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Posted November 14, 2004
'When I go to the barbershop and the barber says, 'What do you do for a living?' it's like I can't think of a thing to tell him. And the only answer I've come up with, which I have not had the courage yet to speak to a stranger, is to say, 'I collect people's lives.'' In Scribblers, Stephen Kirk, who for 16 years has been editor-in-chief at John F. Blair, Publisher. For Scribblers, he visited Asheville, North Carolina, and its environs, including the Black Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains, to collect people's lives, or, as Kirk elsewhere puts it, 'stalking the authors of Appalachia.' A better title for Kirk's book would be Scriveners and Scribblers, for he writes about both professionals and amateurs, veterans and wannabes, the masters of prose and those posing as masters. Asheville's greatest literary son is Thomas Wolfe, author of manuscripts famously carved by editor Maxwell Perkins into four novels--Look Homeward, Angel; Of Time and the River; The Web and the Rock; and You Can't Go Home Again. Wolfe was also the writer of numerous high-quality short stories. But there are many other striking literary connections in the greater Asheville area. At nearby Hendersonville, North Carolina, Carl Sandburg had a summer home. O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) was buried at Asheville's Riverside Cemetery, where Wolfe's remains also are interred. F. Scott Fitzgerald lived and wrote in the area, and on March 10, 1948, Scott's wife Zelda died in a fire at Asheville's Highland Mental Hospital. Scribblers is a combination of literary history and personal memoir. Kirk interviews many contemporary writers of Appalachia--such as Sharyn McCrumb, Fred Chappell, Charles Price, Gail Godwin, Robert Morgan, Jill Jones, Randy Russell, Bill Brooks, Jan Karon, Joan Medlicott, Ann B. Ross, and Charles (Cold MOuntain) Frazier--sharing fascinating anecdotes about their lives and work. Kirk peppers Scribblers with a self-deprecation that will make you laugh out loud. Moreover, he includes informative details about the creative process, the craft of writing, the publishing industry, the book trade, and print-on-demand technology. An attempt to position this book in a specific genre is doomed to failure. Let's just say that it features many items of interest for inveterate readers. For instance, a woman whom Kirk met at a writers' workshop 'began taking trips to Ireland, the land of her ancestry. Struck by the many parallels in folklore, dance, music, and crafts between Ireland and the southern Appalachians--attributed to the Scots-Irish migration of the nineteenth century--she resolved to write a book on the subject.' Kirk voice is unpretentious; he pulls no punches; he lets the chips fall where they may; he can laugh at himself as well as at others. And, although one should think twice about riding with the author in his decrepit Oldsmobile, accompanying him through the pages of Scribblers is a delightful trip. I must take issue, however, with Kirk's disparagement of Thomas Wolfe as 'a freshman trying to fill a blue book, desperately hoping windiness and obfuscation will cover for a dearth of substance.' As if, in his wildest dreams, Mr. Kirk could ever come close to the genius of Wolfe's artistry! Pat Conroy's assessment of Wolfe, which Kirk relates, is more palatable. 'For Conroy,' writes Kirk, 'Wolfe is the Babe Ruth of literature, a man who swung for the fence, who wrote like his hair was on fire, who was battered by critics but never cowed, who was more courageous than other writers because he refused to hold himself back, even for his own protection.' In this matter, Conroy rather than Kirk is closer to the truth. I agree with Conroy and consider Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel one of the dozen greatest English-language novels of the 20th century. Roy E. Perry of Nolensville is an advertising copywriter at a Nashville publishing house. ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stephen Kirk, a gradWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.