The Chatham Arts Council is investing in artists through our Meet This Artist series, introducing you to 12 Chatham County artists each year in a big way.
The fine folks at Hobbs Architects in downtown Pittsboro are powering our Meet This Artist series this year. Architecture is art, and the Hobbs crew values art in our community.
Take a look. Meet your very inspiring neighbors. Meet This Artist.
Marjorie Hudson’s life in the arts is as storied and winding as her written work, which ranges from poetry, literary reviews, short stories, to long form fiction. The child of an activist and a lobbyist, Marjorie’s life and work is inspired by nature and current events, and she finds herself troubled when her writing about such topics turns out to be prescient. Marjorie has lived in Chatham County for over 30 years, and she has contributed to the community not only as a published author and speaker but also as a teacher.
The Chatham Arts Council sat down with Marjorie recently to learn about the evolution of her career, which she shared with us so openly. We invite you to learn more about this fantastic writer.
Let’s start with your background. Do you come from a family of artists?
I grew up in Washington, D.C., where my dad was a lobbyist for the left on Capitol Hill, working for civil rights and peace. He was also quite a community organizer; he put together a lot of organizations that were for good causes. My mother was an early feminist and a powerhouse social worker. She also played piano quite brilliantly. She’s now 98 and still active with the League of Women Voters and still performs piano.
Were you a writer in high school?
In high school I was actually an installation artist, which is obviously a career I did not pursue. I remember making a huge papier mache hamburger out of a truck tire, with a realistic pickle made out of plywood. I had it installed in the high school cafeteria for people to meditate on as they went to get their junk food or lunches. I also made a participatory installation out of a big metal trash can and some hemp ropes from which hung different kinds of cans. The lid hung from the ceiling and the cans hung from the bottom of the ropes with the garbage can at the bottom. Everybody got Bic lighters and tried to set the hemp ropes on fire that were holding the cans up. Then the cans would fall into the trash can with a bang.
How did you segue from installation art into writing?
I figured out pretty quickly that I couldn’t make any money as a visual artist, and I think that played into my decision to let that go. I’d always been a good writer, so after college my mother tricked me into taking a postgraduate training course in editing, design, and publication. I got freelance jobs through my teachers. I ended up with my dream job, which was with the National Parks Magazine as their features editor. I loved my job, but I never got to go outside. It was just a little too ironic for me.
How did you end up in North Carolina?
Around the time when I was working for the magazine, I came to North Carolina to visit a friend, Debbie Wechsler, a few counties over. She was an organic farmer and an activist for organic farmers. She was looking for a new farm to rent, and I was just looking to get a tan out in the country. It had been raining for days, but we still went out to see one of the farms she was interested in renting in Chatham County. When we got there, the sun came out, and a rainbow formed over the farm house. Right after that, I quit my job and moved here. That moment on the farm inspired the first story in my story collection, Accidental Birds of the Carolinas. When people ask, ‘What is your muse?’ I tell them it’s Chatham County. Chatham County is my muse.
How important do you think community is for writers?
It’s absolutely essential. When I moved here in 1984, I did not know that North Carolina had a huge writers’ community. We were all hiding out in the woods. It was around the time the North Carolina Writers Network got started. I didn’t connect with that group until a few years later, when Marsha Warren became a mentor. She got me connected with some other writers.
We can write alone, for years, months, days, but at some point you have to bring it out and share it and see how it’s heard. I tell my students that you have to have somebody to celebrate with, because celebrating alone is really no fun at all. There’s a terrific roller coaster that goes along with writing. You have to have people that you can face your foibles with, people who can point out what’s working and what’s not working.
What’s your writing process like?
When I’m writing, I need to set myself apart from the world. I usually do a meditation beforehand if I need an attitude adjustment, and because I have so many ongoing projects, I just kind of pick up where I left off. I’ll read, go back, and make these long lists in spiral notebooks. Sometimes they’re compulsively neat depending on my state of mind. They turn into these strange schizoid scrawls. But I know what I need to do, and I’ll come back to it unless something’s easy to fix.
I also have a practice of going on a writing retreat every year, which I started doing back in the early nineties. It helps me to spend concentrated time kind of holed up. I also do yoga to keep my back from going out.
How do you think literature brings community together?
Storytelling brings people together. There’s absolutely a bond when people write together. I was talking to my classes yesterday, and I said, ‘You know, we come here because we’re facing difficulty as writers, but we also get to encounter delight.’ And there is delight in that, that connection between people when we write from a deep place. We may have a terrific sentence or phrase that everyone connects to, and all of a sudden there’s a raucous laughter or people are very moved. This depth of connection through storytelling is the glue that holds us together.
Who inspires you? I’m going to guess Barbara Kingsolver.
Yes! That’s a good guess. I once wrote a 10-page letter to her about how she should have won a Pulitzer. Rick Bass also inspires me. I got to read a story from my collection that was inspired by one of his stories, and he was in the audience. He’s an activist helping to protect the Yaak Valley, the last American wilderness outside of Alaska. It’s where a lot of his work is set. I’m inspired by so many writers, I can’t list them all, but here are a few more: Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, C.S. Lewis, Pat Riviere-Seel.
What’s your favorite type of writing? Poetry? Short stories?
I write everything. My main thing is fiction right now, but I also write poetry. I sometimes get asked to write essays. If it’s something I’m interested in, I’ll write it. I have a review in the new North Carolina Literary Review on A Delicious Country, by Scott Huler, one of our best essayists and writers on science, history, and nature. In this case, I decided to set aside my own work in order to focus on something that I thought would make a difference for his work. I’m so excited about it. I can’t wait for him to see it.
Sometimes I’ll say to a student, ‘You need to publish something. Why don’t you talk to so-and-so about this and that. I think she would like it.’ It’s fun when it bears fruit, and that fruit is in this issue. I’m proud to say that five of my students or associates are in the new edition of the North Carolina Literary Review.
Tell me about how your kitchen table workshops began.
Fun story. People would often come up to me and ask me to teach in Chatham County. At the time, I was traveling around, teaching at colleges, and speaking at conferences. So I would say, ‘Oh no, I can’t do that. I already have a job.’ But then the job I had lost its funding, and I had just signed a contract for some renovation work on my house. And then (CUT) I had this classic Chatham County moment. I went to my yoga class, and I said, ‘I’m just going to ask: does anybody want to take a class with me?’ My friend Al Capehart, a very distinguished fellow I knew from church, stood up and said, ‘Well yes, Marjorie, I believe I would like to take your class. I’m writing a book about my life as a professional Santa.’ So he came to my class and I helped him write his book.
How have the classes evolved over the years?
For awhile I had three classes going: one at the Incubator in Siler City, one in the back of the General Store Cafe when it was at the circle in Pittsboro, and one at McIntyre’s Books. Back then, it was mostly just an invitation to write, but it has evolved into two classes, both in downtown Pittsboro. My students come from all over the area, including one from Winston-Salem. One of the classes is pretty much post-MFA level study. People often tell me that they’re getting what they never got in their MFA program.
The second class is not quite as intense and not quite as much work. People get one coaching and manuscript session and there’s a lot of generation of new writing. They’re both terrific fun. People are publishing and winning awards. I’ve been doing it now for 12 years as a full-time job.
What do you tell young writers when they’re starting out?
I don’t get the question very much because I generally work with older writers who have been around the block a few times. What I would tell them is this: READ. Read things that are long. Play with the short form like “lipstick fictions” where the name of a lipstick color needs to be in the title. Play with the new forms, like the flashes. Read things that really move you. Once you find a writer who moves you, read everything that writer has written. I also tell writers to write to a writer they admire.
Tell me about winning the PEN/Hemingway award.
One of the great thrills and excitements of my writing life was getting an honorable mention for the PEN/Hemingway award. Accidental Birds of the Carolinas was sent by my publisher for 12 awards. They were mostly small awards except for the PEN/Hemingway. It was the only one that answered at all. It’s truly a crap shoot. And lucky, lucky, lucky me. It was really fun–I got to meet Ernest Hemingway’s grandson and his son Patrick, who is his last remaining son.
What’s next for you? Any big projects on the horizon?
Great timing. I just finished my novel that I’ve been working on for more than 20 years. I’m excited! I feel like I nailed it. I don’t mind telling you that. I’m very, very happy about it. The book is about an elderly African American / Tuscarora woman who reluctantly takes in the son of the white man who killed her beloved niece.
Has the manuscript evolved over the 20 years?
That’s a really good question. Some of the content is about climate change and race relations. What I found is that the things that I wrote about started to come true and it just freaked me out, and continues to freak me out. I worry sometimes–maybe I should bury it in the backyard next to all my animal graves because it has powers? It’s a weird feeling. There are people who can see what’s coming, and I regret that I maybe one of them. I try not to think about it too much.
From the artist:
- Birthplace: A small town in the Midwest
A favorite childhood memory: My dad dug us a snow fort and the walls were taller than I was.
- As a kid, my dream job would be: inventing upside down houses that had rivers running through them.
- Three words that describe my work: humane, joyful, difficult
- A happy moment: The day I released the galleys of my first book. My job had been proofing galleys of other people’s books, so it was a kind of graduation day.
- I am inspired by: trees, birds, people and their secret lives.
- When I am not writing, you’ll probably find me: reading, walking the dog, teaching, meeting writers in cafes.
- Most people don’t know I: still keep my motorcycle license in my wallet in case somebody comes along to loan me a Ducati for a few hours (yes it has happened).
- My friends say I am: kind.
- The last book I read was: The Shaman of Turtle Valley by Cliff Garstang
- Three Chatham County places I frequent are: Bynum Bridge, Rosemary House (where I teach), Blue Dot
- Three Chatham County artists I admire are: Michele Tracy Berger (writer), Sally Sutton (painter; two of her paintings are on my walls, one is a book cover), Emma Skurnick (painter; she also provided a book cover)
For more information about Marjorie and her work, please visit her website, www.marjoriehudson.com.