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Rocky Mount native honored at writing conference

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Writer Allan Gurganus, a native of Rocky Mount, on Friday at N.C. Wesleyan College.

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By AMELIA HARPER
Staff Writer

Sunday, July 30, 2017

For the first time since the group organized 67 years ago, the North Carolina Writer's Conference met this weekend in Rocky Mount to honor the literary accomplishments of one of Rocky Mount's native sons.

Roughly 100 members of the North Carolina Writer's Conference participated in this year's annual gathering. Many of the slated events were designed to honor Rocky Mount writer Allan Gurganus and to celebrate his works.

Jim Clark, dean of the School of Humanities at Barton College and current chairman of the N.C. Writers Conference, said the N.C. Writer’s Conference is an affiliation of writers in the state who meet each year in different locations to fellowship together and to honor North Carolina writers. Admission to the organization is by invitation only and its events are generally private.

Clark said North Carolina has a reputation for producing great writers.

“With the possible exception of Mississippi, North Carolina has produced the most remarkable American authors,” Clark said. “As fiction writer Doris Betts once said, ‘It is the writingest state.’” 

The decision to hold the meeting in Rocky Mount this year is due, in large part, to Clark’s influence.

“These annual meetings are generally held where the current chair resides and the current chair selects an honoree who is approved by other members of the organization. Allan Gurganus once had a reading at Barton College and I was thoroughly impressed by him. He was my top choice to be honored this year and he graciously accepted.”

Gurganus said he is glad to be selected for this honor from his peers.

“I just turned 70, so if they are going to honor me, they need to hurry,” Gurganus said.

Gurganus is best known for his best-selling novel “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.” The story delves into a wide range of social issues of the 1900s from the perspective of a elderly Southern woman recalling her life from the time she was the teen bride of a middle-aged confederate soldier. “Oldest Living Confederate Widow” spent eight months on the New York Times best-seller list, was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize from The American Academy of Arts and Letters and was produced as a mini-series for television.

Gurganus spent his childhood in Rocky Mount and draws on his roots for much of his writing. He was born on June 11,1947, in the Rocky Mount Sanitarium and graduated from Rocky Mount Senior High School, where he served as vice president of the student body.

“Serving on the student body was a great experience for me,” Gurgainus told the Telegram. “I learned how to get along with other people and how to get things done.”

Gurganus said he had an idyllic childhood in Rocky Mount.

“My father was an owner of Gurganus Brothers Supermarket on Fairview Road and I worked there on weekends. I also cut grass to earn money. My grandfather had a hobby farm with 20 pigs and a few acres of tobacco where we could go and run wild. He had a pony we could ride and a pond where we could fish and swim naked. So I was really able to have both urban and rural experiences growing up,” Gurganus said.

Gurganus said he found Rocky Mount to be a supportive environment for a creative young man with dreams for the future.

“I used to draw and paint all the time and originally planned to become an artist. I was allowed to put on a one-man show at the Arts Center when I was 12. I sold 25 out of 60 pieces at that time,” Gurganus said.

Gurganus left Rocky Mount at the age of 17 to study art the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He dropped out of college when the draft came and spent over three years serving in the U.S. Navy in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. 

“I made a calculated bet that if I was serving on an aircraft carrier during the war, I would never have to kill anyone,” Gurganus said. “During that time, I read my way through the 1,200 books in the library and wrote book reports on every one. I had great instruction in writing at Rocky Mount High School, and I had worked at the school newspaper; but on that ship, I learned from great writers like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. I learned to write the way I learned to paint in art school: by imitating the great masters.”

All of the books he read on that ship earned him two years of college credit when he attended Sarah Lawrence College after his service ended. There he worked with author Grace Paley, whose work he admired. He was later selected to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where his mentors were well-known American writers John Cheever and Stanley Elkin.

It was Cheever who secretly sent one of Gurganus’s short stories to the New Yorker where it was published when Gurganus was only 26. This move launched a writing career that has spanned over four decades. During those years, Gurganus has produced numerous novels, novellas and short stories, many of which reflect his dark humor and his perspective on social issues close to his heart such as politics, racism and homosexuality. His next novel “The Erotic History of a County Baptist Church” is slated to be published in 2019.

Though Gurganus lived in New York and other northern locales for many years, he returned to North Carolina about 24 years ago and now makes his home in Hillsborough. After the fast-pace of urban life, Gurganus said, he now seeks a more peaceful existence for what he describes as a “solitary, cranky, gay bachelor.”

“I just wanted a garden and all my books in one place,” Gurganus said.

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