November 16, 2001

'Oprah' Author, Cornell Professor Pens Latest Novel

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Nestled within the heart of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, This Rock is more than just a contemporary Cain and Abel story. Although powerful in its religious intensity, the latest novel by Prof. Robert Morgan, English, is its own story about fierce love and jealousy, artistic creation and fading family traditions.

The text of This Rock (Algonquin $24.95) is both poetic and colloquial. A sequel to The Truest Pleasure (1995) the new novel leads Ginny Powell into widowhood and her sons, Moody and Muir, into bitter sibling rivalry.

Muir, the younger brother, is shy and has ambitions he does not know how to achieve. Moody, on the other hand, is wild, bitter about his father’s death and jealous of Muir’s privileged status in the family. He takes up moonshine and gambling and turns his anger on Muir.

Morgan admits the two brothers have a likeness to Cain and Abel, but he said he didn’t write the novel with the Bible story in mind.

The novel’s setting is drawn from Morgan’s childhood memories of the North Carolina mountain country.

Raised in a family of great story tellers with ties to the Civil War and a history of bootlegging, he writes with the authority of a literary historian, and the 1920s setting of This Rock feels natural.

“I grew up on a farm where we plowed with horses and kept our milk and butter in the springhouse,” he said, with “one foot in the 19th century.”

Morgan’s early exposure to Christian fundamentalism is also reflected through his characters, who are defined by their religious beliefs.

The title recalls the verse from Matthew: “Upon this rock I will build my church.” It refers to Muir, who searches his soul and realizes his life’s purpose is to build a stone chapel on top of a mountain, using rocks from a riverbed.

Although Morgan did not set out to write about religion, he said it was necessary to do justice to the Appalachian Mountain world.

“I cannot write about the mountain community without putting religion and family at the center of it,” he said. “It’s like the recovery of a lost world.”

And Morgan and his characters are the disadvantaged outsiders of this lost world. This Rock, like his previous award-winning novel Gap Creek , is full of the gloomy disasters and struggles he faced growing up.

“I’m drawn to stories of sickness, gaunt mountaineers, the dead and misery and mournfulness,” he said.

Morgan did not always hold lofty notions of being a fiction writer.

He enrolled at Emory University when he was 16-years-old to become a rocket scientist.

But all it took was one creative writing course to get him sidetracked.

“I knew then and there I had to be a writer,” he said. “It wasn’t ever really a choice for me.”

The going wasn’t always easy, he said, recalling how he spent his early years free lance writing and working part time as a mason, house painter, gym worker and salesperson. He valued these early jobs as “material” for writing, he said.

“No experience is wasted on the writer,” he added.

Morgan’s career at Cornell started in 1971 when he gave a reading at the University and was offered a job.

He said he feels at home amid the Ithaca landscape, which has a natural “affinity” to North Carolina’s mountains.

By the early 1980s, after publishing seven volumes of poetry, Morgan returned to the fiction writing he had begun as an undergraduate.

The shift was intuitive, he said, because he wanted to experiment with voices other than his own.

When his first collection of stories, The Blue Valleys (1989), received more reviews in the first two weeks than all his poetry books combined ever did, he knew he was on his way.

Despite his long list of publications, Morgan insists he’s not as prolific as he seems.

He hammered out the first draft of This Rock more than 20 years ago.

Dissatisfied with the draft, he put the novel aside and came back to it when he traveled cross-country on book tours for Gap Creek, which made Oprah’s Book Club in 2000.

If Morgan had been younger, Oprah’s selection, which has brought him into considerable money, may have turned his head and brought more changes in his lifestyle.

But the 57-year-old semi-retired English professor feels comfortable with his routine of writing in the morning and teaching creative writing in the afternoon.

The ending of This Rock, where Muir gives a speech for his brother’s funeral, is his own allegory for becoming a writer, he said.

“I would make it the best I could with what I knowed in the time I had,” Muir says in the novel.

“Ultimately, you just say it as simple and direct and from the heart as you can,” Morgan added. “Sometimes the writers who are the most successful are the most hardworking, not the most talented.”

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts