Author and Hendersonville native Robert Morgan wrote his first piece of fiction in 6th grade. His class took a field trip to the Biltmore House in 1957, but Morgan didn’t have the three dollars to attend. Instead, his teacher gave him another task: to write about a man lost in the Canadian Rockies. Morgan spent hours in deep concentration, and by the time his class returned, he had written his first short story.
The poet, biographer, short-story writer, and novelist broke onto the national scene in a big way with his 1999 novel Gap Creek. A New York Times bestseller and Oprah’s Book Club pick, the book, subtitled “The Story of a Marriage,” was about a young couple struggling in rugged upcountry South Carolina in the late 1800s. Morgan, a recipient of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award — he also shares a birthday with that WNC literary icon — is an English professor of long standing at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
He most recent novel, Chasing the North Star, is about two runaway slaves, Jonah and Angel, and their escape to freedom in the North. They have no map, no shoes, and no help from the Underground Railroad as they dodge danger and death in this fast-paced adventure story.
Morgan spoke with Bold Life about his memories of growing up in Hendersonville, his characters’ quest to find home, and how poetry influences his fiction.
Bold Life: The mountains of North Carolina and the French Broad River are central to the first half of the book. Did geography influence your decision to set part of the book here?
RM: Oh, absolutely. That’s where I grew up, and most of my fiction is set there. I love history and I’ve written history and it was interesting to imagine Hendersonville and Mud Creek valley and then the French Broad [River] valley at that time. Part of the fun of writing it was to be able to bring alive that world a little bit, and of course to try to imagine how they’re going to survive.
It’s a very sensory story: the sounds of plantation life, and the stickiness of the pine tree as Jonah climbs it, and the sight of the Northern Lights. Did you find yourself more aware of your senses when you were writing?
Well, I hope that’s true of all my fiction; that it’s sensuous in detail. I think my experience at writing poetry probably influenced that. I’ve published more books of poetry probably than of prose, but I do love to get that tactile sense and the feel of things. I was trying very hard to evoke that for the reader so they feel they’re experiencing it almost.
Throughout the book, Angel is searching for a home where she can garden and raise a family in the North, and yet she’s never been there. Do you think that home can be a place you’ve never been?
She certainly had a home that she wanted to escape. She’s not only running away from something, she’s running toward something, which is a new life and a home. Also she realizes she wants a husband; she wants a family of her own. So I thought that was very important for her, and it becomes a part of her quest. Not just running from slavery; she’s running toward a new life.
The book reads like a classic adventure novel. Did you have any in mind while you were writing, or any that have inspired you?
When I started out as a reader, books that really inspired me to keep reading and then to write were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie and Farmer Boy, and books like that that I got from the bookmobile that came down the Green River. This is one of the wonderful things of my childhood, that bookmobile. I very soon got onto Jack London and the great stories set in the Yukon and Alaska.
You write a lot of historical fiction and biographies. What do you look for when you’re choosing a time period to write about?
I look for a time when exciting things were happening and challenging things like the American Revolution or the Lewis and Clark expedition. The Fugitive Slave Law and the Underground Railroad is about the most significant thing one can think of, so I wanted to write an adventure story that’s set in a time of real importance, and to tell a story that was also symbolic. These people represent hundreds of thousands of others that were trying to escape from slavery.
You were born in Hendersonville. How have you seen the area grow?
It’s totally changed, certainly from the time I was a child. I grew up in a world with one foot in the 19th century on what was literally a one-horse farm; we didn’t have a car or a truck or a tractor. But I saw all that change rapidly in the 1950s, about the time the General Electric plant came in. It’s a trade off: you lose some of the qualities of the mountain culture, and you gain all kinds of activities and literary festivals.
As part of a series of local appearances supporting his new book, Chasing the North Star, Robert Morgan will do a reading at 2pm on April 9 at the Henderson County Heritage Museum (1 Historic Courthouse Square, #4). www.hendersoncountymuseum.com. 828-694-1619.