. It’s really been the book. It’s one of those books that you do a chapter, and then you write another book, and then you write another chapter. Every time you talk to another Baptist, you hear about another sexual experience that happened between the choir director and the preacher or the preacher’s son in the back room, so it’s a continuing saga.

At that rate, how do you know when you’re done?

My editor will tell me. I think he’s already told me. I’m finding a new kind of language for the book. It’s very comical, it’s very sexual, and it’s very spiritual. That’s a big, heady mix, like bartender mixology. I don’t know how many bottles I need to make this thing work, but I know it when I hit it. I’m very excited about it.

Readers of Local Souls and some of your other books recognize elements of Rocky Mount or Hillsborough. With this new book, what will readers recognize?

It’s set, along with the other books, in Falls, North Carolina. It’s a country church, so it’s set about three miles from the downtown. Some of the characters from The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All walk into the church, so there is a cross-pollination, but it’s very much in line with the map of Falls itself, and certain events that have happened in other books. But of course, as happens, the town grows outward and subsumes the country church. The church is called Lithium Springs Baptist. North Carolina has the highest content of lithium of any state in the union, and that’s why so many people can’t bear to travel anywhere else, because they’re so dependent on the lithium in the water. It has a soothing effect, just as the iron content in North Carolina means that it has more lightning strikes than any other state. More deaths on golf courses.

The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All was largely told from the perspective of Lucy Marsden. This new book is told from a chorus of voices. Was the immersion process different, leaning into one voice versus switching between many?

Lucy was an unbelievable gift. I thought I was writing a twenty-page story in the voice of a woman whose husband had been a boy soldier in the Civil War, and instead, I got eight hundred pages over the course of seven years. I felt I was channeling a voice that had existed longer than I had; it was like taking dictation at times. I was led to situations I had never imagined, and the fact of being in the voice of a woman was extraordinarily politicizing. I’m extraordinarily grateful to Lucy for having given me that book, in a strange way. This novel is often written in the voice of a “we” figure, which is the voice of the congregation itself. Some very canny, very observant member of the congregation is telling you what you need to know about the secrets of the church. It’s not clear exactly which member of the congregation it is, but it becomes clearer as the book goes on.

Like in “A Rose for Emily.”

That’s right. It’s hard to sustain over the long haul, of course. It breaks down into individual voices. It’s very choral, in the sense that specific units of the book are told by people in the church. It’s kind of a conglomeration. And then the church ends up as a television ministry in the early seventies and is bankrupted by overpromising, by selling prayer cloths and surrendering to advertising. So my intention is to write the history of America from the 1880s to the 1970s by looking at this little church.

You’ve said that a relationship with a choreographer changed the way you observe the world. I’m curious as to how your eyes as an artist also shape the way you look at the world.

Yes, Paul Taylor, the choreographer, was my boyfriend for a couple years, and I loved watching him work. I would go with him to his studio in New York, especially when he was making a new dance. He’d have all the dancers in the room, and he would act it out for them and place them and have chosen the music. It’s very powerful to see. It’s like the book of Genesis, in a way. You have these bodies, and you begin to move them. I found that inspiring. I’m very interested in creating large crowds of people in which individual moments are highlighted. From Paul, I learned a lot about highlighting specific gestures or doing theme and variation. With painting, I found that Rembrandt and Caravaggio were extremely exciting as examples of people who could create a very complex pattern, a very crowded scene, and have your eye go straight to the central transaction. I’ve learned a lot about that from choreography.

I see you’re reading Tommy Orange. Who else are you reading, or excited about?

There’s another book on the table—The Last Whalers. [Doug Bock Clark] is thirty-one and lives in Durham; this is his first book. It’s absolutely wonderful. He went and lived with a tribe in Indonesia that still lives on sperm whale meat and side products. It’s going to get a lot of attention. It’s a beautiful book.

How does it feel to be wrapping up An Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church?

It’s exciting and scary because I’m taking a lot of risks. And it’s wonderful, the business of moving the papers out of this house and into The Rubenstein Library. I feel the honor of having the papers bought by Duke, and the drawings, and all my letters from camp. Breakup letters from people I hardly remember. Personal ads I ran and all the responses. Duke University is now the owner of all that bad-boy stuff.

So is the moral here to hang onto breakup letters?

Hang onto everything. Absolutely. Otherwise, you’ll have nothing to sell in your old age.