Allan Gurganus

Top Ten contributor Allan Gurganus talks about his life and work in the April 23 issue of The New Yorker.

The wide-ranging interview conducted by Megan Mayhew Bergman stretches from Gurganus's youth in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, his years living in New York City during the AIDs crisis of the 1980s, to his return to North Carolina and the town of Hillsborough, where he still lives. Along the way, he discusses the phenomenal success of his breakthrough novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, his acclaimed story collection White People, as well war, religion and family.

In one of the more striking sections, Gurganus – who initially dreamed of becoming a painter – explains how his service during the Vietnam War helped make him a writer.

Can you describe your unexpected military experience during the Vietnam War?

I dropped out of college in 1966, leaving myself vulnerable to the draft. I claimed conscientious-objector standing in a county where there’d never been an applicant. Our local office lost my paperwork twice and I was soon offered a choice: six years in federal prison, without the option of choosing my cellmate, or a tour of military duty in some branch of the service. I was eighteen years old. I had no lawyer. My parents were Republicans. And this is how I found myself as one of three thousand sailors on board the U.S.S. Yorktown.

The U.S.S. Yorktown was three football fields long, and it was floating in the South China Sea. Its toilet stalls had no doors on them. I was sleeping in a room with sixty-five other men, bunks stacked five high. We had no privacy. No dignity. No choices. Assigned haircuts. Your name and serial number stenciled across every article of clothing, to help identify the body.

But I found a library: two thousand books. It adjoined the chapel. Its fiction was arranged in alphabetical order. So I just started with the “A”s. I kept notes. I filled sketchbooks. I maintained a fragile sanity. In art school, I had copied the Old Masters. So now, as a writing reader, I imitated DickensJane Austen, Henry James. This library’s books had likely been selected by a well-meaning committee of admirals’ wives. Many had nautical themes: To the Lighthouse, The Old Man and the Sea, [the film] Now, Voyager. Writing fiction of my own, I became a free civilian subject. I could dodge between centuries. And change my gender when necessary. It was a prisoner’s satisfaction. But it helped draw me nearer the victims of this war—a war that, obeying my country’s orders, I was tacitly fighting, making my parents proud. I’d never lived anywhere but among white, straight, middle-class people. At sea, one could not afford to be unpopular. Guys disappeared overnight. Teaching myself how to survive every kind of company made me respect Charles Dickens all the more.

My job: encoding and deciphering secret messages. It seemed typical that serving here to avoid federal prison I’d been granted a top-secret clearance. This left me in a controlled space where no one could approach without giving me time to hide my copy of Pride and Prejudice. I was like a monk in a cell a thousand miles due south of Hawaii. All I cared about was what I learned every day at a school that I operated myself. There was nobody to talk to about anything but hot rods and old “I Love Lucy” episodes. But that drove me deeper into my notebooks: my inventions based on earlier experiments by geniuses I loved as honeymooners love honeymooners. Someday this will matter, I told myself. My ambition did not know to be embarrassed. Someday, in peacetime, I’ll find a reader who is stirred by this which I’ve made.

After three years of service, Gurganus went to Sarah Lawrence, where he studied with Grace Paley, and then the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where his teachers included Stanley Elkin and John Cheever. Cheever sent one of Gurganus’s stories, “Minor Heroism,” to The New Yorker, which published it, in 1974, when Gurganus was twenty-six. It has been described as the magazine’s first work of fiction to feature a gay character.

Can you talk about “Minor Heroism,” your first story in The New Yorker, and how it came to be?

Because I’d been such a disappointment to my father, I had to write that story first. I started with my bratty version of him; then added his disturbingly accurate description of me. Gertrude Stein said, “Everybody is absolutely correct.” So the story became a battle with itself that finally allowed for an armistice. “Minor Heroism” was a sample of what I was going to do next.

I submitted it for John Cheever’s class at Iowa. I had worked on it for a year. It was as finished as anything I’d ever done. He secretly sent it to William Maxwell at The New Yorker. Maxwell liked the story and was deeply sympathetic, a martyr to quality. He was extraordinarily careful and patient.

Later, I got more than two hundred and fifty letters from men who’d had problems with their fathers. It didn’t seem to occur to my father that the story might be about him. He chose to see it as an achievement, not addressed to any particular person. It was wonderful that he could consider it a positive step in my life.

Did you and your father ever heal things between the two of you?

Our connection improved toward the end of his life. It shocked him to see so many of my friends die of aids. As a World War Two veteran, he knew the tragedy of early death. Of course gay people were blamed for aids as if we’d invented it. He once told me how unfair he found that.

Later, he was hospitalized with lung complaints. I booked a flight to Florida. He answered the phone. “Daddy,” I said, “it’s Allan—I’ll be there tomorrow. Can I bring you something?”

He responded very slowly, “I still believe in God. You boys are the best thing that ever happened to me. I love you.” He died two hours later.

At least we’d got that. He had withheld as long as he could. 

Allan Gurganus’s Top Ten List

1. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)
2. Stories of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904)
3. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72)
4. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov (1951)
5. A Death in the Family by James Agee (1957)
6. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936)
7. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1895)
8. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (1930)
9. Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
10. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)