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Photo of Bobbie Ann MasonBobbie Ann Mason: Zigzagging Her Way Back to UK

by Jeff Worley

Bobbie Ann Mason, who last July became the first writer-in-residence in the College of Arts and Sciences at UK, is proof that you can go home again—and thrive. "I am delighted to return to UK," says Mason, who accepted a five-year, non-tenured position. "I have felt a special connection with the university ever since my undergraduate days here."

She graduated from UK in 1962 with a B.A. in English, then went to New York, where she worked with several magazines. Mason received a master's degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1966 and a doctorate in English from the University of Connecticut in 1972.

"I've lived near Lexington now for 11 years and have been on campus many times, but the day I officially became writer-in-residence I walked across campus, re-playing in my head my student days. It was as though I had come full circle, and the new position jarred loose the old memories. Walking from Holmes Hall to the journalism building, I felt, in a way, like the student again," Mason says.

Mason credits her freshman English teacher at UK, Sheldon Grebstein, with getting her hooked on literature. "Until I took his class, I hadn't been introduced to literature, other than the standard high-school fare, which had not caught hold in my imagination," she recalls. "But Professor Grebstein had us read For Whom the Bell Tolls, Of Mice and Men, and The Catcher in the Rye. Imagine! I'd never heard of these books before." Another professor at UK who impressed her was Robert Hazel, who taught creative writing. "I had two courses from him, which sent me on the road to being a writer. He was a living, breathing writer right there in front of the class! That was terrific stimulation."

Mason says that in her new position she hopes to provide exactly that kind of stimulation to students at UK. "I don't have an agenda for my time here, but I hope I can help some students get as excited about language and writing and literature as I got when I was a student. I want to do what I can to promote the love of reading and writing."

By the time she was in her late thirties, Mason started to write short fiction. In 1980 The New Yorker published her first story. "It took me a long time to discover my material," she says. "It wasn't a matter of developing writing skills; it was a matter of knowing how to see things." Mason's primary subject through the years has been the working-class people of western Kentucky where she grew up, and she continues to explore this group in her most recent book, Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail. "All of these stories, to me, are about people busting out of something," Mason says. "A lot of times they're coming home, coming full circle in a kind of a zigzaggy way."

Her first book of fiction, Shiloh and Other Stories, published in 1982, won the Ernest Hemingway Award. Her 1993 novel Feather Crowns won the Southern Book Award, and her 1999 memoir, Clear Springs, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

"When I told my mother on the telephone that this book had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize," Mason says, "she didn't understand what I was saying. She was hard of hearing and had never heard of the Pulitzer. So I repeated it, loud: PULITZER PRIZE! And she said, 'Tulip Surprise?' That was so great. I laughed for days."

Mason spends a fair amount of time on the road, she says, doing readings and book signings. In talking with people, there is one question that pops up over and over: Why are there so many well-known, award-winning writers in Kentucky?

"I have long thought that back in the '50s when the cluster of Kentucky writers began to emerge, there was a unique environment in Kentucky that produced the necessity and the opportunity for creative work," she says. "Factors include repression in the South, the stultifying '50s, poverty, poor education in the rural areas—all of these contributed to a wealth of serious material and a backlog of creative energy. When it got the opportunity, this pent-up energy was ready to explode; writers, when they discovered they could be writers, were ready to soar." This cluster of writers included—and still includes—Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, and James Baker Hall. (Norman and Hall are associate professors of English at UK.) These writers are all former UK students and have been friends since the 1950s.

Hall, whose new book of photographs titled A Spring-Fed Pond includes several of Mason, is obviously pleased that his old friend has returned to UK. "Bobbie Ann is an international figure, and this association with her raises our prestige. It's a thrill to have her here."