During college I worked in Yellowstone Park for two memorable summers whichinalterably changed my life. I had grown up in the wooded rural South butsomething about the West, that sky, the far spaces, vastly expanded my horizons.
Nevertheless, since then, I have been writing books about the people and places ofthe Virginias and Carolinas as biography, history and poetry. I started telling storiesof my Shenandoah Valley grandmother, who was herself a storyteller of Indianmassacres and horses and became a southern country preacher’s wife. As thatwife, she birthed eight children with two miscarriages in ten years. In our house,she was a character who sang and told post-civil war stories from the Valley. Myfirst published stories were about her, my eccentric and persevering grandmotherEva in my book, My Dear Miss Eva. This book chronicled her romance andmarriage following courtship letters my grandfather wrote her while a seminarystudent in South Carolina in the 1890s. They begin very formally and grow intenderness as he anticipated their wedding from a distance.
Writer Mary Kratt shares theinspiration for her books.
Where do my books/stories come from? I listen toconversations and notice odd or amusing things – I “borrow”or shape memories of eccentric kinfolk, who they were andwhat they said. Or notes from current events or friends. Ofmy 17 published books, 5 of poetry have been published byliterary presses since l980. The only self-published book isthe one about Eva, because I feared my elderly mother woulddie before it was published. But since she lived 21 years afterits publication, I needn’t have hurried.
My book Watch Where You Walk: New and Collected Poems, samples my best,starting with snips from my witty mother in the retirement home.
Field Trip from Assisted Living
At the door of Mother’s room, the ActivitiesDirector asks, “Miz Norton,” moving to Mother’sbed, “would you like to go with us on the mysteryride?” Quickly Mother answers, “Honey, I am ona mystery ride.”
Other sections lift experiences like meeting CarlSandburg, watching my husband gradually losehis breath, mountain hikers, the beauty ofhorses, Gertrude Stein and Picasso in Paris,young female textile workers, a slave hiding in anattic in Edenton, and how everything rolleddownhill in West Virginia.
Travelling for years with lawyer husband Jim, often from Charlotte to Raleigh forlegal meetings, I went to university library archives looking for unpublished lettersand diaries from the 1800s. These became my book – The Only Thing I Fear Is aCow and a Drunken Man: Southern Voices 1828-1929. The intriguing title comesfrom now penniless Elizabeth Alston Pringle of coastal South Carolina, trying tomanage her former rice plantation after the civil war with little help from a drunkenwhite foreman. He set a fire too close to her barns.
Another poem based in history is of Anna Hyatt Huntington, the artist, who with herhusband Archer Huntington, buys deserted rice plantations and dreams of whatwould become Brookgreen Gardens. Her work and story give a fascinating glimpseinto how she became so skilled at sculpting large animals. The creation of theirdream and her art is found now throughout this country and Europe.
Following my curiosity near home is another route to writing. Thetown of Kannapolis, why is it called that? Who was James B.Duke? How did he sell loose tobacco for hand-rolled cigarettesto civil war soldiers after the war, then become a millionaire fromadvertising new machine-made cigarettes, and build a grandmansion in Myers Park? Who were those others who built MyersPark, who laid out those lovely streets and planted thosetowering oaks? The latter story became a book: Legacy: TheMyers Park Story. We were living in Myers Park at the time. TomHanchett wrote the chapter on architecture.
A favorite book describes the eccentriccouple who made Wing Haven, thefamous garden in Myers Park which isalso a bird sanctuary. Starting in 1927,this couple, the Clarksons, graduallyadded to their small lot and created abeautiful, original garden, still visited bythousands annually. The amusingillustrated stories of the creatures andcharacters are A Bird in the House: TheStory of Wing Haven Garden.
My shortest, smallest book also sold thebest, Southern Is…. which is myhumorous, illustrated take onsoutherness. After 16 printings it may stillbe found on Amazon.
Several revisions since l985 of my book onregional Charlotte history have led to walks,tours, and learnings from people and placeshere I never knew existed earlier. Charlotte,North Carolina: A Brief History is happily stillin print. And UNC Press published thehardback book of several hundred coloredpostcards of old Charlotte (1905-50) with mytext. Remembering Charlotte: Post-cardsfrom A New South City, 1905-1950.
An offshoot of this history is New SouthWomen: Twentieth Century Women ofCharlotte, North Carolina, a representativeswath of remarkable women whose effortsmade this modern city. These includeBonnie Cone (UNCC-education), DorothyCounts (integration), Dale Halton andCrandall Bowles (business), Theresa Elder(health), Shirley Fulton (law), and theearlier women whose work led to post civil-war hospitals. Along the way I editedsome of my father’s columns into a book –Old Days on The Chesapeake illustratedby Gene Payne of the Charlotte Observer.
Looking back, in my writing I merely ploughed the earth under my feet or scoured the experiences and landscapes.In doing so, I learned and hopefully gave others a wider glimpse my life and this region’s history.