Gurney Norman on Allegiance, Appalachia and His Literary Legacy

I take great pride in being an American regionalist… I was raised in a coal camp. It’s just the best kind of social education, to be in such a compact place, and the issues of human life are all there. It happened several times: I would be playing down by the creek with other boys, shooting marbles, maybe, and out from the opening of the mine would come two men carrying a dead miner on a stretcher.

A conversation between Gurney Norman and Hagan Smith

Hagan Smith: I’m here with author and all-around educator Gurney Norman. Gurney was raised splitting time between Grundy, Virginia, and the small community of Allais, near Hazard, Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, then studied creative writing at Stanford University as a Stegner Fellow, where he was classmates with writers such as Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, and Peter Beagle. He then returned to Eastern Kentucky to work for the Hazard Herald, before going back to the West Coast, where he stayed until joining UK’s English department in 1979. He is the author of four books of fiction, notably the 1971 novel Divine Right’s Trip, which John Updike hailed as a “morally passionate epic of the counterculture, a fictional explication of the hopeful new consciousness come to birth,” as well as the forthcoming collection Allegiance. He has also written and presented three documentary productions about Kentucky topics for KET, and has had three stories from his first short story collection, Kinfolks, turned into short films. The Appalachian Studies Association has awarded him the Helen M. Lewis Community Service Award; he has served as the Poet Laureate of Kentucky; Berea College has awarded him an honorary doctorate; he has, for a long time, been the Senior Writer in Residence at the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop; and, most recently, he was inducted into the Kentucky Writer’s Hall of Fame. How are you, Gurney?

Gurney Norman: I’m good. Glad to be here.

Thank you for being here with us. You have a new book coming out.

Yes. I’m excited about it. It’s essentially finished, and a proof copy is in print and getting edited some. But the pub date is June 21st.

I have already read the proof copy. I wanted to start out by asking you—there’s a line in the book that says, “I’ve been trying to get this stuff said for forty years.” I was just wondering about how the book developed for you?

Well, it seems like long periods to go between books, but I write steadily and look for regional outlets for pieces as they come. I have not thought in novelistic terms in a while. My life has had its dramatic moments, interesting moments, and I think some of my personal stories make pretty good anecdotes. So in the new book Allegiance, most of the pieces are three or four pages long, a couple are a little longer. They’re just based on my experience, from earliest age, and they are essentially autobiographical. Although with many of the stories in Allegiance, I use a fictional approach, and I have a kind of autobiographical character whose name is Wilgus Collier, and so I took my own pretty direct experiences and gave them to the fictional character. Gives me a little bit of latitude.

One thing I noticed in Allegiance is that, as opposed to sort of more conventional narrative technique, such as characters, symbolism, etc., a lot of these stories felt to me startling personal. And that’s not to say that I haven’t felt your work prior to this wasn’t very personal—I’m thinking specifically of Kinfolks, which often felt very personal—but I found the mental intensity in Allegiance a little bit different. And so I guess my question is: with this book, did you feel more free—to use a phrase that you once said to me in class—to “get it said”?

Yeah. Exactly. And I have been slow to take my own advice. I see that I could have written many of these stories years ago. But it’s in just the last few years that I have managed to draft, in what I hope is acceptable prose, accounts of real life experience. In a little bit I’ll share an example with you and elaborate.

There are several stream of consciousness stories in this book that I found very beautiful.

Well thank you. I am in a time of life when I feel totally free to do it my way, just to follow impulses and ideas. And if some piece I write doesn’t fit this group of stories, well, it’ll fit somewhere else. Or I don’t care if it fits or not.

Was what you were wanting to share from Allegiance?

Yeah. Let me have that [picks up Allegiance] and I’ll pick the shortest one.

You can read whatever you wanna read.

Okay. I won’t read a long thing… This starts as memory, but I give the story the protagonist Wilgus, and that gives me room to expand the circumstances a little bit, but it’s essentially an autobiographical story. It’s called “At the River”:

We’d gone to Middle Fork River to go in swimming at a hole there out from Hilton by the highway bridge. There was a nice sandy beach and plenty of woods nearby for people to go back in and change into their swimming suits. A big bunch of us had ridden over there in the back of my Uncle Junior’s new ten-ton Ford truck. This was in the days when Granddad and Uncle Junior and Uncle Delmer operated their pony mine on Puckett Creek. That mine only lasted a few years but in that time extra money circled around in our family and we could afford to have a truck. For this outing at the river Junior had hosed out the truck bed and thrown in some hay bales for people to sit on. Grandma and Grandad rode in front but Aunt Jenny and me, Aunt Evelyn and her husband L.C., plus Delmer and his new wife Pauline and some of Pauline’s people all rode in the back. Pauline’s sister Maxine was one of several new in-laws we’d been getting to know since Delmer had started courting Pauline. Maxine was about twenty-five. I was thirteen. I didn’t know this about her at the time but Maxine had already been married and divorced and had a little girl named Cindy who lived half the time in Middletown, Ohio, with her father. At the river I helped Junior and Delmer carry the quilts and the watermelons and picnic stuff down to the beach while everybody else went back in the trees to put their swimming suits on. When I went back to change I thought I was the only one there ‘til I came upon Maxine standing next to a sycamore tree without a stitch on. I started to turn around and run but she saw me and busted out laughing. Without haste or any sign of embarrassment, Maxine stepped behind the tree where I heard her still laughing. A minute or two later Maxine came out from behind the sycamore wearing a brown one-piece bathing suit. Carrying her clothes in one hand and her shoes and a towel in the other, and with a big grin on her face, she walked right toward me. “I guess you got you a big eyeful that time,” she sang out cheerfully. Then she said, “I won’t tell anybody if you won’t!” When she got up close she gave me a push and said, “Come on, buddy, let’s go in swimming,” and the two of us took off running barefoot toward the river.

And that is an example of—I guess I could say—where I’m at as a writer. I have no need to try to make a traditional literary short story out of that story. What it is is a story. That’s where I rest my case. It’s a little story, although I hope it holds up as writing and as a form of literature. And that’s typical of the whole book, Allegiance, coming out in June.

I have not felt the need to crank out books. I’m a real senior person now. In the first part of one’s academic career, of course, for professional reasons, one thinks in terms of, You’ve gotta get your book written, you have to get it published, and hopefully it’s good, and that’s what professors are expected to do. I have wonderful colleagues who are prolific and great fiction writers, and think in terms of, you know, broad audiences, reputation, and so forth. With, ultimately lurking in the background, what is sometimes known pejoratively as “The New York Publishing World”, and I’ve had my relationship with New York, and San Francisco. But I have, in my later work, thought regionally. And I take great pride in being an American regionalist. Maybe I can illustrate my attitude or orientation by talking a little about my newspaper background. When I was a student at the University of Kentucky in the fifties, 1955 to 1960, I started as a journalism major. Loved the journalism school. Lived in the journalism building virtually, and wrote regularly for the Colonel. And then worked as an assistant associate and finally editor of the yearbook. During the summers, starting in ’58, I went back to my hometown—Hazard, Kentucky, probably the most interesting town in North America—to work as a reporter for the weekly Hazard Herald. I was 20 when I started. I loved it. It fit my basic attitude and it showed me the universal potential of working within regional consciousness. Regional writing is not much understood; it’s even thought of as a pejorative term by many people. But it meant that I worked for a newspaper that served a rural Eastern Kentucky mountain county. It’s a county newspaper. Every county had its own newspaper. It came out every Thursday, had a circulation of about 3200. The county had about 35 thousand people at the time, down to about 25 thousand now. But if you work for the weekly newspaper in your home county, you know who you’re writing to. It’s exciting to be the chronicler of the experience of the people, the ongoing dramas in a county.

In my first week on the job, at that age, I was sent to cover a murder trial. And so there I was, with a seat up front, taking notes as the judge conducted the trial and the attorneys on both sides interviewed witnesses, who gave testimony, two young men accused of murder. I’d been a reporter for four days. I was so pleased and satisfied to be that close to the action, and I never lost that feeling of knowing, for one thing, who the readers are, and that I was serving the readers by giving, the best I could, my account of the trial. The testimony, the suspense, everything about it. In other venues, we might say, many reporters will wait ten years to get an assignment like that. I had that assignment in the first week. And it showed me the infinite kinds of human experience that go on in the county. A county becomes a microcosm of the world, and everybody’s there, there’s dramas everywhere, all the time, and so I became a student of the place. The culture, the vivid individuals, colorful people; some judges are the most colorful people of all.

I knew I had found my place in the world, as a writer, and that what a writer might need is simply a home county. My own personal family story is in the mix. Family was part of the county story. I was always mindful of my grandparents, who had been residents of that county from 1912, and I had lived with grandparents, heard the best conversation and storytelling coming from them and their peers.

My grandfather managed the company commissary at a coal camp, Columbus Mining Company, a big corporate entity with headquarters in Chicago I think, had about five different underground coal mines in Perry County alone. All opened from about 1912 on, and each big mine would create housing for the workers. So in Allais there must have been 40 small four-room houses where the miners lived, and their families, and they get up and go to work, and some of the houses were within a hundred yards of the opening of the mine.

So I was raised in a coal camp. It’s just the best kind of social education, to be in such a compact place, and the issues of human life are all there. It happened several times: I would be playing down by the creek with other boys, shooting marbles, maybe, and out from the opening of the mine would come two men carrying a dead miner on a stretcher, or mangled miner whose body had been crushed because a ton of rock had fallen on him. They had to carry him out to the place where the automobiles were. And this was a fairly common experience. You’re a boy playing marbles and two men come by carrying a mangled coal miner on a stretcher, and then you go back to playing marbles. It might be the father of some boy you’re playing marbles with. That’s up close and personal to the hard edge of life. It was not a middle-class world at all. To this day, those are my most vivid early memories.

Then fifteen years go by, I’ve come to the University of Kentucky trying to be a reporter, writing for the Colonel, editing the yearbook, going home to this community and, on almost my first day of work for the newspaper, I’m sitting in the front row of a murder trial. And I could do it, I did it. Took down the testimony, listened to everything that was said, noticed what was around me, and the verdict was rendered on Wednesday. My account of the story appeared in print on Thursday. So that’s what writing and journalism means to me—there’s nothing abstract about it. But I had good luck and very good training here at the University, the journalism school and the English Department, the creative writing courses; I was well-prepared to go do this while I was still a student. And all that relieved me from worrying about fame and fortune and ambition. That became my ambition. That’s, to me, what it means to be a regionalist.

But in the literary world, the word regionalist is a pejorative term. Oh it means you’re not ambitious, it means to think you can’t make it in some larger venue. So I get a big kick out of, any time I run into pejorative commentary about regional writing and so on. Faulkner was our best regional writer. See, I enjoy talking about this, and being a little feisty.

To finish a point I started to make—when you are writing for a rural weekly newspaper, you’re writing for people who may already know firsthand what you’re talking about. There’s something intimate about it. The readers trust you to get it right for the record; you’re the record keeper. One of the satisfying things I would do in slow moments working for the Hazard Herald was to read old volumes. The physical papers were there. I would flip back and read 40 year-old newspaper articles. I’d find notices about my father graduating from high school. But you know who you’re writing for, you have the sense that you’re a chronicler, and yesterday’s news doesn’t just disappear—it accumulates. It’s the story of a substantial community. Bourgeois society is contemptuous of the local, and that’s just out of ignorance. The local is the nitty-gritty of where people live their lives.

Divine Right’s Trip reads, in many ways, like a manifesto of finding yourself back in place. In DR’s case, in the mountains. But a lot of the book is on the road, he’s coming from California. The book was very well-received, critically, you got a lot of acclaim from the major publications. I’m curious if the success of that novel sort of allowed you to relax a little bit and take the path you wanted to go down, which is toward a more regional writing?

Good point, good question. I must shift now from talking about weekly publication in one county to an annual—for a while, three years—publication for the Whole Earth. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for upwards of twenty years, and at the time of the sixties generation, and particularly in that place, as a member of a kind of revolutionary generation.

The Whole Earth Catalog was founded by friend of mine, Stuart Brand. This is when we lived in Menlo Park. Stuart was his own kind of genius and innovator, and he started a little thirty-page publication, and it was a catalog of interesting things you could get, describing books as tools, but also tools the hippies were discovering and having to learn how to use, because of their romantic notions to go back to the land. All these young bourgeois kids thinking, Well, we’re gonna go be farmers. So Stuart published his Whole Earth Catalog and I was his friend, we lived in the same community, and I had come from my journalism background and had rich experiences along the way. I had something to offer and I worked for Stuart. I was a guest editor of some of the issues, which he published at least twice a year for three years, and it grew, and then he was ready to be done with it. He decided to end the Whole Earth Catalog with the Last Whole Earth Catalog. Have you come across it in any of your reading?

I know about it, but I’ve never seen one.

I’ve got one up in my office. It’s 400 oversized pages. So I had helped Stuart a little bit, many people did, and it caught the spirit of the moment. Stuart got real famous and was invited to New York to be on the popular media circuit, but then he decided he had to go out of business, he was tired, he couldn’t keep doing this. He said, “I’m going to kill the catalog,” and that meant he would combine all the issues.

Then, as we frequently did, we were talking and he said, “I just wondered what your ideas were, what it could include.” And I said, “Well it ought to have a novel in it.” And Stuart said, “Fine, will you write it?” I said, “Yeah,” and that was all that was said. That’s all you needed to say. I arranged to take a year off from everything and sat down on a certain day.

Of course by then I had had experience way beyond Kentucky, and, importantly, two years in the US Army. I was a lieutenant officer. It happened that the Army posted me from Fort Benning, Georgia, after my training, to Fort Ord, in Monterey, California—an hour’s drive from Menlo Park. So, in effect, I had my year at Stanford and then two years in the Army at Fort Ord with Menlo Park an hour away, where I would go up on weekends and hang out with Ken [Kesey] and friends on Perry Lane, and Stuart was part of the same community. So I fully understood the counterculture and the range of experiences. I had become a kind of Californian.

Stuart was working in print media, and so the Last Whole Earth Catalog, with all parts of it combined, was tabloid-sized pages, 400 plus pages, thick thing, and I sat down and devoted about 10 months to making up this story and writing fiction, and what came out was Divine Right’s Trip. I thought of Divine Right’s Trip as my own version of the universal hero myth, and we go to Joseph Campbell and C.G. Jung, Jungian psychology, and mythology, to pursue the subject of the universal hero’s journey. Divine Right’s Trip is my version of the universal hero’s journey, not that many people have noticed that.

But all of us combined created the catalog. We wrote our articles, a type-setter set them in type, in proper columns, it was proofread, then a lay-out artist took scissors and cut the paper, pasted them down on the layout sheet, and we created the physical catalog in that way. With scissors and glue. The people who did that are now 65 years old and older; it’s everybody’s great-grandparents that had this radical cultural attitude, which they don’t get credit for. But Stuart assembled the pages and sent them to the printer in November of ’71. It was kind of the high peak of what was called the counterculture. And by June of ’72, we had sold 1 million copies of the Whole Earth Catalog at five dollars apiece. So suddenly there’s some hippies who’ve got a little capital. And had learned to use the word capital. It wasn’t my capital, although a bit of it was. But in such a short time, for such a rare publication, it’s the evidence of what the counterculture was. A million people wanted that catalog—immediately.

By June, when the figures were announced, a few people in New York publishing thought, What? and began to take an interest in the poor hippies of California and that issue, the Last Whole Earth Catalog. A New York Press, called the Dial Press—over the years it was taken in by Random House or somebody—was a literary press and they noticed my novel down there on the pages of this hippie book, and so that’s how Divine Right’s Trip was published. How John Updike saw it and wrote his generous comments.

But by now all of this is folklore. There’s nowhere you go and read all this stuff I’m saying. We gotta get it in a folk situation, two people talking. So anyhow I hope some of that’s useful or interesting. Just to tell stories like that appeals to me, way more than fiction by now. I will write more fiction. In fact, I’m working on a novel, but it’s not on my front burner. This [Allegiance] is my front burner. Are you interested in the picture on the front? Did I tell you about it?

No, but I knew you were a forest lookout. And that’s what came to mind first.

That’s what it is. This is me at age 28, working for the forest service, living in a lookout tower in the remote Mount Hood National Forest. I began to think about the lookout job through the works of Gary Snyder, who I came to know and have been influenced by. It was Gary that got Kerouac a job on the lookout. Kerouac lasted about five weeks; it’s a four month job. You go up on your tower in the wilderness the first day of June and you’re there until early October. I loved it. I knew I wanted that job. Living 60 feet off the ground. It’s a great writing situation.

Why don’t you tell the story of how you came to get that job. It involved Storrs, Connecticut, right?

Yeah, exactly. My friend Jim Hall, that’s James Baker Hall, is one of Kentucky’s great writers and very important to the history of creative writing at UK. He was also at Stanford with me, two UK boys in the same Stanford writing class, working with Malcolm Cowley and the Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor. Frank O’Connor is much neglected now but he was such a major writer. From him I got my fixed ideas about the short story as a form, and so to take this turn toward these nonfiction stories is sort of a rebellion against Mr. O’Connor. But about Jim.

Jim was living in Storrs, Connecticut, at the time. University town. I went up in the winter of ‘65 and ‘66 and just moved in. He was finishing his first novel at the time. Nonetheless Jim and I went over to the university campus to play basketball. Jim might’ve been 29 or 30 and I was 28, and so we played half court basketball for about an hour and got all sweaty and there were several goals and different bunches of guys playing half court basketball. Our game broke up first and we went to the shower room and took our showers, and, as we were dressing, these others bunches of guys that had been playing came in and went to the showers, ten showers in a row on the wall and a dressing area nearby.

Jim said, “Gurney, what’re you gonna do next summer?” And I said, “I don’t know what I will do, but what I would like to do is get one those lookout jobs with the forest service and live in a tower and be in the woods, but I have no idea how you go about getting a job like that.” A guy, standing under the falling water, right next to us, could hear what we were saying, and so from the waterfall came a voice that said, “What you do is write to Bill Arthur at Ripplebrook Ranger Station in Estacada Oregon, and say you want to be a lookout.” He turned the water off and there stood this young guy, he was a teaching assistant at UCONN, Tom Churchill, a great person, and as Tom dried off he said, “In your letter, tell him that you know how to use binoculars, tell him you know how to use an axe, a saw and a chainsaw,” and others things like that, read a topographical map, which I did from my military training. I still know how to read topographical maps.

So there it was handed to me, in exactly that way, a voice from under the falling water, you couldn’t see the guy in the water, but he could hear what we were saying and he answered the question. So I did exactly what he said. I wrote a handwritten letter, put a big stamp on it and put in the US mail, and two months later got a letter back telling me that I had been hired. Bill Arthur hired me through the mail. In late May, I got in my Volkswagen and drove out to the Portland area and went out 50 miles into the Cascade wilderness. They’ve got serious mountains there. Sisi Butte was the peak on which the lookout tower stood, but it was just in the face, twenty miles away, of Mount Hood. Mount Hood is a majestic 12,000 feet. East of the Mississippi we don’t have anything even 6000 feet. My little lookout post was on a 6000 foot peak. So in the summer of ’66 I went up to my lookout tower and stayed 4 months. Enjoyed it so much I did it again the next year. That’s just the way serendipity takes us where it wants us to go.

One of the consistent themes in Appalachian literature and Appalachian culture in general is “to stay or to go” and many progressive Appalachians tend to have a fraught relationship with the region in some ways. I’m interested in the depth of your allegiance to place and to the mountains. You’ve talked about how you lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, in what was no doubt a very different culture than Lexington and certainly different from the mountains—

And in a historic time period with what was called the “counter culture”, tens of thousands of young people wanting to invent their own new culture.

Yeah. Your characters, notably Divine Right, but also Wilgus, complete their hero’s journey, yet there’s a palpable sense of otherness from the place and people they love so dearly. In Allegiance I’m thinking of the story “Balsam Ridge” and also “Lester Dunham”, where Lester tells Wilgus, “You don’t see people to see people anymore and you spend your time staring at the tops of buildings.” It’s funny, but poignant. I guess I’m curious—has it been difficult for you to reconcile this?

No. It has not been difficult. I’ve been fortunate in many ways to have joined the UK faculty 40 years ago at age 42. It was the means by which I was brought back to Kentucky, and it was timely and just right. I was ready to do that. To come back after being away 20 years. It was exciting, and part of life’s adventure to return to the place where I had grown up and gone to school. Of course the world had changed. But that’s the short answer. Not difficult at all.

As somebody who’s been at the university for a long time, you’ve overseen several generations of young people from the region that you write about. I’m wondering if, in that time, you’ve noticed the Appalachian identity change, or the perception of it change?

Well, it has changed. I think that we speak of generational change. Everybody will have changed, and Eastern Kentucky has mightily changed from what I knew when I last lived and worked there. Beyond my experience, I don’t claim to be very close to the mountains right now. My generation is just passing on. We should establish that I will, in July, be 82 years old. So that’s a perspective. Of course nothing is gonna stay the same. And for the last 25 years I have not been engaged so much in the mountains.

I think many of my students who come to classes at UK from the mountain counties might be surprised that a professor is passionate and feels engaged and knows a good deal about their parent’s generation. But I’m not an authority on contemporary Eastern Kentucky. It is different in ways that I have not myself experienced. My connection to the mountains now has to do with writing and trying to be of such service as a creative writing teacher could be. I really enjoy meeting students from the mountains interested in writing. I’d say the big gap is I am only barely computer literate. I can send emails.

I find it a little sad, a little bittersweet, that, since the coal industry has tapered off even more than it had in the past decade, it seems to no longer dominate the psyche of my generation—I grew up near Perry County—in the way it has prior generations. So I do think younger Appalachian writers will have to forge a new way of speaking about themselves without reference to this monolith of an industry.

That’s a fascinating thing you’re saying. I hope it’s a subject you pursue. Because it’s the truth. I hope you pursue that thought and undertake to articulate it and research it and give us some writing and language to utter this difference. My imagination is still filled with when the coal industry was all-powerful, just booming, and the region was populated and there was work for people and dynamic energy. A big part of the energy in my early years was the question of labor. And labor struggle. No one talks about strikes anymore.

I only recently watched Harlan County USA.


I never knew anybody that was, to my knowledge, in a miners’ union. I had family members who worked strips mines but none of them were ever unionized, I don’t think.

Let’s let that be a subject we want to pursue. I mean your generation of young people coming from the mountains to the university with intellectual aspirations, literary talents, journalistic pursuits, because it’s vital—the story of your generation is different and more complex but no less interesting.

I don’t know if its darker or more optimistic.

Well, that’s for you and your peers to find out. That’s your question. I don’t presume to be any kind of voice anymore. I come from the past. But what I want to encourage you and your friends and colleagues to do is be writers, make a book. That’s the way for conversation about your generation to emerge. Who’s the youngest writer from the mountains that you read?

I haven’t read him but I know of David Joy. He seems pretty big. Seems young. I’m not entirely sure what his age is. I’m probably overlooking several.

Do you keep up with Appalachian Heritage out of Berea? You gotta subscribe. What this generation of editors are doing with Appalachian Heritage is first rate, mature and contemporary.

Well, Gurney, even though you don’t claim to speak for the contemporary state of the region, all of us young people with an interest certainly know who you are, and we are very grateful for the work you’ve done and for being an example of a life we’re capable of living if we try.

Your own version of it. We have to be a little bold and strike out on our own and go away for a year and do something else. But I’ve always returned. Let me just say that your generation has a story. It’s your own. It’s different. It just must get written. 

Thanks for talking, Gurney.

Gurney Norman is a writer and educator from Appalachia. He is the former Poet Laureate of Kentucky and the author of four books of fiction, including the novel Divine Right’s Trip and the forthcoming short story collection Allegiance.

Hagan Smith is an MFA student at UK, focusing on fiction. He grew up in Eastern Kentucky.