Standing up for the almost-famous

Despite the sensational writerly struggles brought to light in Scribblers: Stalking the Authors of Appalachia — Wolfe pisses off everyone in Asheville and Fitzgerald drinks himself into suicidal tantrums — countless other (and, who knows, maybe better) authors grind on at their craft in obscurity.

And thus Stephen Kirk’s book is ultimately defined by a current of gentler successes: The author tells how Jan Karon’s quiet Mitford stories — modeled after life in Blowing Rock, and begun as a newspaper column — grew into a series of best-selling novels. And how Jack Pyle won the 1999 Appalachian Writers Association Book of the Year award for his mystery novel The Sound of Distant Thunder — a self-published book.

Sure, Scribblers offers a healthy dose of regional gossip related to WNC celebrities. But this is more than a flashy peek at our own literati.

“There were two threads that got the whole thing going,” recalls Kirk during a recent interview with Xpress. “The first was [the nonfiction book] On This Day in North Carolina, by Lew Powell.” As senior editor for the Winston-Salem-based company John F. Blair, Publisher, Kirk had a chance to peruse Powell’s timeline of text that accounted for various historic happenings throughout the state’s history.

“I notice[d] that every time Asheville came up, it was about somebody famous,” Kirk remembers. “I particularly noticed the authors.”

Indeed, Asheville has long been marketed as a historical stomping ground for wordsmiths. William Jennings Bryan once rented a house downtown. Ernest Hemingway holed up in nearby Tryon. Zelda Fitzgerald perished in the fire that destroyed Highland Hospital in Montford.

But these famous names weren’t the only inspiration for Kirk: Refreshingly, the unknowns tend to have a stronger presence in Scribblers than their high-profile counterparts.

“In my work as an editor, one of my duties was to edit the slush pile [unsolicited manuscripts, few of which are ever considered for publication],” he reveals in our interview. “I always sympathized with the people sending stuff in. I guess that got me wondering what motivated so many to want to be a writer.”

He adds: “I certainly include myself in that mix.”

That’s right – it was Kirk’s own struggle that informed his second book. (After unsuccessfully marketing Scribblers elsewhere, he turned again to his own employer; John F. Blair released the book earlier this year.)

“My first book [First In Flight: The Wright Brothers in North Carolina (John F. Blair, 1995)] came out some years ago,” Kirk explains in Scribblers.

And, yet, “I’ve been politely declined when I offered to speak about being an author at my daughter’s fourth-grade class,” he goes on to write, enumerating a list of self-effacing literary low points.

In his new book, Kirk stresses — on several occasions — how even well-received authors still suffer the ambivalence of the reading public. Burnsville resident Charles F. Price, who wrote the critically acclaimed novel Freedom’s Altar and, most recently, Where the Water Dogs Laughed, is a prime example.

“In Nashville, Tennessee, there’s a Confederate cemetery that holds a grave of one of the Curtises, the true-life family on whose lives Freedom’s Altar is loosely based,” Kirk pens. “Charles’s visit to the grave is to be covered by local television. He waits forty minutes at the site, however, and the camera crew never shows up.”

Of the dozens of interviews Kirk collected — from the likes of former North Carolina Poet Laureate Fred Chappell (raised in Canton) to one would-be novelist whose single book waited 30 years to see publication — Kirk keeps coming back to the same hard fact: Writing isn’t an easy business. Sure, there are surprise successes — think Asheville-born Charles Frazier, whose novel-turned-movie Cold Mountain was his literary debut. But for practically every other writer, the craft is carried out in sometimes soul-draining anonymity.

Early into Scribblers, Kirk recounts joining an Asheville-based writers’ group. As his own book progresses, he also follows the progress of the group’s other members. At one point, tired of countless rejections by the publishing world, his fellow writers turn to the idea of self-publishing. And though Kirk objectively criticizes the sometimes substandard editing and presentation of print-on-demand books, he admits in our interview to the inevitability of the trend.

“The [publishing] industry is in a period of rapid change,” Kirk points out.

It’s a trend that should comfort currently under-represented authors. And that sort of encouragement is exactly what Kirk meant to convey. “My aim was to write a hopeful book in terms of human striving. I hoped that was what would be front and center.”

Stephen Kirk reads from Scribblers: Stalking the Authors of Appalachia at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.; 254-6734) on Thursday, Oct. 14. 7 p.m. Free.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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