We reconnected with former classmate Ross Howell during our recent sojourn in Iowa. Ross followed a career in academic fund-raising, public relations, book publishing, and marketing after receiving his MFA. He’s now freelancing non-fiction and fiction full-time, and will be teaching at Elon University in the fall. He lives in Greensboro, NC, with his wife, Mary Leigh, and English cocker spaniel diva, Pinot.
There’s a great big novel on my night stand. And it’s embarrassing.
I’m probably the lone Writers’ Workshop grad of Southern extraction who’s reading Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All for the very first time.
If Allan sees this I don’t know if he’ll drive over from Hillsborough to whip my ass for waiting 30 years to buy his book or bring a preacher to ask the Lord’s healing of my afflicted mind.
Other books? I always seem to learn from D. H. Lawrence. So there’s Sons and Lovers. I’m reading it not only for its beauty but also because my father was a drunk. The scene where the mother sees in the moonlight she’s covered with lily pollen after her drunken husband has locked her out of the house—I’d give anything to have written such a scene before my mother passed.
There’s also The Collected Stories of D. H. Lawrence. I grew up among the characters in “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter.” Same people—just different accents and continents and times.
For some reason I’m able to learn more about writing about my region from someone like Lawrence, who comes at me over a span of distance and time and culture.
Still, I admire the writing of another workshop graduate, John Yount. John knows country people inside and out. Everybody should read The Trapper’s Last Shot. And at the recommendation of my friend Gordon Mennenga, I’ve ordered all the books I can find by William Gay.
Also by the bed is Lawrence’s Twelve Studies in Classic American Literature. The writing is mannered and odd, but I can’t think of another work that so quickly arrives at the essence of great American authors like Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, and others.
There’s Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. I always have a Hardy story, poem, or novel around. For the descriptions of the natural world.
Since I opened with an embarrassing admission, I’ll close with one.
The latest issue of Vanity Fair is always on my nightstand. I read the magazine cover to cover. I read Graydon Carter’s editorial introduction. I read the photo captions naming elegant people at lavish cocktail parties, though I rarely recognize them. I read the little sidebars where the type is so small it practically requires a magnifying glass to make out.
And can that Christopher Hitchens write or what? I read his recent article on the King James Bible over and over and over.