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Moving South

August 10, 2005

Heather Heilman
Michael DeMocker

Zale Writer Ellen Gilchrist returns to the Land of Dreamy Dreams to share her wit and wisdom with students.

It seemed unlikely that spring would ever arrive. It was the winter of 1989 and New York City had no charm or sparkle. Every day I listened to a man in the subway station rant about the imminent arrival of the apocalypse, and I was starting to believe him.

tulsum05_gilchrist_1But sometime during those dark months, I read Ellen Gilchrist for the first time. I read her novel, The Annunciation, first. Gilchrist's best work, for which she is justifiably famous, is in the short story form. Still, everything that makes Gilchrist's work singularly her own is there in the novel --particularly that voice of hers, which is at once funny, precise, elegant, definitely Southern and devastatingly honest.

The protagonist, Amanda, is the quintessential Gilchrist heroine -- smart, wild and damaged but possessed of an innate integrity that keeps her from self-destruction.

As a teenager, she'd gotten pregnant by her handsome first cousin and her family took charge and decided the baby would be given up for adoption. She was unable to conceive afterward, until at age 44, she has a great romance with a young man 20 years her junior and is astonished to find herself pregnant. Here she is, on a shopping spree after deciding to have the baby:

"The salesgirl was standing in the door of the dressing room giggling. 'Come on in,' Amanda said. 'Join the party. I'm pregnant you know, unbelievable as that may seem. Enceinte, knocked up, in the so-called family way, as pregnant as a cat, certified for sure pregnant and fixing to stay that way. That's what I'm doing here, at John A. Brown's. Getting something to wear to a party I'm having. I want you to come to my party. Bring your friends. Bring your boyfriend. What time do you get off today?"

"No kidding?" the girl said.

"No kidding. I am. You are at this moment in the presence of the oldest pregnant translator of Middle French in the Western Hemisphere, maybe the world, and this party is going to be going on all day today and into the night.'"

I wanted to get invited to that party. It seemed a start to be close to where it was happening -- in the American South, specifically the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans and Fayetteville, Ark..

A few months later -- it was still winter -- I borrowed a pickup truck, packed up my little closet of an apartment and moved south. It's not that I consciously chose the South because Ellen Gilchrist made it seem appealing, but if that winter I'd read a writer who had populated North Dakota with troubled but beautiful, brilliant people having seductive adventures, my whole life might have turned out differently.

Convoluted Courses

This winter, 16 years later, I read Ellen Gilchrist again. I'd learned that the author was to spend the entire spring semester on campus as both the 20th Zale Writer-in- Residence and the Distinguished Tulane Mellon Professor in the Humanities. Her presence on campus spurred me to reread her work, and it also set me to thinking about the convoluted course of my own life over the past 16 years.

I got Gilchrist's number and called her hoping to set up an appointment for an interview. I knew her voice, with its genteel Southern-lady accent and an understated sense of humor, from her stint as a commentator on National Public Radio. Still, I was surprised by her softspoken tone on the phone. She was protective of her time on campus and seemed reluctant to set up an interview, but perfectly willing to talk on the phone. So I asked her everything I could think of to ask at that moment. She gave long, rambling answers to my questions -- or sometimes to the more interesting question I should have asked.

Later, over the course of the spring semester, she was asked many of the same questions and gave mostly the same answers at different events and interviews. Many of the same comments and insights also appear in The Writing Life, a collection of essays about writing and teaching that was published in the middle of the semester. She seemed not entirely comfortable being interviewed (thanks perhaps to a bad early experience with a reporter from People magazine), but she had clearly done her thinking about the kinds of things readers want to ask writers and she has interesting answers to give.

She said unabashedly that her goal for the semester was to "be wise for the students" and to demonstrate that you don't have to be drunk, crazy and dysfunctional to be a writer.

At first glance, the emphasis on a wholesome, balanced life seemed somewhat ironic to me since her stories -- especially the earlier ones that made her reputation -- are filled with extremely charming, highly dysfunctional characters, with women stuck in unhappy marriages made for money, who hold up bars and drink and make scenes and fall down the stairs and deliberately total luxury cars. Yet her characters, even when they're wrecks, are in some essential way sound and whole. They are people who are up for life's grand adventure.

Gilchrist, who was born in Vicksburg, Miss., grew up in the Midwest, was educated at Vanderbilt and Millsaps, and lived in New Orleans as a young wife and mother, celebrated the grand adventure of her 70th birthday by reading to a crowd of friends, family and fans at McAlister Auditorium. At 70, she is slender, unbowed and lovely, a walking advertisment for the power of good genes and a devotion to yoga, Pilates and running.

Part of her original appeal for me was that she seemed such a late but fantastic bloomer -- her first book of short stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, appeared when she was in her mid-40s. (She published a book of poetry, The Land Surveyor's Daughter, in 1979). And, almost as impressively, she really did have a long affair with a much younger man that began around the same time.

She did not entirely agree with my assessment of her as a late bloomer.

"I wrote all my life. If there was a writing prize to be won, I won it. But after I ran away and got married and started having babies, it never occurred to me to be a writer."

But, sometime around her 40th birthday, she undertook several serious changes in her life. She quit drinking, started psychotherapy, began running -- and went back to writing.

This was all largely a reaction to losing control of her teenage children, she said.

"It happens to everyone. No matter how you raise them or how much you love them, they're going to take their lives in their own hands. We all say we want our children to be individuals, but when real individuality raises its head, it scares us to death."

Writing was a way of examining what was going on in her life. She'd written poetry since she was a girl, and that was the form to which she returned. Her life experiences had made her a better writer by giving her more to work with.

"You have to know a lot to be a writer," she said. "You have to amass some data."

It was important to her to reestablish her identity as a writer, to be able to tell her friends she was a poet. She was living in uptown New Orleans when the transformation began. She studied writing with poet and Tulane professor Peter Cooley and worked as a journalist for the Vieux Carre Courier. And then she went to Fayetteville, initially intending to spend a semester there learning how to publish poetry.

"Bill Harrison was the reigning fiction writer there," she said. "He kept saying 'I want you to write some short fiction for me. You're a good poet and your poetry is all narrative, and since you're not making any money publishing poetry, I'll teach you to hide that poetry inside a short story.'"

She wrote the first story of her first book in his class. She now finds the ending, in which a father shoots his adopted daughter, too "workshoppy," but she was on her way. She came back to New Orleans and wrote the rest of In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, which was published by the University of Arkansas. The success of that book led to a two-book contract with Little, Brown and Co., a deal that required her to write a novel.

It's All Dazzle

Her next book was her novel, The Annunciation, followed by her second collection of short fiction, Victory Over Japan, which won the National Book Award.

"Those early books are the work of a poet. I used to work language over like a poet does, and sometimes I still do."

They're also the books that introduce the characters that she returns to repeatedly in her work. Rhoda Manning, her most autobiographical character, appears as a wild child growing up in the Mississippi Delta, a wild teenager seduced by a wild young man in the woods of Kentucky, and a wild-at-heart middle-aged woman who wants to have an affair with a bullfighter in Mexico. There's Nora Jane, who starts off robbing a bar in uptown New Orleans, and ends up a happy wife and mother of twins in the Bay Area; and Traceleen, who works as a housekeeper uptown for the troubled Miss Crystal. Nora Jane was inspired by a girl Gilchrist saw performing in an amateur play at the Prytania Theatre, but her characters are largely based on her family and friends.

"They don't mind, because I always say that they're pretty and brilliant."

And while there's a strong autobiographical element to her work, it would be a mistake to take it for autobiography.

"The minute I give a character a name, whoever may have inspired the character is gone."

Although Rhoda is the character whose life most closely mirrors Gilchrist's own, a character named Nieman is her favorite and the one who is her intellectual alter ego. He is a peripheral character in the Nora Jane stories -- the best friend of Freddie, Nora Jane's husband -- and the protagonist in unpublished stories. He is a movie critic who quit his job to study biochemistry, and expresses Gilchrist's intellectual curiosity and her passionate belief that the whole human endeavor is beautiful.

"I truly believe that everything is an art. Everything people do is an art, and it's all dazzling. It's made me capable of unconditional love."

That, for me, was the best thing she said during her visit. When I first read Gilchrist I was an aspiring writer; now I've had a modest writing career, but my life is changing in ways that are making writing less central to it. At moments I felt envious of Gilchrist's success, at other times she helped me realize how lucky I am to have had a writing life at all -- which prompted an anxiety about leaving it behind. But she put into words something I'd long hoped and suspected was true: Anything, done well and for the right reasons, is an art. Just living your life well is a creative act.

This is something that seems clearer to her as she gets older. Her ambitions for herself are not so much to publish bestselling books, but to continue to get wiser and quieter.

But if she's less ambitious for her own work -- and less inclined to do the hard work of rewriting to please her agent and editor -- she's very ambitious for her students. She worries about them and gloats over their triumphs when they win awards and get published.

A few years ago she joined the faculty at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where she has lived since the mid-1980s. Teaching changed her life once again.

She's reminded of everything she learned about writing -- and about life -- when she shares her experiences with her students. She's the kind of nurturing teacher who brings refreshments and snacks to class for her students because she's concerned about their dropping blood sugar over the course of a long evening class.

She makes sure that they know that "Writing is rewriting."

"I don't teach a bunch of structure and plot and all that kind of stuff. What I want to teach is how to make the language clean, beautiful and clear. If the language is beautiful you can write anything."

But she also worries about not being a dream merchant for her students. She knows that only a tiny minority of them will be able to write fiction for a living, or even for part of a living. Still, she knows that the discipline of writing can benefit everyone, and not just because verbal skills are an advantage in any profession.

"Francis Bacon said that 'writing maketh an exact man.'"

And she credits her students with helping her appreciate the riches of her own life.

"One of my students asked me the other day how I got to write for the New York Times. I said they'd just called my agent and asked for me. I could tell that really bothered her. And I thought, gosh, I never stop and think about all the wonderful experiences I've had over the last 30 years, and all the huge opportunities I've been given. And I just think of it as making a living. It took the students asking wild questions to get me to stop a minute and be grateful. I've had such a fortunate life."

Heather Heilman has been an editor in the Office of University Publications for the past four-and-one-half years. In that time she has contributed 10 feature articles to Tulanian, each a gem. This fall, she leaves her "modest writing career" to begin a legal education at Tulane Law School.


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