Bill Allen likes to joke that he got his fill of the “ologies” at NC State. As a CHASS student in the mid-1970s studying sociology, anthropology and psychology, Allen says it was NC State professors who inspired him to go out and travel the world trying to solve ecological problems as an anthropologist.
But Allen began to trade in his “ologies” for his love of theater and music after his international travel throughout the 1990s had exposed him to European circus performers. And in the 2000s, he gave up anthropology altogether, a move that, to this day, raises some eyebrows.
“I still have people calling me,” he says, “and saying ‘Bill, I heard you ran off with the circus. Did you meet some tight-rope walker?’”
It turns out that Allen, a Shelby, N.C., native and childhood friend of David Thompson, did more than run off with the circus. He started one.
Allen is the executive director and producer for Cirque de la Symphonie, a performance company he co-founded in 2005 that blends the European circus tradition with symphony performances.
“You’ll see a mime who is a juggler and a contortionist who works to a melodic piece,” Allen says of the performances in the Cirque de la Symphonie, which makes its way to Raleigh Dec. 20-21. (The Alumni Association is hosting an event with Allen before the Dec. 20 performance.) “There’s a lot of aerial acrobatics. You’ll see people fly out over your heads. You don’t see that in any other cirque show.”
Allen says the idea came to him in the 1990s, when he made 38 trips through Russia. In his down time, he would take in the famed circus in Moscow. He would go early before the show and watch the performers practice.
With those connections, he started to serve as an informal pipeline for those performers to find their way onto American stages. He says it seemed only natural to marry performances to metropolitan orchestras, and he’s never had to look back.
“It’s the kind of thing people don’t get tired of,” he says. “It’s repeat business every year. It turned out to be more than a hobby. It’s serious business.”
William Consescu is a North Carolina-based author who was raised in New Orleans. After graduating from UNC and working for many years, he received his master’s degree from NC State’s creative writing program in 2004. He is just released his second novel, Kara Was Here. It works as a ghost story and a mystery as it follows the story of a life-of-the-party, larger-than-life actress who moves from New York from North Carolina and doesn’t make it.
Conescu will appear at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham on Tuesday, Nov. 12, and at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh on Thursday, Nov. 14. We caught up with him to ask him about his first ghost tale and his approaches toward writing.
Does the fact that you went to UNC and NC State feed into your being a tortured artist? I also worked at Duke for many years. I haven’t been big into the rivalry at all, but it’s worth a chuckle. I went to UNC. I graduated in ’95. There was a good pause before I went to NC State.
Do you consider yourself a Southern writer? I don’t know that I would call myself a “Southern” writer. Although, I’m certainly influenced by my Southern experience and family. Kara is set in North Carolina. That was fun to bring into my writing. That was the first time I put North Carolina in my fiction.
Who do you admire as writers? Classic writers. Edith Wharton. [Vladimir] Nabokov. Their subtle characterizations. Both of them building tension. The cookiness.
Your first novel, Being Written, was about a character’s struggle to be recognized by his author in a book. Kara Was Here is a more straightforward tale.What was different for you the second time around in writing the novel? The first book was metafiction. I figured I wouldn’t be writing a series of metafiction books. Kara Was Here has its own weirdness to it. Both books have this very significant characters’ absence. Kara is of course dead. But she’s one of the biggest characters. This is a more straightforward narrative.
What’s the writing process like for you? I’m not an everyday writer. I’m a sort of burst writer. I go in phases where I go and it’s consuming me. I start with the first chapter. I start with the scope of the story. There are characters you hope are engaging. There are enough questions to sustain the book. At some point I create an outline.
Where do you do most of your writing? Mostly at a desktop. I don’t really do as well on a laptop. I don’t write by hand any more. This is the first book where in the final pages I did some of the final editing with an iPad.
Was this your first foray into writing a ghost story? It was. I was thinking about how there’s a fine line between the spirit and the memory. We all see people we love in some way. You remember somebody you love that you lost. And you can evoke them. I thought it worked well to focus on three characters that were such at a point of change in their own lives, and Kara is the one person who can understand them.
Is there a lesson from your time at NC State that you return to when you write? My main teachers were Wilton [Barnhardt], John Kessel and Angela Davis-Gardner. They all influenced me in different ways. Wilton would always talk to me about the rules of the universe you create. It’s got an author and character. You don’t want to violate the rules, but you can surprise your reader.
The upcoming fall issue of NC State magazine includes articles on two alums — Vivian Howard and Vansana Nolintha — who have had tremendous success with restaurants that harken back to the cultures of their childhoods.
Howard, a 2000 NC State graduate, is the chef and co-owner of Chef & the Farmer, a seasonal, farm-to-table restaurant in downtown Kinston, N.C., not far from the farm in Deep Run, N.C., where Howard grew up.
Nolintha is the owner of Bida Manda, a Laotian restaurant in downtown Raleigh that pays homage to his parents and his native land.
We asked them to share recipes for our readers who wanted to try their hand at some of their culinary creations. Enjoy!
Howard’s Grilled Corn with Bacon Lime Mayo and Parmigiano Reggiano
To grill the corn…
Brush each ear of corn with olive oil. Over a medium grill, brown the corn on three sides. Remove from the grill, season each ear with salt and roll it around in the mayo. To serve, grate fresh parmigiano reggiano over the ears like snow. Serve with lime wedges.
Lime and Bacon Mayo
1 egg yolk
zest of 2 limes (removed with a microplane)
1/3 cup lime juice
1/2 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. hot sauce (we use siracha)
1 garlic clove
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup bacon fat (melted)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Blend the first 8 ingredients until smooth in a food processor. Start streaming in the bacon fat slowly to emulsify and finish with the vegetable oil until nice and thick. Adjust seasoning with salt and lemon juice to taste.
Bida Manda’s Crispy Rice Lettuce Wrap
2 cups cooked jasmine rice
1 teaspoon curry spice
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1/3 cup chopped mint
1/3 cup chopped green onion
1 tablespoon crispy fried garlic
3 tablespoons lime juice
1/2 cup crushed peanuts
Mix jasmine rice, curry, salt, and sugar in a small bowl. Mold the mixture into thick patties. Fry the patties until golden brown. In another bowl, break the patties into small pieces, and add cilantro, mint, green onion, fried garlic, peanuts, and lime juice. Toss until fully mixed. Wrap the mixture with fresh lettuce leaves.
Lisa Prince loves food and she loves North Carolina. She is the host of Flavor, NC, a show on UNC-TV that celebrates North Carolina agriculture and food. She appears regularly on WRAL-TV to make dishes made with North Carolina ingredients.
And, for the duration of the N.C. State Fair, Prince will oversee a dozen cooking contests that will see home cooks square off to see who has the best dishes that incorporate ingredients such as peanuts, apples, pecans and pork. Prince, a part-time marketing specialist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture, is in her 10th year overseeing the fair’s cooking contests. The N.C. State Fair begins today and will run through Oct. 27.
“I love food and I love cooking,” Prince said this week as she was setting up for the cooking contests that will be held each day throughout the fair. “I get inspired by the ideas I see here.”
The contests are divided by ingredient, with one contest focused on recipes using beef and another contest focused on recipes using sweet potatoes. In addition to eight contests involving North Carolina commodities, the fair hosts the early rounds of national contests for sponsors such as Spam and Pillsbury. The North Carolina winners of those contests may go on to compete nationally.
There are some regulars who compete every year, starting in the summer when the contest details are first released, Prince says. They start working on dishes then, trying to perfect them in time for the fall contests at the fair.
“Some of them are very good friends,” Prince says. “Some of them are very competitive.”
Prince, a 1993 graduate of NC State, is encouraged by the new contestants she sees every year. She was worried at one point that the contestants might age out, and that cooking contests would become a relic of times past. But she says there are plenty of contestants in their 30s and 40s, and several families who have younger generations of contestants.
“It gives those people who are not on t.v. a venue to showcase their talent,” she says. “They love winning that blue ribbon.”
Anywhere from 15 to 100 people compete in each of the individual cooking contests. Prince says that the sweet potato contests always draws a lot of entries. “In North Carolina, we love our sweet potatoes,” she says. “Everyone thinks they have a great sweet potato recipe.”
Prince says contestants also love to make desserts, with roughly 100 entrants in the Pillsbury pie contest this year. Prince has a fondness for contests for children who cook, often carrying on a long family tradition. She says a few men enter each year, often in the beef and pork contests.
Prince has seen a few flops (a cantaloupe pie from three years ago that didn’t quite set comes to mind) and plenty of hits (a blue cheese-pecan-apple dip from five or six years ago is still one of her favorites). She welcomes the attention the contests bring to cooking.
“They are developing recipes that can be shared,” she says. “I hope it inspires people to cook at home.”
While traditional Southern cooking once dominated the contests, Prince says she has seen a new emphasis on healthy cooking with fresh ingredients that mirrors what’s happening at seasonal and farm-to-table restaurants throughout the state.
“North Carolina is now such a mecca for food, on the cutting edge of flavor,” she says. “The contestants are picking up on that and stepping outside the box.”
Prince grew up on a family farm in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., and was a regular at the fair long before she got involved with the cooking contests. So she has her favorite fair foods, trying to get at least one each day during the Fair’s run. One day it’s a foot-long hot dog, the next day it may be a funnel cake. She looks forward to getting an ear of corn and splitting a giant turkey leg with friends.
She also enjoys the deep fried Oreos, but says, “You take one bite and you’re done. My advice is to split it with someone, maybe even three or four people.”
Kinston, N.C., is apparently enjoying its moment in the national spotlight.
Vivian Howard, a 2000 NC State grad who is the chef and co-owner of Chef & the Farmer restaurant in downtown Kinston, is the star of a new series, A Chef’s Life, airing on PBS stations around the country. The series focuses on Howard, her restaurant and her celebration of Southern food traditions.
But Kinston and many of its residents are front-and-center in the series, much of which is shot in the restaurant or with Howard as she visits local farmers or others in the community. The fifth episode of season (out of 13) aired last week, and Howard says the reaction has been almost entirely positive, both locally and nationally. She says the show is the most-searched cooking show on PBS Food.
“Our community is super excited about it,” she says. “Everyone is excited to be from Kinston again.”
The story of Howard’s gamble and ultimate success with Chef & the Farmer will be featured in the upcoming fall issue of NC State magazine. In the magazine article, Howard talks about her decision to leave New York City to return to her roots in Eastern North Carolina and open an upscale, seasonal restaurant in downtown Kinston, an area that has seen its share of economic difficulties.
“There’s a huge sense of pride in our community,” Howard says. “Everybody here likes the show.”
Everybody includes Howard’s parents, John and Scarlett Howard, who helped Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, with the financing to open the restaurant in 2006. Howard says her father, a 1962 NC State grad, has enjoyed talking about the show with the friends he routinely meets for breakfast.
“My parents are enjoying this tremendously,” Howard says. “I can’t tell you what a kick they’re getting out of it.”
The only criticism Howard has heard is from a few viewers who were confused about the segments when Howard explores Southern food traditions such as canning tomatoes or making strawberry preserves. Some viewers were upset that the segments didn’t provide full instructions in how to perform the task at hand, but Howard says they were never intended to be “how-to” segments. Instead, they are a chance for Howard to explore long-practiced food customs with members of the community.
Taping for the show’s second season is already underway, with filming for four of the 13 episodes largely finished.
Meanwhile, Howard says the show has prompted friends from high school and college to reach out to her after years of not being in touch. “It’s good to know it’s reaching people in other places,” she says. “Everybody’s been very gracious.”
But not everyone in Kinston is watching the show each week, which airs at 9:30 p.m. on Thursdays on PBS stations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia (Check local listings for times in other markets). Howard saw the early versions of each episode, but says she can’t bring herself to watch herself each week.
“That’s pretty painful,” she says.
Peter Rizzolo spent most of his life loving fiction from afar but only had the chance to write in one genre — prescriptions. As a doctor, he practiced family medicine in New Jersey before moving to North Carolina in 1978 and spending 19 years in the Department of Family Medicine at UNC.
But when he retired, he came to NC State to pursue creative writing, something he had wanted to do since he was a child.
“When I was in fifth grade, I had a friend who drew very well,” remembers Rizzolo, who graduated from NC State with a master’s degree in English in 1999. “We put together a comic book. It was a Dick Tracy knockoff.”
Rizzolo eventually moved past the comics to more adult themes, and he recently self-published his second novel called Forbidden Harvest. Rizzolo describes it as “a medical thriller” that takes its lead from his experiences working as a doctor.
“Medicine is such a privilege,” he says. “People come to you and tell you various intimate things. You don’t always get to tell all the stories because of doctor-patient confidentiality. But when you call it ‘fiction’…”
Forbidden Harvest deals with the subject of organ transplants. It’s something Rizzolo has wanted to write about for a long time. He had a childhood friend who died from a kidney ailment at the age of 14. A few years after his death, Rizzolo says doctors began performing organ transplants, and Rizzolo has always wondered how things might have turned out differently for his friend. “In a story where a boy needs a new heart,” he says of his novel, “you can make it turn out how you want.”
Rizzolo says that writing certainly brings along its share of difficulties, from finding a way to get started to staying with it and developing thick skin. But, he says, his new novel shows that writing is the perfect pursuit for someone who spent decades practicing family medicine.
“You tend to write about what you know. And medicine is a really funny combination. It’s part medicine and part being a good listener. It’s not always performing a major operation, and sometimes it’s doing the little things to help.
“That’s what this story is about.”
The overflow crowd that gathered at Chef & the Farmer in downtown Kinston, N.C., on Thursday night already appreciates the culinary magic that NC State alumna Vivian Howard has brought to town.
Now they hope that A Chef’s Life, the new PBS documentary series starring Howard, will spread the word to others.
“It’s a pretty incredible experience for the region,” said John Chaffee, president and CEO of North Carolina’s Eastern Region, an economic development agency for Eastern North Carolina. “We have an urban, very chic restaurant in a relatively small town.”
Chaffee and others came to Chef & the Farmer Thursday night to watch the series premiere. The 13-episode season is airing on Thursday nights in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia and on a variety of nights and times on PBS stations throughout the country.
The show, which has been in the works for about three years, was initially conceived by Howard as a way to showcase Southern food traditions that were in danger of being lost to time. The show does that, but it also follows Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, as they deal with the challenges of running an upscale restaurant serving fresh, seasonal food in an economically depressed area.
In the moments before the show aired last night, Howard told the crowd of local business and government leaders, friends and family that she hoped the show would help viewers across the country see that Southern towns are not filled with rednecks and “bumbling idiots.”
“I hope it’s something you feel proud of,” she said. “It presents our region the way that we see it.”
Stephen Hill, co-founder and CEO of Mother Earth Brewing and chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce, said he hopes the series will bring more visitors to Kinston in search of a good meal and, yes, a cold beer.
“It puts us in a much better light,” he said. “This is like we really are, not what they think we are.”
The first episode was clearly a hit with the crowd that filled a large banquet room above the restaurant. They nodded knowingly when they saw someone they knew on screen and laughed when Howard playfully rebuffed Knight when he tried to kiss her at the restaurant. And they rose to applaud when the episode ended.
“This is a special moment for us, for our community,” Knight said. “We tried to put our best foot forward.”
Vivian Howard has found success as the chef and co-owner of Chef & the Farmer restaurant in downtown Kinston, N.C. People drive from the Triangle and throughout Eastern North Carolina to enjoy her latest twists on traditional Southern food, and she has won critical acclaim for her cooking.
Now she’s about to find out what life is like as the star of her own television show.
Howard, a 2000 graduate of NC State, is the central character in a documentary/cooking series airing on PBS this fall. A Chef’s Life premieres at 9:30 p.m. Thursday on PBS stations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. It will air at other times and dates in other markets nationally. (If you’re curious, check out this preview.)
The show is the result of a collaboration between Howard and Cynthia Hill, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Durham, N.C. Like Howard, Hill grew up in Lenoir County. And like Howard, Hill left the area when she went off to college and vowed never to return.
“We both said we would never come back unless it was for a funeral,” says Hill, at least partly in jest.
Yet they have joined forces to document the foods and culinary traditions of Eastern North Carolina, from canning tomatoes to making homemade wine. Howard, who will be featured in the upcoming fall issue of NC State magazine, serves as the show’s central character. She visits with the local farmers and others who are still practicing old food customs, and then prepares a dish with the featured food each week in her kitchen at Chef & the Farmer.
“I proposed the idea of documenting these food traditions,” says Howard. ” I didn’t really want to be in it. But, all along, she thought it would be something I was in. She wanted the restaurant as a component. She wanted my parents and families to be a component.”
Howard says she was initially uncomfortable in front of the camera, but Hill says she knew immediately that the show would work with Howard as the centerpiece. “As we say in the industry, she really popped,” Hill says. “She was very good on camera. She’s a working mom, running her own business. She’s just a good character.”
The series will run for 13 episodes this year, and a second season is already being shot. When asked about their favorite episode in separate interviews, Hill and Howard both mention one that focused on Howard learning how to make buttermilk biscuits from a local woman who has been making them all her life.
“I like to think of myself as a very accomplished chef, but I could not make these freaking biscuits,” Howard says. “She was just forming them with her hands, and I was a bumbling idiot.”
But Howard promised to make the biscuits for her family on Christmas morning. It had been a family tradition to have sausage biscuits on Christmas morning, but they had relied on canned biscuits in previous years.
“I tried, and it was a disaster,” Howard says. “I used the wrong kind of flour, and had to throw them in the trash.”
Howard and Hill both say they enjoyed the humor of the episode, but Howard is quick to point out that she can make biscuits. Just not those particular biscuits. “I just want you to know that,” she says.
Hill says the series benefits from that fact that she has known Howard since they were children. She says Howard trusts her to tell her story.
“Because of that relationship, she’s very honest and vulnerable in front of the camera, which makes for really good programming,” Hill says. “She’s awfully compelling.”
Hill has a track record of working with PBS, having made documentaries on tobacco farming and migrant farm workers that aired on the public television network. “Everybody in the South has a story to tell,” she says. “I love listening to people, telling their stories.”
Hill and Howard traveled to Miami in May to preview the show for programmers from PBS stations across the country. Hill says the programmers loved what they saw, and notes that it has a prime slot in New York City (7:30 p.m. on Sundays), where Howard got her start in the restaurant business.
“We all predicted that it would have wide-reaching appeal,” Hill says. “But this was the confirmation, getting picked up all over the country. It does have a real strong character-driven narrative. It makes it feel more like a drama.”
Howard is excited and wary about her starring role in the series. She welcomes the chance to share some of the Southern food traditions that she cherishes, but but has no interest in being seen as a “celebrity chef.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want out of this,” Howard says during an interview at her restaurant. “In the beginning, it just seemed very farfetched. Now, out of this I would like for this place to be packed every night. I would like for people to want to come here, and for it to kind of rebrand the area.”
The success of Chef & the Farmer has already started that process, and Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, recently opened a second restaurant in downtown Kinston. It is called The Boiler Room, and it is a more casual restaurant focusing on simpler fare — oysters and burgers.
There were plenty of skeptics who wondered whether an economically depressed area such as Kinston would or could support a restaurant like Chef & the Farmer when it opened in 2006. But Howard and Knight have succeeded, all while raising two young children and building a new home in Deep Run, N.C. where Howard grew up.
And that, Hill says, makes for a compelling documentary series.
“The thing I love about the show is it’s really happening,” she says. “She’s just doing what she does and we just film it. It’s real reality instead of the fake kind.”
Greg Campbell first got to know Chris Hondros when they were teenagers in Fayetteville, N.C. They went to the same high school, worked in the same restaurant and both had an interest in journalism — Campbell as a writer, Hondros as a photographer.
They went their separate ways in college — Campbell to UNC-Greensboro, Hondros to NC State — but managed to stay connected. As their professional careers unfolded, both found themselves covering conflicts and unrest in foreign lands, be it in Kosovo, Nigeria or Libya. Campbell wrote books and newspaper articles, while Hondros became an acclaimed photographer who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
“We never really fell out of each other’s lives,” says Campbell, who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Greg Campbell and Chris Hondros in 1996 (Photo courtesy of Evan Eile).
Mindful of his young family back in the United States, Campbell eventually pulled back from reporting in such dangerous places. Hondros, meanwhile, continued to travel from hot spot to hot spot. “He was hooked on foreign reporting,” says Campbell. “He saw it as a real calling in his life, to be a witness to these kinds of events and document them.”
In 2011, Hondros convinced Campbell to join him in Libya. Hondros was there documenting the uprisings connected to the Arab Spring, but he was also talking about pulling back a bit and starting his own family. “When I was there in Libya with him, I was really proud,” Campbell says. “He had developed into the elder statesman of conflict photographers. Everyone respected him, even his competitors. He was a master of his environment. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
Campbell had returned home to Colorado when he got the news that Hondros had been fatally wounded in a mortar attack in Libya. “My heart skipped a couple of beats,” Campbell says. “It seemed surreal. But it was followed by the unfortunate, sad realization that it was probably true. What he was doing was extraordinarily dangerous.”
Soon after Hondros’ death, Campbell learned something new about his longtime friend. Campbell was contacted by a man named Joseph Duo, a Liberian who had been the subject of one of Hondros’ most acclaimed and well known photographs. Hondros had photographed an exultant Duo, an armed combatant in the Liberian Civil War. The photo was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
But what Campbell learned was that Hondros had returned to Liberia a couple of years later and found Duo. The two had connected, and Hondros had agreed to pay for Duo to get a high school and college education. Thanks to Hondros, Duo would eventually finish law school.
It was yet another vivid illustration to Campbell of the impact that Hondros had on the lives of many, through his professional work as a photographer and the human connections he made around the world. Campbell felt that it was a story that needed to be shared with a larger audience.
And so he decided to make a documentary about his friend’s life and work. It was an idea that Campbell had toyed with when Hondros was alive, but he worried after Hondros’ death that his life would not be properly memorialized.
“No one else, frankly, was stepping up to do a film about him,” Campbell says. “I was a little bit concerned that interest in his life would fade away.”
One of the first challenges facing Campbell was how to pay for the film. Friends encouraged him to try Kickstarter, a “crowd-funding” company that gives people the ability to raise money for projects by soliciting donations online. Campbell was skeptical (“I had to be dragged kicking and screaming,” he says.), but eventually agreed to give it a try. He started with what he considered a modest goal of $30,000 in 30 days, enough to do some initial filming in Liberia with Duo and others. Within three days, the project had exceeded its $30,000 goal.
“It blew me away how quickly the money rolled in,” Campbell says.
So Campbell raised the goal to $55,000, enough to cover a trip to Iraq. Within 10 days, that goal was met, and Campbell realized he could be even more ambitious. The goal now is $100,000, and only a few days remain in the campaign. The new goal would enable Campbell to get the footage he needs in Libya, Iraq and Liberia.
Eric Scholfield, who runs an insurance agency in Raleigh, was one of the many who were happy to contribute to the project. Schofield also grew up in Fayetteville with Campbell and Hondros. He also studied at NC State with Hondros, and remained friends after college.
“We obviously want to preserve Chris’ legacy,” Schofield says. “Not only was he a gifted photographer, he was an absolutely amazing person. I would like for people to not only see some of his work, but also get a deeper understanding of who Chris was as a person.”
Campbell has been struck by the outpouring of support, financial and otherwise, for a film about Hondros. More than 500 people — from fellow photographers, other NC State alumni, friends and supporters — have contributed through the Kickstarter campaign. With just a few days remaining, Campbell hopes they can reach their goal of $100,000, even as he is mindful that even more money will be needed to finish the film.
“What I hope to do with this film is honor his life and his career,” Campbell says. “He was one of the greatest photographers of all time. He deserves it on that basis alone. But there is this underlying complexity to him. We’ve been flooded (with contributions) from people who knew Chris at some time and he made an impression on them.”
Wilton Barnhardt, an associate professor of creative writing in NC State’s Master of Fine Arts program, is about to publish his fourth novel, Lookaway, Lookaway. The summer issue of NC State magazine includes an interview with Barnhardt and an excerpt from the novel, which focuses on a Southern matriarch who is trying to preserve her family’s name and legacy. The book will be available Aug. 20.
Here is more of the interview with Barnhardt. The following is an edited transcript.
How would you describe yourself as a novelist? I’ve eluded categories. I’m not a naturalist, I’m not a romantic, I’m not a realist. I would probably say that I’m a classicist. I hope I’m writing sort of the classic novels of the 19th century. I’m nervous about being in any camp. I have a New York novel. I have a religious novel. I have a Hollywood novel. This is the Southern novel.
When did you know you wanted to write these types of classics? I was in New York trying to make it as a freelance writer or in journalism — anything that was near publishing — and I bought Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert. It’s the story of a young man’s life over a period of about 25 years, through all the ups and downs; and in the end, he doesn’t get to do many of the great things he thought he was going to get to do and the love of his life turned out to not be so wonderful. And I just thought, “Yes, yes.” It struck me as this was how you wrote. It started something in me, and I started reading the classics of the 19th century novel. It started my love and my sense that I was going to write very grandly.
What appeals to you about the grand novels? It’s the completeness of the world. I like the world I live in just fine. But one of the great pleasures of novel writing is that you get to escape entirely into a world of your own making. You get to decide what happens, and I like to disappear into that world. I’ve often said that it’s a good thing that people value novel writing. Otherwise they would probably commit us to an asylum, because we live five or six years with alternative universes in our heads and these characters are as real to us as people we know, sometimes more real. You live with them so completely.
How do you decide what to write about? It’s a combination of what I’m drawn to and the thought that someone ought to write a book about dot, dot, dot. I often think I’m writing books I would want to read; and, sadly, I have to go ahead and write them because no one has or is writing that particular book.
Describe your writing process. I don’t have a good work ethic. I will answer every email in the inbox and do everything else in order to not write. At the same time, when I get dug in, I’m unstoppable. I can produce tremendous amounts in a small amount of time. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I have doubted each and every one as to whether I’ll finish it. I’ll say, “Maybe this is the one, Wilton, where your career is over. Three books isn’t so bad. It’s not the end of the world to have written three.” And then the fourth one got finished, and I’m sure I’ll say that with the fifth one, too. Well maybe four is it for you. Maybe that is the sum total of your work. Maybe you should just walk away since you don’t seem to want to write anymore. I wouldn’t say I’m tortured, but I’m certainly not productive.
What are you working on now? The European novel is next. It’s set around the time of the financial collapse, and I’ve got some comedy around it. After that, I better get back to work on the western novel before I forget what I was going to say.
What do hope your students learn from you? “If you do anything,” I tell them, “please read and read and read some more. You can’t read enough, and that’s how you get better. The absolute best seminar that you will ever have in writing is to read really great writers. Don’t read the award-winning flavor of the month. Go back and read Tolstoy and Dickens and James and Austen. Go back and read the greats and see how they did it.” Also, the 17 students I’ve taught who have gone on to publish in my 11 years as a teacher all have one thing in common: they work really, really hard. They work like dogs, in fact. If the first 200 pages of the novel are wrong, they throw away 200 pages and start again. And if you’re not that kind of person who can do that, if you’re fighting to preserve every precious paragraph you wrote, you’re probably not going to make it. You have to have some amount of ego to write, but you have to have almost no ego to edit.
Why do you write? I think it changes as you get older. As young men, you write for self-assertion. You write to say, “Hey, here I am, I’m not just a number. I’m not just another face in the crowd. I have something to say.” But as I get older, I’m not so interested in telling the crowd, “Here I am.” Maybe I’m more sure that I’m here already and don’t feel the need to get up and yell it. I now write, and this may sound like a strange answer, but I write because I get to hang out with other writers. It’s a tree house. I don’t think you get to climb up and be in the tree house unless you’re a writer. Some of my very best friendships and some of my very best conversations and nights on the town have been with other writers. I know that is a romantic view of writing; but for the most part, particularly down South, writers are some of the most interesting people you’ll meet. So I will keep writing to keep hanging out with other writers.
— Cherry Crayton ’01, ’03 MED
We previously posted excerpts from interviews with two other NC State authors whose novels are also featured in the summer issue of NC State magazine. Click here to read excerpts of our interview with Jill McCorkle, professor of practice of creative writing and the author of Life after Life. Click here to read excerpts of our interview with Elaine Neil Orr, a professor of English, and the author of A Different Sun.