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"Everybody answers to some identifying characteristics. But that's not who they are as an artist. The goal is to write a book that will speak to Ecuadoreans and Latvians as eloquently as it does to Carolinians."

Hillsborough novelist Allan Gurganus on Moral Mondays and Local Souls, his first book in more than a decade 

Allan Gurganus at his Hillsborough home

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Allan Gurganus at his Hillsborough home

Allan Gurganus is one of our best-known local writers, but you haven't seen a new title in a bookstore in a long while. That will change this fall with the release of Local Souls, his first new book since Plays Well With Others in 1997.

The return to the public eye doesn't mean the Hillsborough resident has been out of sight, however. Have you spotted him at the protests this summer at the North Carolina General Assembly, perchance?

"I've been to Moral Mondays and carried ridiculous signs and tried to be a clown and tried to get somebody's attention if only to preach to the choir," he says, adding that "the choir needs to be preached to as well."

Gurganus is as outraged as anyone by the actions of the Republican-led state legislature, but the North Carolina native and Navy veteran has seen political forces wax and wane in his day, and he's leery of divisive rhetoric from any side.

"There's a great line from Lenny Bruce: 'A liberal is somebody who can understand anybody but the ones who can't understand the liberals.'

"We don't want to be a Durham-Chapel Hill-Raleigh intelligentsia speaking our outrage only to other people with Ph.D.s," he says.

"We have to imagine the religious cultural personalities who are making this other thing happen, effectively outlawing abortion and limiting voting rights, and to try to imagine what it is that they think they can achieve."

In addition to imagining the opposing point of view, Gurganus wishes for a dollop of secularism in the weekly protests.

"As much as I admire Rev. Barber, I just wish Jesus and God could be dropped out one week because I think Jesus and God is what got us in this trouble in the first place with the far Right. And I don't see that as the solution."

Gurganus's Local Souls, a collection of three novellas, comes out next month from Liverlight, a division of W. W. Norton. It's his sixth book.

Local Souls also marks his return to the fictional town of Falls, N.C.—patterned somewhat after the Rocky Mount of his childhood—where his debut novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, took place. While that book looked back upon the arc of 20th-century Southern history, Local Souls describes a present-day South, in which Falls is feeling Raleigh's gentrifying encroachment and the runoff from new Walmart parking lots contributes to a disastrous flooding of his imaginary River Lithium.

Falls is still a tiny town, though, which Gurganus relishes writing about.

"There's a real sense of belonging, a real sense of knowingness that extends beyond what can be said about any given person or family," he says. "And I'm fascinated with public secrets about certain people in the town that were kept. In a town of 24,000—the size of Rocky Mount when I was a child—a lot of eccentricity was allowed. A lot of exceptions were made precisely because your family had lived there for so many years that people had gotten used to the eccentricities."

The eldest of four sons, Gurganus was born in 1947. As he describes childhood Sunday afternoons spent at his grandparents' house on the quaintly named Marigold Street, an excited facetiousness springs forward in his voice. He remembers the uncles, stuffed full of a midday meal, dozing on settees and porch chairs, the women clearing the table and talking between the dining room and kitchen.

Young Allan would stay within earshot of both, waiting for the stories to begin. "Of course the stories were about weird things that had happened," he says with a chuckle. "Social triumphs that had been brought off. Outsmarting traveling salesmen. Money made unexpectedly, and buried silver that was lost when Sherman came through. All the usual tales, but I think that if anybody from outside had been listening in, they would have thought my entire family was ready for the loony bin.

"But that was true of every house in town. Every time a story came around it was one or two details better. It was a liturgy for the family."

Gurganus showed talent as a painter and went on to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. The Vietnam War swept him into three years of service on the USS Yorktown. Art supplies were impossible to come by in the middle of the ocean, so he took up the pen.

"Jail has also made writers of a lot of people," he half-jokes, "Malcolm X among others. You put somebody in a cell and you take away everything but pencil and paper, they're going to exercise whatever rights or freedoms or imagination is still available to them. That was my conversion experience."

Gurganus also thinks growing up as the eldest son influenced his decision to write. "I always felt that I was a co-parent from the time that I was 5 years old," he says. "My parents expected me to look after my brothers, and I took that much too seriously for my brothers' liking. But I think it's had a big influence on even my choosing to write fiction."

After the war, he studied with Grace Paley at Sarah Lawrence College and became one of John Cheever's prize students at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Gurganus' first major publication was a story called "Minor Heroism" in a 1974 issue of The New Yorker. He didn't send them the story—Cheever did, on the sly.

Then came Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which spent most of 1989 on the New York Times Best Seller list. CBS produced a hit miniseries of the story, winning Cicely Tyson an Emmy for playing the freed slave Castalia. White People, a collection of short stories and novellas, quickly followed, and Gurganus' name was one of the first out of your mouth if you were talking about Southern fiction.

Southern fiction. It's a term that makes Gurganus wince. He's a proud Southerner, but that label's for booksellers, not novelists.

"I think that anyone born in the American South, especially in a wonderful little town, would have to be insane not to write about it," he states. "But the goal is not to describe the South; the goal is to describe existence or consciousness. That was Faulkner's mission and that's why Faulkner made Garcia Marquez possible and Toni Morrison possible. Because he was trying to be an international artist and not just a Mississippi local colorist.

"Everybody is some kind of writer. A gay Southern writer who's Presbyterian. Everybody answers to some identifying characteristics. But that's not who they are as an artist. The goal is to write a book that will speak to Ecuadoreans and Latvians as eloquently as it does to Carolinians. That's what every writer wants."

The stories of Local Souls are subtly intense. A woman tries to find the child she had to give up. A mother starts a cult after her valedictorian daughter dies. A man dares to wonder if his friendship with his doctor is more than mere friendship.

Gurganus achieves this intensity by pushing his prose. It's a gentle push, like a parent encouraging a child to cross a threshold, but it's a push nonetheless. Sentences lap back against themselves like waves ending on a shore. Even in conversation, his sentences become a sentence-and-a-half, with that last half turning back to face the words that came before in order to comment upon them. Or, if he stops at a period, the next sentence begins with "And" or "But," just like your grammar school teacher told you never to do.

Through this accumulation of phrases and asides, Gurganus reveals one character's self-doubt, constantly testing what he says to see if it's really true. For another character, the same sentences show her taking inventory, rehearsing specificity to feel like she has control over her life. The style's so attuned to the content that you don't even know style is going on.

"We don't think like legal contracts—thank God," Gurganus says. "We think in fragments and darting asides and circling back. It seems to me that the prose that is seeking to explore consciousness should move in the kind of sideways fluttering that consciousness actually transcribes."

His pushed-sentence form manifests itself at every level of his writing. Paragraphs have an extra beat. Section breaks sustain something of the preceding section. Even the novella form itself—with Local Souls, half of his bibliography is collections of novellas—is a pushed short story, an elaboration upon the well-worn writer's workshop metaphor of the iceberg, where only 10 percent of the story is visible above the water.

"One thing we do as novelists is to create characters in order to protect them," Gurganus says. "We have to subject them of course to all the terrors and vicissitudes of bad governance and disease and heartbreak. But, in a way, we create them in order to defend them."

We won't have to wait as long for Gurganus' next book. A collection of 20 short stories is next in line, and then a companion novel to Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All called The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church. Gurganus credits Robert Weil, his editor at Liveright, for invading his study, pointing at each stack of paper around the room and asking: "What's that?"

Turns out they were novels. Gurganus is oddly too prolific to publish. "What happens is that I keep working on several things at once, and the work is alive and satisfying to me, and I sort of forget to publish things. Writing itself is extremely important to me and ultimately difficult, but it's become a therapeutic necessity. It's like dreaming: It's not something that I make myself do. But publishing is a much less interesting and pleasurable aspect of writing."

In the last decade, Gurganus has started his workday each morning at 6, marinating these characters in these stories. The phone is off. The Internet is silenced. His desk overlooks a purportedly haunted Confederate cemetery. The focus shows in the prose.

"You're really preserving a kind of state park in the middle of your psyche where nothing can intrude, where only fiction happens," he says of his routine.

It takes that kind of practice for Gurganus to stay between the intense experience and the subtle delivery, crouched like an eavesdropping kid between the clucking aunts and backslapping uncles.

"If you can break through the codes of the middle class, and get the passwords, and get inside how people live their lives every day, you find that it's as dramatic as the people who are climbing Everest or going in bathyspheres three miles down into the ocean.

"Sometimes, to me, waiting in line to pick your kids up from school can be as awesome and inspiring or exhausting as anything else in the world. That's sort of where I've pitched my tent. And it's a nearly inexhaustible source of fascination."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Many stories to tell."

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