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Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph RanchA Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
3.26.2017 Master prose stylist Carolyn Osborn on journalism, creative writings, and the durations of a long life in letters
Photo at top right by Joe O'Connell; used by permission
In 1951, when Carolyn Osborn enrolled at the University of Texas, she said, “Women generally weren’t encouraged to major in anything much but secondary education and home economics.” An aunt who had been a reporter during World War II gave her the inspiration to try something different—journalism. Now, more than sixty-five years later, Osborn still practices the craft of writing. Her latest book, a memoir titled Durations, will be published by Wings Press in October.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Thank you for taking part in our Lone Star Listens interviews, Carolyn. Our readers enjoy getting to know Texas authors and their insights, and we thank you for being a part of this. Let’s start with a little background. You were raised in Nashville until you were twelve, and then your family moved to Texas. What brought them to the Lone Star State?
My brother and I came to Texas as the result of my father’s divorce in 1946 from my mother, who was incurably mentally ill. This October, Bryce Milligan, head of Wings Press, will publish my memoir called Durations, which covers the World War II years and some years after when we settled in Gatesville, Texas with my wonderful stepmother.
You earned an undergraduate degree from UT in Austin in 1955 and a master’s in 1959. What was Austin like and UT like in the late fifties, particularly for a woman?
In 1951 I came to Austin to the University of Texas to major in journalism. In that time women generally weren’t encouraged to major in anything much but secondary education and home economics, but one of the aunts I had lived with in Nashville during the war had been a journalist, which was far more interesting. I worked on the Daily Texan and served a summer internship on the Marshall News Messenger. There was no prejudice against women reporters at UT or in Marshall. Generally women were assigned to a daily newspaper’s division called Society—absent in the Texan—but you could avoid it by proving you could write about something other than weddings and parties.
Austin then was a provincial capitol of around 150,000 people. I was more curious about the foreign students at the university than I was in the activities of the Texas legislature. I married a law student, Joe Osborn, in 1955 and went with him to fulfill his army duty, first in Augusta, Georgia, where I worked on the combined Augusta Chronicle and Herald as a feature writer, though I began in Society. The army sent us to El Paso. Happily, Joe found a battalion going to Germany and joined it, and we spent fourteen months touring Europe whenever possible for him to get leave.
You started your career as a journalist and then made the switch to creative writing. When and how did that come about?
By the time we returned to UT, I realized I wanted to try other forms of writing. As a feature writer in Augusta, I had been given the freedom to write about almost anything, but I’d discovered that peoples’ pasts, their interior lives, their loves and hates, their secrets, their hopes, the injustices they suffered, were the vital parts of their personalities. I knew I could write. But how was one to write about things which weren’t discussed in family newspapers? I’d always been a reader; my training in newspaper writing led to the short story, which led to getting an M.A. in creative writing in 1959, the year after my husband finished his law degree. Then, as now, he encouraged my writing.
What was your first break as an creative writer, and how did it come about?
My first break in short-story writing was winning UT’s English Department's prize story, printed in a little departmental magazine called Corral. Fame and fortune didn’t follow immediately, nor had I expected it to. I was later asked to teach part-time in the English Department. Freshman English, the job of all assistants, was my first assignment; however, I soon moved to teaching the modern short story, not how to write it, but how to understand it. Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, Hemingway, Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and anyone I wanted to add—all became my mentors. Teaching deepened my strength in writing my own short stories. In 1959 our first child, a son, was born, followed by daughters in 1961 and 1964. I quit teaching in 1962 and didn’t resume until 1968.
Fortunately we could afford household help, especially in the morning hours when I needed to write. I also used Austin's public library, now the History Center, a spare room in a friend’s apartment, and shared a studio with a painter friend who worked in the mornings and let me use it in the nights. In 1971, after I quit teaching again, I moved to a small Victorian house where I was invited to rent an office. Two painters, an architectural historian, and a pair of book designers had offices there also. It was an excellent mixture of people. I stayed for twenty-five years until moving to a newly built solitary office over our garage.
You spent decades — literally — producing finely crafted stories before your debut novel, Uncertain Ground, came out in 2010. What attracted you to short stories, and why did you finally decide to tackle the longer form?
I cannot say exactly when I began working on my first novel, Uncertain Ground. I’d already had three collections of short stories published before I finished rewriting the novel. [It was] based partially on time I’d spent in Galveston visiting a step-aunt and uncle before I married; I was fascinated with the island and its history. The main characters used, a twenty-year-old woman, her cowboy cousin, a young gay man, were all literally, like the city, on uncertain ground. They hadn’t yet found complete adulthood, though they were on their way. I hadn’t fully articulated this before the novel was written. It was a complex of ideas that happened during the writing and rewriting, something which often, in the process of creating short stories, also happened. I seldom know how a story, whether it’s a short story or a novel, is going to end. In writing I find out. The work of the unconscious mind leads to consciousness; however, in this sort of work, it all must somehow fit. I’m not talking just about plot, but about the true needs and desires of characters unstated outright, though seen in action.
How has publishing changed since you started?
Publishing, of course, changed since I started writing. I’d never heard of computers or e-books, where I’m happy now to have my work appear. I still write my first drafts by hand. There’s something I can’t define, which happens between hand and eye and story.
I understand that you were one of the founders of the Texas Book Festival. How did that come about?
Book festivals, to my knowledge, hadn’t occurred in Texas. I learned about one when invited to read at the Southern Book Festival held in Nashville in 1991.There the state capitol loomed over underground offices, just as the Texas capitol does. And the capitol’s Senate room was also used for the readings by the best known writers. I returned to Texas with the idea of having a book festival using our capitol. But I knew I hadn’t the time to push that to reality while continuing to write. I talked to Mary Margaret Farabee, a great organizer and fund raiser with contacts all over Austin, about the idea. One of our first blocks was the capitol was being renovated.
Together, through the years, we continued working on the possibility. Meanwhile, someone with an altogether different plan to conduct a festival had approached Laura Bush. Eventually, however, she contacted Mary Margaret to ask for other concepts. Taking the opportunity, Mary Margaret told her about the Southern Book Festival. The turning point was an invitation to John Egerton, a leading figure in the Southern Book Festival, to talk to us about how well the Tennessee program worked. He came to our house to address the different factions, and as we’d hoped, united them all. Having previously been asked to be the honorary chair, Laura, as a former librarian, was delighted. And she was not merely a figurehead. She was an active helper, one who used the governor’s mansion for meetings. In 1996 the Texas Book Festival opened in the newly renovated Texas Capitol and all its new underground hearing rooms, including a large auditorium. We used the House and Senate rooms as well. I continued to work, especially with the booksellers, for three more years before leaving the festival in Mary Margaret’s capable hands. Now I go every year to read whenever I have a new book published and to hear other writers.
What is your creative process like? Do you continue to write every day?
I try to write every weekday morning until I get so hungry for lunch I have to leave the office. Sometimes those hours are particularly unfruitful. However, it’s such a habit I’m discontent unless I’m trying. I don’t work on the weekends.
What’s next for Carolyn Osborn?
Over the years, I’ve had about sixty short stories published in literary magazines, which I believe are helping keep the short story alive. Many of my stories reappeared in four collections and in a number of anthologies. My second novel, Contrary People, grew out of a short story. Its characters kept intriguing me. Lately I’ve begun to write essays. Seven of those will be included in the new book, Durations, along with the memoir. Historically the short story grew out of the essay, so I’ve gone about this backward. No matter what came first, I don’t find any of the literary forms easy. When I began writing, I read the Paris Review’s interviews called Writers at Work, where all the people whose work I respected said they had large difficulties at first. Knowing this was a consolation. The greatest pleasure I have now, as I’ve had for many years, is the freedom to create as I please.
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Praise for Carolyn Osborn’s CONTRARY PEOPLE
“Osborn creates mature characters with depth in what is, finally, a literary romance that will appeal to readers who profess not to read romances.” —Booklist
“A novel of lyrical stateliness from a master storyteller. Her subject this time is no less than that last great human lesson which we all must learn: how to face death while, as her engaging hero, Theo Isaac discovers, still embracing life.” —Sarah Bird, author of The Gap Year
“Carolyn Osborn casts a sympathetic but enlightened eye on old and young lovers burdened with memories of those they have lost. Loneliness and longing are made sharper by the life experiences of the older pair while the fate of the two younger lovers is a variation of their elders’ passions. Told with skill and deliberation, Contrary People is not sad or gloomy but filled with good memories, happy days, and the joy and pain that belong to all of us.” —Robert Flynn, author of Jade: The Law
“As ever, Carolyn Osborn is spot on when it comes to giving us characters we can believe in, agonize over, and even invite to dance. This is an all-at-one-sitting read that goes deep and when it comes up for air leaves stacks of hard-won wisdom behind. Brava!” —Rosemary Catacalos, author of Again for the First Time