Topeka author Thomas Fox Averill developed an early interest in the literature, culture, and history of Kansas. He arrived in Topeka in 1954, just in time to celebrate the Kansas Territorial Centennial, and was immersed in activities focused on Kansas through 1961, when he participated in celebrations for our Statehood Centennial. His parents were both transplants who loved Topeka and Kansas, and they took him on car trips all around the state. His affection for Kansas has continued to deepen over the years since.
Averill has built a reputation as an expert on Kansas literature during his career of more than thirty years as a Professor of English and a Writer-in-Residence at Washburn University. He helped to found the Washburn Center for Kansas Studies, amd launched an online Map of Kansas Literature. He also developed the Thomas Fox Averill Kansas Studies Collection at Washburn’s Mabee Library, which consists of novels, plays, poetry, history, biography, memoirs, letters, scholarly articles, folklore, manuscripts, and materials pertinent to his own career as a writer. He is a frequent speaker on Kansas culture, a series advisor for Sunflower Journeys on KTWU, and a long-time commentator in the voice of William Jennings Bryan Oleander for Kansas Public Radio from the University of Kansas.
“I am most interested in what work I can do,” Averill says, “and behind that is the hope that others will find the history, culture, and literature of Kansas worth studying and perpetuating—either as scholars, or as artists, or as readers, or in any other capacity. I hope my legacy is to be one of many who cared and who shared, whose work others can continue.”
Thomas Fox Averill is the author of three novels, three collections of short fiction, and numerous articles and poems. He received an O. Henry Award for his short story “During the Twelfth Summer of Elmer D. Peterson,” and his most recent novel, Rode, was a 2012 Kansas Notable Book, a Spur Award finalist, and was named Outstanding Western Novel of 2011 as part of the Western Heritage Awards, an award previously given to novelists such as James Michener, Barbara Kingsolver, and Cormac McCarthy. His next novel, A Carol Dickens Christmas, will be released in late summer, 2014.
Read the following original interview to find out more about Tom’s work and future writing plans.
Miranda Ericsson interviewed Thomas Fox Averill via email in October, 2013.
Nearly all of your literary work is set in Kansas. Tell us a bit about your connection to our state. How did growing up in Kansas shape you as a writer?
I came to Kansas at a great time, right as the state was beginning to celebrate the territorial centennial in 1954. As I went to grade school, at Southwest (now Whitson) in Topeka, our teachers busied us with activities about Kansas through 1961, when we celebrated our Statehood Centennial. My father and mother, both transplants, loved Topeka, and Kansas, and we went on car trips all over the state. On those, I learned some geography and history to supplement our school readings of The Wizard of Oz and Little House on the Prairie.
In the introduction to What Kansas Means to Me, you concluded that understanding how or why you developed such a deep affection for Kansas might not be possible. Now, over 20 years later, are you any closer to pinning down the reasons why Kansas has such a strong hold on you?
My wife Jeffrey Ann Goudie and I have a saying, “Familiarity breeds content,” and I think that explains some of the hold. The longer I’ve been in Kansas, the better I get to know it, the more I read the rich and amazing body of literature that has been, and is being, created here, the more I feel tied to this place.
You have been immersed in all things Kansas for decades. You have helped to found the Center for Kansas Studies and served as its first director, established the Thomas Fox Averill Kansas Studies Collection in Washburn University’s Mabee Library, and edited books by Kansas writers for Woodley Press. You currently serve as a series advisor for Sunflower Journeys, speak as commentator William Jennings Bryan Oleander for Kansas Public Radio, and teach courses in Kansas folklore, fiction, and film at Washburn University. How do your activities and writing projects support and promote the state you love? What do you hope will be your lasting legacy in the state of Kansas?
I am most interested in what work I can do, and behind that is the hope that others will find the history, culture, and literature of Kansas worth studying and perpetuating—either as scholars, or as artists, or as readers, or in any other capacity. I hope my legacy is to be one of many who cared and who shared, whose work others can continue.
Your most recent novel, rode, was inspired by the song “Tennessee Stud.” The song was originally written by Jimmy Driftwood, and was inspired by folklore handed down in his wife’s family. You first heard the song in the 1970s. When did you decide that the story was one that you would like to tell through a novel? Did you draw on the old family story in creating your characters?
I decided, after years with the song—learning it at Winfield, Kansas, at the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival in 1974, then singing it with my bluegrass band The Rock Island Line, then using it as a lullaby for both of my children—that it would make a good story. It’s told in first person, and it’s short, the way someone might recount a much longer memory. I’ve switched it to third person, and tell the story in more detail. Of course, it’s my detail, and not Driftwood’s, but I did research the family, and spent time in the Jimmy Driftwood archive at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
You did some traveling to prepare for writing rode. Tell us about your research process. Do you take notes or photos as you travel, or just store the experiences in your mind? How does going to a location in person help you when it’s time to write?
Yes, I take notes, photographs, write in a journal. I read books from the time period, and about the subjects I’m liable to write about in any book. I love geography and the sense of place, and rode had many places, so I tried to visit most of them and get a sense of what that journey from Tennessee, to across the Rio Grande and back, might have been like. I also listened to a lot of versions of the song, to see how others interpreted the story. I have a method in all my books. I can summarize it in this phrase: “Know it cold, write it hot.” In other words, spend a lot of time with research—history, geography, language—and then just write it out of a confident sense of time and place and character.
In addition to writing short fiction and novels, you have penned some wonderful poetry. Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you write every day? Do you draft with pen and paper, or on computer? Does writing poetry differ for you from writing fiction?
I write as often as I can. When I’m in a long work like a novel, I write more frequently to stay in touch with my material. When I’m in the research phase, I don’t write as much. I used to write every day, for a set amount of pages, on the computer. Now, I write whenever I can, in long hand in class when my students are doing a creative writing exercise, or on the computer when I have a spare hour in the morning or afternoon. Writing time is a gift to be opened up and enjoyed whenever and wherever.
Your experience and knowledge as a bagpiper shines through in The Slow Air of Ewan MacPherson. What else do you like to do? Do you have other hobbies that influence or inspire your writing?
All of my books have come from my passions: Kansas, gardening (I’ve just finished a collection “Garden Plots”: 100 poems, short stories, meditations, rants and prose poems about gardens, gardeners, garden design, plants and the human relationship with Nature), cooking and food, New Mexico and the Spanish language, and so on.
Tell us a little about your writing plans for the upcoming year. Are you currently at work on a new novel? Would you be willing to tell us a bit about it, if so?
I’ll have a novel out late next summer. A Carol Dickens Christmas is set in Topeka, Kansas. It is the story of a reference librarian at a small university (could it be Washburn?) and her son. Because Finn Dickens-Dunmore is graduating early from high school, Carol Dickens is determined to give him a last, best Christmas at home. In spite of distractions—Carol by a romantic interest, Finn by a friend in need; both by their dying dog, Scraps—they manage a Christmas balance of traditions and transitions. That novel, and my “Garden Plots,” are the most recent, but I’m just starting to research toward another writing project. More soon on that!
How can readers find out more about you and follow your work?
My website is: http://www.washburn.edu/cas/english/taverill/
And I do frequent talks, readings and other performances in the area. I’m on Facebook both as Tom Averill and as WJBOleander, and I welcome people to join me there. Thanks for taking the time to prepare these questions!
You can check out episode 51 of our library’s HUSH Podcast to hear more about Thomas Fox Averill’s most recent novel, rode. You’ll also hear about the work of Kansas writers Leah Sewell, Israel Wasserstein, Laura Moriarty, Kij Johnson, and Eric McHenry.
Visit your Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library to check out Thomas Fox Averill’s work.