Binding

Climbing Mt. Cheaha

edited by

Don Noble

 Synopsis:

Adding to our well-known series of Alabama authors, this newest edition offers a companion volume to Belles’ Letters and Alabama Bound, plus Alabama Poets. Our purpose in this collection is to spotlight upcoming Alabama fiction writers who have had two or less books published at time of acceptance.     

ISBN, trade paper: 1-931982-40-6 price: $15.95         Sale $8.50

ISBN, library edition: 1-931982-39-2 price: $27.00     Sale $13.50    

  

About the Author: 

Don Noble has hosted over 125 episodes of his literary interview show Bookmark on Alabama Public Television and has reviewed over one hundred books for his weekly segment, Alabama Bound, on Alabama Public Radio. He is the editor of Hemingway: A Revaluation, The Steinbeck Question: New Essays in Criticism, The Rising South (with Joab L. Thomas), A Century Hence (by George Tucker), and Zelda and Scott/Scott and Zelda: Essays on the Fitzgeralds’ Life, Work and Times. His reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous periodicals over the past thirty-five years. He serves on the board of directors of the Alabama Humanities Foundation and the Alabama Writers’ Forum. Noble holds the Ph.D. from UNC-Chapel Hill and is Professor Emeritus of English and Adjunct Professor of Journalism at the University of Alabama.

 

 

 Excerpt From the Book:

   

 While the soliciting, judging, and printing of a volume of short stories may not be a blindingly original idea, it is, I think, a perennially good idea. A little over a year ago, when I began expressing in various venues around the state my interest in this kind of project and my willingness to choose and introduce a volume of new short fiction, I was very pleased that Joe Taylor of the Livingston Press took me up on it. Livingston Press is a particularly appropriate house for this kind of project, for they are the people who most recently produced Belles’ Letters: Contemporary Fiction by Alabama Women, edited by Joe Taylor and Tina N. Jones, in 1999. This was a collection of twenty-seven pieces of fiction, by veterans and newcomers, all women. 


    Prior to this, in 1995, Livingston had published, under the editorship of the late James E. Colquitt, with an introduction by Norman McMillan, the volume Alabama Bound: Contemporary Stories of a State. Here were twenty-eight pieces of fiction, all previously published, all written in the mid- to late-twentieth century. Jim Colquitt used a very generous definition of “Alabama writer” in his selections, and so we find Tobias Wolff, Barry Hannah, and Lex Williford, all of whom have real, but tenuous, Alabama credentials. A similar generosity of definition has been followed in this volume, Climbing Mt. Cheaha, as well.


    In 1996 Allen Wier edited Walking on Water and Other Stories, published by the University of Alabama Press, but inclusion in this volume had a specific criterion. These stories, twenty-four in all, had been written by graduates of the wonderfully successful University of Alabama Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Program. This is a natural idea and should be done again, in just the same way, and I think there should also be a companion volume in poetry, of which there has also been a prodigious amount and of high quality. 


    Although few may remember it, and few purchased it at the time, there was a precedent for these books: a volume of stories, Alabama Prize Stories 1970, edited by the late O. B. Emerson of the University of Alabama English Department. In the foreword to the 1970 volume, the publishers, Strode of Huntsville, tell the reader that there were two hundred entries, previously published and unpublished, and that there were three judges, the fiction writers Elise Sanguinetti and Thomas C. Turner, and professor Oxford Stroud. Twenty-nine stories were chosen. The publishers also declared that “we plan more such contests and published anthologies in the future.” For a variety of reasons, sadly, there were no more. Alabama Prize Stories 1970 stands alone.


    Comparing the contents of Alabama Bound and Alabama Prize Stories, it is striking to see only H. E. Francis in both volumes. None of the other twenty-eight from Prize Stories is in Alabama Bound and, of the women authors, only Carolynne Scott appears in both Prize Stories and Belles’ Letters. Tastes change. Tastes of editors change. New talent appears and some writers quit writing for one reason or another. The prize winners of 1970 are missing in 1995 and 1999.


    In any discussion of Alabama fiction, however, the standard reference will be Philip D. Beidler’s two-volume collection The Art of Fiction in the Heart of Dixie (1986) and Many Voices, Many Rooms (1998). Published by the University of Alabama Press, these books are composed of both stories and excerpts from novels with chronological periods introduced by reliable, informative essays which briefly set up the writers of that period and introduce each piece. Of the authors in Prize Stories  and Alabama Bound, only William Cobb appears in Beidler’s The Art of Fiction. No authors from Belles’ Letters appear in The Art of Fiction. Only Eugene Walter and Mary Ward Brown appear both in Alabama Bound and Many Voices, Many Rooms, and there are no authors from Belles’ Letters in Many Voices, Many Rooms.


    Why bother with the above? Well, because it is a path I found myself going down, and I’m glad I did. Short fiction in Alabama is a fluid, even mercurial genre. The path is littered with names and stories now not known or widely read: that is the bad news. The good news is there are always new writers and a volume to receive them. This remains true in Climbing Mt. Cheaha.


    And so we come to the present volume. Taylor issued a call for submissions for these stories in the Alabama Writers’ Forum publication First Draft, in the magazine Poets and Writers, on the internet—the internet notice was apparently picked up by some give-away newspapers, because several submitters from North Alabama mentioned it—and extensively by word of mouth. When the submission period was over, I was sent a box with 150 stories in it. Finally, I chose twenty-six, which you now hold in your hand. The process of choosing was much, much more difficult that I had, in my worst nightmare, imagined. Of the 150 stories about a dozen appeared to me, at once, as first rate, no doubt about it. They went into the “yes” pile. Unfortunately for me, only about a dozen went at once into the “reject” pile, the “no” pile.


    Let me digress for a moment about that reject pile. In the late 1960s when the poet John Ciardi was poetry editor of The Saturday Review of Literature, and received hundreds of poetry submissions per week, Ciardi infuriated many of the magazine’s readers with a column in which he stated that sometimes he could and did reject a poem after reading only the first two or three lines. Letters to the editor howled. How could he? How dare he! Outrageous! Then, a couple of weeks later, Ciardi’s column was composed of a large selection of the first two or three lines of poems he had recently received and rejected. They were horrible, hysterical, achingly awful. 


    I was advised by several friends to follow Ciardi’s advice and read only until something in a story struck me as bad, and then stop reading. I did not. I assure all the unsuccessful submitters to this volume that I read every word of every story. I promise. This may smack of compulsive and even, in a sense, masochistic, behavior, but I swear it is true. In all I spent over one hundred hours reading the box of 150 stories I was sent. Most I read more than once. Why?


    Because about one hundred of the stories were too good to reject quickly but not wonderful enough to swoon over quickly. Of these, I finally chose about a dozen; readers are free to guess which dozen. I’ll never tell. This group of one hundred stories suggests that something good is happening in Alabama short fiction, or at least I guess it is good. Writing programs, workshops, seminars, conferences—somebody is teaching writers how to make an acceptable, not perfect and maybe not inspired, but not stupid short story.Trained teachers of fiction writers have taught their students to manage point of view, include a few details of setting, sometimes generate a little dialogue, all of which make for a competent piece of short fiction. Teachers are unable to give their students that elusive “voice,” however, or of course to give them what readers crave to see: spark, genius, the exceptional talent—call it what you will.


    So what was in the box? First, there were many more stories by women than by men, perhaps twice as many. (In the final selection, as it turns out, seventeen are by men and nine by women, but that’s just how it worked out.) Many of the stories submitted were by women who have written what seem to be autobiographical laments about the unreliable, unfaithful, feckless, drunken, worthless men who used to be their boyfriends or husbands. The Lifetime Channel could go for years on what was in that box.


    You will not be surprised to learn that most of the lawyers in Alabama, as with the rest of the nation, think that they are also fiction writers, and several actually are. Mike Stewart and Frank Turner Hollon, for example, are attorneys in Alabama who write wonderful fiction. Richard North Patterson is doing nearly as well at it as John Grisham or Scott Turow. This should come as no surprise, really. Attorneys went to college for seven years; they are smart, educated people. And, in their line of business, they run into a great many colorful, odd characters and unusual situations. Add to that the structure of the actual trial, which gives a nearly perfect dramatic situation in which there is a life-and-death conflict which ends in climax, resolution, and denouement, and you have the best possible recipe. There is only one lawyer story chosen for this volume, but there could have been several others, nearly as good.


    Another kind of story in the box was something I want to call “the barely disguised incident from one’s life.” It may be that the recent rage for memoir has gotten a lot of people thinking and writing about their childhoods and younger lives, and special moments get written up. Usually, however, and sadly, incidents, however important to the person who lived them, are not short stories. As Gertrude Stein said to the young Ernest: “Hemingway, remarks are not literature.” These pieces tend to be anecdotes, actual events, rather than imagined or crafted works of literary art. I think I can tell. They don’t work. They are the stories one tells after work at the bar at five o’clock—Wow, let me tell you what happened last weekend—or, in a quiet conversation with a significant other, one recalls a trauma from childhood. Even Look Homeward, Angel was more imagined than these stories appear to be.


    There were, however, a number of naïve, but promising, pieces by middle-aged people, I think, who wrote of their experiences in the world of work, real physical work in textile mills and lumber yards. These pieces were not about the kind of work one used to see often on dust jackets: “R. Q. Smith has been a bartender, a shrimper, a long distance trucker, a tattoo artist, etc.” Those were probably summer jobs. I’m talking about people who worked at jobs for decades and are now perhaps in a writing seminar at the town public library on Saturday mornings. These writers have authentic material to use and one day, as their skills sharpen, their stories will be appearing in print. 


    As one would expect in the contemporary South, there were lots of stories about contemporary problems. People wrote a good deal about drugs in various ways—production, distribution, effects of, etc.; of these, I included stories by Mike Burrell and Janet Mauney. Looking through the volume, I see I have chosen a half-dozen stories of a strong sexual nature—by Brad Watson, Michael Knight, Suzanne Hudson, Bart Barton, and Michelle Richmond, among others. Several stories take into account varieties of sexuality: male and female homosexuality, transvestism, and interest in transsexual operations. Modern life, in other words. 


    As one might expect, several submissions were of a violent nature. Of these, I chose stories by Tom Franklin and Beaux  Boudreaux, among others. There has also been more interest lately in the short-short, and that subgenre is represented here by Loretta Cobb as well as by Watson and Franklin.


    Many stories involved religion in some way, for these are the stories of the Bible Belt. But, surprisingly, there were very few stories of what one might think to be the stock-in-trade of Southern literature: the subject of race. The Erskine Caldwell or William Faulkner story of lynching, cruelty, injustice of whites toward blacks was almost entirely missing. There is some of this in the Beaux Boudreaux piece.


    At a recent convocation of journalists at the University of Alabama, on the occasion of the presentation of the Clarence Cason Award for Distinguished Nonfiction, Rick Bragg, Diane McWhorter, Roy Hoffman, and several others were nearly unanimous in declaring that race as a contentious social issue in Alabama is coming to a close. In the near future, the social wars will be fought on the issues of religion and class. Whether and where to hang the ten commandments is on the evening news and the front page. The police dogs, water hoses, and berserk state troopers are now items of the past, to be written about by historians and writers of historical fiction. This idea is implicit in Kirk Curnutt’s piece, which is in part about how the civil rights movement itself is fading from Alabamians’ minds, especially younger Alabamians.


    Reading these dozens of stories was of course a learning experience for me. In much the same way as it is not actually possible to know what you think about a book until you hear what you yourself have to say about it, either in print or out loud, so one does not know what one likes, really, until a situation like this arises: choosing which stories to include and exclude. I discovered that I dislike the stories that seem to me to be simply anecdotes, without resonance, however well-narrated. I also seem not to like the O. Henry ending, in which there is a grand switcheroo. Fantasy and science fiction stories also leave me cold , but there are a few pieces included that might be loosely considered in that genre. Janet Nodar’s story is fantastical; Brett Cox’s story is a kind of statement from beyond the grave, while Joe Formichella’s has a whiff of metafiction and Patricia Mayer’s has suggestions of extra-sensory perception.More conventional science fiction or fantasy will have to find publication elsewhere: “What? You spoke with Farmer Jones? But that’s impossible! He’s been dead for years. Murdered, you know.”


    A large number of the submissions were chapters from books. This was perfectly within the guidelines, but not, I think, usually a good idea. Most chapters from novels are just that, part of an ongoing narrative development and do not stand alone very well.  Only Roy Hoffman is represented in this volume with an excerpt.


    Put simply, I seem to like stories that are more or less realistic and have characters who develop at least a little or, perhaps, learn something.. The kind of conclusions I seem to favor follow more or less naturally from what came before.


    This is all, of course, a matter of judgment. Twenty-six people now think I have pretty fair judgment. About 125 people think my judgment stinks. It will always be this way, I guess, as long as there is art, and subjectivity, and judging. I can only hope that the readers of this book have a little fun with the pieces I have picked. 


Don Noble, Cottondale, Alabama, July 2004

 

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