Remembering Tim McLaurin | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Family and friends recall Tim McLaurin, one of the Triangle literary community's most beloved and colorful figures.

Remembering Tim McLaurin 

Friends and family recall one of the literary community's most beloved and colorful figures

Hillsborough author Tim McLaurin died July 11 at Carteret County General Hospital at the age of 48, of complications from esophageal cancer. McLaurin had previously survived a battle with multiple myeloma, for which he underwent a bone marrow transplant in 1990. Among other things, McLaurin spent his life as a Marine, Peace Corps volunteer, carpenter, truck driver, snake handler, N.C. State University professor and acclaimed author. The UNC-Chapel Hill journalism major left behind an impressive body of work including the novels The Acorn Plan, Woodrow's Trumpet, Cured by Fire and The Last Great Snake Show, the narrative poem Lola, and the memoirs Keeper of the Moon: A Southern Boyhood and The River Less Run. Cured by Fire won the 1995 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for fiction. McLaurin is survived by his children Meghan and Christopher, wife Carol, his former wife Katie Early and other family members, and by a number of good friends, some of whom offer their remembrances here.

Carol McLaurin

Thirteen years ago, at age 36, Tim underwent a bone marrow transplant to treat deadly multiple myeloma at a Seattle hospital. The outcome was uncertain. In the shadow of the Cascade Mountains, he vowed to his wife, Katie, that he would live to see their daughter, Meghan, turn 18, and son, Christopher, turn 16. They were 5 and 3 at the time. Tim made it through the transplant.

This July, just days before Tim died from yet a newer threat—esophageal cancer—he was busy working on a piece for a magazine. I checked his laptop and found this final passage:

My motivation to defy the statistics comes mostly from my love for my children. When I was first diagnosed with myeloma, Christopher was only three years old, Meghan five. No way was I going to leave a son and daughter behind with no memories of their father. Knowing my probable future, I have worked hard with both my children to know them early, to go ahead and climb the mountains and canoe the rivers while there was still time. The result is that we are very close.

The memory that rests most sweetly in my mind is Tim's daily phone calls to Meghan and Christopher when they weren't spending the night at our house in Hillsborough. He always had the kids hang up first, so they were left with the sound of his words and kisses fading into air as they returned the phone to its cradle: "Bye Pretty-Pretty, see you soon. Take care, Christopher. Love you so much, bye," kiss, "Love you," kiss, "Bye," kiss, "Bye," kiss, "Bye," kiss ...

This past November, Meghan turned a glorious 18. In early June, just weeks before Tim's death, she graduated from high school. We held the cell phone in the air as her name was called so Tim could listen from his room during a brief hospital stay. This fall, she's off to new adventures at college. This June, Christopher turned 16 in the middle of a monthlong hike in the deep woods—one of the things Tim loved to do most—and it just happened to be in the Cascade Mountains.

—Carol McLaurin is Tim McLaurin's widow.

Doug Marlette

Tim and I were driving in his truck out to Chatham County to see a man about a rattlesnake. Tim had agreed to meet a photographer from a nature magazine out there to help get some shots of the Eastern Diamondback that Tim had given to his friend for safe keeping. His buddy, a former Green Beret, had named the snake Jesse in homage to Senator Jesse Helms, a man whom he admired and respected, as he did the snake. I was just along for the ride.

On the way out Tim talked about his love of reptiles and the unfair rap they get, the deep-seated prejudice most folks hold against them. Then he told me about the time he was doing his snake show for a class of kids when, in a careless moment, the king snake he was showing—non-poisonous, by the way—bit him, sunk his fangs deep into his thumb and wouldn't let go. It scared the daylights out of the kids. The teacher nearly fainted. Tim staggered around the room with the six-foot reptile hanging from his thumb like a bull-whip, trying to get the fangs disengaged from his thumb. Tim had recently undergone intensive chemotherapy and his body was so full of poisons that the snake died from the bite.

Once, when Tim was about to publish his first novel, he worked up the courage to ask James Dickey, whom he had long admired, for a blurb. Dickey invited him to visit his office on the University of South Carolina campus, where Tim noticed a large photograph on the wall showing Dickey with a fierce reptile he'd impaled with an arrow through the throat. Tim sat studying the dramatic image while Dickey regaled him with the story behind the photo, how he bravely faced down the deadly cottonmouth moccasin and killed it with a single shot from his trusty crossbow. Tim got his blurb and Dickey sent the young novelist on his way.

"I didn't have the heart at the time to tell him that won't no cottonmouth moccasin," Tim drawled in his thick-as-sorghum eastern North Carolina accent. "Actually, it was just a little 'ol harmless water snake."

A Tar Heel native from the wrong side of the tracks of Fayetteville, Tim McLaurin embodied the North Carolina state motto, Esse Quam Videri ("To Be Rather Than To Seem"), more than anyone I've ever met. He wrote manly books on manly things, like life, death, love, loss, personal responsibility, and what it really means and costs to be a son, a husband and a father, and to be alone in the world. Utterly guileless and without pretense, there was not a false bone in Tim's body. He was authentic in a time of inauthenticity, real in a surreal age, a human being sentenced to dwell among a race of holograms.

—Doug Marlette is a cartoonist and writer living in Hillsborough. He is the author of the novel The Bridge.

James Seay

Tim was first my student, then my neighbor on Windsor Circle in Chapel Hill, and then my friend. One day he called and told me that he had found some secondhand lumber for the deck I was planning to build. A man he knew out on Thunder Mountain had replaced his deck after a storm but the old lumber still had good utility. When Tim and I went to talk to the man, it looked to me like enough lumber to build a barn. I told Tim that I didn't have a very big deck in mind, maybe dual-hibachi scale or some such, plus I didn't know how I'd haul all that lumber to town. He said not to worry, he'd help me haul the lumber and help with building the deck too. There was an eagerness in Tim's voice, and maybe a whiff of conspiracy because the man's insurance company didn't plan to salvage the cast-off lumber. But mainly his enthusiasm at the prospect of helping me in my deck-building went to a fundamental trait in Tim. It was in his nature to give of himself, and his giving had a kind of boyish vigor and happiness about it that was palpable and made you feel better about the world. In this case it resulted in a grand deck that extended the length of my house and gave its full reinstated share of the plumb, level, true and straight to the cause of many celebrations. And Tim was there for most of them, always with a full heart and something in mind to give.

—James Seay is a poet living in Chapel Hill. His latest collection of poetry is Open Field, Understory.

Kaye Gibbons

Tim was an authentic person, nothing false about him. He did not care about the celebrity that sometimes attaches itself to writers. He never dined out on knowing famous people. He cared about what was inside and realized that the patina, the superficialities do not matter. He saw through surfaces in people and in literature. We came from the same background and sometimes talked about how far we had brought our children from the place we started from. He spoke of his children with such pride and hope that they could take the gifts he had earned for them and flourish. I know what it is like to lose a father so young, but they could not have had a better example of patience, strength and honesty than Tim.

A couple of years ago I called him in tears because I feared I had lost my ability to write, lost the "voice," and he talked it back into me. I was letting personal grief get in the way, and I quickly realized that if Tim McLaurin could write the beautiful manuscript I was reading at that time, with all of his sickness and stress, I couldn't whine. He was one of the most thoughtful people I've ever had the honor to know. That's what knowing him was, an honor and a deep blessing. A few weeks ago he sent over an amazing novel, and I am honored to be able to call editors to tell them about this beautiful legacy he left.

In a world that can be clannish, exclusive, distanced from reality, Tim was democratic, optimistic, grateful to readers, and firmly connected with his students. When he was ill one night, I taught one of his classes, something I'd never done. When I asked Tim for advice, he said, "Just talk to them. That's all they need." Because of that and other memories and because of his kindness, he will teach me many lessons for many years. Thank you, Tim.

—Kaye Gibbons is a novelist living in Raleigh. She is the author of the novels Ellen Foster and Charms for the Easy Life.

Pat Conroy

Tim Mclaurin was a man's man in an age that does not like that very much. He wrote in clear, authentic and beautiful prose. He lived a clear, authentic, beautiful life. His was the only house in America where I stumbled and fell over the carapace of an Ethiopian land tortoise. I fell in love with his books after I fell in love with the man. When I told him that I once gave my mother a live copperhead for her birthday, Tim showed me the scar he carried after a copperhead bit him. His tattoos were like carvings on a prison wall that the maddened and possessed criminals make. They were like a storyboard or strange graffiti that he offered to the world as a part of himself you could not figure out. Tim McLaurin did not care if you could figure him out or not.

I was reading Tim's last novel when I heard that he had died. He was a writer of substance and passion and great rigor. He lived in the smallest house of any writer in Hillsborough, and that tells you everything you need to know about his heart and his life and his work. I loved him and I will miss him.

Pat Conroy is a novelist living in South Carolina. He is the author of the novels The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides.

Lee Smith

I never knew a person who lived his life as fully and intensely as Tim, right up until the moment of his death. In this he was aided and abetted by his wonderful wife Carol, who shared this attitude. The last time I saw Tim, he was sitting out in their breezeway on a lawn chair, hooked up to his ever-present oxygen, desperately ill but clearly enjoying all the activity that surrounded him—Carol had decided to paint the living room. Bribed with shrimp and beer, neighbors had pitched in; it had turned into a party. Tim sat grinning in the midst of this happy chaos like a man in the eye of a hurricane, saying, "Well, hell, Carol, it looked all right to me."

The central symbol in his last novel, Another Son of Man, finished only days before his death, is in fact a hurricane—fittingly, since Tim believed in all of life as a mandala, a great circle of energy and being which we are but part of. Always close to the earth, the water, and the whole natural world, Tim was a man like a force of nature himself.

Lee Smith is a novelist and short story writer living in Hillsborough. She is the author of the novels Oral History and Fair and Tender Ladies.

Hal Crowther

I guess I was one of the first editors to publish Tim, in the Spectator when it was the new thing in Raleigh, and a little self-consciously highbrow, like most young publications staffed by young writers. Tim submitted his wonderful story about Roy Lee the three-legged pit bull, and I passed it around the cubicles to get a few squeals from our urban liberals. I edited Roy Lee's story with respect and caution because there was so much in it that I didn't already know. Tim was never a problem to edit—his great gift was knowing naturally what to leave in and what to leave out, and he never argued about a clause here, a tense there. He respected himself, he knew what he knew, and part of that was respecting what other people knew.

It was another thing when it came to principles—moving Tim a centimeter off one of his core beliefs was as easy as moving him out of your way on a basketball court, which I tried just once and literally bounced, like I'd hit a brick wall with my shoulder.

With all his confidence in himself as an individual, as a man in the world, he was disarmingly humble about his status as a man of letters. After one of his Chapel Hill readings—he read a story, milked a rattlesnake and drank the venom, then bit off the snake's last rattle (he thought his readers felt cheated if he just read a story)—I invited him to our house to meet some people from Atlanta.

"I'll bring in the rattler," he said. "They'll want to see the rattler."

"Tim, they just want to meet you," I said. "Leave the snake in your truck, they can walk out and look at it."

The guests loved Tim, but nobody from Atlanta went out to look at his rattlesnake. I think he was genuinely hurt, embarrassed for his snake's sake.

He was one of a kind, God bless him.

—Hal Crowther is a journalist living in Hillsborough. He is the author of the essay collections Unarmed but Dangerous and Cathdrals of Kudzu.

Elizabeth Spencer

When I first moved to Chapel Hill in 1986, I found that Tim McLaurin was prominent among a rising group of younger writers. Learning more about him was a revelation of a wide range of experience—all the way from African service with the Peace Corps to handling snakes. In his writing one felt the authority of what was seen and known, not "looked up." His struggles against illness had all of us pulling for him. He bore up so bravely. We miss him already.

—Elizabeth Spencer is a novelist and short story writer living in Chapel Hill. She is the author of the novella The Light in the Piazza.

Tom Rankin

I first met Tim through his memoir, Keeper of the Moon. Later we met face to face. Over the last year Tim was fully aware that he was very sick, that he was in for another fight, that cancer was on his trail again. He often said to me, "I may be able to beat this cancer again, but some kind of cancer will eventually kill me." Even understanding that reality, he was defiant, unflinching, only occasionally discouraged, a man who refused to surrender his spirit to a rising tide of illness.

Because he—and I—knew his time was short, we began an informal project between friends. Beginning last year we made a series of tape recordings and photographs, not really knowing for what purpose. Last year I made a photograph of Tim with George, his African spur foot turtle. The African spur foot has a life expectancy of over a century. Tim was weak and while he could hold the turtle, he couldn't bend down to pick him up. I picked George up, handed Tim the shelled creature, and made a photograph. The portrait bears witness to Tim's humor, his attitude, his overall spirit. Tim was a man who lived with the knowledge that his days were limited, yet he nurtured a pet turtle that seemingly had a life of infinite days. The image is an illusion of the physical strength that was leaving him and an affirmation of his fertile, fully boomed spiritual strength. I already miss him deeply, his stories, his wildness, his recognition and love of the moment.

—Tom Rankin is director of Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies.

Larry Brown

The first time I met Tim was on a September afternoon in 1988, in a fire station in Oxford, Mississippi. I was drinking coffee with some of my partners at our kitchen table, and he walked in wearing jeans and a jean jacket, and some kind of a feed store cap. He said he was looking for Larry Brown. He was a husky guy with a thick brown mustache, and he had a country accent that sounded kind of like mine. He told me his name was Tim McLaurin and that he'd just published his first novel, The Acorn Plan. I invited him to sit down and have a cup with me, which he did. Later I took a walkie-talkie out of its charger and got him in my little brown truck and drove him down to William Faulkner's house, and from that day forward we were friends.

I always told people that Tim had more guts than any writer I knew of because he wasn't afraid to tell the truth about himself. He would come through here on book tours and stay with us, and once I visited with him when he was living in a big, apartment-sized tent out in some beautiful woods that were full of squirrels. Even though I can't say this about many people, I can say it about Tim: I can't remember him ever speaking badly of another person. His friends became my friends. His goodness was what caused everybody to love him so much, and now that he's gone, his goodness as a person and his incredible skills as a writer are what he will be remembered for.

I saw him at home in April and got to spend some time with him three days in a row. I'm really grateful for that. He's one of the people I'll always look up to most in this world and his fearlessness in the face of his own death is a reminder to me to try constantly to be a better man. For the rest of my life. For my friend who set such a good example for all the rest of us.

—Larry Brown is a novelist and short story writer living in Mississippi. He is the author of the story collection Facing the Music and the novel Father and Son.

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