Novelist relies on the poet within
SALISBURY — Author Robert Morgan describes himself first and foremost as a poet, but he is known mostly for 1999’s novel “Gap Creek.”
Oprah picked it for her book club in 2000. Morgan said the book got great reviews. It sold out its first printing. “We thought it was a success,” considering how many books he’d sold as a poet. He was talking to an audience at the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College Literary and Fine Arts Festival Monday night.
When Morgan got the call from Oprah, an effusive voice heaped praise on the book, said it matched the promise written on the back. “She never introduced herself, so I thought it was someone from North or South Carolina who wanted me to come to their meeting.” He told her he lived in New York and taught at Cornell University, probably a place she’d never heard of. “I live in Chicago,” she said. That’s when it dawned on him. Still, friends convinced him it was a college prank, and he ignored it, until he got a second call to film an interview actually in Gap Creek.
“I thought we’d sell maybe 20,000 extra books,” Morgan said. Then he got another call: “We need 600,000 by next Monday.” The book sold about 2 million copies in the U.S., with countless others in numerous other countries.
The difficulty, Morgan said, was to get the voice right. Based loosely on his maternal grandmother, “Gap Creek’s” Julie was a challenge at first.
“My paternal great-grandmother was quite well-educated and confident. ... I wondered how I was going to get a woman who was not very confident, who had really no formal education, to tell the story of her marriage...
“My fiction is voice-driven. Once I got through the first paragraph, I got Julie to write it for me.”
He was teaching at Davidson College at the time, but the book wrote itself in just four months.
Morgan had to work out how to get dialect in the writing without using a lot of stuff like phonetic spelling, something that slows people down. “You give a flavor, you use double negatives,” drop the Gs. It’s not exact, but “art is always a compromise.”
After “Gap Creek,” Morgan stayed pretty busy. He kept promising a sequel to the novel, but he thought it would be in Julie’s voice again.
In August, expect “The Road from Gap Creek,” told in Annie’s voice, Julie’s daughter, covering the time period up to World War II. Once he had the voice, he wrote it very quickly, too. You can tell he’s excited about it as he reads an excerpt published in a new paperback edition of “Gap Creek.”
Immediately, he falls into a cadence, the soft dialect of Annie telling her story. It sounds wonderful.
He said he worried some about the books, because there are true family stories in both. His grandmother Julie was a woman who spent her life working for other people. “You live your life by what you do, not what you say.” Julie was very quiet and devout and she had a good sense of humor, unlike one of Morgan’s cousins, who marched up to him at a signing. She pointed at the disclaimer at the front of the book saying all characters and events were fictional and said, “And that’s the ONLY fiction in this book,” and huffed off.
He worried what his mother would think. Her response, “When are you going to write about ME?”
What did he do in the 14 years since “Gap Creek”? A little bit of this and that — a novel, “This Rock” in 2001; another, “Brave Enemies,” in 2003; a book of poetry in 2004, “The Strange Attractor”; “Boone,” the monumental and acclaimed biography of Daniel Boone, in 2007; another poetry collection in 2009, “October Crossing”; “Terroir,” more poems, came out in 2011, along with a monster work of nonfiction, “Lions of the West,” which tells the stories of the men who blazed the trails from the Appalachians to the Pacific.
It is full of condensed portraits of names from Johnny Appleseed to Thomas Jefferson. To hear the stories from the research he did for this book is to hear history through eager eyes and excited voice. Did you know Kit Carson was actually an inch and a half taller than Daniel Boone?
Boone, once Morgan’s favorite pioneer, is losing his place to Kit Carson, Morgan said. Both men are fascinating and both did things no one else would have dreamed of. Boone was much more of a loner, disappearing into the woods to hunt for weeks or months, often with his Native American relatives.
And that’s how he missed meeting Lewis and Clark, Morgan said. There’s been much speculation about the greats meeting on the bank of some mighty river, but Morgan says since neither Lewis nor Clark wrote of it in their personal diaries, he doesn’t believe it happened. Nor did Carson and Boone meet, though they were connected by marriage.
In writing the sequel to “Gap Creek,” Morgan did some background research about the 8th Air Force. “My uncle died in a crash while with the 8th,” he tells. In his research he could never figure out how his uncle died over Paris, when there was no bombing. What’s a bomber doing over Paris?
Dropping propaganda leaflets, it turns out. Morgan had been in contact with the man who had been his uncle’s best friend and survived. He never quite told the story and Morgan, to this day, is not sure why.
Then one day, the man’s daughter called and told Morgan to call her father and he got the whole story. His uncle and the other guy were crew chiefs, mechanics who manned the turret guns if they were under attack. They were dropping leaflets, but still loaded with bombs.
“It brought the whole thing alive. ... all the men I interviewed about it 30 years ago are now dead.”
Morgan takes great care in telling the stories of the dead, and there’s no sign he will stop, which is good news for the rest of us.