Kentucky Author Ed McClanahan Turns 70
by Rhonda Reeves
Ed McClanahan makes a good septuagenarian (and not just because the title sounds somehow, vaguely pornographic). At 70, he’s got a new book, and no plans to retire. Contrary to prior rumor — a rumor he inadvertently started, admitting sheepishly, “I said back in 1993 that I intended to quit writing when I finished A Congress of Wonders, the book I was then working on. Dumbest thing I ever said—and worse yet, I said it on television! Of course it took another three years to finish that book, and by the time it came out, the next book already had me by the shorthairs.
He adds definitively, “There’s no retiring from this beastly trade, once it gets its hooks in you.”
As guests filter into the house from the front porch for the author’s 70th birthday, he is holed up in his office directly to the right, fondly hailing all the well-wishers.
He explains that he’d just been watching The Godfather, and has decided the appropriate way to celebrate this august birthday would be to sit at his desk and “receive” the guests.
(If properly impressed, he might even grant an occasional favor.)
The plan goes pretty well initially as he chats with daughter Cait and a few friends of the family, while signing copies of his new book, Fondelle.
Then wife Hilda makes her way through the throng, shooing everyone out, and announcing in a lilting (but firm) Belgian accent, “The. Party Is. Out. Back.”
Her gentle demeanor as a hostess is buttressed by the presence of Boggles, the couple’s Great Dane (successor to Lisa), and the two of them manage to herd the guests out of the office and out to the designated party site.
It’s a short trek—past the lovely formal living room (dominated by Hilda’s grand piano, which she plays exquisitely), and then through their cozy kitchen, where every available surface is layered with a lavish Southern spread truly worthy of one of the godfathers of Kentucky letters (not to mention Stanford’s Stegner Fellows mafia, many of whom are in attendance). There are heaping platters of country ham biscuits and giant shrimp; tiny new potatoes topped with sour cream and caviar; finger sandwiches of every variety; salmon and dill; dressed eggs; and even red beans and rice (contributed by award-winning filmmaker/photographer Guy Mendes and wife Paige).
The guest list is as diverse and august as the menu, and includes a who’s who of Kentucky’s arts and letters, alongside assorted friends from the neighborhood, relatives, elected officials, and possibly even a few crashers.
It’s been adamantly specified that there are to be no gifts on this day, but it is impossible to walk without tripping over the array of cards and treasures brought by the author’s friends, family, colleagues, and fans. (The haul includes enough liquor and wine to stock a stadium, books, music, and art—even a framed photo of the Merry Prankster bus, Furthur, brought by a guest introduced to everyone as “Kentucky Maria,” which is followed by several anecdotes that are occasionally hard to follow.)
Soon, the guests on the deck are spilling into the shady backyard, just as a cool wind kicks up.
As the party gathers steam, thunderclouds blow in and threaten the revelry.
It’s a brave thing to schedule an outdoor celebration in October with the prospect of a cold Kentucky rain.
But the elements, by and large, remain at bay (perhaps appropriately cowed by the grandeur of the occasion and the guest list).
As the author reflects on his long, varied career, he’s hard pressed to narrow the list of highlights, but remembers the biggest started with “the unexpected success of [his] novel, The Natural Man.”
On a more recent note, he fondly recalls, “Then too there was the reading at UK last year, with Wendell Berry and Jim Hall and Gurney Norman and Bobbie Ann Mason.”
Earlier this year, he recalls, “This past February, I was part of a tribute to Kesey at a famous New York literary venue, and stood at a podium where T.S. Eliot once stood! That was very cool.”
And Looking Ahead
Since retirement isn’t part of the plan, what is?
He confesses, “I’ve had a novel in the works for several years now, and that’s still right where it is—in the works. Writing a novel, I always sez, is like performing brain surgery on yourself; you don’t wanna do a rush job.
Still, he has managed to stay creatively occupied. “I went out to Oregon this past summer to work on the final issue of Ken Kesey’s magazine, Spit in the Ocean. It begins to look like the issue is going to be published, probably sometime next year.”
He seems artistically, professionally, and personally content, acknowledging “Now comes this beautiful little book from Larkspur. There have been no end of highlights, and I hope there’s no end in sight.”
The long strange trip continues.
The author will read from and sign limited edition copies of Fondelle, Thursday October 10, 2002 at 5:30pm at Wingspan Gallery, at the corner of 2nd and Jefferson, across the street from the Ace office. Common Grounds will serve free trade coffee. Gallery space is limited. Please pick up a complimentary pass at the Ace office prior to 4pm.
Larkspur Press in Monterey is one of Kentucky’s literary treasures, as is Gray Zeitz, the poet and proprietor.
(UK held a 25th anniversary commemoration of the small publishing house in 1998. The press release announcing Zeits’s accompanying workshop noted, “Vehicles should be secured to prevent local farmers from filling them with zucchini and tomatoes.”)
He hand sets the metal type, using antique presses and fine paper.
His library of limited editions includes Kentucky authors like Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Guy Davenport, and two poet laureates (Richard Taylor and James Baker Hall).
McClanahan is honored to work with Larkspur: “Fine Press is exactly the right name for what Larkspur does. Gray Zeitz hand-sets the type on what I believe is called a letter press, whichmmeans that every goddamn weensie little comma has to be picked up and put in place by hand. It’s all excruciatingly painstaking and meticulous, and Gray’s books are truly beautiful, real works of art in themselves. It’s a grand thing for a writer, having one’s words treated with so much care and attention and
The art that accompanies the text comes from a set of exquisite woodcuts, as McClanahan acknowledges, “The four illustrations are pretty wonderful.
They’re by Wesley Bates, a Canadian who I’m told is one of the ten best wood-engravers in the world. That’s also a very gratifying experience, seeing my own story through the eyes of an artist like Wes Bates.He concludes, “I’ve always wanted to do a book with Larkspur. What writer wouldn’t!”
KY’s Fall 2002 Literary Lineup
October 10, 2002 – Ace hosts a reception for Ed McClanahan, and his newest work, Fondelle: Or The Whore With The Heart of
Gold, A Report From The Field, at Wingspan Gallery at 5:30 pm (corner of 2nd and Jefferson)—honoring the author’s 70th birthday. Seating
capacity is limited; please pick up your complimentary pass at the Ace office prior to 4 pm on Thursday. Coffee will be served by Common Grounds (the Free Trade variety). Info, 225-4889. Email: editor @ aceweekly.com.
October 10 – Silas House will be reading and signing A Parchment of Leaves, 7pm at Hawley-Cooke Booksellers, Louisville 502/893-0133.
October 11 & 12 – West Virginia Book Festival (Rick Bragg, Gwyn Rubio, Ann Pancake, Denise Giardina, Lee Maynard, Chuck Kinder, Laura Bentley, Bob Henry Baber, Edwina Pendarvis, John McKernan, Mark Defore, Leatha Kendrick, Steven Cope, Charlie Hughes). Charleston, WV, Civic Center. http://www.wvhumanities.org/bookfest/
October 11-13 – The 14th Annual Southern Festival of Books: A Celebration of the Written Word October 11-13, 2002 located at the War Memorial Plaza in Nashville, Tennessee. Scheduled events include author readings, autograph sessions, panel discussions, and 95 exhibitor booths for publishers and booksellers from around the country. Visit www.tn-humanities.org/sessions.htm for more info.
October 15 – Reading of Annual Short Story Competition Winners. Lexington’s Carnegie Center 6:30 p.m. 251 W Second St, 859/254-4175. $100 awarded to first place winner; $50 to second place winner. All finalists are invited to read.
October 23 – James Baker Hall, Poet Laureate of Kentucky, reading and signing Praeder’s Letters: A Novel in Verse and Yates Paul, His Grand Flights, His Tootings, 7pm, Hawley-Cooke Booksellers, Louisville 502/ 893-0133.
Silas House 7pm at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. 859/273-2911.
October 25 – James Baker Hall reads and signs Praeder’s Letters at Black Swan Books, 505 E. Maxwell, 6:30pm. 859/252-7255.
October 28 – Ed McClanahan & illustrator Wesley Bates will read and sign Ed’s latest book Fondelle or: The Whore With A Heart Of Gold, A Report from the Field (Larkspur Press). 6:30pm at Black Swan Books (Woodland Triangle). 859/252-7255.
Nov 1 & 2 – OKI Children’s Literature Conference, Northern Kentucky University, 9:00am – 4:00pm. Featuring Ruth White, Gloria Houston, George Ella Lyon, Peter Catalanotto, Ann Olson. Register by October 25th, $50.00, limited to 250 participants.
Nov 2 – Kentucky Book Fair. Frankfort. http://www.kdla.net/kybookfair.htm.