The Good Word

Universities are her churches: Author Virginia Hayes Redfield first visited Asheville in 1944, inspired by the writing of Thomas Wolfe and escaping her fundamentalist mother. Today, she’s a member of the local literary community.

Local author recounts how she was saved from fundamentalism by literature in the memoir Night Bloom

A friend of Virginia Hayes Redfield once told her, “Books saved you.” Says Redfield, “That was a wonderful insight for me.”

Fittingly, her memoir, Night Bloom, is (at least in part) a book about how books save her. Night Bloom is also Redfield’s story about growing up in pre-World War II Florida under the thumb of a fundamentalist Christian mother determined to keep her daughter on the straight and narrow. No movies, no boys, no secular music. No jewelry, no bare elbows, no gym class because regulation shorts were out of the question. But, following Redfield’s senior year of high school, her mother enrolled her in a college literature course and there the girl, who would go on to become an English teacher and dedicate her career to education, discovered the world of books.

Among those books and their authors was one close to the heart of Asheville: “I had a kind of love affair with Thomas Wolfe,” Redfield says. Though, not the writer himself — he had already passed away when, in 1944, Redfield convinced her mother to let her travel with her father to Wolfe’s hometown. During the summer months, escaping the heat of Florida, Redfield (a college student at the time) spent her afternoons visiting Wolfe’s mother, Julia. Redfield still has the copy of Thomas’ Look Homeward Angel that Julia inscribed to her; their visits are recounted in Night Bloom.

It was decades later when Redfield (now in her 80s) finally returned to Asheville to live. By then, she’d raised her own daughter, retired from a career of teaching and had been journaling for years — her way of working through her troubled relationship with her mother. “Slowly I began to see connections,” she says of how those journals took shape as a book.

Still, recognizing that what she’d been writing all along was a publishable memoir was scary. “That hadn’t been the goal,” says Redfield. “If I’d thought of it as a book, I don’t think I could have done it.”

When she moved to Asheville, Redfield encountered the local writing community. UNCA professor Rick Chess was her first contact. “I gravitate to universities,” says Redfield. “They’re my churches.”

She met Tommy Hays (executive director of the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA), and then Mendy Knott through a reading group held at Malaprop’s, along with other writers. “We’d get together and share our stuff,” says Redfield. “I thought, I’ve gotten into heaven. No one said, ‘You’re wasting your time. Go get a job at the Five and Ten!’”

Coming from a childhood riddled with criticism, the support and acceptance of the writers’ circle was just what Redfield needed to complete her memoir. It was Kevin McIlvoy, a teacher at Warren Wilson College’s MFA program, who helped Redfield turn her manuscript into an e-book.

“My own work is informed by oral history,” he explains. “Once I met Virginia, she spoke to me about the book she was working on. I just literally fell in love with that work.” McIlvoy says that a number of other writers in the local community agreed that Redfield’s was a “remarkable work,” and, since it didn’t have literary representation behind it, they decided to publish the memoir digitally through Amazon.com.

Redfield says that she owns a Kindle, though she’d like to see Night Bloom published in paper, too. But for now, word about the book is being spread through the local community that has backed it all along. The Great Smokies writing program is sponsoring a tribute reading at UNCA’s Laurel Forum where Redfield, along with other notable readers (Janet Shaw, Catherine Reid, Sebastian Matthews, Elizabeth Kostova, Holly Iglesias, Elizabeth Holden and Hays), will each present a section of Night Bloom. McIlvoy calls the group “writers of different sensibilities” (he’s dubbed them the “Night Bloom gang”) and says that along with reading, they’ll reflect on each passage.

McIlvoy is not surprised by the way Redfield’s work has been received. “It’s so timely. I’d like to put it in Franklin Graham’s hands,” he says.

As for her adopted home in liberal Asheville, Redfield says that she loves it, “Cesspool of Sin” bumper stickers and all.

“I hope that people who read it will see that fundamentalism today is the same,” says Redfield. “Fundamentalism dogged me all these years. That’s why I’m afraid of it now as a standard of living.”

Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: With writers Virginia Redfield, Janet Shaw, Catherine Reid, Sebastian Matthews, Elizabeth Kostova, Holly Iglesias,
Elizabeth Holden and Tommy Hays.
what: Night Bloom tribute reading
where: Laurel Forum on the UNCA campus
when: Thursday, Sept. 20 (6 p.m. Free. http://www.virginiaredfield.com)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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