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The Bard of Stay More

An Interview with Donald Harington 

By Robert L. Hall
 

 
 
 

Donald Harington was strongly influenced by the summers he spent as a boy with his maternal grandparents in the Ozark Mountains in the small village of Drakes Creek.  Here, he heard the old folk tales and the language of the Ozarks, before he lost his hearing at the age of twelve to meningitis.

Some years later, he wrote of a place similar to that place where he spent his childhood summers.  Drakes Creek became Stay More, where the border between fantasy and reality was blurred.  In his own way, he immortalized his childhood experiences, beginning with his book, Lightning Bug, the first of his Stay More novels. He has been dubbed the ‘Bard of Stay More,’ by one writer.

To say that he is an author who is deaf and has hermetically sealed himself inside his own imaginary world would be to marginalize him.  I know.  I have read his work.  His writing does not simply describe what is, but what may be, or what might be.  Take this short extract from the beginning of Chapter 1 of his latest novel, With, for example: 

“She tried to run away. You’re not supposed to do that, it’s a blow to the whole idea of devotion, and she ran away not because she lost even a smidgen of the true blue faith that bound her to him forever but simply because she began to believe that he might do her greater harm than he already had, he might even do away with her.” 

I admire Harington’s use of description. Here is one from a later chapter in With.  It reminds me of one of Shakespeare’s poems about Winter.  

“She quit washing practically everything, including herself, her clothing and her bedding, using as an excuse the fact that it was too cold to go out to the well, and one morning when she just had to have some drinking water she found the well bucket frozen tight to the ice beneath it, and couldn’t pry it loose. She made do with snow melted in a pan on the stove. The stove periodically required having its ashes removed, and although she had a scuttle and a little shovel for that purpose she was negligent in using them, and the stove became inefficient to the point where all the inhabitants (except me) were unnecessarily cold.”

It is this ethereal, floating quality about his stories that attracts Harington’s adherents and has made them fierce consumers of his work over the years. 

Also, he is learned and well traveled.  Although he began to write his first novel at the age of six, he decided to follow a career in art and art history because it would afford him the time to pursue his writing career as well.  He taught art history in New York, New England, South Dakota and then at his alma mater, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he has been for the last seventeen years.  He lives in Fayetteville with his wife, Kim. 

Although his first novel, The Cherry Pit, was about Little Rock, he published many other novels—most of them set in the Ozark hamlet of his creation, Stay More, based loosely upon Drakes Creek. He also has written books about artists. 

He won the Porter Prize in 1987, the Heasley Prize at Lyon College in 1998, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame in 1999, the Arkansas Fiction Award of Arkansas Library Association-1999, and was featured in the Winter 2002 Southern Quarterly in a 'Donald Harington Special Issue’ with tributes from fellow novelists, scholarly essays, interviews, and a selection of his forty-year correspondence with William Styron. 

 

Can you tell us about your upcoming novel? 

My latest book will be published in April by The Toby Press. It is called simply With, and advance reaction seems to indicate that it will be the best of the whole lot. It can be ordered in advance by your bookseller or at the publisher's link: www.tobypress.com.  

The publisher's description:

"Impossible to categorize, With is a sensual, irresistible tale, full of
unexpected twists and turns. What begins as the suspenseful recounting of
a child abduction evolves into the story of Robin Kerr growing up in the
wilds of the Ozarks on a remote, inaccessible mountaintop. Forced to live
off the land without a single person to help her, Robin is never alone;
her animal companions grow more numerous every year, and the 'live ghost'
of a young boy who once lived on the mountain is her constant companion.
Donald Harington, creator of the mythic Ozark town of Stay More, has given
us an engaging, fascinating and ultimately triumphant story of survival --
and the most original love story ever told."

Besides being set in Arkansas, how are your novels alike and different?

Most of them are set in modern times. No two of them resemble each other; all are distinctly different in terms of story line, plot and characterization (although some of the characters reappear). All that they have in common is their setting: Stay More, Arkansas, a mythical village now almost a ghost town, in the deepest mountains of Newton County in the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas. 

The most recent published novel, Thirteen Albatrosses (or Falling Off the Mountain) (Holt, 2002), bears no resemblance at all (except part of the setting in Stay More) to With. It is about Vernon Ingledew, first met in The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, and his quest for the Arkansas governorship.

Tell us about your position at the University of Arkansas and how it influences your writing.

It's mostly the other way around: my writing influences my profession more than vice versa. I'm Distinguished Professor of Art History, teaching the Survey of Art History each semester but concentrating on modern and American art. Occasionally students in the MFA writing program will sign up for my lectures in art history, but otherwise I have nothing to do with the writing program and I don't teach writing.

I teach art history because it does not interfere with my own writing, but complements it by giving me a better visual sense.

How did you get started writing?

I have been writing novels since the age of six, but the first one wasn't published until 1965, when I used my influence with my friend William Styron to get my first (published) novel accepted. I have had seven
different publishers and as many agents, but have no agent at present.

How do you characterize the way you write stories?

I simply begin with an idea for a story, possibly (but not always) an image of a character or two, and no concept at all of any plot. I've followed this plan since the first novel. I write the first page and see
what happens. Usually the first page inspires a second page, and so on.

What is your daily writing routine like?

I sit down right after breakfast, about 9:00 a.m., at my computer, turn on some classical music, which I can hear through my hearing aid, and write until noon. I try to write at least a thousand words each day. Afternoons I devote to research.

What is important in a character to you? What is your chief concern about a storyline?

For both, that they be "novel," that is, unlike any people met before in fiction, involved in stories unlike any told before.
 
What words of advice do you have for aspiring writers?

A famous French writer once said, "Voulez vous ecrivez? Eh bien, ecrivez!"
(Translation: “So you want to write?  Very well, then, write!”)

The only advice I have for writers is to write. If you are destined to become a writer, you can't help it. If you can help it, you aren't destined to become a writer. The frustrations and disappointments, not
even to mention the unspeakable loneliness, are too unbearable for anyone who doesn't have a deep sense of being unable to avoid writing.


What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask you?

If you're so good, why aint you rich?

In America, the money to be made in writing has absolutely nothing to do
with the quality of the work written. Writers who get rich are
"mainstream," they write for the masses, and the masses, unfortunately,
have low standards of taste. True art always is outside the mainstream,
and it is rarely rewarded financially.

What are your future plans for your writing?

Stay More is a tiny Ozark village but if I had three lifetimes I could never tell all its stories. I have only one lifetime, and am approaching its last two decades, so I can anticipate only a few more novels in the Stay More Saga.


Donald Harington, Official Web Site

 

With
The Toby Press, LLC., April, 2004
hardcover, $19.95
ISBN: 1592640508

 

 

 

 

Three Harington Classics Return this Spring....

The Cockroaches of Stay More, The Toby Press, paperback, April, 2004

The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks: A Novel, The Toby Press, paperback, April, 2004

Some Other Place. The Right Place. The Toby Press, paperback, April, 2004

 

© 2004, Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved