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Monday Memories: Magical Realism in NC

by Margaret Bauer, Editor

with Fred Chappell on the occasion of presenting an award to him for the Western NC Historical Association, 2013 (photo by Jan G. Hensley)

Let’s start at the beginning: I am flying from Indiana for my interview at East Carolina University (not Eastern, I would learn, though WCU is Western Carolina University). Prepping for this interview, I had perused my bookshelves thinking, Now which of these Southern writers are from North Carolina? Then I grabbed a slim volume by Fred Chappell to read on the plane, as if that was going to add to my qualifications for the editorship of the North Carolina Literary Review.  

I had received the MLA spring job list on the same day that I received notification that I was not being brought for a campus visit to another North Carolina school. It’s a sign, I thought. This is my job, I told myself, even though my only editing experience involved merely curating and writing material for the Ellen Glasgow Newsletter, which my dissertation director had briefly taken over to keep it from disappearing. Her administrative assistant did all the layout work on the newsletter (though I did not share that with the search committee). Do not tell them you were editor of your high school newspaper and yearbook, I kept telling myself. They will not be impressed. 

Back to my plane ride: I’m reading I Am One of You Forever, a linked stories novel about a western North Carolina, post-World War II family, humorous realism until the main character, a boy, and his father quietly unbuckle Uncle Gurton’s suspenders while he sleeps to find out how long his beard really is and, released, the beard starts – and does not stop – flowing out, “billow on billow of gleaming dry wavy silver beard, spilling out over the sheet and spreading over the bed like an overturned bucket of milk . . . then down the sides, noiseless, hypnotic. There was no end to it. . . .” When the boy spies Cherokee Indians and mermaids and ultimately Moby Dick in the silver waves, I look up from the page, what is happening here? (my first taste of magic realism).  

NC Poet Laureate Fred Chappell delivering the spring commencement address at ECU, circa 1998 or 1999

But then I look down, out of my window, Where did the mountains go? Alex (Albright, founding editor and search committee chair) told me not to accidentally book my ticket to Greenville, SOUTH Carolina, but it seemed to me I must have done just that. North Carolina was mountainous, I knew: I’d attended Camp Green Cove for six summers as a child. I’m going to live in North Carolina someday, I’d told my parents. That’s why this was my job! (after the other one was not). The flight attendant I flagged down assured me we were, in fact, on the way to Greenville, NORTH Carolina, and I would later learn that, indeed, Greenville South Carolina is more hilly. I would learn too that North Carolina is a long state, and only a portion of it had mountains – at first to my chagrin, but I would come to love my new home in Eastern North Carolina, where the terrain and proximity to fresh seafood reminded me of my home state of Louisiana.  

But that is a memory for another Monday. 

Margaret Bauer’s first issue as editor (#7, 1998) included a feature section on “The Fiction of Fred Chappell” which contained an excerpt from “The Beard” and a short story by “Ole Fred.” Read too Hal McDonald’s essay on “Fred Chappell as Magic Realist” in the 1998 issue’s pages. Order today

Illustration by Alice io Oglesby for NCLR 1998