Gary Carden didn’t realize he had an audience. He was coaching Lara Chew through a rehearsal of “Mother Jones,” a play he wrote three years ago about the famous American labor and community organizer. “Mother Jones” will be on stage for audiences in April.
Carden was seated in the front row of a small performance hall at the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University.
Chew attends the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Macon County, as does Carden, at least when he feels able to drive over the Cowee mountain range. Chew has spent many insomnia-ridden nights memorizing this more than hour-long dramatic monologue. For the most part, with only an occasional stumble, Chew’s rendition of Carden’s work sounded smooth and true. He mostly listened in silence.
Finally Carden interrupted.
“Drag that out right there,” he urged her. “Because that’s your theme.”
Chew nodded in understanding. She repeated the section again with more emphasis. Carden smiled appreciatively, apparently pleased with the result and the responsiveness to his suggestion.
Chew later discussed working with Carden, a Sylva native who has established himself as one of this region’s most-recognizable, best-known and best-loved wordsmiths through his storytelling, plays and short stories.
At the same time, Carden has earned a reputation for being, well, mercurial.
“He speaks his mind, and I appreciate that,” Chew said. “He wrote ‘Mother Jones,’ so he knows how it’s supposed to go. Yes, he’s easy to work with.”
Carden responded, “No, I’m not. I admit that readily.”
Then Carden added a self-assessment that he can “become irrational” if something blocks what he’s trying to accomplish artistically.
“Yeah, I reluctantly admit that I am a pain in the ass. I have been called a curmudgeon, a damned old geezer, ‘Gary Contrary,’ and a waitress in a local cafe calls me ‘Mr. Grumpy.’ I wish everybody loved me, and as one of my best friends tells me, ‘Gary, you are digging your grave with your tongue.’ But so be it. If you passionately love something and want to accomplish something meaningful, you are going to have to be a pain in the ass,” he said.
Carden is nothing if not complex. He’s a mix of a man, one who can be difficult but is equally capable of great love, generosity and tenderness; and of seemingly endless patience, as on this day with Chew.
How does a man become what and who he is? Carden has spent almost a lifetime, 77 years now, trying to answer that question through written and spoken words. He has told his story, in one form or another, a million times. The characters change, the context changes, the task remains unchanged: Who am I?
The facts that make up Carden’s life history aren’t easy. His father was murdered. His mother left for Knoxville, Tenn., ostensibly for “business school,” Carden said he was told.
“I grew up thinking that Knoxville was some magic place where my mother lived and I ran away several times, at the ages of 3 and 4, going to Knoxville,” he said. “On one occasion, I was taken to Knoxville. I now think my grandparents intended to leave me … but something miscarried, and they brought me back home with no explanation.”
Later, Carden learned that his mother had married a man she’d met in Sylva who had told her that if she came to Knoxville — without the boy — they would get married.
“My grandmother used to discipline me by taking me out on the front porch and pointing to a worn place near the banisters,” Carden said. “‘There is where she left you,’ she would say. ‘Now, I took you when nobody wanted you and you owe me.’”
These experiences profoundly shaped the future writer.
“Even when you are 77 you are still an abandoned child,” Carden said.
Dot Jackson is a longtime friend of Carden’s and an unabashed fan of his work. A former reporter who was twice nominated for Pulitzer Prizes for work at The Charlotte Observer and at The Greenville News, Jackson has authored several nonfiction books. Her novel Refuge was published in 2006.
“Gary has made the most of a painful early childhood,” Jackson said. “As did Pat Conroy with his quick-fisted daddy, Gary has trademarked the imperfect lot of the orphaned toddler. Fact is, he’s done it with such alternating heart, pathos and comedy that like most everything else he does, it’s pretty much a work of genius. And unforgettable.
“I remember realizing, as I read more of the stuff he was writing, that he was exceptionally good. Not the kind of ‘good’ that was learned, but the kind that is once-in-a-blue-moon born.”
Jackson remembers a young Carden expressing a possible desire to work in newspapers, where she spent most of her writing career. The South Carolina resident said being a reporter ensured her a decent living and the ability to write.
“But there was, involved in it, the business of give and take, learning to get all heated up about the fire at the trash dump, or ‘The Sewer Commission met on Thursday and took no action’ … This was not Gary’s world, and mercy kept him out of it,” she said. “He lived in a colorful, sweet-and-sour world of imagination. There were rainbows and clucking chickens and Cherokee bad words and sanctimonious uncles, and the stench of tanning hides that would have wrinkled a late-night editor’s brow — though the world would probably have loved it. Would have, and does.”
Creative ability is a mysterious gift to comprehend anytime, why some people have it and others don’t. So how to decipher the wellsprings of Carden’s vast talent? That mystery is even more unfathomable in his case than others. Because Carden’s family was not what you’d describe as the artistic set, with the possibility, perhaps, of his father.
“He was exceptionally gifted as a musician and was reported to be able to play any musical instrument and often composed melodies off the top of his head, a talent that both awed and disturbed my grandfather. He would sometimes ask him to repeat a melody that he had just played and my father would reply, ‘I can’t, Daddy. It’s gone,’” Carden said.
The remainder of his family Carden described as “the salt of the earth.” Which means not visibly artistic, or interested in the arts, or interested in helping Carden explore his growing passion for literature.
“No one read except my grandmother, who read Mary Rinehart novels and went to the movies each year to see ‘Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ and ‘How Green Was My Valley,’” Carden said. “There was a single bookcase in the house and it was filled with religious tracts, songbooks and They Were Expendable, a book about World War II.”
Carden was a lonely child. He had few playmates. When pressed, he’ll admit to being an outcast within his own family. Like countless isolated children have done before and since, Carden found what solace and comfort he could in books.
“I went to the barn and read and read and read,” Carden said.
When not reading, Carden listened to a small radio his uncle gave him, tuning into radio shows broadcast from the big city of Chicago straight into little Sylva. He memorized songs. He enjoyed comic books.
Eventually, and critically important to his development as a writer and storyteller, Carden discovered the novels of Thomas Wolfe. He felt in his bones the music of the Asheville writer’s “poetic language.” Carden remains as passionate today about Wolfe’s work as when he first read the novelist.
In his book Mason Jars in the Flood, Carden through one character noted that Wolfe wrote “about loneliness and loss,” the great contrapuntal themes that sound in Carden’s own life. The language, he wrote, was beautiful: “the words booming like the organ at First Methodist. I found myself responding to the sound rather than the meaning. ‘Lost! Lost!’”
Carden taught about Wolfe at one time to elderhostel students. Carden quit because, he said, it upset him when they repeated all of the “hackneyed criticisms” of Wolfe, such as “he over-wrote.”
Working on impulse
You can thank Sylva’s Fire Department for Carden’s writing career. He started writing in the ninth grade when the fire department sponsored a contest.
“I won it by counting all the matches in a box and estimated the damage I could do with them,” Carden said. “I got a trophy that immediately turned green. The next event was another contest. I won six tickets to the first production of ‘Unto These Hills,’ and had no one to give them to since my family was uninterested.”
His first stories, as Carden tells it to audiences, were relayed to “my grandfather’s chickens in a dark chicken house when I was 6 years old. My audience wasn’t attentive and tended to get hysterical during the dramatic parts.”
Carden had polio and sclerosis. This worked to his advantage when it came time for college: He attended WCU on a vocational rehabilitation scholarship.
“There is no way I would have been able to go otherwise,” Carden said.
Carden graduated with a degree to teach English, which he did for 15 years in Georgia and North Carolina before returning to WCU for his masters in English and drama. The university later awarded him an honorary doctorate.
Carden then wrote grants for 15 years for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“It was easy to do and the money rolled in,” Carden said. “I’m not bragging because Washington was eager to fund Native Americans.”
Then Carden went deaf. He continued on with Cherokee until, Carden said, “it became embarrassing.”
“I had problems because I misunderstood what was said by contacts in Washington. Once, I remember that a consultant said, ‘How do you justify Mead?’ That is what I heard. I said I didn’t see what Mead had to do with anything, Mead being the paper plant in Sylva that was a major polluter at the time. We ended up yelling at each other until I realized that he had said, ‘How do you justify need?’ That is just a tiny example of what became a daily problem,” Carden said.
His deafness propelled him directly into fulltime storytelling.
“I was fine as long as I got to do all of the talking,” Carden said. “Then I started teaching elderhostel and most of the elderhostel sponsors were tolerant of my deafness.”
When talking or listening to people, Carden described his attempt to turn up the volume by turning his two hearing aids on full blast. Even then, catching what was said was multiple choices and simply guessing, Carden said.
“Sometimes I’d guess right, sometimes wrong,” he said.
A girlfriend of old paid three years ago for a cochlear implant despite, Carden admitted, an inability of the two to “talk for 30 minutes without shouting at each other.”
The gift transformed his life. Able to hear, his ability to function creatively exploded again into full bloom.
Writers work in different ways, some methodically and others more impulsively. Carden is in the latter camp. He often writes starting at 3 a.m., taking advantage of insomnia to do work more or less “on impulse.”
“Sometimes ideas bother me for months and even years before I finally break down and write about it,” Carden said.
Carden said he started out writing poetry, which he described without elaboration as “a terrible mistake.”
“I did a few inept short stories and finally gave it up until I wrote Mason Jars in the Flood,” he said.
Carden has written eight plays. Asked why has found drama so satisfying a form to work in, Carden explained there is something fundamental about being on stage that helps fill the hole of loneliness.
“When you are on there, people pay attention to you,” Carden said. “You get on that stage and people look at you, and you’re understood until the next day. In my mind it disproved my suspicion that I was worthless ... I was proving that I was ‘worth something.’ The problem is, this quick fix does not last. Within a day or so, the sense of being worth something fades, and you have to start looking for an opportunity to do it again.”
Carden has in the past decade started receiving long-due recognition. Awards and general accolades for his lifetime of work have started flowing in, pleasing those who have watched him labor for so many years. Among them is Joyce Moore, the retired owner of the popular City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. She was at a recent production of Carden’s “The Liar’s Bench” with husband, Allen.
“I’m glad Gary finally seems to be hitting the big time after all the years,” Moore said. “He’s an incredibly talented person.”
Mason Jars in the Flood won the Book of the Year Award in 2001 from the Appalachian Writers Association. Two of Carden’s dramatic monologues, “Prince of Dark Corners” and “Nance Dude” have been filmed and appeared on PBS and the Discover Channel. He’s a 2006 winner of a Brown-Hudson Award in Folklore.
Carden has become a speaker at various literary events, including an upcoming appearance April 13-14 at the Carolina Literary Festival in Wadesville, where he’ll talk about storytelling becoming drama.
Works by Gary Carden
• “The Uktena,” a Cherokee “mime” play.
• A series of Cherokee plays based on the Nunnihi, street chiefs, old myths.
• “The Raindrop Waltz,” an autobiographical play that has received national exposure.
• “Mason Jars in the Flood,” an award-winning book of short stories.
• “Land’s End,” three monologues presented as a complete play.
• “Belled Buzzards, Hucksters and Grieving Specters,” a play written with Nina Anderson.
• “Papa’s Angels,” written with Colin Wilcox. Made into a movie.
• “Nance Dude,” filmed with Elizabeth Westall.
• “Prince of Dark Corners” made into a movie for PBS and Discovery Channel.
• “The Bright Forever,” a play.
• “A Sunday Evening in Webster,” a monologue.
• “Signs and Wonders,” a play. Premiered in Highlands last year.
• “Coy,” a play that was originally a part of the trilogy “Land’s End.”
• “Mother Jones,” a monologue.
• “Outlander,” a full-length play about Horace Kephart and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It will have a full musical score and will be performed this June at the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville.