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AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Casey Clabough

Clabough hiking

Casey Clabough (born 1974) is the author of the novel Confederado, the travel memoir The Warrior's Path: Reflections Along an Ancient Route, and five scholarly books on Southern and Appalachian writers, including Inhabiting Contemporary Southern & Appalachian Literature: Region and Place in the Twenty-First Century. Clabough serves as editor of the literature section of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities' Encyclopedia Virginia and as general editor of the literary journal James Dickey Review, which Pat Conroy has praised as "a southern literary institution under Clabough's expert guidance." Clabough's work has appeared in more than seventy anthologies and magazines, including Creative Nonfiction, The Sewanee Review (to which he frequently contributes), and Virginia Quarterly Review. His awards include several U.S. fellowships, an artists' fellowship from the Brazilian government, and—most recently—the Bangladesh International Literary Award. He lives on a farm in Appomattox County, Virginia, and teaches at Lynchburg College. His eighth book, a biography of legendary Southern poet and novelist George Garrett, will be published this year.

William Wright: Tell us about your background.

Casey Clabough: Well, to condense quite a lot, my family consisted of German immigrants and was one of the first families to settle near Gatlinburg in the Smokies in the late 1700s. Like many others, they were displaced by the National Park Service a century and a half or so later. They ended up on a farm in Virginia, so I grew up surrounded by a couple of centuries of Smoky Mountain lore, even though I wasn't physically raised there myself.

Other Southern and Appalachian folks will recognize what a farm upbringing can do to one's personality. I seem stoic by twenty-first-century standards and have found I am influenced on a physical and psychological level by the rudiments of my visceral surroundings in a manner that most folks are not, such as being attuned to things—terrain, for example, or the weather—in a way that is different from most other people.

Growing up on a farm has a strong social impact as well. When, for example, I feel I know something strongly and truly—which happens only very rarely—I never feel in myself a desire to impart it to others. Much to the irritation of many of my acquaintances, I have never been one for blunt disclosure, argument, persuasion, or lines of direct questioning. This goes back to an upbringing during which only ideas reckoned appropriate to the company at hand were volunteered and were done so in a courtly, deferential manner that lessened the possibility of offense and allowed for the other party's easy withdrawal if the commentary was deemed unfavorable. Topics such as religion and politics, for instance, were avoided if at all possible and I can recall, even now, a dozen or so stock responses and quaint sayings to stop in their progress even the most rude and overbearing interrogations that sought to blunder into sensitive if not sacred areas.

I credit that heritage too with my comfort with the notion that though people, nearly without fail, are to themselves the most important people in the world, I have always enjoyed the privilege of realizing the value of my own existence as being of little consequence, which has freed me to, among other things, embrace great risks, such as the roadside hiking I did while writing The Warrior's Path.

Clabough childhood photo

WW: How did you come to writing?

CC: I developed a fondness for literature based upon my reading. Even very early on, I could tell there were things going on in literary writing that were not taking place in strict reportage or scholarly writing, on television, or in other areas of popular culture with the same depth and intensity. That sense of mystery, of some kind of unusual and riveting wisdom lurking inside a very regular-looking book, was fascinating to me. Then I discovered that when I tried to write, even when I failed, I learned things—things that I thought were worth learning. Most of the people I knew and grew up with didn't care about the books or the learning, but I did. And, of course, I discovered that a certain responsibility came with writing in terms of recording stories that probably weren't going to get told otherwise. I've done the best I can even though there are things I've written about that are really only more or less half-remembered. But as Katherine Anne Porter rightly noted, "No memory is really faithful. It has too far to go, too many changing landscapes of the human mind and heart, to bear any sort of really trustworthy witness, except in part."

The Warrior's Path

WW: You've already mentioned your creative nonfiction book The Warrior's Path; however, the first books you wrote were scholarly studies. How and why did the switch from scholarly to creative writing come about?

CC: Well, I went to South Carolina as a graduate student to study creative writing under James Dickey. The content of his work, as well as some of the uneven formal risks he took, interested me and appealed to my sense of risk. However, I arrived in his final months, just in time to be around him a few times before he died. Rather than switch programs I switched to a literature PhD and my dissertation on Dickey's novels ended up becoming my first book, so in a way I did still study under him, only I was being taught by the work directly rather than having it filtered through Dickey the person. And I have to say I have learned a great deal about writing, in a similar fashion, from the formal process of writing in a scholarly way about the work of other writers. As for a switch, I never thought of it that way, though the academy does seem to foster that kind of divorce between the lit/MLA people and the creative writing/AWP [Association of Writers & Writing Programs] folks. I'm more of the mind of another writer I've written about named George Garrett, who believed all writing comes from the same place and that such divisions don't really exist. He was one of the primary creators of AWP back in the 1960s and served as its president for years.

Now, on the downside, I never took a creative writing workshop class, though I've taught them, so I suppose I've missed out on some good, helpful things. On the other hand, I believe reading voraciously toward a highly disciplined scholarly end helped my so-called creative writing as much as any MFA program might have. So, yes, I came to the creative side workshopless and mentorless, but then so did most all the pre-AWP writers. So in that sense—and maybe in some other ways too—I'm something of a throwback.

WW: Having come from that literary background and read as much as you have, do you have a favorite writer or writers?

CC: On the contrary, I would say my background has made it more difficult to answer that kind of question. Take for example, Sadegh Hedayat, Isak Dinesen, Yukio Mishima, and Hermann Hesse. They come to mind, and I love their work, but I could probably name a hundred or more others whose work I like just as well. Even confining the list to Southern and/or Appalachian writers I struggle to reduce the number. I guess I'm just not much good when it comes to quantitatively ranking scribblers.

WW: What about your own "scribbling" process? Having penned eight books in a decade, you're pretty prolific. How does writing happen for you?

CC: I discovered relatively early on that I'm one of those "black box" scribblers, or what the Modernist Europeans would have called an "automatic writer"—someone who listens to the voices, follows the threads and impulses, etc. It's a whimsical and meditative approach. It would be nice to have a more reliable one. I mean who knows when it might just break down? But it's how I've stumbled along, and, like I say, I never had a workshop or mentor to tell me anything different.

WW: For Book News, Inc., a reviewer wrote that Inhabiting Contemporary Southern and Appalachian Literature "comes from and plays with the tradition of academic literary studies. What makes it different is that Clabough writes like a writer rather than an academic . . . . This is a good book for bridging the gap between readers and scholars of literature, and between scholars of literature and writers." Would you say this speaks to the unique way you came to writing, trained as an academic but possessed of a creative impulse that no one ever shaped or harnessed?

CC: I haven't thought about that very much, but it does make sense to the extent that I know creative writers who view me as overly intellectual on account of the lit background, but also lit academics who regard me as something of a dilettante or lightweight for not using enough jargon, footnotes, or whatever. I will say the lit element all my scholarly books have in abundance are a lot of rare primary sources. I went to the libraries and went through the two hundred or so boxes of letters, manuscripts, etc. for each writer I wrote a book on. However, beyond that, I would agree that I am interested in writing accessibly and in knowing a writer on her or his own terms, as opposed to aggressively impressing a fashionable theory upon the work. This approach probably has limited those books to an extent in terms of contemporary resonance and receptivity among academics, but my hope is that the inclusion of primary sources and the focus on the writer's working philosophy will conspire to make the books enduring and useful beyond the present moment.

Inhabiting Contemporary Southern and Appalachian Literature

WW: What about beyond the books? How do creative writing and writing in the academy inform your life?

CC: I'd say not too much because I live on a farm that keeps me busy. But I learned a few things about living simultaneously as a writer and a good human being from George Garrett. My favorite story about him, or any writer really, is that one of his books and his student's first book were in competition to be published by the same press. Now that's a tragic conflict, but Garrett withdrew his book from consideration, even though he had no other publisher lined up, so that the student's book would be published. Subsequently, the student, Henry Taylor, went on to have a stellar career.

As he got older, Garrett would invite students to drive him to his readings and then ask them to read some of their own work before he read. He would say something like, "Look, I don't see so well at night and since you'll be there anyway, why not read a few poems?" Of course, what he was really doing was giving them experience.

No one can be George Garrett, but I do try to involve students in professional activities when I can, and this gives the students an edge when they list them on their résumés and applications for graduate study. So I have students working on and publishing in the James Dickey Review and others who go read with me, and some I get into professional conferences to present their work alongside professors. Now, it doesn't always work. I've tried to help some people and had the whole thing blow up—big time. But I still try to do it when I can.

WW: You mentioned that living on a farm keeps you busy. Does it interfere with your writing and academic life?

CC: I used to think so, but in the last few years I've come to realize that, in many ways, my farming and writing and teaching anchor one another. Farming provides diversion, protection, consolation, the mental relief that comes from grappling with material problems, the wisdom of dealing with other forms of life in all their cycles, and the feeling of well-being that accompanies what I call "riding" the elemental powers of nature to a respectable harvest. I think both farmers and writers follow an internal voice—which comes from nature—and this has made us who and what we are. We make our farms and writings even as we are made by them. Noticed or unnoticed, ignored or commended, we meet, as best we can, the demands of our special and specialized work and lives.

I happen to think too that only in our imaginations and in nature can every truth of existence be realized. Imagination and nature, I believe, are the supreme masters of life. The tending of fields, like the rendering of memories, is as much a rendering of fields as a tending of memories. My first great adventures—at least those that were so to my mind—occurred on farms and my last great adventures may, as well.

WW: Can you sum up your writing life?

CC: Well, probably not, but I'll give it a shot. I have learned the sad fact—via my own many failures—that no being can tell the entire truth of his or her self, but I have found the attempt through writing to be a worthwhile exercise. I have made a great many mistakes but do not regret them since they have helped deepen my empathy toward and forgiveness of others. It is true that I have injured people on occasion, but I have used the lessons from those episodes, and the examples of my betters, to make aiding and benefiting others a guiding principle in my life. At the same time, I remain dissatisfied with my performance in that regard and wish I could do more.

I have to say I have never much cared about people's opinions of me or my ideas or writing. When they like me I am mildly pleased, yet remain undisturbed if I know they do not, though sometimes my curiosity is idly piqued as to what particular quality of my person or scribbling has aroused their antipathy. Though my profession is that of writer and educator, I do not possess any inherent desire to announce my knowledge to others, nor to correct them when I know they are wrong. I remain suspicious of the commonly held theories and beliefs of this particular time, including those precious few I entertain myself.

In physical body as well as in writing I know myself to be something of a drifter. I do have the good fortune to be the happy possessor of a library of several thousands of volumes consisting largely of books by obscure, or soon-to-be obscure, writers, living and dead and soon-to-be dead. One of my fondest pleasures, particularly at the conclusion of days during which I have spent the mornings writing and the afternoons in some vigorous physical task on my farm, is to drift among the shelves, cold beer in hand, and take down a book at random. I have read them all at one time or another and resided with them for years, so that they have become, in a very real way, vivid housemates and friends, complete with distinct personalities and odors. Many of the books in my library are by unknown writers, but their obscurity does not diminish the pleasure I take from their pages and, in fact, comforts the writer in me who will join them soon enough in their ignoble literary distinction. Indeed, the volumes I own that are the most enchanting and precious to me are those I reckon to be of a high order, yet suddenly—or slowly, as the case may have been—were banished to near oblivion by the world for reasons now partially or altogether forgotten. These books are the recipients of my deepest love and the keepers of my heart. In my house they are read; they are neither forgotten nor alone so long as they dwell with me.

Read a review of Confederado on OxfordAmerican.org.

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