The character-driven stories of Ellen Gilchrist have captured the imagination of readers for years. Her Delta characters have a quality of connection that causes empathy and recognition. Gilchrist is a living Southern literary treasure.
Ellen Gilchrist has been named the 2004 recipient of the Thomas Wolfe Prize by the Thomas Wolfe Society. The ceremony will take place in October, at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Can you tell us about your background?
I was born in the Mississippi Delta, and I spent a lot of my formative years in the lower Midwest and Southern Indiana and Southern Illinois and Kentucky during the second World War and for a few years afterwards. So Iím half a Midwesterner, and I love the Midwest. I have lived halfway between the South and the Midwest for the past twenty years. I live in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which is in the Ozark Mountains, and this is really the Midwest, but there are many Southerners here. So I have both worlds.
I moved around a lot as a child because of the second World War and afterwards. My parents and my family are all from the Deep South, but Iíve been fortunate to be a Southerner and also to know other parts of the country as well. Iíve traveled for twenty-five years all over the United States, speaking at universities, and Iíve really gotten to visit and see, I guess sixty colleges in every state of the United States, so thatís been wonderful for me. Most people from the Deep South donít have the chance to be that well-traveled or to know that much about the rest of the country. You know, I never stopped to think how lucky I was to be able to do thatóI donít travel that much anymoreóand I realize now, I didnít miss a thing; I got to see it all and someone else bought the airline ticket!
Are the women in your stories like you? What motivates you to write them as you do?
Oh, I think all writers have to be responsible for all their characters; the good, bad and indifferent ones. Iíve been motivated all my life by a huge curiosity about the world. Iím very curious about science, and especially about geology and astrophysics, and physics and things that itís difficult for me to understand; chemistry, which I donít have enough formal education in, and biochemistry, and history and Iím very, very interested in archeology, and anthropology and ancient history.
But, I also have a sense of humor that I got from my parentsópartly in the genes and partly because they had it, too. My mother is still alive, in her late nineties, and my father lived until he was almost ninety. They viewed the world with enthusiasm and humor. They gave that to me, whether in the genes or by the example they set. So, I hope thatÖpeople are always saying my heroines always land on their feet. Enthusiastic, healthy people who have a sense of humor generally do land on their feet. I couldnít image being interested in anybody who didnít.
Thatís what interests me. Itís who I am, and thatís the kind of people that I like to have around me.
I know that youíve said in the past that you donít know how to plot. However, your works hook me when I read them. What do you call the convention you are using? Itís certainly more than simply characterization.
I donít impose plot. People have said that my stories are character-driven. I think that most of what happens in the world is interesting and itís predictable and unpredictable. I like to turn my characters loose and see where they go and follow them.
Iíve been reading great literature all my life. Iíve always loved to read. Iíve always been a voracious reader, just a voracious reader. You know, when I was a child, I just read everything I could get my hands on. I used to read while I was waiting to take my tennis lessons. It used to drive my tennis teacher crazy. Instead of watching the other players or something, Iíd be reading The Brothers Karamazov or something while I was waiting to take my tennis lesson, and he didnít think I was serious about tennis, but I was. (She laughs.)
I know that you work in a highly literary style. What do you consider to be literary?
To me, anything that is beautifully written approaches and becomes literature. Like, there have been great mystery writers who have written literature. John le Carre? Shoot, I think heís great! I mean, there have been all kinds of mystery writers and people who have written what were essentially love stories. You canít ever tell. Itís the quality of the prose. Hemmingway said itís poetry that has been turned into prose. Thatís what great writing is. It just comes from the heart. Itís truly a gift, like a singing voiceóthe ability to do it. Iíve always been able to write, even when I was a child. If I wrote anything, it immediately got published, whatever there was to publish it. Whether it was the school paper or whatever it was, if I wrote it, someone published it. I had a newspaper column when I was a sophomore in high school. Itís like having a singing voice. And that doesnít mean that you donít need to learn how to use it. You have to practice.
You had a class under Eudora Welty, didnít you?
That was years ago, when I was only writing poetry. I was in the onlyÖit was a very select, hand-picked class in Millsaps for one year. She taught at Millsaps. It was the only time she taught, and I got lucky to be in that class.
What did you learn under her?
I had never read Faulkner, and she introduced me to Faulkner. And I learned that a great writeróthat was before she won the Pulitzer, but we considered her a great writeróa great writer was just a normal person, my motherís age who was kind, and polite; a lady, and that normal people were writers.
Yes. It was okay. I knew it was possible to be a poet. My grandmotherís roommate in college had been a poet. My grandmother went to college when most women didnít, at a small college in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and her college roommate was a poet named Mildred Plew Meigs: M-e-i-g-s, I think her name was. I had a copy of her book, so I knew it was possible to be a poet.
And after I met Eudora, (I wasnít interested in writing fiction while I was in this womanís class), although I wrote fiction for the class, but I was only interested in writing poetry at the time. But, it was just a great honor to know herÖto be in her presence every Wednesday afternoon. And she introduced us to a lot of wonderful things to read. But, I had never read Faulkner, and I was just blown away. Iím still reading it.
Youíve been with Little, Brown for a long time, havenít you?
Always. My editor was the editor-in-chief for many years. Heís not there now. Iím not much of a table-hopper. I donít want to go around from publisher to publisher. I want the least interference in my life possible from the world of publishing. Little, Brown gives me contracts and leaves me alone, is helpful and good, and lets me have a big say on the covers on my books. Theyíve been wonderful to me and itís never occurred to me to leave them and go someplace else.
Occasionally, Iíll have a book thatís not their sort of thing. Iíll usually publish it with the University Press of Mississippi or something like that. You know, if I have a book thatís not a commercial projectóthings like that. But, Iíve always had the same agent and the same publisher, and until very recently, Iíve always had the same editor.
I canít imagine having to go through all the trouble of creating those relationships more than once. Those are very powerful and important relationships in a writerís life. Why would you go switch around?
I understand that you read Shakespeare in a group?
I read Shakespeare every Wednesday afternoon. I have a small group of friends and we read the plays out loud.
I notice that you like Tony Hillerman, too?
Yeah! (She almost shrieks) I love Tony Hillerman! I got in a Tony Hillerman thing and read every one of those books in about three months. Got copies of them and sent them to a friend and he read them all. We were reading about one a night. We were sick when we used them all up!
I saw two of them produced on PBS this winter.
I know! Wasnít that fun? I donít knowÖI canít remember what we thought about the PBS special. I think we thought well, it was kind of fun to see it, but if you hadnít read the books, how would you know what it meant?
I loved it. One of the things that literature can do and always has done for people is take them places that they would never be able to go. I have always been fascinated by Native American cultures, as Iím sure that anybody with any brains is. I loved being introduced to the Four Corners, and to the world of that desert, and waiting for rain all the time. You know, wonderful, wonderful stuff! Heís (Hillermanís) not a Navajo; thatís the most wonderful thing of all.
Speaking of rain, you have a Ďthingí about water. A student criticized you in a workshop one time for writing so much about bayous and rivers and such. Could you tell us about that?
Oh, years ago. One time I stayed in a workshop for about two and half months and then I quit. I thought, well ĎYeah, right! I was born thirty feet from a bayou and half a mile from the Mississippi River and it rained nearly every day. Yeah, yeah, Iím really into water!
What is it like at Fayetteville, teaching at the university?
I have three children and thirteen grandchildren and I have a rich and full life. Iím having a wonderful time teaching here at the university for the last three and half years. Iím having a great time. Lifeís been good to me.
I have graduate students, we have workshops and I edit their work. I try to make them believe in themselves. I try to make them believe that writing is an easy and natural act. Whether or not you will have a voice or stories to tell that people will want to publish and/or readóis something I canít control. But, I can help them take whatever it is that they are writing and whatever stories they dream of telling and show them as well as I can how to make the writing better. Itís a process and itís real interesting and the students are generally wonderful and become my good friends.
I also teach an undergraduate course, and itís mostly the very best English majors in their Junior and Senior years. And some of them are just so wonderful, from all over the state of Arkansas and other places. They are smart, funny people. Iím honored to be their teacher, and I love to be with them. I have grandchildren the age of a lot of students I teach. One reason that I wanted to start teaching that year was that my oldest grandson was going off to Duke University, and I wanted to be in touch with the world he was entering. Itís really meant a lot to me, as my older grandchildren go to college, to know first-hand what the college experience is, and what these kids are dealing with. And I hear it allóand itís short stories. So, itís real special, kind of a perfect timing kind of thing to me.
What are you doing besides teaching?
Iím going to be the Andrew Mellon Fellow at Tulane University for one semester, then Iím coming right back up to the University of Arkansas. Iím just going to be gone for a semester to do this, but I think itís a real big honor. Thatís one exciting thing Iíve got going on right now.
The other thing is that the University Press of Mississippi is publishing a bookóand it will be published in the Spring of 2005, while Iím at Tulane. Itís a book Iíve been writing about the process of learning to teach. Iíve had to learn how to do this and itís complicated and itís interesting and itís exciting, and Iíve written a book about it. Iíve been finishing that up for the last two or three weeks.
Also, I was just awarded the Thomas Wolfe Prize at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for my body of work. Pat Conroy won it last year. So, Iím getting all these emeritus type honors here.
What else is going on?
Well, thatís plenty, donít you think? (laughter).
My yardís full of violets, the town is full of pink and white dogwoods. Itís so beautiful, you almost wreck your car looking at them. Everyone should come to Fayetteville this week before they stop blooming.
© 2004, Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved