Last weekend, before a dragon came and ate the sun, I drove across the path of the eclipse to the mountains north of Asheville, North Carolina. I went up to the high country to spend the weekend with Lamar York, who founded the literary magazine The Chattahoochee Review. It delights me to visit Lamar, in part for the magical little house surrounded by stunning views, in part for the fabulous food we always have, but mostly for the compelling conversations.
We talked about Mexico, of course, because Lamar has been there about 25 times and has planted the seed of interest for me to go next year. We also talked about gardening a little bit and metaphysics a good bit, but mostly we talked about writing or literature. I made notes on some of that conversation to talk about here.
I was telling Lamar about my recent visit to Beaufort, South Carolina, where Pat Conroy lived. I’ve read The Prince of Tides, and I remember being impressed by his metaphors, but when I was talking to Lamar, I described Conroy’s writing as being “egregiously tragic” (and did that book really need a tiger?). Although Lamar likes Conroy’s work, he said he could see where my phrase might be a suitable description of the writing.
As we sat around the dining table one day tossing information in the air, other writers whose names came up were N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Indian writer, and I described his novel The Ancient Child, which I had just read. That apparently reminded a lunch guest of Louise Erdrich, a writer who is part Chippewa, and the guest said her writing can be fairly dark. Dark writing, in turn, reminded me of Cormac McCarthy, who I admit I haven’t read, but both Lamar and the lunch guest liked him.
Here is some of the contrast in points of view between me and Lamar: from what I’ve heard of Cormac McCarthy’s writing, I said I will probably never read him. Lamar, by contrast, said that if this were a just world—which of course it isn’t—Cormac McCarthy deserves a Nobel Prize. During the weekend other writers whose names came up were Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, and Borden Deal, who came from the same town as William Faulkner.
Back when I was working with Lamar years ago, we would have staff meetings for The Chattahoochee Review. I would sometimes hear him talk about various writers, in particular southern writers, and I would think “How in God’s name can anyone know all that?” Lamar always seemed to me to know all there was about southern literature. While I was at his house last weekend, he told me that southern literature as a literary discipline was created by Louis Rubin, who also founded the publisher Algonquin Books with Shannon Ravenel. As part of that same conversation, I learned that in Uppsala, Sweden, the university has a department of American southern literature.
There were also times last weekend, usually later in the evening over bottles of wine, when Lamar and I shared stories of the extreme frustration we have both known from trying to publish, either in literary magazines or with book publishers (fiction in my case, of course, and Lamar has written and published many essays). Of course I felt the irony of the editor of a prominent literary magazine sharing my frustration at how difficult and disheartening it is to try to publish in just such a magazine. We didn’t even mention the Chattahoochee, simply shared our war stories of disappointment and struggle, and within the last few months we have both been rejected by a book publisher.
I certainly will be back on that mountaintop some time, and when I go back, we’ve agreed to drive into Asheville to go bar hopping and try some locally brewed beer. When we do, I’m sure we’ll mention a writer or two.