Allan Gurganus

Author Allan Gurganus sits on the porch of his Hillsborough home.

A short tour of Allan Gurganus’ home offers a curious peek at the method by which he collects things. Busts, artwork, framed portraits and books, all placed perfectly, lovingly and with careless order. Gurganus’ latest book, “The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus,” is the writer’s sixth. It’s a collection of nine tales that fall together in a way similar to the author’s decorating style, with characters, plots and places that are smartly written and casually read. 

“I have been publishing novels and novellas all the while sending out stories,” Gurganus said. “My first story collection, “White People,” came out in 1990. So I got together all the stories that had not been collected. And that’s what the uncollected stories amount to. I chose what I thought was the very best of the stories that I published. I had some time to get them together as a group and I felt they were a compatible group of nine that represented all the things that I’ve attempted to do in stories for the past 30 years.”

Gurganus has lived in Hillsborough in the same house for 27 years. He is one of the town’s most recognizable names, and considered by many to be one of — if not the — best writers in the south. The room where Gurganus does his writing is spacious and lit up with sunlight through striking arched windows that he salvaged when they were replaced at nearby St. Matthews Episcopal Church.

The room looks into his large backyard, which is filled with mature trees, bushes and beds of other plants. Gurganus said he likes to look out into his yard and sometimes watches wildlife wander through. As if to hammer home that image, a deer appeared not 25 feet from his back door.

Gurganus spoke with the News of Orange County about what inspires him, writing during a pandemic, and how being a good story teller is key to writing good stories.

NEWS OF Orange County: From what do you draw inspiration for your stories?

ALLAN GURGANUS: Every one comes in a different way. Sometimes I see something on the street, or I hear a bit of gossip. Sometimes I read a newspaper article. Sometimes I overhear a bit of conversation that inspires me. They’re all various in the way they come to me. I’ve tried to follow them and build something that will be interesting and valuable to other people.

NOC: What brought you to Hillsborough?

AG: I lived in Manhattan for 12 years. I had some wonderful experiences there but I also turned up there just as the HIV epidemic reached New York and I lost a lot of friends. I had really done what I had come to New York to do, which is trying to publish and find a community. A lot of my friends in Manhattan died of HIV, and I had sort of reached the end of my natural time in New York. I had always kept in touch with friends in North Carolina. I felt I needed a change in my life, so I came back to home territory. I was born in Rocky Mountain and left North Carolina as soon as I could. At a certain point in your life you want to come back, and that’s what happened. So it was a return to a very familiar and positive reality after the difficulties in New York. 

NOC: Do you ever go back to New York?

AG: Yes, I’ve done that fairly often. I did before COVID.

NOC: Have you done much writing during these COVID times?

AG: I work very hard. In a strange way, if you’re a writer, you live at home and you spend six or eight hours alone every day. The pandemic is not a big change from your ordinary daily schedule. It’s strange, but I have done a lot of work during the pandemic.

NOC: How much time each day do you devote to writing?

AG: I keep regular hours. I try to get up about 6-6:30 in the morning and work from then until about two or three in the afternoon, every day. I try to take Sundays off. Sometimes, I work on all the days of the week. Especially if I’m finishing something. But I think it’s very important to be present so inspiration can strike when it wants to strike. It’s not that every day it’s full speed ahead and firecrackers. You have to be available to the muse and to the dailyness of work. I think people misunderstand and don’t understand what a daily enterprise it is to be a writer. They don’t understand rewriting, which is most of what writing is. The act of revision, which means re-seeing, is the thing that makes an idea into a story that’s valuable for other people and long lasting. So, I spend a lot of hours at the desk.

NOC: Some artists see their artwork as their children, while other artists treat their work as something they finish and move on from. Where do you fall in how you feel about the stories in your books?

AG: Well, I think I would definitely be in the children category. I spend many years working on a book, and by the time it’s ready for the eyes of the world, I have a lot of history with it, in terms of making it, and in terms of what else has happened in my life during those years. It’s very personal. And it takes you a long time to realize that, as with children, every book has its own fate. My first book was a best-seller and got a tremendous amount of attention. And I have other books that I think are just as good, if not better than the first book, that had a very different fate. I published a collection of novellas called “The Practical Heart,” which came out five days before 9/11 happened. As a result, it was lost in the clutter and hysteria around 9/11. But it found its way when it came out in paperback. So every book has its own particular fate and some way in the world. You have to be patient and accepting what happens to each of them. But I think as parents, sometimes the least successful child is the one that you love the most. It’s very personal. 

NOC: Do you have favorites?

AG: I love them all, but I do love the novella. So I think “The Practical Heart,” and my last book, “Local Souls,” are two of my favorite books that I’ve written. 

NOC: Prior to COVID, how did you spend your time outside of working.

AG: I have lots of friends. I’ve been a gardener for my whole life and I’ve loved that. I also draw and paint and keep that alive in some way. I have family that lives in North Carolina, so I’ve spent a lot of time with my two brothers who live here. Also, I have a wonderful, positive social life. That’s been a joy. The writer Michael Malone and I used to put on a performance every Christmas of “A Christmas Carol” at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. We gave the ticket money to various local charities and causes and went on for 25 years. Also, I hosted a Halloween house for the community. Sometimes as many as 30 actors playing parts in the house. It got more and more elaborate every year. Sometimes we would have as many as 500 to 600 people come and we had to have crowd control and so forth and so on. Now, I’ve sort of aged out of the physical strength needed to rearrange the furniture and stand up for, you know, three days at a time to get prepared. But it was a wonderful thing when it happened. I’ve really enjoyed Hillsborough as a warm, accepting community.

NOC: Normally, when you have a new release, would you tour the book? How would you promote it?

AG: Usually, I would be traveling. With my first book, I traveled to 36 cities in a row. It was tiring to say the least. But I think I would ordinarily be traveling. But I’m happy to be at home, and the book will have to find its own way. I do interviews like this and conversations. But I think the industry has changed along with everything else in terms of the pandemic. But the good news is that people are reading more than they used to. I hope that will bring a new audience to the world of fiction. 

NOC: Do you do much reading?

AG: I read all the time. It’s a great joy. I think writers have to read and should be reading constantly, and I do that. It’s my single most intense pleasure. 

NOC: Do you have favorites?

AG: I love 19th-century fiction, English and American and Russian novels. So, Dickens and Henry James, George Eliot, Mark Twain and Melville, Whitman, Emily Dickinson. All the usual suspects. I learned a lot from the great masters and I read them and re-read them. 

NOC: You have a way with choosing simple words to elegantly tell your stories. How does that come to you?

AG: It’s a combination of being a natural storyteller and a born talker. I believe that people are inherently eloquent when they’re telling their own stories. And I try to find a story and a voice that go together. There’s always the difference between the first draft, where you put everything in, and the final draft, where you’ve been very selective and polish them exactly as you want them. One of the trade secrets is reading your work aloud. That’s a very important part. Many of my stories can be put into plays on stage because I’ve read them aloud many times. There’s a musical component to fiction. I am not interested in vocabulary words that are big and fancy. I want to use all the words that are most available to them, so they (the readers) don’t have to look up anything in the dictionary.

“The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus” by Allan Gurganus is available at Purple Crow Books in Hillsborough and other booksellers.