When readers of literary fiction elsewhere think of Kentucky, they often think of the stories of Bobbie Ann Mason.
Much of her work, including many stories published in The New Yorker magazine and the novel In Country, which was made into a 1989 movie starring Emily Lloyd and Bruce Willis, have portrayed the everyday hopes, dreams and challenges of working-class people in Mason’s native Western Kentucky.
So it seems fitting that Mason will become the second living author, after Wendell Berry, to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. The ceremony, which is free and open to the public, will be at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 West Second Street.
Mason will speak at the event, which also honors four Kentucky writers of the past: James Lane Allen, Harlan Hubbard, Jean Ritchie and Alice Hegan Rice.
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This is the fourth year for the Hall of Fame, which previously inducted Berry and 17 deceased writers: Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart, Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Hunter S. Thompson, Guy Davenport, Effie Waller Smith and Jim Wayne Miller.
“It really is an honor,” Mason said when I visited her last week at the rural Anderson County home she and her husband, writer and editor Roger Rawlings, built 25 years ago when she returned to Kentucky after nearly three decades in the Northeast. “To follow Wendell, it's very daunting.”
Mason, 75, grew up on a dairy farm outside Mayfield. Her writing career began as a teenager, she recounted in a 1986 New Yorker essay, when she became national president of fan clubs for The Hilltoppers, a popular 1950s singing group whose members were students at what is now Western Kentucky University.
“I know that I was obsessed with them because they were from Kentucky,” she said. It was a way of proving to herself that Kentuckians could achieve great things in the wider world.
Writing is discovery. It's solving a mystery. To me, it's a way of getting at my hidden resources; things I didn't know I knew.
Bobbie Ann Mason
After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1962 with an English major and journalism minor, Mason moved to New York to write for movie magazines. She then earned a master’s from State University of New York at Binghamton and a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Connecticut.
Unable to get a tenure-track teaching job, Mason began writing fiction. She pitched 20 stories to The New Yorker before the magazine finally bought one in 1980.
Mason’s big break came in 1982 with the publication of Shiloh and Other Stories, which won the 1983 Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for first works of fiction. It was followed by four more short-story collections.
Her first novel, In Country, came out in 1985. It was followed by Spence and Lila (1988), Feather Crowns (1993), An Atomic Romance (2005) and a memoir, Clear Springs (1999), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Those books drew on a well of memory and imagination fueled by her Western Kentucky childhood.
“Many people think that a writer just gets an idea in her head, stews on it and then writes it down,” Mason said. “I can tell you that I have nothing in my head before I sit down. It’s the act of writing that activates the deeper resources. Writing is discovery. It’s solving a mystery. To me, it’s a way of getting at my hidden resources; things I didn’t know I knew.”
Much of her fiction has explored the cultural shifts that took place in Kentucky’s Jackson Purchase region in the decades after World War II. People moved from farms to factories, and chain stores replaced Main Street merchants.
“I didn’t do it deliberately, it’s just what came up in my imagination,” Mason said. “I think it really comes from my early experience at Cuba Grade School.”
Mason went to school in the unincorporated Graves County community of Cuba with other farm kids through eighth grade. Then she left them to make the difficult transition to Mayfield High School.
“In eight years of being with the same kids every day at school, they form a strong impression, so you remember them,” she said, adding that those classmates helped inspire many of her fictional adult characters. “I think I was just wondering how they turned out.”
I think one value of the writer leaving is that it gives a perspective on who we are and where we are.
Bobbie Ann Mason
Mason wrote most of her Kentucky-based fiction while living in the Northeast.
“I think one value of the writer leaving is that it gives a perspective on who we are and where we are,” she said. “I go to New York and Pennsylvania and live and then I see Kentucky in a different way.”
Since moving back to spend a decade as “writer in residence” at UK, Mason has mostly written about other places. Her most recent novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret (2011), is set in World War II France. She is now contemplating a book with the working title, California Stories.
Mason also has lately been writing “flash fiction” — stories of fewer than 1,000 words — that have been published in online journals. Five Points, the Georgia State University literary journal, will soon publish one of those very short stories, Pine Mountain, inspired by a hike she took there.
Mason thinks the Carnegie Center’s director, Neil Chethik, has done an important thing by creating the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. This state has a rich literary tradition, but too often Kentuckians look elsewhere for cultural validation, she said.
“I’ve been published in The New Yorker and I’ve had a movie made,” she said. “New York and California, those are the arbiters of our culture. I think Neil wants to say that we in Kentucky can recognize our writers.”
Good literature is about exploring universal human truths and experiences, no matter where the characters come from. “We can take Kentucky there, and we can bring New York and California here,” Mason said. “What is that called, free trade?”
Other 2016 Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame inductees
James Lane Allen (1849-1925) was born in Lexington and educated at Transylvania University. An internationally popular novelist in the late 1800s, Allen was known for sentimental stories steeped in the Bluegrass region’s history and culture. After publication of Flute and Violin & Other Kentucky Stories in 1891, he began a commercially successful writing career that included novels, short stories, travel pieces and drama. He published 20 books and contributed to many prominent magazines, including Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly. He traveled widely and lived in New York City the last 32 years of his life.
Alice Hegan Rice (1870-1942) was most famous for her best-selling novel, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1901), which was inspired by her work as a teenage volunteer with children in Louisville’s poor Cabbage Patch neighborhood. Mrs. Wiggs sold 650,000 copies in its first two years and was reprinted more than 50 times and in several languages. The book inspired a stage play and four movies, the best known in 1934 starring W.C. Fields. Rice published 20 books between 1901 and 1942. Born in Shelbyville, Rice spent most of her life in Louisville. She married Cale Young Rice, a well-known poet and playwright.
Harlan Hubbard (1900-1988) was a painter and writer, but is most famous for adopting an unconventional, back-to-nature lifestyle after rejecting 20th century industrialization and consumerism. Hubbard was born in Bellevue, grew up in New York City and was educated at the New York National Academy of Design and the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Hubbard moved back to Kentucky in 1919 and married in 1943. He and his wife, Anna, built a shanty boat in 1944 and lived on it for seven years as they floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Louisiana. They returned to Kentucky and built a house at Payne Hollow, on the Ohio River in Trimble County. They lived off their land and the river, and earned what little money they needed by selling books and paintings. Hubbard wrote a dozen books, including Shantyboat (1953) and Payne Hollow (1974).
Jean Ritchie (1922-2015) was a songwriter, musician and author who brought hundreds of traditional Appalachian songs to an international audience and helped fuel the folk music revival of the 1950s. Born the youngest of 14 children to a musical family in Perry County, Ritchie sang and played dulcimer on some of the world’s great stages, including New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall. Her original compositions included Black Waters, a song about strip mining. She also adapted traditional songs into modern pieces, such as Dear Companion. Ritchie recorded many albums, and her music was covered by stars such as Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris. She wrote several books, including Singing Family of the Cumberlands (1955) and Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians (1997). She earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Kentucky and received a Fulbright Scholarship and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.