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NC Lit Talent On ParadeCL Carolina Writers Night brings McCorkle, Gurganus and more



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Gurganus sees the novella as the perfect form for our time and talks about it like a novel with Attention Deficit Disorder. "One of my mentors, Peter Taylor, used to say that a novella is a work of fiction that you can pick up after dinner and have finished it by bedtime. I think that's the way we live and read now, between doing things."

The novella also has other advantages, as Gurganus sees it:

"Sometimes the compression and speed of the short story form does not allow for enough complication and wiggle room. The novella has the amplitude and sense of leisure that the novel provides but it also has the arrow swiftness we look for in short stories."

The collection's novellas amply demonstrate Gurganus' range of interests and voices as a writer, as well as his considerable skills as a storyteller.

The title novella concerns a spinster Aunt who may or may not have been painted by John Singer Sargent. "Preservation News" is written as a newsletter memoir by a woman about her friend, a rabid local historian and architectural conservationist who died of AIDS. "Saint Monster" is about a little boy who places Bibles in backwoods motel rooms with his homely father while, at home, Mom has an affair with the handsome town veterinarian.

The collection's most arresting novella, "He's One, Too," is about a pre-teen boy who feels up his country club-father's golf buddy. It's sort of an up-market J.T. LeRoy fable filled with intergenerational sexual entanglements.

Gurganus credits his ability to write about such topics with dignity to his long history of being an openly gay writer. "It's allowed me to explore things that would be completely off limits to a conventional heterosexual writer," says Gurganus.

Born and raised in Rocky Mount, Gurganus, 53, attended art school before being drafted into the Vietnam War. He tried to stay out of the war but "in Edgecombe County, NC there had never been a conscientious objector applicant before and they threw it away."

So he joined the Navy, where he spent many hours in the on-board library reading voraciously and writing short pieces in the styles of authors he admired like Dickens, Austen and Beckett. After the Navy, he gave up painting and studied with authors Grace Paley and John Cheever. In fact, it was Cheever who Gurganus was romantically though not sexually involved with, who boosted his career by secretly submitting and having approved for publication in The New Yorker one of his early short stories.

Gurganus moved to NYC in 1979 and published Confederate Widow in 1989. It eventually became a quadruple Emmy-winning film with Donald Sutherland and Cicely Tyson. AIDS soon made Gurganus a veteran caregiver in a second war and he moved back to North Carolina in 1993 where he lives today in Hillsborough, a small town outside Chapel Hill, and is restoring an old house. He describes it as "Victorian/Arts & Crafts cusp."

"It suits me," he says of his smalltown life now. "I have a garden and I get fewer frivolous phone calls from magazines in the 212 area asking me things like, 'If you could take a pasta to a desert island what would it be?'"

Although he's a recent inductee into The Fellowship of Southern Writers, Gurganus feels that being an openly gay writer has hindered his career in some ways.

"I think that if I were married to a potter named Sarah and had a boy named Brendan and a girl named Beatrice my standing would probably be somewhat higher on the literary pantheon than it is now. I made a choice. In the long run I think my value as a writer and my career will be immeasurably enhanced because I think I can treat gay and straight people fairly. I'm not a gay writer in the sense that I've never written about straight people. I find pathos in both camps. I wouldn't do anything different."

Between significant others, he is at work on his autobiography and the sequel to Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Part of what he calls the "Falls trilogy," The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church will explore Falls Baptist Church from the 1870s through the 1970s when it becomes a failed TV ministry.

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