Allan Gurganus’s prose exemplifies Evelyn Waugh’s belief that writing, all writing, must be regarded as an exercise in the fresh use of language. In his best-selling debut in 1989, the behemoth showstopper Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (it won the Sue Kaufman Prize and was adapted into both a TV film and a Broadway show); his romping masterwork about AIDS, Plays Well with Others (1997); two collections of novellas, The Practical Heart (2001) and Local Souls (2013); and two collections of stories, White People (1991) and the new Uncollected Stories (2021), Gurganus has proved that he worships at the altar of the word with an intensity unique among contemporary American fiction writers.
Gurganus’s dynamism derives from some unexpected harmonies: a gay man whose work can’t be crammed into the box called gay fiction; a Christian agnostic, secular in mind, sacral in spirit; a rural sensibility with urbane flair; a nineteenth-century gentleman’s delivery relieved by impish sedition; a tiny-town North Carolinian with a prodigious artistic vision. He once said, “I am not ambitious. I only want to tell the story of consciousness in the world.” And he tells that story with a persistent urgency that uncovers the messy collisions of our living, our loving, our hoping. His comic vibrancy, the Southern Baptist hellfire energy with which he animates each line, is evident everywhere—and particularly in his invented literary hamlet of Falls, N.C., where his storytelling talent for the miniature matches his storytelling talent for the enormous. John Irving has said this of him: “The architecture of Allan Gurganus’s storytelling is flawless. His narration becomes a Greek chorus, Sophocles in North Carolina.”
Born in the town of Rocky Mount in 1947, Gurganus was the eldest of four boys, the son of a self-made father and a socially responsible mother who kept her sons well supplied with drawing paper. That was Gurganus’s first art; he didn’t begin to write with a mission until he quit art school in 1966 and, with the Vietnam draft on, reluctantly enlisted in the navy. After the war, he studied with Grace Paley at Sarah Lawrence, then became John Cheever’s star student at Iowa. Cheever called him “the most technically gifted and morally responsive writer of his generation.” Gurganus’s first published story, “Minor Heroism,” was also the first story The New Yorker published with an openly gay main character.
After a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and a few years of teaching at Duke, in 1979 Gurganus began a thirteen-year stint in Manhattan, during which he did battle in the trenches of the AIDS plague. (A devotee of both Doctor Chekhov and Nurse Whitman, Gurganus told me that he would have become a physician if art hadn’t found him first. His second choice? Preacher.) In 1992, having buried thirty beloveds, Gurganus fled New York for the calm of home, where he has remained since, in a tucked-away town that puts you in mind of a pleasingly intimate eighteenth-century village.
We conducted this conversation by phone, Zoom, and email between July and October 2020. The scourge of COVID-19 kept our talk from occurring how we had wished it, in person on the expansive wraparound porch of his 1900 Victorian home, a manse crammed with art, antiques, and every flavor of Americana. Seventy-four this year, Gurganus has not been shrunk or bowed by age, and in person or not, he still converses like the raconteur he’s always been. His freshet of references to writers and artists and thinkers, to films and symphonies and sculptures, comes out in a curative drawl you can listen to half the day. He is a font of folkloric wisdom, a sage for whom the personal and regional past is not past, but a storyteller’s daily bread.
Louise Glück has made the important point that she reads to be personally addressed. And that’s precisely what one gets in a Gurganus fiction, a welcome to the reader that says, Sit down, I’ve got something to tell you, something you need to hear.
People were telling stories eons before they ever figured how to write them down. Some novelists derive major inspiration from Gutenberg’s typography itself. Others, like me, still go to the well of tale-told narrative. We believe that human conversation shapes itself toward legend. I’d give as an example the start of a Grimm fairy tale, collected from a hausfrau at the dawn of the nineteenth century—“Once upon a time, when wishing still helped . . . ” Boy, do I wish I’d written that.
The mission and the method of the storyteller can be, at their best, childlike.
It takes one durable person to believe that fantasy is as potent as reality. Seeing too far into others’ lives can make you cynical. Novelists face danger, spending their lives imagining adult temptation and corruptibility. Holding on to the great “What if?” requires a willingness to live wide-eyed. A readiness—even an eagerness—to go on being surprised. When I’m writing from a child’s point of view, I sometimes find it helpful to literally get down on my knees and walk around the house. I’m once again a creature four feet tall. You can see the undersides of tables. Electrical outlets near the baseboards become fascinating again.
The oral storytelling tradition must have been prevalent in your town and family.
One rule of Southern etiquette runs, Silence must never fall at dinner. It seldom did. My father’s parents expected us at the noon meal after church each Sunday. They lived in town on an oak-lined street in a respectable Victorian. My father had six siblings and I had twenty-odd first cousins. We all gathered without fail. Dinner went on for hours and the conversations repeated from week to week, more Sabbath liturgy. The same thirty stories were offered over and over, with slight variations. The goal, I guess, was to add some one detail that would forever after be repeated by our kin. It’s a tournament, family life. Grown-ups recollected our few illustrious forebears. They gossiped about neighbors, talked of who was about to buy a Lincoln Continental and what he’d likely overpay for it. I soaked in such lore but craved more backstory. Sometimes the other kids would run out to play and I’d duck under the lace tablecloth. I guessed that, if hidden, I might finally hear what adults really talked about. Children gone, the conversation switched at once to hysterectomies, divorces, bankruptcies, filthy racist politics. I doubt that mine was better at storytelling than any other Southern middle-class family. But their raw material itself felt molten. I got the sexual sense that vital information was being shared. This was what Mother, a Susan Hayward fan, called “real life.” And I wanted to be a part of both living it and telling it. I’ve fought to keep that sense of urgency on the page, the sense that “You must know this!”
Storytelling confers a species of power onto the teller and the hearer both.
Yes. There were people in my hometown who were famous for how they told one to three stories. Some were old guys sitting at service stations, and they took requests. In exchange for an ice-cold Coke and a sack of peanuts, they would tell you a twenty-minute version of “The Day Bill Johnson’s Hundred Hogs Got Loose Downtown.” They were the first professional storytellers I met. And they never told the same tale quite the same way, forever revising for more groans, maximum laughs. Of course, if you promise a great story, you must actually have one. There’s no faking that. Your characters’ personal travails must reverberate enough to stand in for national and regional history. It’s lucky, then, as the Confederate widow says—“Stories only happen to people who can tell them.”