Allan Gurganus

ORANGE SLICES

By Laurie Paolicelli

Allan Gurganus.

Although Allan Gurganus could not be happier to claim Hillsborough as his home, it feels misleading to introduce him merely as a local soul: his universally admired and celebrated stories, novellas, and novels have earned him honorary residence throughout the entire literary world. Interviewing him is a delight: he’s open, forthcoming and clever. Every sentence is a story, it seems, or could be one. He’s one of our greatest treasures.

Allan Gurganus, Rocky Mount High School, 1965.

Gurganus grew up in Rocky Mount. His father wanted him to be a football player and corporate executive, but his mother was all about the arts, and that’s what took.

“Rocky Mount was surprisingly a good creative ground for me,” says Gurganus. “I was 12-years old when I had my first one-man art show. More than half of my work sold and I gave the rest of it to the local Holiday Inn to display and sell. I’ve gotten letters from folks who bought my art in 1964 and wondered if it was worth anything since I had made a name for myself in literary circles.”

He smiles. His 12-year-old self is flattered.

The desire to perform and surround himself with artists of all stripes was sparked at any early age. So was his awareness of the Civil War.

“Our family’s history was one of American history. We seemed to live at church. I memorized the catechism, read ‘at’ the Bible, and adored the stories. Our father would drive us through rural North Carolina and talk about Union troops riding into Rocky Mount to destroy the railroad bridge across the Tar River. Burning a railroad train and the city depot . . . I believe those history lessons forever informed my writing.”

After high school, Gurganus studied painting at the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but he dropped out, and, with the Vietnam War on, became eligible for the draft. He was a conscientious objector, but the United States didn’t seem to care that much, so he joined the Navy, served on the USS Yorktown and thrived by reading everything in sight.

Guganus at Yaddo, 1974. Photo Courtesy of Becket Logan.

“The experience at sea changed me in so many ways. I became an avid reader because the ship had thousands of books on its shelves. Reading made me a better writer too and I quickly learned to offer my writing assistance to all the guys who were trying to write love letters to their sweethearts back home. I was needed by these guys. That felt good. When their girlfriends wrote back, I would help them craft a good response.”

After three years of service, Allan attended Sarah Lawrence, studied with Grace Paley, and from there to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where his teachers included Stanley Elkin and John Cheever. Unbeknownst to Gurganus, Cheever sent one of his stories, “Minor Heroism,” to The New Yorker, which published it in 1974. He was then, at 26, officially a writer.

Gurganus moved to Manhattan in 1979. Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, an epic novel narrated by a ninety-nine-year-old woman who married a veteran of the Civil War when she was fourteen, was published ten years later. It sold more than four million copies and remained on the Times Best Seller list for eight months.

He has published six books since, the most recent being The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus.

After decades of a priceless and perilous life in NYC, Gurganus returned to North Carolina in the 80s.

“I wanted to buy a house on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill but I could not afford it. But when I drove by my current home in the historic district of Hillsborough, it was love at first sight. I’ve been here ever since and my love affair with this community continues every day. Where else can you find the southern charms that you recall from your childhood, coupled with a community of artists, playmakers, writers and intellectuals and a great coffee house?”

His Hillsborough home is a showpiece of treasures: William Morris wallpaper, ancestral oil paintings, stained-glass windows sourced from a demolished Gothic church, and a portrait that once hung in the actress Cécile Sorel’s Paris apartment. But it’s his friends and community he values most. And Halloween. He has always loved Halloween.

Hillsborough resident Jane Holding with Allan Gurganus.

He remains a prolific writer, and his love for history, books and all things Southern—including his community—are as part of his life today as they were in Rocky Mount in the 60s.

“I remember sitting in junior high school when I was in the seventh grade, and I was sitting in an assembly watching these dreary speeches. And I thought to myself, “If I could ever get on the stage, I would know how to liven this up.

“So the greatest thing I did was restage “Cleopatra” in the high school auditorium with a very good-looking girl as Cleopatra. She was wearing only a halter and harem pants on a pallet carried by the entire football team with their shirts off. And all the football players were wearing women’s bathing caps. There was somebody scattering rose petals in advance and then somebody sweeping them up afterwards. Her entrance into the auditorium, I can still say it was one of the happiest moments in my very happy life. It was truly fablelike in the original sense of fabulous.”

And in that same spirit Gurganus has not abandoned the dream of establishing a performing arts theater in Hillsborough, a dream he shared with his good friend Michael Malone, who died last year.

“I’m still hell bent on it,” he says. And based on his tenacious, lifelong passion for the arts and artists who make it, he will most likely succeed.

Pick up one of his books at Hillsborough’s Purple Crow Bookstore or your nearest independent bookshop.


Books by Allan Gurganus

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
Plays Well with Others
The Practical Heart
White People
Local Souls
The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus


Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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