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Stories grow like kudzu from pen of teacher and author

May 6, 2010
By cnp
Posted in Philosophy

Sort of like Thomas Wolfe on acid, or James Joyce on moonshine, Bill Eakin takes the words, the rhythms, the heat, the mud, the cicadas and the kudzu of the south and turns them into stories that touch your heart while messing with your brain stem and possibly tampering with your DNA. A truly original and unique voice…. -- Shawna McCarthy, editor of "Realms of Fantasy"

Dr. Bill Eakin, author of "Redgunk Tales."

Dr. William R. Eakin, Ozarks’ Professor of Philosophy & German, has released a compliation of stories, "Redgunk Tales, Tales from the Kudzu."

One of the most difficult tasks in writing is to capture a real sense of place – a sense of the personality of its landscape, against which its people are actors, and yet it too is an actor, a participant in their lives and in the mind of the reader.

Redgunk, Mississippi, is such a place, and in the tales of Redgunk penned by author Dr. William R. Eakin, the character of Redgunk itself rises up to fill the page as much as does Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or John Kennedy Toole’s New Orleans in A Confederacy of Dunces.

What is Redgunk? "Redgunk Miss has a population somewhere between 200 and 400 people, depending on which story you read," says Dr. Eakin, quoting from the introduction to the 2001 collection Redgunk Tales: Apocalypse and Kudzu from Redgunk, Mississippi, "including a yellow dog with black smelly lips, and a mummy. The mummy is real, even if he’s just a mannequin from Macy’s in New York dressed up in knee bandages. He makes a nice metaphor for the kind of claim most folks in Redgunk have to reality, maybe most folks generally, and you can still go see him for 50 cents at Uncle Joe’s Corner Liquor Store and Gas, in the Museum of Science and Egyptology – it is a place of swamp gas, illusion, slimy frogs and bumpy toads singing to the stars, and of people who, like the frogs, attain, even in the midst of their most vulgar sounds, something like the solemn ringing, the joyous, melancholy singing of the holy."

Redgunk serves as the vivid backdrop for well over 100 stories written by Dr. Eakin and published broadly in magazines including Realms of Fantasy, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Epiphany: A Journal of Literature, Amazing Stories, Science Fiction Age, New Writings in the Fantastic #2, Holy Horrors, Albedo One, Black October Magazine, SciFiction, the Year’s Best Fantasy, Age of Wonder, and others.

These stories are now being collected in a multi-volume set, the first volume of which – Tales From the Kudzu – just went on sale. The volumes will be arranged thematically, Eakin says. "The first volume is fantasy stories. The second, Bloody Redgunk, will be horror, and the third, UFOs Over Redgunk, will collect the science fiction stories. There will be several more volumes after that – The Witches of Redgunk, for example."

“Writing is like kudzu…the last thing you want to do is try to control it. Just let it grow.The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction – which is one of the biggest such magazines in the field – and Realms of Fantasy.

"All the stories take these tropes of horror or fantasy or science fiction and then make something else out of them," said Dr. Eakin. "One of the critics said the stories were like, you step into the National Enquirer but you find the Bhagavad-Gita. And if you can do that, that’s when the story works."

The move to Clarksville several years ago provided Dr. Eakin with plenty of inspiration for the Redgunk stories, which mix a Southern Gothic backdrop and cast of characters with a wide selection of familiar tropes of science fiction, horror, and fantasy – UFOs, unicorns, mummies, 50-ft. women, and so on. "I moved into a trailer out here in the country, and I saw both the superficial, silly things, and also the human being things. I had all these experiences with the people here, and some of them may have funny names, but they’re all wonderful people."

This blend of sub-cultures is part of what gives Dr. Eakin’s fiction its unique twang; while none of the farmers or preachers or maiden aunts or good ol’ boys in his stories are based on actual people, Eakin’s characters are very much like real people, and his actual experiences with those people come through clearly. “I volunteered as a bell ringer at a local church for awhile,” he said. “And in one of my stories I write about a bell ringer. He isn’t based on the guy I worked with at the church, but having had that experience creates a feeling of genuineness in the story, I hope.”

Throw in mummies, UFOs, mermaids, unicorns, and immense amounts of kudzu, and you’ve got the strange, scientifictional world of Blake County and its strangest town, Redgunk.

Dr. William Eakin talked with Don Lee about his new book, and offers this advice for aspiring writers.

"I go to a lot of science fiction and fantasy gatherings," Eakin says, "but I don’t read a whole lot of it anymore. I read Virgil, and Herman Melville, and Victor Hugo. I love those things and I think it’s just fun to listen to the way they talk as narrators in the story. Inevitably at science fiction gatherings you end up on a panel talking about what your favorite science fiction books are, and then I have to go back to Virgil’s Aeneid, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, maybe. Or Goethe. Where I was impacted by the science fiction genre was as a young kid when I read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ray Bradbury."

What is Dr. Eakin’s biggest difficulty in writing? "Finding the time. If I have two or three days, that’s two or three stories. Not that all stories get published. One thing I keep in this scrapbook I’ve made, right next to the first magazine that inspired me, right next to it, is my first rejection slip. And I’ve got a lot of them. But if someone doesn’t want a story, you just send it to someone else. And sometimes, the story that gathers the most rejection slips will turn out to be the best story, in the end. My biggest sale was a story that I sent probably 40 places, including a lot of ‘pooky’ ones, and it was my best paid story."

He says he doesn’t know where stories come from. "But I get the feeling when Homer and Virgil and Dante invoke the Muse, there really is something like the Muse in us. Maybe it’s just part of our psychology. The Greeks had this notion of the daimonia, which can be translated as ‘demon’ or ‘angel,’ and Socrates said he had a daimonia in him, a little small voice, and it seems to me that that daimonia is a powerful thing, so powerful that it almost seems divine. I mean, maybe it’s not – maybe it’s just what we can do when we sparkle. If you let that go, that’s what speaks. It seems to me that that’s what Homer does when he says, ‘Talk to me. Talk through me.’ He’s a vessel for it. I’ve known a lot of really good writers who just don’t block the voice. The daimonia, by the way, gets translated in the Latin into genius, which ties to the djinn [in Islamic mythology]; maybe it’s just creativity. Maybe that’s what people need. I think that’s the source."

(To order Tales From the Kudzu, published by Sam’s Dot Publishing, go to Scroll down the page to find Dr. Eakin’s books.)