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Title:
Interview with Clyde Edgerton, February 20, 2008
Date:
February 20, 2008
Description:
Dr. Clyde Edgerton is a professor of Creative Writing at UNCW and the author of several novels, including Redeye, The Floatplane Notebooks, and Walking Across Egypt, and the memoir Solo: My Adventures in the Air. Many of his novels, including Killer Diller and Walking Across Egypt, have been adapted for film, and his novel Lunch at the Piccadilly became a musical production. In this interview, Dr. Edgerton discusses his background and writing life.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Edgerton, Clyde Interviewer:  Diesenhaus, Doug Date of Interview:  2/20/2008 Series:  SENC Writers Length  60 minutes

 

Diesenhaus: I'm Doug Diesenhaus, and today, February 20, 2008 I'll be interviewing Clyde Edgerton for the Randall Library Oral History Project on creative writers. Perhaps the best place to start is if you could talk about how you started writing, how you came to this life.

Clyde Edgerton: I had in my family I had several storytellers, my mother and my aunts, and one of my uncles, who loved to talk about people in the family from before I was born. Consequently one of my favorite uncles died before I was born, Uncle Alfred [ph?]. I heard many stories about him. I heard about how he talked with a lisp. I had to write quotes from him. And I also observed things happen and heard them being told. I remember vaguely, although I remember the telling of it, I remember the happening of my waking up when I was probably three-years old, one night before other people were going to bed, looking for a string. And I must have been almost asleep. And my aunt, one of my aunts, told that so many times that I sort of visualize it. So there was this joy in storytelling about people that I thought was in the air everywhere. And many families are lucky to have that, and some don't, have something else perhaps, but I had that. And because my mother was 40, almost 40 when I was born, and her one sister was older and one was younger, and they had no children, the sisters and I was the only child, these three women who were almost like grandmothers in many ways took me places. And I heard them talk a lot, and I absorbed all that, not realizing it was something that might in different ways come back later. My interest was in teaching stories, being an English teacher. So somewhere while I was contemplating thinking about teaching stories, I dared think about writing. And when I finished a lot of other things, going to school and earning degrees, flying in the Air Force for five years, and then starting to teach college, I had some blank time. I had two weeks to a Christmas vacation. And I had tried to write stories before, but I was only able to write scenes, I see now as I look back on it. So I wrote my first story Christmas l977. I had a beginning, a middle and an end. It ended up as a chapter in The Floatplane Notebooks when Meredith, one of the characters, falls though-- excuse me, yes, falls through a well underneath the kitchen floor. I wrote that, and I had just begun reading Southern writers. I knew Southern writers existed. I knew Southern writers existed but I didn't quite know about that whole genre. I knew about Hemingway, Crane, Twain, those people. As I discovered Flannery O'Connor and Faulkner, although I didn't read much Faulkner, Eudora Welty, I realized that they were writing about that family that I grew up in, in a way that was recognizable. And I made that connection. And so my first story was about a family, and some dialogue and a family and what happened. I was an admirer and still am of Eudora Welty. And a few months later, May 14th, 1977 I heard her read the story and watched her read the story on PBS while I was living at the P.O. And it touched me in such a way that I decided the next morning I would start writing seriously, fiction, and I did. I was 33, I guess. Is that right? Yeah. So that's how I got started.

Diesenhaus: I think I read that your childhood reading was somewhat sporadic?

Clyde Edgerton: Say that again, I'm sorry.

Diesenhaus: That your childhood reading was somewhat sporadic?

Clyde Edgerton: My character?

Diesenhaus: How much reading you did as a child.

Clyde Edgerton: Oh, yeah. As a child I didn't read a lot. I started in seventh or eighth grade. I'm sorry, I forgot my hearing aid. I started, I can't say-- if I remember, my mother read to me normally, I think, although probably not a lot. She read to me Bible stories from a book called The Children's Bible Reader, or something like that. But there was no talk of literature per se in my home. In the eighth grade, I believe, we started ordering these little paperback books. Did you do that in eighth grade?

Diesenhaus: I think so, something similar.

Clyde Edgerton: So we get these boxes, and we would have ordered that-- 35, 25 and 15 cents apiece back then. And I can still remember the smell of those new paperback books. And luckily I hit on some that were interesting to me. The Red Car is one I remember. The Kid Strikes Back I believe was another one. And then was Old Yeller, which really got me. And last recess-- I started reading in the morning, I think. And I remember sitting on an old tennis court that was never used for tennis as far as I can remember, while the other kids were playing, reading the end of that book. And that was a big moment. And I was just in eighth grade. And then in high school I only read textbooks. I'd read a novel that was assigned like-- was hooked by Emerson, actually. I've written about that and trying to understand it. But really was captivated by Emerson. But only in college when I read A Farewell to Arms did I feel the real connection to stories and wanted to teach them. And so I wanted to be a high school English teacher. So the reading, then once I got on Hemingway and left college and went into the Air Force, I read everything I could find about Hemingway, and started on Mark Twain, and Crane, and some of those people as I mentioned before.

Diesenhaus: I want to go back to where you started talking about the voices in your family and place. And six of your novels have used the fictional town of Listre as a basis. Could talk about how important a place has been to your work, and when you started did you plan that kind of arc, or has that developed over time?

Clyde Edgerton: You know, it's always a little bit-- I always have problems answering questions about place, and place is a big topic in literature. And I think that-- Flannery O'Connor writes about it. I mean, Eudora Welty writes about it wonderfully. The Eye of the Story is a book in which she writes about place. I think part of my problem in thinking about place is because it's like the fish that come out of water. And certainly place versus ideas, it's another way of talking about the concrete versus the abstract, which I again didn't see what we're talking about. In my growing up an in my conversations in the home, we talked about the dog and the yard. We talked about the food on the table in front of us. We talked about people we knew, or people we had known, or-- I'm talking about the adults now. There was no talk about ideas per se, or even politics, that I heard much about religion other than partaking in the rituals of it. So what was left were the things and places around us were topics of conversation, where we were going, where we've been, the home place, the graveyard, the field, this field. Even in my mother's family I found out while trying to do some research or not, I can't remember, my uncle talking about the names of some fields in the home community where he grew up, and found out that it was-- later found out when I would use it in a book, someone wrote me from England, someone who did research in the names of fields as a subject of study. So that, again, was part of my life. So when I started to-- decided where my characters were living I had been driving by my little road called Lystre, the old Lystre Road, I think, L-Y-S-T-R-E, and I just change it around a little bit to have a temporary name for this-- so I could really name this town that I was-- had my characters in. Then there was also Bethel Road, or Bethel community, I believe, Bethel Road someplace else. I said okay, Bethel and Listre would my two little towns, and later on I'll change the names when I call them something better. So I didn't come up with anything better. I kept them. And then the next book or two or three, it just was easy to-- and it also made it convenient, I could live with characters a little bit in the neighborhood, if I needed to and wanted to.

Diesenhaus: You mentioned the research. And I wonder, given that it's based on things that you know, have you had all the information that you needed to work on the novels, or at times have you needed to go back and research?

Clyde Edgerton: Most of the time I've had all the information I need to know. Experience, my experience my observation, my imagination have given me everything I need. So I haven't had to do a lot of research. But in most books you do have to look up something here and there. In one book, the western that I wrote called Redeye, I had to an extensive amount of research. There 's a lot of-- that top shelf of books up there are the books that I read. I'm not bragging about that. I'm just saying that I got obsessed with the West for a year or two and read those books and took notes on them, several hundred pages of notes on those 30 or 40 books. And I've never done that before since, become that obsessed with a topic. And so it's like I did all my research for all my novels in that one novel-- on that one novel.

Diesenhaus: I have a question, I'm not sure it relates directly to the Westerns, but at the least, some of your novels start by going back in time. I think it's The Plane Notebook, there's the map of the town in 1950. I wonder about the idea of change, especially as it relates to the South, like confronting, development, technological development, religious transformations.

Clyde Edgerton: I think, when I was a child I wasn't aware of the dates of my grandfather's birth. It turns out that my mother was quite old when I was born, and her father was quite old, same thing on my father's side. And I heard about these people, these grandparents. I kind of-- in a way I knew them secondhand, but I had a feel for them. Well, these people were born in 1865 and 1870. So, and of course my parents had been intimate in a familiar way with their parents, so here I was just removed from the aftermath of the Civil War. So I felt like I had a feeling for all of that. It was kind of in my blood. And they were both raised on farms, so the images and the memories they had had to do with farm life. So I felt a part of that. And that's true in the South, in North Carolina, unlike South Carolina, Virginia and perhaps Georgia and Louisiana. There were massive plantations because of routes of transportation. In North Carolina it wasn't so easily established, so there were small farms. So small farms, while the plantations were disappearing after the Civil War, they stayed until the early '50s, late '50s, and that's when I was a child. So I was kind of connected to the past, and was kind of favoring back into the past through stories and where I lived. Then I went away to Chapel Hill, a northern town which was very liberal, and took a bath in all that liberal idea-oriented kind of way of thinking, not even having the concept of liberal conservative and everything, but I got really excited with the atmosphere after almost one town that didn't. In Chapel Hill the whole business of settling-- I kind of moved from this place, thing, object-oriented environment to ideas, so that was very exciting. And I didn't know what was going on, but looking back on it I see that change. So I think about it, too, in terms of growing up in Research Triangle in North Carolina, which has become much like Atlanta. It's grown. It's become a big Metropolis. It used to be three small towns, and I would travel back and forth. So I watched that happen. And I have mixed feelings about all of it, because it's all very complicated. And it's interesting to write about little strands or aspects of all that. People talk about in simplistic ways. Certainly there are good and bad things about the old and the new.

Diesenhaus: Another potential old and new shift is about religion. And I wonder what is your approach to religion and faith in your books. If I'm correct, there are sometimes certain types of ambivalence?

Clyde Edgerton: Yes, of course.

Diesenhaus: Does that relate to yourself?

Clyde Edgerton: That relates to my own personal experiences in and out of church, and with people who are more or less religious. I think it's very easy for a writer or an intellectual to bash organized religion. I think that's one of those areas where generalizing is not helpful. But I grew up in a fundamentalist kind of environment, believing in the literal translation of the Bible. I'm almost 64-years old. I've just written a Bible-- a book, not a Bible. My aunt wished-- one time one of my aunts was in the hospital. She was, I think, probably it was close to the end of her life, so not the ones I was talking-- another aunt. I had 23 aunts and uncles, so there are a bunch of them. But this one was-- on her bedside table was a copy of the Bible and a copy of one of my novels. And a nurse came in and said, "Do you know him?" And I was there. The writer-- or not-- she said is, "Is that your nephew's book," something, anyway. She went real crazy about some of the language. She placed her hand on my novel and said, "He wrote this one." She said, "I wish it were a little more like this one," and she put her hand on the Bible. But I grew up in this environment in which I was a fundamentalist believer. And I've lived that in ways that weren't uncomfortable, necessarily. I also was in a little church where all the members were very attentive to me and my friends. It's like having lots of aunts and uncles. I went back and-- finally on the music. But some of my views about what we could be confident about changed over time. So I think that charged atmosphere between a person who is, for example, an atheist and a person who is a firm believer, what they have to say to each other, how they might talk to each other is a wild, frothy, tumultuous sea that is therefore interesting to me.

Diesenhaus: Given how much comes out of your environment growing up, I wonder how much of what you write is autobiographical, and then even if it isn't, do people end up perceiving it that way or reading your books as if they are that way?

Clyde Edgerton: People who know my family intimately read the book, a novel, and don't believe that it's all that personal, because it seems-- and what I've done is camouflaged and maneuvered around. In one way or another I think everything-- many writers write his own biographical. If it's not a physical, personal, psychological biography, it's an intellectual biography or a biography of interests, because the interests end up being in the book in camouflaged ways. So I think Faulkner was right, and it struck a chord when I read it. He said, "The sources of writing are experience, observation and imagination." And those are the tools you use. And I could go through any novel and any scene and talk about what part has happened to me, what part I heard about happening to someone else and what I made up. And often it's a combination of all those. And some books are more one way than the other. For example, Redeye, I had to really make up a lot of stuff for that book. And others, it varies how much you made up. It's nice to have that cushion, that thick cushion of time between what you're writing about and what happened to you. And as you write it, it becomes something new and different than what happened to you. But, for example, Lunch at the Piccadilly, a story I wrote about a young man and his aunt in a nursing home, was based in many ways on my experiences with my own aunt. And I really hadn't-- I was really pretty close to the action, and I think that can hurt a novel if you're too close to what happened. Same with Killer Diller. I'm not sure, Killer Diller might have been hurt a little bit by being too close to what I was writing about, but Lunch and Faith of the Man might not have been.

Diesenhaus: Actually both of those, among others, have been adapted to the film, theater or musical productions, and I wonder about the process of adaptation and particularly your levels of involvement, and if you prefer being a part of it or not being part of it?

Clyde Edgerton: I haven't been involved in any of the films, other than I've been asked to look at the scripts. Maybe not the Raney script, I wasn't asked to look at that one. I can't remember-- I did look at Walking Across Egypt, and I did look at Killer Diller. And I was involved in Killer Diller. I visited the set and had a bit part. And it was a lot of fun. I remember driving up to the parking lot from the airport to be there for a few days when Killer Diller was being made. And that was a van with B-O-T-A House written on the side of it, BOTA House. And that was almost like-- I mean that was like magic. It was like somebody was being in here, because I even made up "Back on Track Again" House, and the van's-- and I thought of it all in my head and the story that I made up, and imagined and saw. And I drive up, and there's this van. And I was, "Whoa. We're really here." And so it's kind of-- I mean, I can how writers and people would be really sucked in to the glory of having something you thought about being made by other people made real. So there was a kind of charge that way, and it was fun. It was a great cast, and all the people were very friendly. And they were telling me stories, the young people who were actors, about other films where things aren't going well. So that was a big experience. Now, so I wasn't involved. However, when I did Lunch at the Piccadilly, when I wrote the novel and finished it, for one reason or another I can't remember why exactly, I had some time. Before I started on another novel, another project, I wanted to an adaptation, and I wanted to do it to the stage. So I did, and it was a learning experience. I had adapted Where Trouble Sleeps to screen and-- let me change that. I had written a screenplay for Where Trouble Sleeps and saw some of the interesting problems in translation from one medium to another. And with Lunch at the Piccadilly it was a lot of fun because I called up Mike Craver, a friend of mine who's a musician, and said, "Would you do the music if we do a musical?" And he said, "Yes." So in that particular case, honing the big story of a novel down to the small story that would be the play was an interesting and fun experience, especially when I could send him ideas for songs and he could come-- and be thrilled with the song. I keep thinking about how people would be looking at this when mp3 is dated, and they wouldn't even know what it is. Maybe people would be looking at it.

Diesenhaus: That brings up an important question, is that you play in a band, you write and perform music. And I wonder, has had that had an impact on your writing? A lot of your books include songs.

Clyde Edgerton: Yeah, in a way my attempts at music have had something to do with the novels is that I usually just included music as a topic or crutch or something that people can do. Because I'm confident that what they do will be more authentic if I worked on automobile engines I'm sure I'd have more mechanics in my stories.

Diesenhaus: Taking it one step further though, in your readings I know you combined readings with music. And I wonder, what does that do to the audience? Does it enliven the reading experience?

Clyde Edgerton: I hope so. I hope it enlivens the reading experience. I hope it keeps things moving a little bit. Because there's nothing more deadly than a dead and boring dog reading where someone full of their story or a push, or read everywhere on the page and do nothing else, and think that somehow the world is supposed to fall at their feet. And I won't say that I'm not that way, but I am very conscious of being in an audience and being bored out of my skull. So I do everything I can to keep my readings short. I rewrite what is on the printed page so it will be delivered in a performance. I can't imagine going before an audience any way other than performing. So when I read I try to find what has much energy and can be made visual. And then just in case that's not working, I'll take a short break for a song or two. And in case the music is bad to the listener's ear, I'll only do one or two songs and I'd go back to something else. So my goal is to keep it moving. And, you know, I've looked at some tapes. For some reason I looked at a tape. Why would I do that? But I realize, this was from years ago, that I had gone on too long. The whole thing's to be we shouldn't go on long.

Diesenhaus: Do you, then you're writing a book in the first place, do you ever think about that kind of performativity, like how would this sound?

Clyde Edgerton: Yeah. Well, here's what happens, is what's happening at the moment almost. It happened yesterday and the day before. I'm reading-- the first three or four novels, I think, somewhere in the process it was important to me-- I keep on bumping that line. It was important to me to read it aloud, because I think the ear is a great editor and it forms on how things should be on the page-- can form you. So I would read aloud. And then, that was for three or four novels. Then for three or four novels I think I kind of got away from that, although mentally I was reading to myself and listening. Now I'm reading this book which is in page proofs, The Bible Salesman, aloud, and I'm finding some places that actually seem a little better to read to an audience than I had thought. But I'm always conscious of reading to an audience. And my first readings of new work to an audience are always tricky and scary to me because I'm not sure that which I'm confident will work, will work. And even the audiences vary from one to the other. The first time you read something aloud to an audience you do get a feedback, a feel if it's working or not. And I've already read from this novel not well, because I include broad swaths of a italicized material in a section which I thought was wonderful, it would work really well. And I included the italicized versions and I read it, and I could tell it was not working, and it was a bad feeling. I wouldn't give up, so I took out all the italicized stuff and tried it to a second audience a few weeks later and it worked somewhat better. Now I've cut it a little more, and then finally with the third try it worked. And in the process of that, this is before the book is published, I've improved the text a bit, I think.

Diesenhaus: Does humor function in a similar way that either purposely that you're writing it, or you're choosing humorous excerpts to read in order to keep the audience?

Clyde Edgerton: I think we've got enough seriousness in our lives, there's probably not enough humor. So when I have a reading I always go for the-- not always, occasionally not, but generally I go for funny stuff. And if it has any meaning, good.

Diesenhaus: The new book that you're talking about, did you say it was non-fiction?

Clyde Edgerton: It's fiction. It's called The Bible Salesman.

Diesenhaus: If I'm correct, you've only written one full work of non-fiction.

Clyde Edgerton: Correct.

Diesenhaus: And I wonder with your approach to writing, was it different? Did elements of your writing process change, or did you think about the book differently than you do when you're starting a novel?

Clyde Edgerton: It was a different experience. And, you know, I went into it thinking it was going to be a little easier because-- and it was easier in some ways. I had to swath of my life, I use that word "swath" again. Where did that come from? Swath of my life, five years of my life, l960 and l971, when I started flying airplanes, and then quit after five years and then started back a little later. I could remember everything pretty well. And one of the reasons I could remember is because I'd told a lot of it to friends. You know, one the best ways you remember something is to tell it, and then question it, you've got it. I've kind of discovered that. And so here was this-- and when important things are happening in your life, military service especially you remember dates. You have an order to be a certain place-- October 18th, 1966 I had to report such and such a place. And you tell people all summer I've got to be somewhere October 18th, so you remember those dates. And because you move-- you know as a child when we moved from one place to another we often remember our age and what school. So those five years were clearer in my mind. And because the last year was in-- I was living in combat. I mean I was flying combat missions, not living in combat. And so that was an impression of those five years in which they sort of stayed with me all my life, it's still back there. So I figured I could just sit down and write them out. And that is sort of what I did. But I do remember in January or February of 2004, I thought I had in 2004, I can't remember. I said to myself, "I can have this thing finished in April." Well, it was April the following year before I had it finished, because someone said I have to revise it, and did have to do some research to look up things. But what happened was, I was a little more finicky with it at the end because these were my words in a way that fiction, the world and the words belong to the characters, and so I'm thinking about getting the character right. And I'm once-removed almost, whereas with the non-fiction this was me speaking to a reader, and it had to have a certain precision that I was aware of. So I worked hard on getting it just right, and it was not an easy topic, flight, something which people have experienced but usually with someone else flying an airplane. So it was a bit narrow and technical. So it had a different feel to it. It wasn't as interesting to me as writing fiction just because of lack of suspense and tension that when I'm working on a really good novel-- I'm going to change that. When I am working well on a novel, often it's because I'm not sure exactly what's going to happen. But I am invested in the scene and the personalities who are acting in front of me.

Diesenhaus: I want to come back to some of the things but want a little bit more on the flying end. You talked about the technical information. You know how to fly so you know how to do it, but in order to write it in the way that you wanted, did you have to do research? Secondly, instead of turning technical information into elegant language, or metaphor or meaning, was there some kind of translation going on there?

Clyde Edgerton: There was a translation going on, and it was difficult. And you've got it right in the way you ask a question. And the research out there, I read a couple of books, and I said, "I want to read a couple of books on flying." I did read two very interesting books, but they didn't help me any. I've only read one book which I mentioned in the beginning of this call, what was it called, Stick and Rudder: Art of Flying. It's called something like that. And it's by a guy who's name I can't pronounce who's a German. It was written in 1944, and it's a spectacular book in terms of describing what happens. And it's written in a language I admire. It's non-technical, and you can understand what he's talking about. So I sort of aspire to do the technical parts like that, although I didn't want many technical-- I didn't want a lot of technical parts to the book. I wanted it to be my emotional attraction and the explanation of that. And the whole business of my emotional attraction to flying, it made me-- there's a consequence of that, I ended up being involved being in a war which I ended up not believing in. So there's some conflict and turbulence there that needed to be written about. But I did have to go back and look at some manuals, and find some of the little technical things which would make what I was talking about seem alive. And then there are a few things, I had to go back to be sure they were accurate such as checklists and, fun. But I think I learned. And I think it's true that if I start to move in to too much research, I should have known if I didn't that I was running the risk of boring the reader. Because it's just a translation of information from one source to another, from some book somewhere to a reader's mind, and that's not what I was about was not writing a textbook. The hardback came out, and I heard from seven or eight pilots who were to various degrees irritated at the technical mistakes, and they were in all cases, I think, accurate. Maybe there was one or two, because I did some research. So I got those all fixed up for the paperback. And then I also kind of analyzed the book and realized that there were chapters or pages, I can't remember early on the book with the most technical part of it. So I warned readers in a little message in the beginning of the book, "If you're not technically-oriented, skip these pages." And I would have thought it helped some.

Diesenhaus: You talked a bit about the conflict of specifically talking about war and your involvement. In a gap where you weren't flying, what was it that brought you back to it, and has that had some kind of effect on your writing in some way? Is there an interweaving of the flying and the writing somehow?

Clyde Edgerton: The novel, The Floatplane Notebooks which was written in the mid-'80s, was a consequence of my-- some of that book was a consequence of my having-- well, a good bit of that book was a consequence of two things, one, my experience in Southeast Asia as a pilot. And some of the emotions of one of the characters and some of the physical experiences of another character were drawn from me. But while I was writing the book which was before I saw a little floatplane, home-built airplanes, a fellow trying to fly off a lake in Raleigh, and I was infatuated with it. And I incorporated that into the novel. And then soon after the novel I saw a little yellow Piper Cub flying around, and then saw it on the ground at an airport near my home, and looked inside, and just the whole rush of wanting to fly came back. And I ended up buying an airplane and flying it for a couple of years. Crashed that airplane, no one was injured seriously. And that stopped me from flying, more or less, because of many reasons it takes a lot of money and time to fly an airplane, plus I'd been frightened by that experience. So-- I can't remember the question exactly.

Diesenhaus: To follow up, and maybe in line with the question a bit, is there any comparison between the flying experience and the writing experience? Are there any similarities?

Clyde Edgerton: There is a comparison between writing and flying. It's much easier to crash when you're writing than it is when you're flying. Or the aftermath is not as bad. You know, I've never thought about it exactly like that. It's interesting. There is an element of, and this is obvious, suspension. When you're in an airplane there's some tension, suspense and something unknown. What's unknown is are you going to land safely. And when you do there's kind of an exhilaration. In writing, I would compare going into a room alone to work on a scene that you're interested in. If you're writing something you're interested in it's not always-- I mean, I think every time I've ever gotten in an airplane, took off and would land in traffic pattern, and I could fly in traffic pattern. I love flying in traffic pattern. It was a similar sensation, and it was wonderful. It was a thing of precision and immediate feedback. But when you go into a room to write, sometimes it's exhilaration, exhilarating, sometimes it's not. And early on when I was writing my very first stories, about 12 stories before I ever had anything published, just-- I tend maybe to think about this romantically. That's when it was really most exhilarating because it was raw dealing with these people I was writing about. Later on after a novel or two there were spurts, and long spurts of that. But it came a little more mechanical and a little less-- more like flying passengers around rather than your early flights in your airplane. So there are interesting similarities. I could talk about it a long time because they're both-- I get excited about both activities. Because of a kind of suspension of being away from the word, I guess, and having the power, and having control, and having a little bit of danger in some ways, this is not something that's predictable that you probably come out on the other side okay. And in on case you could see where you could bring pleasure to other people through the writing, and it's less likely to the flying.

Diesenhaus: I don't have a question-that's the last flying question that I have. I want to move a bit towards something about the MFA, and a little bit more about the writing process. Since you started teaching here, has the MFA degree changed or evolved in some way?

Clyde Edgerton: The MFA degree here has changed, because we're getting much better students, so it becomes more interesting to me. I snuck in maybe ten years ago, nine or ten years ago in '98 I guess, so yeah, ten years ago. And the pub lab has made a difference. The reputation of the program's made a difference in that we get students who are more talented as writers. So you have a little more to knock around when you take home a thesis to read now than you used to, although there are certainly exceptions. There were some excellent students early on, and there are some students who aren't so excellent now. (laughs) I'm glad I haven't had you in class, because I certainly wouldn't be speaking of you.

Diesenhaus: Somewhat more broadly. Do you have thoughts on the old-I mean another question in whether writing can be taught? Obviously you're a teacher, maybe the question is are you teaching philosophy?

Clyde Edgerton: Yeah, whether or not writing can be taught, that's a good question. And there are vocal adherents to both sides of the question. I think you can cut corners. I think a student can cut corners. I never had a writing teacher per se. I had one workshop, one-- not one workshop, it was six-week, what do you call that, communication education or whatever it is, Duke University with Liz McCox [ph?]. She was very good. Had six weeks to go in, and one of those weeks I had a workshop, read a chapter of my first novel. And I can't remember what I learned, although I remember she was very good and very nurturing, and gave me some confidence, I remember that. Technique is important. So several reasons I think it's important. One, I believe a writer can learn in ways that will improve subsequent writing. My editors, when I was publishing my first novel, Shannon Ravenel and Louis Ruben were like teachers to me. And I learned, you know, to see the characters when you're writing dialogue. I've learned to get-- I've a lot about what to get rid of. And gradually I learned that on my own, but the confidence that I had from them made a big difference. So I think a young writer can find teachers who believe in their work and they can gain confidence. And from the confidence they may write better. This is not to speak of just the shortcuts of, you know, what to look for and what not to look for, almost mechanical things that a writer would learn but would take longer.

Diesenhaus: Mmm-hmm. I want to ask another question about the people you just mentioned, but if I could pause for just a second, is that okay?

Clyde Edgerton: Sure.

Diesenhaus: Just picking up one of the last things you mentioned were the people from Algonquin, Some of your books, or perhaps the majority of your books, have been with Algonquin, which is a smaller independent publisher, and then some of them have been with Ballentine which is part of the Random House conglomerate. And I wondered, are there advantages and disadvantages to each, and also if you could talk a bit more about the kind of nurturing that you felt from the Algonquin books.

Clyde Edgerton: There are differences. I think organizations reflect the people who have power within them. The people who had power in Algonquin for-- during my nurturing years and on for a while are no longer there, so it's a different organization, and one that, at present, I don't know much about as I once did. Ballantine bought most of my paperbacks, up through Lunch at the Piccadilly I could say that they bought every one of them. No, they didn't buy Redeye. Penguin bought that. So, I had-- the only deals I had with Ballantine weren't in any editorial matters, it was just tours and that kind of thing. Now, my next book was published with Little, Brown, which is a big group. And my most recent experience with Algonquin and my experiences today, and yesterday and the day before with Little, Brown, demonstrates to me as a writer that the three or four people I'm working with is what makes the difference. It turned out that Algonquin at its exception was run by-- inception was run by Louis Rubin who was very interested in problems that certain writers seemed to face getting published in New York, that was his perspective. I guess that's a debatable question about how easy it is, and if there is or isn't a prejudice against southern writing. And I'm very prejudice against a good bit of southern writing which is hokey and down home and blah blah blah. Maybe some of my own, I don't know, I hope not. But I think this was and is, maybe valid and he certainly perceived it that way and he's an intelligent person, so he decided to start a publishing house. He was also concerned with the state of editing, and I can understand that, not from personal experience, so much as stories and reading, you can read, I think, books, and tell that they haven't been edited very well for various reasons, I'm not talking about just copy editing I'm talking about, conceptually have what was left in. So, it was almost a miracle for me to end up there with Louis Rubin and Shannon Ravenel, because they were eager to work with writers they perceived as talented, but not talented enough to turn out a polished final manuscript. So they helped me do that on all those early books, and they were different. You know, Shannon was a different kind of editor, and she would work with me on many drafts, some editors won't do that. And Louis would read, late in the game, he would read the novel and say, "Okay, here's what I think." Or sometimes early in the game, and he would write a couple page-- a two page letter, three page letter which still looking back on those letters seemed to be me as brilliant, and insightful, and incredible editing. And then I could go back and make a better book. They were nurturing that way with all their writers. And Shannon-- and Louis still reads any novel that I write and offers suggestions, and Shannon has read them all but the last one. She and I are on very good terms but that's-- several books ago she said, "You know if and when you want to go to another publisher you should do that, and there'd be no hard feelings." So it's going to be interesting to me to see how-- she's sort of mothered every one of these novels that I've written and up until this one, and I'll be interested in her honest reaction. But there was an incredible amount of nurturing, an incredible amount, and I'm sure many writers-- just looking at how writers go from house to house tells you that there are problems. So it's almost-- I can't talk about publishing and editing from an objective point of view.

Diesenhaus: Right. Have you yet had some of the editing experience with Little, Brown?

Clyde Edgerton: Yes I have, I have had editing experience with Little, Brown, and we'll see when the reviews come out, well what I think of that editing. I can say it's been excellent. I can also say it's been less hands on, less detailed. And, you know, it's an interesting question for-- certain writers refuse to be edited and I think that's not wise. Although I think Nabokov refused and called editors puny little people or some weird name. And he a-- maybe he's an exception, I don't know. But with Little, Brown the editing was attentive, but I was left alone more than with Algonquin. However, it was Louis Rueben read the novel before the people at Little, Brown ever did, and helped me immensely. So it's still cheating.

Diesenhaus: I have a few questions that are more technical concrete oriented. And one is, I noticed, at least at this stage, that your office isn't necessarily oriented towards the computer being the focus. And I wonder, do you do, how you do your writing? Is it by hand or is it by computer and is it certain places, like not in the office for instance?

Clyde Edgerton: I don't write on a-- I don't own a-- I own a laptop, I never understood why you would not have a-- why someone would not own a laptop and-- but there have got to be reasons with it. But I can take it with me and I usually-- when I write on a computer I just write in my lap. But I type on a-- I have a typewriter very similar to that big heavy one right there in my house. And the last two novels I worked on I knocked out rough drafts on the big old heavy typewriter. And I just have it on the table and pull a chair up to the table and type and then put the typewriter away.

Diesenhaus: And after that draft are you then bringing it in to a computer?

Clyde Edgerton: What I did with the last one, interestingly enough, and it's-- every one has been somewhat different. I've used handwriting last, I guess, in the last two-- I used to write a lot of the pages by hand. I wrote all of "Walking Across Egypt" on legal pads, first draft. But somehow I had gotten a notion of wanting to write the last one on a typewriter. And what I had the secretaries here do-- or a secretary, administrative assistant I think is more accurate, scan it into one of these programs where I could actually edit the page that I saw. That worked fairly well, because they were so messy it didn't work all that well. So that's the way I did it the last time. This next one I'm not sure exactly, I've got a 100 pages that I've typed out and I'm now putting into the computer.

Diesenhaus: And then the editing, you're doing the editing on the computer?

Clyde Edgerton: Yeah, I do a lot of printouts and editing by hand.

Diesenhaus: So maybe, sort of, kind of still reverting back to more manual.

Clyde Edgerton: Yeah, yeah. I can't-- if I had it in the computer and it printed out, it's not-- there was something wrong with it, so I have to go through by hand, and then copy that into the computer, do that over and over and over again.

Diesenhaus: I think I just have a few more questions. We only have some time left. You said something real interesting to me about fiction and non-fiction. You said with fiction, and perhaps I'm paraphrasing a bit, but the words and the worlds belong to the characters, and it felt different when you were writing non-fiction. Does that indicate that you feel that they're not your words?

Clyde Edgerton: Well I'm kind of getting closely to some fancy, arty, writerly talk that I really don't respect a whole lot and, you know, these characters speak to me and I sit under a tree and we have a conversation and a meal and sip iced tea together and kick each other in the butt and eat some-- I don't-- that, you know-- but I'm sure that's true for some writers that really happens, they actually do sit in a room with them and embrace them and are intimate in non-familiar ways with them, but I don't do-- I don't have that kind of-- but there is, there is a kind of-- you know, after I've written everything a character says to another character in a novel, and have finished, that's pretty much it. I mean, I'll revise it and get it right. But then right before I hand the book in, I don't have second thoughts about any of that. I've gone through it enough, I've almost memorized the book, they've-- the characters have changed and all this-- and this is it, and that's it. But with that non-fiction book, there are all those sentences that I'd written, and I had from memory written some dialogue and all but, most of the sentences that I'd written, well and, you know, you do that in a novel too. There was a slightly different feeling of ownership with the non-fiction that made me a little more nervous when I turned it loose than is true generally with the fiction.

Diesenhaus: Mm-hmm. And does that make you disinclined to write non-fiction again?

Clyde Edgerton: No, it doesn't make me disinclined to write non-fiction again, because I think I have a few, one or two, more interesting books that were-- that I like to read, that had to do with non-fiction. That's what I-- that's the only thing I can think of. If I have a subject or a topic-- one I thought about is my experience-- you were thinking about asking me about my experience at Campbell University with the-- with my first novel right? When I ended up resigning and all. I have a lot of notes and letters from that three or four month period that-- it was an intense time for me. And I would-- sometime I would like to write that up, maybe.

Diesenhaus: And just maybe to sum it up in background, a controversy developed after your book Raney that I think led to your removal as a teacher from Campbell University. And is it correct that your energy, or your attention, sort of moved in the direction of academic freedom, creative freedom? Is that what-- if you're talking about potentially writing it, is that the part that interests you?

Clyde Edgerton: Yeah, that very much interests me, but it's also-- it's like this fundamentalism and religion and nervousness and politics, and in fact I was relatively young. I mean, I was 40 when I relatively young. And there are a lot of topics. That's one of the reasons it's interesting kind of-- I happened to be-- happened to have been in the middle of it. But academic freedom was certainly a big part of that. All of it's written down. I mean, I've got a little booklet with all the-- all of it written in it. But what I can't-- my cry, my plea in the middle of it all, and it was a serious time, it wasn't funny, although there's some aspects of it that are funny when looking back on it, was look, I've written a book. Why should my contract be withheld until I talk about how it furthers the purpose of the university, that's for other people to talk about. So it was kind of-- it was easy in a way, but in the middle of it, it was a-- not easy.

Diesenhaus: I just want two more questions, and I've tried to ask them of each person I've interviewed. One is, when you're in a public setting, say you're doing a reading, and you introduce yourself to someone you don't know, and they ask maybe what you do, What do you say? Do you say that you're a writer or novelist or do you say that you're a teacher or professor or something else?

Clyde Edgerton: Yeah, I don't usually have an option to say those things. I'll say who I am but I don't say-- but I do-- but I can answer your question about when I sign a letter, if it's an important letter-- like I write a lot of letter of recommendations. And I'm just recalling now, to answer your question, I write my name at the end of it, I write professor/novelist. So that's usually what I say.

Diesenhaus: Does that or anything else, come out of a sense of the perception of writers, the culture hang-up, or what people will ask you like, "Oh, have you written anything that I know of?" Questions maybe that you don't want to get into?

Clyde Edgerton: Well, when I'm talking to people, you know, I immediately-- when someone says-- (laughs) I've got two good stories, very quickly I'll try to tell them. Before I-- certainly answer the question about Clyde Edgerton answer, when somebody says, "How are you?" And I say, who are you-- I mean, I introduce myself, I usually say just Clyde. But if I say Clyde Edgerton, then immediately one of two things happens, and I don't know what the percentage is, people say, "Oh, you're the writer," or something to that effect, or people will not. And usually I'm relieved when they don't, because then I can be a normal human being. And I'm not necessarily not relieved when people say, "Oh you're the writer." If they said, "Oh you're the writer. I remember that character Cobb Pittman." Than I would get interested in talking about-- but when they want to put it on me, I think that they're probably like I used to be, and still am, when I thought about writers that I respected. Hopefully they respect me, they have a vision of me that isn't made up like I did for example Eudora Welty, whom-- one of-- I mean-- I think it was not quite fair, although it's interesting I forgot. I went to pick her up one night to take her dinner, right before I ever met her-- to meet her and take her to a friend's house, and it was as if I were walking up to see God. That was one-- but the story-- I ran into somebody-- you know, as long as they don't-- right now, I'm old enough to start, for the first time to experience some prejudice, you know. I'm not a woman, and I'm not black. And this culture, where white men have had power for years and years, you have a, kind of, a false sense of invulnerability as a white male, perhaps. Two days ago I'm-- I have three children under five so happens that I do, and I was in the kindergarten class to check it out for my first son who's in kindergarten and predictably somebody goes, "Oh, you have grandchildren in kindergarten?" It's not so bad. But then today, we're having a plumber coming to work on our sewage problems out in the front yard, and I woke up to talk to the plumber. And I think he may have seen my children, and maybe he'd seen my wife, so I'm saying, you know, "How long is this going to take? And what can we expect, blah blah?" And he said, "Oh, they'll have plumbing in the next day or two, everything will be okay for them." I mean, and I was the grandfather or something. But not only that my builder comes up 20 minutes later and starts talking to this guy and he said some old man came out and talked to him. Well, you know, I don't like that a bit, and I'm just thinking of some assumptions-- so I might end up being an activist. I might end up getting into that because I don't like it. And it's insight into what many women and people who aren't white males feel every day.

Diesenhaus: And just as a final question, I wondered if you have some kind of advice for writers of any stripe or fiction writers or novelists.

Clyde Edgerton: For writers-- my advice for writers of any stripe is to ignore all advice that doesn't make sense. You get a lot of it from people who do know, from people who think they know, and from people who don't know, and that advice comes and sometimes it comes from a person who has status such that you tend to agree, and you should not. That's the first advice. Second advice is assuming that writers want to be published, is just to keep sending manuscripts out and getting them back, sending them out and getting them back. I remember I could hear-- I remember hearing the little jeep that delivered the mail, I could hear-- it seemed like it was two miles away, I could hear it coming. And I know it was stopping at mailboxes and she'd come to my mailbox and I'd either get an acceptance or rejection, this is back in the old days when everything was in the mail. So I'd say you've got to keep-- and I think it'll happen, I think writers are made and writers are obsessed with writing, and they don't have much of a choice. They're real people who'd just as soon be doing other things if they had a choice. They don't have a choice, so enjoy it and keep sending stuff out and be careful about advice you follow. That's my advice.

Diesenhaus: Thanks very much.

Clyde Edgerton: You're welcome. Thank you.

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