Feb 24 04 by Published in: Interviews No comments yet

Ellen Gilchrist is no stranger to newspapers.

It’s where she had her first writing job, as a 14-year-old, writing a column called “Chit and Chat About This and That,” for a local Kentucky paper.

Then, the forms the words took didn’t matter to her. It was all about how best to convey her ideas.

“For instance, if I was writing about why we should build a swimming pool at the school, I’d write about my reasons, then I’d fill the rest of the space with a poem on the subject,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any difference between poetry and journalism and playwriting and fiction writing. It’s all the same thing.”

Jumping genres continued when she “became a serious writer” at age 40 with numerous books of poetry, novellas, essays, novels, and of course, the short stories that have won her rapt audiences and plenty of accolades, including that of a Washington Post reviewer moved to call Gilchrist “a national treasure.”

And today, as she turns 69, it’s the stuff of newspapers, as well as magazines, essays and even NPR commentaries, that continues to excite her.

“I like creative non-fiction,” she said. “I adore being asked to do it.”

The 2004 Hausman Lecturer at Franklin and Marshall College will talk about her writing, in all genres, throughout the day today on the college campus. In addition to tonight’s main event, her 8 p.m. reading in Barshinger Hall, she will also give an informal talk on the writer’s craft from noon to 1:30 p.m. at Booth Ferris in the Steinman College Center and attend a reception from 3 to 4:30 p.m. in the Academy Room of Shadek-Fackenthal library. All three of these events are free and open to the public.

She enjoys meeting aspiring writers, if just to convince them that she’s not “a celestial being” to put on a pedestal, “just someone who’s hardworking and driven.”

“I think it’s important to meet a normal sober person who does that work and looks like their Mom or their Aunt Suzy,” she said. “I don’t want to be a dream merchant. You do need to have a gift. But then it’s still work.”

She realized her “gift” quite young, but it was a dream differed by marriage and three children. But 21 years later, after she was divorced, she enrolled in college and had a creative writing class with Eudora Welty. That lead to her first book, a book of poetry called “The Land Surveyor’s Daughter.”

“When I first began to write seriously, I thought I would only write poetry, but my short stories had such success…”

Indeed, her first book of short fiction, “In the Land of Dreamy Dreams,” brought her much critical and popular accolades, as well as sending the book into additional printings. A second collection of stories, “Victory Over Japan,” won the 1984 National Book Award for fiction.

Other awards include the Mississippi Arts Festival Poetry Award; the New York

Quarterly Craft in Poetry Award; the National Endowment of the Arts Grant in Fiction; the Mississippi Academy of Arts and Science Award for Fiction; and the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Literature Award.

Now, almost three decades later, with 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, (a family that she calls her most important creative work), Gilchrist has established herself as one of the finest storytellers in modern Southern literature. Her keen eye for the fobiles of human nature have lead to delightful, unforgetable characters that fortunately resurface in many of her stories.

As for being a “national treasure,” Gilchrist said “I think some reviewer was having a good day. But I know that feeling when I read something wonderful and I love that writer forever.”

For Gilchrist, that feeling comes “when I’m told something I didin’t know, when I’m taught something new, when I can be the choir that the writer is singing to. It doesn’t have to be the whole thing, it can be a paragraph, a sentence, a line in a poem.”

Again, the form doesn’t matter.

“They were set down by people before you and you use them as models,” she said. “If you read a good play, you might want to sit down and try your hand at that. If you read a good poem, you might wake up the next morning and see something and say “I think I could make a poem out of that.”

It’s what’s always driven her.

“I’ve always had a gift, a real good ear, and I’ve welcomed it,” she said. “My voice is sometimes funny, but I have a deeply philosophical bend.”

It’s something she recognizes in her students as well.

“There are certain students, whatever they’re writing, they have a broad and philosophical import,” she said. “It’s a gift, you just don’t know where it comes from.”

She said she’s glad to see students still have this “gift” and the need to express it, depite the “mind-numbing” influences of electronic media.

“As a child, I read veamountly,” she said. “Nobody made me read, there were just so many good books, wonderful books around at my house, at my relatives, at the library every Saturday.

“If there would have been T.V., then this would be a different story,” she continued. “Books satisfy a human need for stories, for poetry. The enemy of human nature is boredom.”

So as a teacher, Gilchrist reawakens that human need by starting off with poetry.

“Now, when I read poetry to my students, they just light up. I can see the wheels turning,” she said. “Especially with Frost. They’re country kids with agrian, small town backgrounds. They relate. It gives them direction.”

Coming to Lancaster should be familiar in some ways, at least in the small town, agraian sense.

When telling her brother she was leaving her Fayetteville, Arkansas home for Lancaster, he had just one bit of advice.

“He said to watch out for the horse shit,” she laughed, “but here we’ve got all the pollution from the chicken plucking factories. Everything’s a trade-off.”

She’s more concerned about snow and ice than whatever rural aromas pervade the air.

“I’m thin-skinned, sensitive to the cold,” she said, debating if she should wear her fur coat or heavy parka when she arrives on campus.

As for what her audience will hear when she trades winter boots for leather pumps on stage.

” I just read things I”ve written. Something funny,” she said. “I have a lot of funny short stories.”


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