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Writers’ Workshop grad reads at Dey House

BY REBECCA KOONS | APRIL 14, 2010 7:30 AM

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Allan Gurganus is dedicated to creating a fully fictitious landscape in his writing.

With a daily routine that involves waking up at 6 a.m. and writing until the early afternoon, Gurganus, 62, disconnects from the real world during this time of creative enterprise.

“I unplug the telephone … and try not to read the morning newspaper until the afternoon, after my own invented world has a chance to survive,” he said.

The North Carolina native will read selections from a novel in progress, titled The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church, at 8 p.m. today in the Dey House’s Frank Conroy Reading Room.

The novel is a companion piece to Gurganus’ 1989 release, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Set in the same fictional environment, the plot details the experiences of a 28-year-old preacher who discovers he has the power to heal others through touch.

Authors of the 19th century, such as Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, George Eliot, and Henry James, have left an indelible mark on Gurganus’ psyche, which has affected the work he has created.

“Their work is often about the tension between the individual and his village or community,” he said. “Something about the subject of communities in time spoke to me out of my own experience, and I continue to treat that as one of my major subjects.”

Gurganus is a visiting professor in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, from which he graduated from in 1975. He also was a visiting professor in 1989. This time around, he teaches a group that he says is “fantastically loaded” with talent.

“People seem to be aware this is a community that’s valuable to them, so it’s been beautiful coming back,” he said.

Workshop Director Lan Samantha Chang is delighted with his involvement in the program.

“With his rich memories of his student days, with the absolutely gorgeous and original work he is now writing, and with the inspiring words he shares with his students, he brings an exciting vision,” she said.

Though writing was not Garganus’ plan from the outset, his career evolved out of a penchant for art while studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. As a young man drafted into the Navy during the Vietnam War, Gurganus realized he could be a writer as well as a painter during his three-year stay on the USS Yorktown, with writing ultimately taking precedent.

“It was a curious transition,” he said. “I think there are lots of painters who become writers and vice versa. If you are focused on one art, you’re preparing yourself to take up the other.”

With several published works in his catalogue, Gurganus faces the challenge of keeping his writing as fresh as possible. From piece to piece, renewing his imagination in order for his “fictional creatures” to be surprising is crucial.

He considers himself to be a comic writer, even when the topic is as grim as death. He has found through experience that the living find death harder to deal with than those in the midst of it.

However, it always provides for a gripping element in his writing.

In his valiant efforts to keep his written material fresh, he recognizes that he, along with most other writers, are working to renew the English language. This goal of renewal ultimately unites with a passion for inspiring, helping, and entertaining readers the world over.

“It’s extremely edifying,” he said. “And I think every writer’s fervent hope is to have one of those books that people save and go back to again and again.”


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