Edgerton, Clyde (Carlyle) 1944-
EDGERTON, Clyde (Carlyle) 1944-
PERSONAL: Born May 20, 1944, in Durham, NC; son of Ernest Carlyle (in insurance sales) and Susan Truma (a homemaker; maiden name, Warren) Edgerton; married, June 21, 1975 (marriage ended); married Kristina Jones, December 22, 2001; children: Catherine, Nathan. Education: University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, B.A., 1966, M.A.T., 1972, Ph.D., 1977.
ADDRESSES: Office—Creative Writing Program, University of North Carolina—Wilmington, 601 College Rd., Wilmington, NC 28403. Agent—Liz Darhansoff, 1220 Park Ave., New York, NY 10128. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Southern High School, Durham, NC, English teacher, 1972-73; English Teaching Institute, Chapel Hill, NC, codirector, 1976; Campbell University, Buies Creek, NC, assistant professor, 1977-82, associate professor of education and psychology, 1982-85; St. Andrews Presbyterian College, Laurinburg, NC, associate professor of English and education, 1985-89; full-time writer, 1989-98; University of North Carolina—Wilmington, Wilmington, NC, distinguished visiting professor, 1998-2002, professor of creative writing, 2002—. North Carolina Central University, visiting lecturer, 1977; Agnes Scott College, visiting writer in residence, 1991; Duke University, visiting professor, 1992; Millsaps College, Eudora Welty Visiting Professor and Eudora Welty cochair of southern studies, 1996; lecturer at conferences and workshops. Guest on television and radio programs, including Today, Sunday Weekend Edition, National Public Radio, Morning Edition, and Good Evening with Noah Adams. Musician; member of Rank Strangers Band. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1966-71, pilot for reconnaissance and forward air control missions in Southeast Asia; received Distinguished Flying Cross.
AWARDS, HONORS: Publishers Weekly named The Floatplane Notebooks one of the best books of 1988; Guggenheim fellow, 1989; Lyndhurst fellow, 1991; honorary doctorate, University of North Carolina—Asheville, 1993; D.H.L., St. Andrews Presbyterian College, 1994; Ragan-Rubin Award, 1995; award from Fellowship of Southern Writers, 1997; five "notable book" citations from New York Times; North Carolina Award for Literature, 1997.
Raney (novel), Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1985.
Walking across Egypt (novel; Book-of-the-Month Club featured "discovery" selection), Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1987.
Understanding the Floatplane (chapbook), Mud Puppy Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1987.
The Floatplane Notebooks (novel; Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection), Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1988.
Cold Black Peas (chapbook), Mud Puppy Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1990.
Killer Diller (novel; Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection), Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1991.
In Memory of Junior: A Novel, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1992.
Redeye: A Western, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1995.
Where Trouble Sleeps: A Novel, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1997.
Lunch at the Piccadilly, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 2003.
Contributor to Family Portraits: Remembrances by Twenty Distinguished Writers, edited by Carolyn Anthony, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1989; work represented in other anthologies, including Weymouth: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Sam Ragan, St. Andrews Press (Laurinburg, NC), 1987; New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, 1990, edited by Shannon Ravenel, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1990; Best American Short Stories, 1997, and New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, 2000. Contributor of short stories, essays, and reviews to periodicals, including Chattahoochee Review, Descant, Daily Tar Heel, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Just Pulp, Leader, Lyricist, Mid-Atlantic Country, Old Hickory Review, and New York Times; some periodical articles appeared under the pseudonym Raney Basket. Work available on sound recordings, including Walking across Egypt: Songs and Readings from the Books "Raney" and "Walking across Egypt," music performed by Edgerton and other members of the Tarwater Band, Flying Fish Records, 1987; Clyde Edgerton Reads "The Floatplane Notebooks," Random House Audiobooks, 1989; and The "Killer Diller" Tapes.
ADAPTATIONS: Walking across Egypt was adapted by John Justice for a play of the same title, first produced in 1989; it was also adapted as a screenplay, 1999. Raney was adapted by John Justice for a play of the same title, first produced in Fayetteville, NC, in 1990. Killer Diller was adapted for the screen as Bottleneck, 2003. Lunch at the Piccadilly and Killer Diller were also adapted for the stage.
SIDELIGHTS: "If I can get a handle on a good character," commented novelist Clyde Edgerton in the Huntsville Times, "then everything else follows, including plot." The author's works, set in the small towns of North Carolina, have been hailed for vivid characters that are drawn with insight, compassion, and humor. "When you finish one of his novels," wrote Times critic Ann Martin, "you feel as if you have a new friend." A product of North Carolina himself, Edgerton draws inspiration from such respected Southern writers as Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. He doesn't mind being called a "Southern" writer as long as onlookers remember that "regional" writing can have widespread significance. "Shakespeare's works," he told the Milwaukee Journal, "were quite regional."
Edgerton didn't grow up expecting to be a writer. Only years later did he realize that his childhood, immersed in the storytelling traditions of the rural South, had been a fine preparation for the job. "Some of us grew up in a South in the 1950s that most people think disappeared after the 1930s," he told the Atlanta Journal. "I'm aware that [novelist] Walker Percy said people don't sit on the front porch and tell stories anymore. But I did, and [people in my family] did." Lacking the distractions of big cities and mass communication, rural Americans traditionally stayed in touch with their relatives and regaled each other with stories—particularly family stories—as a form of entertainment. "It's a kind of ancestor worship," Edgerton told the Washington Post Book World. "You get a picture of these people, and they're part of you, and you're very proud."
As a student at the University of North Carolina in the 1960s, Edgerton wrote only a few unfinished short stories and a smattering of poems, including a verse condemning those who opposed America's entry into the Vietnam war. He was more interested in flying, and after graduation he joined the U.S. Air Force and piloted reconnaissance and forward air control flights over Vietnam as the conflict there continued. Though Edgerton's missions generally kept him high above the combat raging on the ground, his wartime experiences were enough to leave him a changed man, haunted by concerns that he would need years to express. His choice of presidential candidates changed at once. "In 1964, I worked for [conservative Republican] Barry Goldwater," he told R. K. Underwood of the Augusta Chronicle. "In 1970, I went to Southeast Asia. In 1972, I worked for [liberal Democrat] George McGovern." Soon thereafter Edgerton married Susan Ketchin, with whom he shared an interest in teaching and bluegrass music. He became an professor of education at Campbell University, a Baptist-affiliated school in the small town of Buies Creek, North Carolina. The couple expected a quiet, conventional life.
But writing gradually unsettled their plans. It began innocuously at Christmas, 1977, when Edgerton became curious about a soft spot in his kitchen floor, entered the crawlspace under his house, and found an old well. He became inspired to write a short story about a boy named Meredith who breaks through a kitchen floor and drops into the well beneath. As he polished the story a few months later, Edgerton experienced a literary conversion of sorts while watching Eudora Welty read one of her short stories on public television. The story, "Why I Live at the P.O.," shows an absurd quarrel in a small-town Southern family that ends when one of the grown children stomps off to live in the back room of the post office. Authors like Welty and O'Connor, Edgerton recalled in Publishers Weekly, "were writing about people and situations and places that earlier I might have thought not worthy of literature." By the day after the broadcast—May 15, 1978—Edgerton had decided that writing was his true vocation.
He began by writing more short stories. Between 1979 and 1983 "I sent out 12 or 13 stories and got back 202 rejections," he told the Augusta Chronicle. "I knew that writers were supposed to get rejected, but it seemed like a year of rejections would be enough." Eventually six of his stories were accepted, half of them by friends. The stories had an unexpected dividend, though; two of them featured a character that Edgerton liked well enough to use as the basis of a novel. She was Raney Bell Shepherd: a small-town Free Will Baptist, narrow-minded, unapologetic, fiercely loyal to her family, but somehow loveable because of her bouncy personality and commonsense approach to life. Raney, Edgerton realized, was a strong character—strong enough to be the narrator of her own book—because she was a voice from his childhood, where women were the principal storytellers. "I just had the voice," he recalled in theMilwaukee Journal. "Because in my family women talked a lot, and because I was an only child . . . I've been around talking women. I had to have a woman tell the story." The book, naturally, was also called Raney.
Edgerton spent two years writing and rewriting Raney and gathering rejections from New York publishers. Finally his wife suggested that he send the manuscript to Louis Rubin, a former professor of hers at the University of North Carolina. Rubin liked the novel so much that he offered to publish it as part of his new venture, Algonquin Books. He sent the manuscript on to Algonquin editor Shannon Ravenel, who also edited the renowned annual Best American Short Stories. As Publishers Weekly reported, Edgerton found his new partnership with Ravenel "to be an essential element in the success of his books." The two spent several months reworking Raney, which sold more than 200,000 copies after it was published by Algonquin in 1985.
Raney depicts the title character's tumultuous first two years of married life. The marriage is a Southern cultural mismatch. Raney's husband, Charles Shepherd, is a slightly stuffy librarian from Atlanta who has settled in Raney's small town to enjoy tranquility and bluegrass music. Love of music, in fact, seems to be the only thing the couple has in common. Charles is irked by Raney's strong family ties, and Raney is shocked that Charles considers a black man to be his best friend. The couple proceeds to clash about everything from sex to religion to the importance of the world outside Bethel, North Carolina, and Raney finally leaves home. She soon returns, however—a bit more tolerant and mature—and even engages Charles in some after-hours lovemaking in the back of her father's general store.
Reviewers discovered Edgerton's first novel with delight. In the Sewanee Review, editor George Core observed: "Raney's effectiveness stems from its wonderfully sustained tone, the sound of Raney Bell's voice as she narrates [her] deliciously funny story." The book, Core told readers of the Washington Post Book World, was something that humorist James Thurber "might have written had he lived in North Carolina rather than Connecticut." "What really distinguishes this novel," wrote Chuck Moss in the Detroit News, "is its warmth and amused tolerance. This could easily be a wicked satire, slashing at ignorant Crackers or the primly liberal bourgeoisie. Instead, Edgerton draws all his people with sympathy, acceptance and comic affection. His is a free country, even if what you're doing plainly doesn't make sense at all and never did."
Edgerton's toughest audience seems to have been his own bosses at Campbell University, where he was still an associate professor of education. Raney was published in January of 1985, shortly before it was time to renew the author's contract to teach. Instead of the contract, Edgerton received an invitation to a meeting with the administration. At first he thought his bosses might offer him tenure; instead, they wanted to discuss Raney. "They gave me [several] specific problems they had with the book," he recalled in Publishers Weekly. "One, that it was a demeaning characterization of the Baptist Church. Second, that it showed a clash between the old and the new, with the new replacing the old." Moreover, Edgerton told CA, the administration complained that the book "showed alcohol used as a "catalyst.'" They challenged Edgerton to explain how Raney would further the mission of the university—and he refused to answer. After several tense weeks the author finally received a contract offer, but it was missing the customary raise. Contending that his academic freedom had been violated, Edgerton made a fruitless appeal to his bosses for an impartial hearing, then quit his job. "Once I resigned," he told the Milwaukee Journal, "I realized I should have been gone long before." He went to another church-related school in North Carolina, St. Andrews Presbyterian College, where he resumed his teaching career and received unqualified support for his writing.
Edgerton's next novel, Walking across Egypt, was inspired by some family storytelling. One day Edgerton's mother, while entertaining him and his aunts, admitted that she had sat down in a seatless rocking chair the day before and remained stuck for fifteen minutes. "Well, we thought that was the funniest thing we had ever heard," he recalled in Publishers Weekly, "and I wondered how I could use it in a story. Then I said, 'This is a story!' So I went home and wrote about twenty pages in no time." The woman in the rocking chair became Mattie Rigsbee, a feisty, warmhearted, devoutly Christian widow who may or may not resemble Edgerton's mother. (His mother did pose for the photograph on the cover of the hardback edition.) The title of the novel ostensibly refers to one of Mattie's favorite hymns, but in reality, suggested Chuck Moss, the title reflects Mattie's "personal creed of endurance." Mattie endures despite her age and her loneliness, waiting for someone she can love and cook for. Since she has no grandchildren, she finds one on her own: Wesley Benfield, a hapless juvenile delinquent in need of some good parenting. "Walking across Egypt is a book that teeters on the very edge of terminal cuteness," wrote Carolyn See in the Los Angeles Times, "but the longer you read it, the dearer it gets. Mattie is so brave (and resigned) in her loneliness that you have to like her." "I can't think of anything I've read quite like [this book]," said Donald McCaig in the Washington Post. "Not many writers have dealt, fondly, with the life of an ordinary Christian believer." He concluded: "Clyde Edgerton's book is brilliant, brief and kind."
So far Edgerton's books had shown a certain pattern: strong women as central characters, and what Kathryn Morton of the New York Times Book Review called a "penchant for picturesque farce." But Edgerton was already experimenting by the time he wrote his second novel. "I admired other writers who would write from an omniscient point of view and move from inside one head to another," he said in the Milwaukee Journal, "so when I started Walking across Egypt, I said I think I'll try that." His third novel—The Floatplane Notebooks—represented a far larger challenge, for it was his first effort to confront his concerns about the Vietnam war.
The Floatplane Notebooks, Edgerton told the Atlanta Journal, "is a book about what wars do to people, and about persistence, the lingering of a family through generations." The novel is a glimpse into the saga of the Copeland family, descendants of slaveowners who spend the 1950s and 1960s as ordinary members of the American middle class until one of their own is horribly maimed during the Vietnam War. Using a far broader canvas than in his earlier works, Edgerton tells his story through the eyes of many different characters. In an unusual move, the history of the Copelands is recited by an old wisteria vine that has grown next to the family graveyard since slave owning days. The twentieth century arrives with Albert Copeland, father of the family, who fills endless notebooks with observations about his experimental water-launched "floatplane." The youngest generation of Copelands includes Thatcher, a plain but reliable construction worker, and Bliss, his wife; Noralee, a hippie with black friends; Mark, a ladies' man who becomes a glamorous Air Force pilot in the Vietnam War; and Meredith, whose high-spirited youth comes to an end when he becomes a footsoldier in that same war and emerges so badly wounded that he cannot walk or speak.
Albert and his bizarre floatplane, observers suggest, represent the capacity of the Copeland clan to survive their many changes of fortune. Albert spends decades trying to perfect his ungainly craft, lying to himself about its shortcomings in order to find an excuse to go on. After years of trying to describe the impact of Vietnam by writing philosophical discussions or lengthy accounts of combat, Edgerton found his symbol of haphazard human endurance when he met an inventor during a fishing trip. "It was like stumbling upon the Wright brothers," Edgerton told the St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch. "When I saw that red floatplane—the primal ambition that had to be part of it, the man in his blue football helmet and orange life vest—what it symbolized for me I could not express. Whatever that floatplane stands for is a little clearer after writing the novel—a certain kind of courage, a certain kind of obsession."
With its panoramic sweep and tragic climax, The Floatplane Notebooks clearly marked a new direction for Edgerton as a writer. Reviewers differed sharply about the success of the effort. "The Floatplane Notebooks shows laudable ambitions but fulfills few of them very satisfactorily," wrote Maude McDaniel in Chicago Tribune Books. "Maybe the ambitions are part of the problem. Both [of Edgerton's] earlier books were modest in intent, but Floatplane takes on a whole family . . . and presents their story in fifty-two increments. . . . The characters are believable, but the episodic style focuses on them only in passing—as though one were looking out the window of a train." By contrast, Frank Levering of the Los Angeles Times Book Review hailed what he called a new "depth of feeling" and "hard edge" in Edgerton's work. "The last third of the book, in which Meredith and Mark go off to war . . . , is among the wisest, most heartfelt writing to emerge from the South in our generation," Levering stated. "Meredith Copeland's first-person account of his Vietnam experience, homecoming and physical paralysis in North Carolina is breathtakingly stark, full and real." "Unlike the clumsy, earthbound craft of its title," wrote novelist Barbara Kingsolver in the New York Times Book Review, The Floatplane Notebooks "easily lifts itself and soars."
Edgerton returned to the small-town human comedy of his earlier works with his next novel, Killer Diller. The book came about after he moved with his family to Durham, North Carolina, and realized that his neighbors included a diet center and a halfway house for soon-to-be-released convicts. "I called the zoning commission," Edgerton recalled in the Washington Post Book World, "and said, 'Do you have any problems with the halfway house?' And the guy said, 'We have more problems with the diet house.' Two doors down, meanwhile, was a Baptist church. I said to myself, 'This is a novel.'" Killer Diller centers on Wesley Benfield of Walking across Egypt, who at the age of twenty-four is trying to leave his criminal past behind by living in the Back on Track Again center for reformed criminals. The center is one of several well-publicized ventures of the Baptist-affiliated Ballard University; another is Nutrition House, home of Wesley's new love—heavyweight dieter Phoebe Trent. Over the course of the novel, Wesley makes many comical efforts to reconcile his carnal desire for Phoebe with his desire to become a good Christian. "Edgerton's handling of [the couple's] erratic love affair," wrote Michael Upchurch in the Washington Post Book World, "is ruefully funny."
The meaning of being a good Christian, reviewers suggested, is one of the serious issues explored by Killer Diller's comic plot. Wesley may seem ludicrously self-serving as he uses spicy scenes from the Bible to justify his sexual passion, but far more sinister are Ted and Ned Sears, who as Ballard's chief administrators spend their time steadily enlarging the school's Christian financial empire. "Edgerton has no mercy for the Sears twins," wrote Upchurch, "whose reluctance to run a halfway house is overcome not by a sense of Christian duty but by the favorable media attention and federal grants the project will bring." Wesley, by comparison, seems a model of Christian charity: he visits every Sunday with Mattie Rigsbee, now the frustrated resident of a nursing home, and he uses one of Ballard's outreach programs to become the protector of a retarded teenage boy. At the end of the novel, observed a writer for Kirkus Reviews, Wesley may be "just outside the law" but he's "well on the path to true goodness." "There's an affecting story, authenticity of voice and moral complexity here," wrote New York Times Book Review contributor Lisa Koger, who felt the novel had "a broader, more accomplished feel than either Walking across Egypt or Raney." "Killer Diller is Edgerton's fourth novel," wrote Upchurch, "and it may be his best."
With Redeye: A Western, Edgerton turned to the American West of the 1890s for the setting of his story. The novel tells the story of a Colorado rancher who discovers Indian cliff dwellings on his property and who, despite his best efforts, succumbs to the inevitable barrage of tourists, archeologists, and curiosity-seekers by writing and selling a souvenir booklet to the site. "Artfully using a kaleidoscopic sequence of first-person vignettes and shifting the narrative voice . . . , Edgerton larks along from one outrageous incident to another," according to the reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Mae Miller, writing in America, found that "Edgerton's genius lies in his depiction of essential human truths."
Where Trouble Sleeps: A Novel is set in the North Carolina of 1950 and tells the story of a stranger coming to a small town and the resulting havoc his visit causes. "Once more," wrote Wade Hall in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Edgerton "creates a wonderful gallery of comic characters." Laurie Parker in BookPage praised Edgerton's characters, who are "all too human, . . . and we love them for it." She concluded that Where Trouble Sleeps is "one of Edgerton's finest, funniest and warmest novels yet."
As Edgerton's writing career has blossomed, he has spent less time in the classroom. But admirers shouldn't imagine that they've narrowly missed the chance to take a writing class from him—as an education professor, teaching about teaching was always his main interest. "I'm uncomfortable teaching creative writing," he once told the Milwaukee Journal. "I can see how it would make me conscious of technique. I'm sure that this has happened: writers who started teaching and thinking about what they're doing consequently have become not able to do it." The author might, however, be found outside Durham in the old Edgerton family graveyard, which he visits regularly—sometimes to share family stories with his young daughter. "Finally she said, 'Will you just stop telling me these stories?,'" he confessed in the Washington Post Book World. "I was hitting her with one after another, and I guess she got a little overwhelmed."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 39, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
America, November 4, 1995, Mae Miller, review of Redeye: A Western, p. 35.
Arts Journal, November, 1988, p. 36.
Atlanta Journal, May 10, 1985; May 12, 1987; October 23, 1988.
Augusta Chronicle, December 11, 1988, article by R. K. Underwood.
BookPage, September, 1997, Laurie Parker, review of Where Trouble Sleeps: A Novel.
Denver Post, March 10, 1991.
Detroit News, March 31, 1985, Chuck Moss, review of Raney; June 14, 1987.
Durham Herald-Sun, April 14, 1991, p. E1.
Excursus: A Review of Religious Studies, March, 1989, p. 18.
Greensboro News and Record, February 17, 1991, p. B5.
Houston Post, November 18, 1990, p. C7.
Huntsville Times, March 25, 1990, article by Ann Martin.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 1990, review of Killer Diller, p. 1693.
Lexington Herald-Leader, September 21, 1997, Wade Hall, review of Where Trouble Sleeps.
Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1987, Carolyn See, review of Walking across Egypt.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 23, 1985, p. 3; November 6, 1988, Frank Levering, review of The Floatplane Notebooks, p. 3.
Milwaukee Journal, August 28, 1988.
Newsweek, February 25, 1985, p. 86.
New York Times Book Review, June 23, 1985, p. 20; March 29, 1987, p. 17; October 9, 1988, Barbara Kingsolver, review of The Floatplane Notebooks, p. 10; February 10, 1991, Lisa Koger, review of Killer Diller, p. 1.
Oxford Review, February, 1991, p. 1.
Poets and Writers, November-December, 1987, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly, September 16, 1988, p. 58; March 20, 1995, review of Redeye, p. 43.
Rocky Mountain News, February 20, 1991.
St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch, October 16, 1988.
Sewanee Review, spring, 1985, George Core, review of Raney, p. xxxix.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 6, 1988, Maude McDaniel, review of The Floatplane Notebooks, p. 5.
Washington Post, June 2, 1987, Donald McCaig, review of Walking across Egypt.
Washington Post Book World, June 30, 1985, George Core, review of Raney, p. 11; November 20, 1988, p. 6; February 24, 1991, pp. 3, 15.
Washington Times, February 13, 1991, Michael Upchurch, review of Killer Diller, p. E1.