Local writers strive for balance

Tommy Hays is executive director of the Great Smokies Writing Program, which bills itself as “a consortium of the Western North Carolina writers’ community.” (Supported by UNCA’s Special Academics Program, it offers evening workshops in poetry and prose throughout the year.)

Hays also teaches classes in advanced prose writing. In a recent e-mail, he describes the experience of becoming both a father and a published novelist for the first time. (It seems worth noting that Hays is now the father of two, and his second novel, In the Family Way, was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.)

“When I finished my first novel, Sam’s Crossing, it was accepted by a New York agent, an elderly alcoholic woman it turned out. She kept the novel for about a year-and-a-half and hardly sent it out. I would call her every now and then to check on it and finally she refused to talk to me. And she returned the novel to me with a letter which I have kept to this day. In it she says, ‘I hear you are upset because I don’t return your many telephone calls. I thought I had explained — heaven knows I tried — that when there is news of your book I will be in touch with you. … I am prepared to believe that there are people in this world who respond positively to nagging, and some of them may be literary agents (although I have yet to meet one); but I am not among them. Talking with you when I have only bad news to report makes me feel like a ship’s officer on the Titanic, trying to explain to an impatient and incredulous passenger that not only will dinner be delayed, but there may well not be any dinner at all, ever … ‘

“Needless to say, I was very upset. On top of all this my wife was saying we needed to start having a family. It was about 10 years into our relationship. I resisted, saying I would probably never have time to write again. However, she said it was time to start trying, that it could take a long time, that some women never became pregnant. But what seemed like by the next day, she was pregnant. I thought my writing life was finished. However, within a couple months of the birth of our first child, Max, I got a call from a young, sober agent in New York. She actually called while my wife was away and I had Max in my arms, who was crying about something.

“Anyway, over the din, she told me she wanted to represent the book. And within a few months she sold it. So it felt like to me that life had required of me to get my family life in order before my work life could fall in place. A few years later a friend of mine sent me the New York Times obit for the elderly alcoholic agent and it said: ‘Was known for encouraging young first novelists.'”

Will work for inspiration

Xpress asked published poet Kathy Sheldon, who teaches in the Great Smokies Writing Program, if she’d ever been guilty of writing at work. Here is her e-mailed answer:

“I’m way too uptight to try to write my own stuff ‘on company time,’ but I’ve sure been tempted because I’ve noticed a funny thing: Whenever I’m stuck in a boring office job, my mind is bombarded with ideas for poems. I can find inspiration anywhere — the Yellow Pages, a line in a memo, a snippet of conversation overhead at the water cooler.

“Then I quit so I’ll have time to write, and those brilliant ideas go into hiding; I’ve got all the time in the world and I can’t think of a thing to write.”

[To request a fall schedule and application for the Great Smokies Writing Program, contact Leanna Preston at the office of Special Academic Programs at UNCA at 250-3833, or e-mail her at lpreston@unca.edu]

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