It’s difficult to calculate Thomas Wolfe’s value to the city of Asheville — as tourist bait. The peddlers of Wolfeiana clearly set great literary store by him, though I suspect few enough read his wearying works once they leap clear of high school English.
However that may be, Wolfe is the emblematic expatriate Asheville-born writer, and comes readily to mind when considering any local child who makes his scribbler’s mark elsewhere. Gaither Stewart is one such, and if comparison is thereby invited, start here: G.S. is a hell of a lot more readable than T.W.
The world has been stood on its literary and media head in the years since either Wolfe or Stewart prowled these stimulative streets. And whereas the former’s literary life emerged in the then-distant canyons of New York — a long train ride and a cultural light-year from Asheville’s boarding houses and angels — Stewart’s has blossomed in the digital global village. Linda Barrett-Knopf, events coordinator at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, introduced me to Stewart and his work via e-mail, and I interviewed the author while he was visiting Weaverville recently, and also while he was at his home in Rome, Italy. At the time, I was reading an e-book edition of his short stories.
If the author’s life is worldly — and it is, with a career in journalism that landed him in dozens of foreign countries and finally settled him in Italy — so are his tales. In his first short-story collection, Icy Current, Compulsive Course (Wind River Press, 2001), Stewart’s settings range from the capitals of Europe to seaside Mexico to Asheville, and his characters run the gamut, from gardeners to heiresses, from nightclub strippers to girls next door. There are angels and unicorns as well, with voices from the past and present suffused with psychological queries and magic.
A second short-story collection, To Be a Stranger, will be released this spring. It contains five “Asheville” stories, an essay on this city and the mountains, plus 10 other stories based in Mexico and Italy. A novel (Stewart’s fourth), tentatively titled Asheville, is also in the works.
Despite these homeward glances, Stewart affirmed that his distance from here is more than physical. “I am a very left person,” he told me. “As such, I detest the present U.S. administration, which tries to make people believe that war is peace and that the market means democracy.”
But I began our e-interview with the obvious question for a native:
Mountain Xpress: “You grew up in WNC — where and during what years?”
Gaither Stewart: “I grew up in Asheville during the ’40s and ’50s and finally left by the early ’60s. In those years, I entered the arrogant stage of life when I thought I was independent of my past. Then, I still felt the mountains as a prison, a boundary between me and the rest of the world, which I very much wanted. They stood between me and another kind of life, the world beyond.”
MX: “Do you have any observations about the changes here in the years you have been away?”
GS: “Now — apropos of I don’t know exactly what — I have felt that there is something in my past that I have to come to grips with. When I use the word ‘past,’ I first think of Asheville.
“I recently spent six weeks in Asheville, the longest uninterrupted period in decades. I met a lot of new people and saw no one — or hardly anyone — I once knew.
“The Asheville I saw was a completely new city — physically new and filled with new people [who were] socially and politically more aligned with me. Often you hear, ‘Oh, yes, this is OK, but not like in the old times.’ I say thank God it’s not like in the old times — biracialism is progress over the segregation I knew! Asheville seems to be one of the few places that changes for the better.”
MX: “Your fiction evinces your wide cultural experience. Are you multilingual?”
GS: “I have lived most of my adult life in Europe, first in Germany, then in Italy. However, in my career as a journalist, I lived and worked in many countries — the Netherlands, Russia, Mexico, Iran, France. I studied at Munich University, as well as various American universities, including Berkeley. As a result, I am multilingual (and a linguist) with six languages current, and others somewhere in the back of my mind among dying brain cells. My culture, and my cultural input into my writing, is more European than American — yet, as I said, the past sticks with you.
“I’m concerned with the issue of situatedness vis-a-vis uprootedness. I am most definitely uprooted — though I envy those who are situated in life, even if I fear the complacency it often nurtures. I don’t believe either is more right or more wrong than the other, but their experiences are different. I always hesitate to define myself as an American writer, though I am an American, an Ashevillean, but I often write about the deracinated of any nationality. I think that sensation of estrangement passes like a thread though much of my work.
“My estrangement is more metaphysical. Though I have always lived abroad, I don’t take to words like ‘expatriates,’ as I touched on in the Mexican story, ‘Off We Go Again.’ I live in Rome, certainly not as a tourist, nor even as a longtime visitor. I just live here, among Italians. My wife and relations here are Italian — yet I am not Italian, either. So you can see the existential implications of this situation. I am both uprooted and fixed at the same time.
“In Asheville, however, I am also ‘abroad.’ I am a stranger, which I believe others must feel.”
MX: “There is a strong thread of magic realism in your stories. Is that influence explicit, or am I just putting you in a convenient literary box?”
GS: “I’m not exactly sure what magic realism means as a literary genre. I think I once read that [expression] used to describe the repetitive art of the Huichol Indios in Mexico. However, most critics have commented on the realism in my stories — which are sometimes brutal, too — and I most certainly find myself at home in magical, or perhaps surrealistic worlds. ‘Spiritual’ might be another descriptive adjective for my stories — or maybe I just like to think so.”
MX: “There is also what I would call a postmodern sexual sensibility in your work. The nuances of sexual desire and role in, for instance, ‘The Italian and the Unicorn’ or ‘Jupiter Hill,’ are strange and fascinating.”
GS: “If postmodern sexual sensibility means avoiding old-fashioned detailed descriptions of sex, then, yes, most definitely. I see no reason to repeat more than [is] absolutely necessary — ‘he did this to her and she did that to him and it was heavenly.’
“Most of my protagonists, I suppose, are pretty sexual animals, though I must try to conceal it. I think I would like to delve more into deeper corners and realms of our sexuality.”
MX: “I write short stories because I like the creative discipline demanded by the form — getting in, telling the tale and getting out. What drives you?“
GS: “Some critics have found my short stories closer to European form and style (if not Russian — Russia has had a big influence on my life) in that I don’t feel bound by ‘show-don’t-tell’ rules. My characters think, and I write what they think. I probably do not do well in ‘getting in, telling the tale and getting out,’ as you say. I would like to do better in that regard.
“I would like to be free of any rules or restrictions — but perhaps we cannot achieve that completely. I think my stories tend to be character-driven — about people and their ideas of life. My stories are, as a rule, also stories of ideas.”
[Icy Current, Compulsive Course is available at Malaprop’s Bookstore. The author’s latest published work, All Caesar’s Men — an e-book which deals with fascism in Italy during a fictional coup d’etat of the extreme right against its own right-wing government — is available free at www.southerncrossreview.org (Gaither Stewart regularly contributes short stories and essays to that journal). To Be a Stranger will be on the shelves later this month.]