By Journey McAndrews
Sena Jeter Naslund, Gurney Norman, Sue Grafton, Nikky Finney and Sallie Bingham are five of Kentucky’s top literary masters. As distinctive as they are talented, as diverse as they are compelling, each writer comes from a different background, but all are proud to be part of our state’s immense and lush literary landscape. More importantly, through mentoring and teaching in universities, workshops, and various literary events and foundations, these five writers have nourished and developed the work of emerging Kentucky writers who will one day carry on the state’s remarkable literary traditions.
Deepening All the Colors
There is just something about Kentucky that brings out the best in writers. “I spent my girlhood in South Carolina. I became a woman in California. But I became a writer in Kentucky,” Nikky Finney says. For the past 20 years Finney has called Kentucky home, writing and editing her last five books here while teaching at the University of Kentucky. When asked what it means to be a Kentucky writer and how the state influences her work, Finney poetically declares, “Something of the air, the water, the people, the mountains, the burley barns, the bridges, the wildflowers, the Hot Browns, the unpredictable weather, the predictable politics, the ‘hon’s’ have deepened all the colors of who and what I am.”
Earlier this year, Finney released Head Off & Split, a collection of poetry that garnered much acclaim and landed her on the March/April cover of Poets & Writers Magazine. Head Off & Split contains a line that seems to sum up why Finney’s body of work is so expertly crafted—“There is practice for everything in this life.” More than two decades of “practice” has helped Finney create provocative poetry that explores issues of place and identity with a focus on social inequality and its consequences.
Beyond her poetic talent, Finney is an equally gifted teacher who dedicates her time and skills to helping students become better writers because she believes doing so “is a part of the unwritten contract we accept as artists.” Finney names several emerging writers she believes will become the state’s next big names—poets Bianca Spriggs and Kyle Thompson and fiction writer Kayla Whitaker, who recently graduated from New York University with an MFA.
What’s most striking about Finney is that her humble and generous personality mirrors that of other notable Kentucky writers. The consummate poet, even when she describes her private life, Finney states, “I am grateful for life and for a good roof over my head. I am grateful for the things that have made me furious in Kentucky and for the things that have kept my heart tender.” Finney’s words are tied to a profound personal belief system that naturally flows into the pages of her work, much like that of her mentor Wendell Berry, whom Finney credits as being the Kentucky author who influenced her most.
Finney’s office was next to Berry’s the first year she taught at UK, and while that was decades ago, the poet says she is “a lifelong student of how Wendell Berry lives what he believes” and she considers him “a fierce and gracious man among us.” She also affectionately recalls Berry was openhearted and not pretentious, and that she was inspired by “the honesty, clarity and uncompromising power of his words that taught [her] so much about saying what needed to be said and not a letter more.”
Living by the Word
“Write what you know or can imagine,” says legendary author Gurney Norman. Fitting advice from a man whose own storytelling is fueled by both a vastly creative imagination and an even vaster knowledge of his home state. “There is no question that Kentucky is a fascinating place, a storied place,” Norman says. “I go around with my own version of ‘The Kentucky Story’ in my mind, the modern story, which for me begins when the glaciers began to recede 10 or 12 thousand years ago and the first human beings here began to hunt the giant animals, the mastodons and ancient bison that left their bones around the salt licks in Kentucky.”
Norman honors different views “in all things,” which may explain why he is one of Kentucky’s most versatile writers, with a career that includes journalism, fiction, letters, poetry, teaching and documentary filmmaking. In all that he creates he never forgets the role his place of birth plays in his literature. Raised in Perry County, Norman says, “Kentucky and the Appalachian region are central to my work. I have no choice. I am place-oriented, region-identified.” He traveled and worked throughout America before settling into a teaching position at the University of Kentucky in 1979, and these travels also are reflected in his work.
Perhaps the most colorful aspect of his literary career came in the 1960s, when he was a mem-ber of the Merry Prank-sters with fellow mischief-makers Ed McClanahan (author of The Natural Man) and Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), but these days Norman is more focused on sharing his career philosophy, and he advises young writers to “somehow organize one’s entire life around reading, writing, thinking, communicating. To not distinguish one’s life from one’s work. ‘To live by the word’ is a traditional phrase used to describe the literary life. The phrase isn’t used much anymore, but I have found it useful in my life and writing career.”
Norman says his desire to help young writers stems from his “working class consciousness” and “a strong sense of community identity and responsibility.” Armed with these values, Norman helped establish the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative and the Appalachian Poetry Project. He is also the director of the Creative Writing Program at UK, was poet laureate of Kentucky in 2009, and is the senior writer-in-residence at the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, where budding writers like Matthew Haughton (Bee-coursing Box) and Amy Greene (Bloodroot) attended this year’s workshop. The location is especially fitting, since James Still, a Knott County native who had served as the school’s volunteer librarian, is the Kentucky writer whose work had the greatest impact on Norman, mostly because Norman proclaims that Still absolutely “lived by the word.”
Looking to the future of Kentucky literature, Norman says he finds “the whole information technology revolution pretty exciting, dazzling. Much of what we think of as Kentucky literature is available on Kindle” and that there “are new ways to live by the word” giving authors “other ways to communicate through writing.”
The Writer on St. James Court
Sena Jeter Naslund
Although she is a native of Birmingham, Ala., Sena Jeter Naslund proudly proclaims, “Kentucky is my home, and I love it.” The New York Times bestselling author lives in Louis-ville, where she is a writer-in-residence at the University of Louisville and co-founded the low-residency Master of Fine Arts program at Spalding University. Her novel Ahab’s Wife received national praise, but her more recent novel, Adam & Eve, fully demonstrates her flexible writing abilities with narrative that traverses romance and mystery, thriller and science fiction, and takes sudden, sharp turns that encourage readers “to open themselves to a universe of
“While I live in Kentucky, my novels range all over the world in subject matter and reference figures and ideas from many times and places,” Naslund says. Although this is true of her earlier work, the novel she just finished drafting is set in Louisville and named for a landmark on the street where she lives—The Fountain of St. James Court is due out next year. In 2005, Naslund was named poet laureate of Kentucky and was the recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Professor Award from UofL. Like many established Kentucky writers, she is devoted to mentoring emerging writers, working hard so her Spalding and UofL “students improve their writing” and get published.
Naslund credits fellow Kentucky writer Robert Penn Warren as having the most influence on her own work because of “his complex characters and nuanced thematic ideas in his fiction.” Moving outside her work and that of famous Kentucky writers who came before her, Naslund says that Nancy Jensen, a teacher in the MFA program at Eastern Kentucky University, is a rising literary star in Kentucky whose latest novel, The Sisters, due out this month, is “truly compelling reading.”
A Foundation for Change
The influence Sallie Bingham has on Kentucky literature goes far beyond her body of work. The Louisville native left the state when she was 17 and soon became part of New York City’s literary scene, publishing plays, poetry and fiction. But she returned to Kentucky in 1984 and established the Kentucky Foundation for Women (KFW), which exists “to change perceptions and prejudices about women” and advance the work of female artists and writers statewide.
At the time, the endowment Bingham gave to launch the KFW was the largest ever given to any women’s organization in America, and it ensures the foundation can support artists and writers like Louisville poet Nickole Brown (Sisters: A Novel in Poems), opera singer Sonya Baker (professor of music and assistant dean at Murray State University and Kentucky Arts Council board member), Lexington poet Bianca Spriggs (Kaffir Lily) and thousands more female artists, activists and writers in Kentucky, as well as numerous programs for women throughout the state.
The KFW also operates Hopscotch House, a private retreat on a farm just outside Louisville, which Bingham says “provides an escape and a refuge” for women to work on their art and writing, while in turn the KFW “supports their work with small grants.” Additionally, the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture was established in 1999 at Duke University to make available and preserve the published and unpublished work of women writers.
Aside from her work with the KFW, Bingham stays active in the national literary scene by teaching several workshops around the country and giving readings from her work, the latest of which is a collection of short stories entitled Mending. Published by Sarabande Books in Louisville, Mending not only demonstrates the author’s deft storytelling abilities, it also presents readers with unique and complex characters who resist and boldly circumvent the conventional boundaries set for female protagonists. “Taxi drivers still comment on my down-home accent, and although for a while I tried to dispel that impression by buying my clothes at Bloomingdale’s, I have given up the effort,” she says.
Solving the Alphabet of Crime
Sue Grafton is Kentucky’s most famous mystery writer. After graduating from UofL, Grafton moved to California and began her career as a screenwriter and didn’t hit her crime-writing stride until she was in her 40s. The New York Times bestselling author went on to build her literary career by solving the alphabet of crime beginning in 1982 with the novel A Is for Alibi, and while the criminals in her narrative eventually get tangled up in Kinsey Millhone’s snare, readers are never tousled by Grafton’s quick wit, expansive imagination and skill at choosing just the right words to move the plot forward at a heart-pounding pace. Her latest novel in the alphabet series is V Is for Vengeance and signals that the much-loved and bestselling series is nearing its conclusion as Grafton brings fans closer to Z Is for Zero.
The Kentucky writer who inspired Grafton the most was her father, C.W. Grafton, a Louisville attorney who was the recipient of the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award in 1943 for his own crime fiction, The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope. Grafton says she “learned all the best and most valuable lessons about writing” from her father, but it would take her a few years to realize how amazing her home state is. Like many young and inexperienced writers, Grafton was all too eager to leave Kentucky when she was 21, but now she admits she “had a lot of growing up to do and a lot of turf to explore” before she could understand “what a terrific town” Louisville is, “tucked away in a gorgeous state” where “the air smells green” in the summer, where the Derby is held, where her friends live, and where there are thunderstorms that California doesn’t have. “I’m a sucker for a wild night of lightning, rain and sky drama. What could be better than that?” she says.
Grafton believes that “writers reaching out to those coming up in the ranks are paying homage to the past and preparing the next generation for the job at hand.” She helps other writers by occasionally critiquing manuscripts and passing them along to agents, because this is her “way of giving back and showing appreciation for the good fortune” she has had as a writer.