For me, the unimagined life is not worth living. “The Beautiful Greed,” my first novel, based on my two years as a merchant seaman, came out in 1961 when I was living in Boone, teaching at Appalachian State. For the past eight years, I have been living a life of creativity in Black Mountain.
“Marble Goddesses and Mortal Flesh,” my 15th work of fiction, came out this fall.
In November 2009, my wife Robbie and I moved from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Black Mountain to be near our son, Blake, a professional photographer, and our grandchild, Kuniko Nicole, a student at the Asheville School.
In making that decision, the charm of Black Mountain itself, as we knew it from several visits, was also an incentive.
Pam Hester, our local Realtor, was certainly right when she assured us that we would love the little ivory-colored house, now more than a century old, in the first block of Church Street. “These have been,” we often say, “the happiest years of our lives.”
The huge L&N railroad desk on which I have written more than 60 books while teaching at Centre College, University of Louisville, Kenyon College, Ohio University, and 41 years as writer-in-residence at LSU fits perfectly in my cozy study, where I have written eight books.
Out of her study on the opposite side of the house, Robbie spends each day storming North Carolina in her efforts to promote racial justice and to pass the Equal Rights Amendment at long last.
Started 10 years before in Baton Rouge, “London Bridge in Plague and Fire,” my magnum opus, was the first novel I thrashed out on my huge desk in Black Mountain.
I have always worked simultaneously on three to five books, novels or nonfiction, so the second novel to come out of this study was “Abducted by Circumstance,” a sequel to “The Suicide’s Wife,” which had been made into a CBS movie of the week in 1979, starring Angie Dickinson. I wrote each of those two novels in three weeks.
“The Last Bizarre Tale,” the third collection of my short stories. appeared in 2014. Of the five stories I wrote in my Church Street study, my favorite is “She’s Always Had a Will of Her Own.”
For me, writing is revision. I thoroughly revised the previously published novellas in “Marble Goddesses and Mortal Flesh.” I had already greatly rewritten and expanded “The Hero and the Witness” as my first novel, “The Beautiful Greed,” which was started in Alaska, continued in San Francisco, and finished in our cabin up Hot Holler Road in Deep Gap, just east of Boone. I have no personal experience with writer’s block.
In “Marble Goddesses and Mortal Flesh,” Lucius Hutchfield, the autobiographical protagonist, is an idealist with a romantic vision of life who witnesses the actions of unconventional heroes and heroines.
“The Hero and the Witness” is a harrowing and comic story of 19-year-old Lucius’ ordeal as a merchant seaman en route to Chile, caught in the crossfire between an enigmatic scapegoat and a violent crew.
In “To Play the Con,” Lucius, now a teacher and a first-time novelist, cons his little brother’s six small-town victims into accepting restitution for bad checks he passed, a scam their con man older brother taught him and that may send Bucky to the chain gang.
Lucius himself works a con in “Nothing Dies But Something Mourns” by persuading an ancient lady living in a ghostly abandoned hotel in a small mountain town between Boone and Valle Crucis to tell him the romantic story of her brief love affair with Jesse James.
In the novella “Marble Goddesses and Mortal Flesh,” Lucius, now middle-aged and a successful novelist, buys the derelict Bijou Theater where he had been an adolescent usher and becomes immersed, to the brink of psychosis, in memories of the immortal movie goddesses of the ’40s and the mortal girls of his adolescence.
That book inspired one reviewer to identify me as an “archaeologist of the mind” (chapter16.org/archaeology-of-the-imagination).
In my 11 novels and four collections of short stories during the past 56 years, I have often explored the power of the imagination and of oral storytelling in the lives of my characters. To some readers, the spirit of Thomas Wolfe, my first literary hero, may seem to have invaded my imagination. But for years now, William Faulkner has been the novelist I have admired most.
I recently finished a memoir of “My Creative Life in the Army.” And each night since Jan. 1, 2017, I have written a page on a biography of my mother. I will stop Dec. 31.
In progress now is “An Activist in the Ivory Tower: Sixty Years of Controversial Essays” and “The Killing Dream,” a novel set near Black Mountain.
Fiction is the genre my imagination has most fervently explored. But as “A Writer for All Genres” (a book of essays by other writers) about my writing demonstrates, I have published substantially in all genres.
From my high school days, I have been slaphappy to have seen my short and long plays produced in Knoxville; Boone; Chapel Hill; Athens, Ohio; Eugene, Oregon; Albuquerque; San Francisco; New York City; and at Yale School of Drama where I was a playwriting fellow. In 1960 or so, my adaptation of “Cassandra Singing” won a national contest conducted by Asheville Community Theater.
In the film genre, I like having the dubious distinction of having been the last writer in residence on the Warner Brothers lot. Tony Bill, a protégé of Frank Sinatra and producer of “The Sting” with Robert Redford and Paul Newman, bought the rights to “Cassandra Singing,” my second novel, and hired me to adapt it. But he was unable to round up producers for it.
Not yet published, “Venice Is Sinking” is a collection of my poetry.
In literary criticism, I have published books about tough guy and proletarian writers of the ’30; on the theme of the American Dream; and on James Agee, James M. Cain and Robert Penn Warren, among others.
Since moving to Black Mountain, I have edited a book on Faulkner’s greatest novel, “Absalom, Absalom!” and edited an anthology by a neglected master of fiction, Wright Morris. As a historian living in Black Mountain, I prepared a book of my essays called “The Tangled Web of the Civil War and Reconstruction.” I also edited “Thomas Wolfe’s Civil War.”
From childhood, a single, unbroken flow of creative energy has energized my roles as lover, husband, father, teacher, editor and writer. I have seized upon many venues, literary, artistic, theatrical (as playwright, director, and actor).
Wherever I live, I am drawn to service in organizations, as in Asheville on the boards of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the Basilica of St. Lawrence Preservation Committee, and the Western North Carolina Yale Alumni Club. I serve as an initiator and board member of the Rafael Guastavino Museum Project.
At 84, I hear more often the question, “David, how on earth do you do so much?” As a Christian, I tend more and more often to reply, “Maybe I don’t do it on earth.”
David Madden lives in Black Mountain.