A Conversation with Fred Chappell
PHOTOS BY TODD TURNER
Fred Chappell may be Greensboro’s most distinguished poet, short story writer, essayist and novelist, having won the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Prix de Meilleur des Livres Etrangers, the Bollingen Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize and the World Fantasy Award. Fred was a beloved English and Creative Writing professor at UNCG for 40 years, but I first met him in a cinematic context. He was my thesis professor during my second year in the MFA Writing Program, but before that I’d been assigned as his “Research Assistant,” a job which actually consisted of running the 16mm projector for the English 330: Approaches to Cinema class he taught with William Tucker.
They were an amusingly mismatched pair. Mr. Tucker (students were not invited to call him by his first name) spoke with a Mid-Atlantic accent, that semi-British elocution that we associate with characters like Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane. He resembled a self-caricature by the illustrator Edward Gorey; bald, with thick glasses and a prominent nose, from which he seemed to look down on the students, and Fred. They had a bit of a Siskel and Ebert act going on, and I was never sure how much of their sniping was real.
Fred, in comparison, was rumpled, impish and avuncular. In The Writer’s Voice: Conversations with Contemporary Writers (Morrow, 1973), by John Graham and George Garrett, he is described as “a guy who looks like he’s getting ready to knock over a gas station.” I’ve seen a very old publicity photo in which he resembled a combination of John Dillinger and Oliver Reed, but that wasn’t the Fred I met in 1981. To me, he looked more like the sort of folksy but crafty Southern lawyer who defends a framed hero in an old movie.
Speaking of very old movies, my first day in that class I projected A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Great Train Robbery (1903). Afterwards, Fred talked for a good ten minutes about how these early films represented different paths cinema could have taken. The Great Train Robbery was “realistic,” not in terms of its subject matter, but in the sense that it used real locations, a real train, and real horses. A Trip to the Moon was stylized and theatrical, with painted sets redolent of the 19th century stage. “I think that the movies took the wrong path from the start,” opined Fred. “They should have stayed theatrical and stylized.”
Afterwards, while rewinding, I told him that I’d never heard anyone argue that before. “Of course not,” he laughed. “It’s just some bullshit I made up to annoy Bill.”
Some years later, I dated a woman who was taking Fred’s Introduction to Science Fiction class and sat in with her (it wasn’t that unusual for Fred’s students to bring dates; just ask local political blogger and journalist Ed Cone). The room was packed with freshman and sophomores who’d thought this would be an easy course. Their faces fell as they looked at the syllabus, which listed six novels and several dozen short stories, and which said there would be a twenty-page research paper, unusual for a 200-level course. Fred gave an opening speech about how he considered a C a good average grade for an undergraduate. “Several of you may earn Bs, and of course there will be some Ds and a few Fs, as there always are. I try to give only one A each year, and I got generous and gave two last semester, so don’t hold your breath.”
The next class, which was less than half the size of the first, Fred said “okay, now that we’ve gotten rid of the dead wood, let’s look at the real syllabus. Didn’t want to read all those damn papers anyway.” Like all great writers, Fred is an excellent liar.
Over lunch at Fishbone’s recently, I ask Fred about his fantasy novel A Shadow All of Light, which was published in hardcover by Tor, Macmillan’s science fiction and fantasy imprint, last April, and which will be issued in trade paperback this coming July (the hardcover is available at Scuppernong). I first heard of what would eventually become this book when I interviewed Fred for the UNCG undergraduate literary magazine Coraddi in the early 90s and he talked about working on a novel about a “shadow thief.” I tell him that it apparently took a while.
“Forever and ever and ever,” he says.
The novel is about Falco, a young man from the country in a land somewhat like Renaissance Italy, but where shadows exist apart (and can be detached) from the people who cast them, and so may be stolen, bought, sold, borrowed, and preserved; another person’s shadow can even be donned for a particular effect. Falco arrives in the port city of Tardocco with the ambition of becoming an apprentice shadow thief. There he has adventures among con men, monsters, pirates, and the King of Cats. The novel grew out of a series of short stories that Fred sold to the venerable Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction over the last decade. I ask if there had been any earlier published ones I might be unaware of.
“I think those were the first. A couple appeared in different anthologies. Those I wrote on request. One asked for a cat story. I thought I’d write a shadow cat story.”
He elaborates on the episodic nature of the novel.
“I’d originally thought of a book like The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes,” Arthur Conan Doyle’s final collection of stories about the great detective. “But my agent said it had to have to a narrative arc. I’ve since learned that’s a bullshit buzz word. This book was ill-fated because [the great science fiction and fantasy editor David] Hartwell died, He was supposed to edit it and never did. Nobody ever edited my book. Had to edit myself. Not a good thing to do.”
I tell him how, reading it, it felt like a collaboration between the science-fantasy writer Jack Vance, whose first book was the similarly episodic and ornate The Dying Earth, and Fritz Leiber, who wrote a popular and award-winning series about the roguish swordsmen Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (Michael Chabon’s 2007 novel Companions of the Road is very much Leiber homage). “Were you consciously influenced by either?”
“I must have been. I’m a great fan of Leiber, and I read The Dying Earth when I was eighteen or nineteen.”
I tell him that it reminds me of the best of what was marketed as “Sword and Sorcery” rather than “High Fantasy” when I was a teenager. “Not because of muscular barbarians and near-naked wenches, but because, instead of Tolkien’s earnest nobility, there’s a rococo roguish quality to your protagonists.”
He partially disagrees. “There’s no magic. It’s not sword and sorcery. It’s logical within its premise that shadows are detachable and can be independent objects. Everything follows from that. I’m like a lot of fantasy writers these days who detest magic. That’s why I can’t stand Harry Potter.” But he agrees with my description of it as being picaresque rather than epic. “The clash of fantasy armies seems more silly than I can handle. I’m used to Epic, as Latin is my home base, but that’s fake Epic. I think one of the problems is that I read almost all of The Hobbit and nothing else has seemed as good.”
I tell him that many fantasy writers, from Leiber to H. P. Lovecraft (who influenced Fred’s first novel, Dagon) would approve of his love of cats, and ask if he and his wife Susan currently have any.
“We have one left. She’s named Beatrix, after Beatrix Potter. We call her Beasley. Like most cat folk who write, I throw her into stories and poems every chance I get. I don’t know if she resents it. I’ve never dared ask her.”
Backtracking a bit, and knowing that Fred graduated from Duke before he began teaching at UNCG, I ask him when that was.
“I started in 1954. Got thrown out in ‘56 or ‘57. Came back and finished in 1964, then came directly to UNCG. I was booted out the first time because of a misunderstanding, let’s say. And also because I didn’t want to kiss ass. They recommended I undergo psychiatric treatment. So I became a good friend with a psychiatrist in Asheville. But we only talked about his love of Mahler and my love of Bach and we wondered if ever the twain could meet. He and his twin brother were studying PTSD, although it wasn’t called that then. We continued to be friends, but I don’t know what happened to him. I never did convert to Mahler from Bach, much less get pronounced ‘cured.’”
I ask him if Duke was a big culture shock for a mountain farm boy from Canton, North Carolina.
“Yes and no. I went to Duke because of a high school friend’s recommendation of a professor there he called Blackstone, like the magician. Turned out to be Dr. William Blackburn. Duke was the one place I tried other than Western Carolina Teacher’s college. My grades weren’t good and I was a smartass. But the Depression had slowed baby production, and two decades later attendance was down and they needed to fill space. So I got in and the rest was history.”
“You started teaching at UNCG a year after men were first admitted. How long was it before there was any significant male enrollment in your classes?”
“The first class I taught was in the Fall of 1964. I had one male student. Poor bastard. Took a long time for UNCG to adjust.”
After I eat some of my catfish, as he’s been urging me to do, and he has some more wine, I ask him when he first taught a UNCG class in either SF or fantasy.
“Sometime in the early 70s. There was a professor named Lloyd Krupp, author of The Drift, who invented the class. I suggested they needed a freshman comp teacher and they hired him, and he convinced them to put in the class, and then left. That class would always fill up. Always had forty or more students. I volunteered to teach it. I knew it was the worst possible move for my career, but good for the department. Bill Lane, the department head, held everything in contempt except Thackeray and Trollope and thought I was teaching trash, but I didn’t care. If you know the field, it’s not trash. I taught it the best I could. Had to make sure I taught some contemporary stuff, and also the great pulp writers. Heinlein doesn’t hold up as well as you remember him, because you’re not twelve when you start teaching. I may be the first to ever have taught [Orson] Scott Card. It’s an interesting thing to teach. You teach classic stuff on one side, entertainment on the other. There is a divide. T. H. White, author of The Once and Future King, is a terrific writer and also one of the most entertaining. Edgar Rice Burroughs is a lousy writer but hugely entertaining.”
I ask him about using a fake syllabus to “weed out the dead wood” when teaching an overbooked undergraduate class in genre fiction in the early 1990s.
He gives a shy grin.
“My opening remarks were always ‘Drop this course.’ I had a little ditty and eventually we were singing it, buy a horse, drop this course. It didn’t work. I didn’t think I could teach that many kids that well, and I was sure I couldn’t learn all their names. I began to get a glimpse of what others had struggled with.”
Changing the subject from teaching to writing, I ask one of my favorite questions to lob at authors. “Do you think it’s easier to write verse and fiction inspired by family members who are still alive, or those who have passed away?”
“It’s almost impossible when they’re still with us. You’re so self-conscious. What would my mother say? I did have to write about her when she was still alive, but it was so hard. She didn’t recognize herself in the good parts, but identified with the dismal characters. She suspected me of not loving her, but I did, with all the depth of my heart.”
Continuing with my somewhat scattershot approach, I ask him if there’s a literary or cinematic cliché about the South that particularly annoys him.
“Gone with the Wind. I do not like the plantation. I do not like the whole culture. My darling Susan is from Windsor. Her mother is from the mountains and couldn’t stand the way her husband’s folk treated black people. Susan and I grew up with her mother’s traits. They were school teachers. My father was from down east [meaning the eastern lowland part of North Carolina] and I used to argue about racism with him all the time.”
I ask him to name some of his favorite poets.
“I’ve got too many friends. I could mention a lot of names that would mean nothing to anybody, but would still piss my friends off. I think we have some of the best poets in the United States in this town. Sarah Lindsay. Christine Garren.”
I ask him to name a book that he regularly returns to for solace, wisdom or simply to revisit an old love.
“Don Quixote. Read it seven times. Most translations are terrible, but Tobias Smollett never lets you down.”
I decide to bring up something I’ve been meaning to ask Fred for thirty years. A former friend of mine, much given to prevarication, used to swear that the “classic” 1965 bad movie Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster was stitched together from two completely unrelated scripts. One, allegedly titled Space Age Frankenstein, was by George Garrett, the late novelist and Virginia Poet Laureate (and longtime friend of Fred’s), to whom the final screenplay is officially credited. The other, Mars Invades Puerto Rico, was supposedly a collaboration between Fred and the award-winning Virginia poet, critic and novelist Richard Dillard. “Bullshit or not?”
A bit of both, says Fred. “George had indeed written one script and Richard had written a completely different one, and they had twenty-four hours to combine the two. They holed up in a hotel room and I believe alcohol was involved. At one point, they called me wanting a line of dialogue. They’d named the monster the Mull, after a professor they hated, and my sole contribution was the immortal line ‘my God, it’s the Mull!’”
Me being me, I keep the conversation to tawdry matters and ask Fred about the glossy and intriguingly lurid 8x10s that decorated his office when he was my thesis advisor. These were lobby cards from the early 60s exploitation movies Faster, Pussycat, Kill Kill! and Motor Psycho, and appeared to be inscribed to Fred from director Russ Meyer, about whom Fred had written the essay “Twenty Six Propositions about Skin Flicks.” I ask him if he still has those. He laughs when I riff on the French poet Francois Villon with “Où sont les seins d’antan?” (Where are the boobs of yesteryear?)
“Sadly, I do not have those and the signatures were fake. I got a few lobby cards and asked some of my drunk friends to sign them.”
Finishing my lunch, I ask what defunct local restaurant he would magically bring back if he could? His reply is immediate.
“Josephine’s, because of Mark Wendell the bartender. He’s a cousin of the poet Steve Lautermilch. Great concept. Friendly folks. Hops drove them out of business by taking up all the parking space. It was a shame to miss the friendly ladies who worked there and Mr. Chris Blackburn, the great chef.”
I decide I must ask him about Orson Scott Card. When I interviewed Greensboro’s most popular and controversial science fiction writer in the late 80s, shortly after he’d moved here to work for a computer magazine, he expressed enthusiasm about continuing his graduate studies, which had been interrupted when his son was born and he had to drop out to become a full-time writer. In the early 90s, Card had entered the MFA Writing program at UNCG, an unusual move for a published novelist. Judging from things Card has written about it in The Rhinoceros Times over the years, and from what I’ve heard from other people in classes with him, it was not a happy experience for anyone involved (he certainly left UNCG much more hostile to academia than he’d been previously, but a lot about his public persona changed after the mid-nineties).
“It was difficult. Scott at first tried to be invisible. You can’t make Scott Card invisible. He didn’t want to distress the class with his renown. But I thought hey, these kids could learn from him. Then it became a little awkward. Scott had an exaggerated idea of the sophistication of the students in the class and also of their pretensions. They were not pretentious, but he had an exaggerated fear they would be. He felt like an outsider, partly because he doesn’t drink. I’ve joked that anyone who tries to get through a graduate writing program without drinking invariably either drops out, attempts suicide or kills somebody else. Scott dropped out.”
“Nobody at fault, just differing mores. I do wish some of our students had got to know him better and that he’d tried harder to know them. He has a sense of organizing difficult material that would have been good for them.”
Card is not the only published science fiction or fantasy writer to have been in Fred’s classroom. There’s former Greensboro resident Kelly Link, now acclaimed as one of America’s finest short story writers in any genre, whose great collection Get in Trouble was short-listed for the Pulitzer last year. When I tell Fred how outrageous I find it that the UNCG MFA Writing Program’s Wikipedia page doesn’t mention her, he says “Jesus, that tells you something about the unreliability of Wikipedia.”
And then there’s me, and Fred has an opinion about that, too, and gives me a quote I’d like to have on my tombstone.
“I enjoyed teaching your first novel. It’s not your best work, but it was funny and dirty, and it was good for my students to meet an author who wasn’t full of shit and only interested in selling them books.”
The afternoon sun is unseasonably warm on the Fishbones patio, but our shadows lengthen across the sun-splashed stone in a way that reminds me of Fred’s latest novel, suggesting the Whiskey District might have temporarily merged with the fictional Tardocco. My old friend and mentor lives a few blocks away and is supposed to be meeting his beloved Susan in a bit. Time for one last question.
“Do you think it’s easier to write fiction or poetry inspired by people you loved, or by ones you hated?” Fred finishes his wine and waits for a motorcycle to roar past before answering, then tells me something I wish was my truth as well as his.
“I’ve never really hated anybody except in the abstract, politicians and figures from history. I find it easier to admire and love people. Talking to people is like opening a book you never saw before. I like to write about what I like. One of my favorite stories is about how the Welsh clergyman Edward Edwards said to Samuel Johnson, ‘I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher, but I don’t know how; cheerfulness was always breaking in.’ That’s me. I always wanted to be a philosopher too, but cheerfulness kept breaking in.”
That doesn’t happen so much with me, but right now, it’s done just that. Time to pay our check and follow our shadows home.
An excerpt from Fred Chappell’s new fantasy novel A Shadow All of Light can be read for free online.