The Outer Banks of North Carolina is famous for its fishing, deep-sea fishing especially, and you can credit that fame to the Great Depression, Ernal Foster especially. A commercial fisherman trying to make ends meet, Foster introduced blue-water sportfishing to the area in 1937, and his son, Ernie, still operates the family's line of charter boats, the Albatross I, II, and III.
In 1984, Tom Carlson, English professor at the University of Memphis, first saw the Albatross fleet. He was vacationing with his own family: wife Mo (then a teacher at the Memphis College of Art), daughter Winnie, and son Dan. But time took its toll on the Outer Banks, the Fosters, and the Carlsons. If it wasn't the hurricane weather, it was developers who threatened tiny Hatteras Village. Death took Ernal Foster, as it did Carlson's wife, who died in 2002 after a lengthy battle with multiple sclerosis. But over the years, Carlson kept returning to Hatteras Village, to fish for marlin and mackerel, to learn from the landscape and the intrepid townspeople, and to remember his own upbringing on the New Jersey shore.
He writes of it, all of it, in Hatteras Blues: A Story from the Edge of America (The University of North Carolina Press), and you don't have to be a sportfisherman to appreciate the book's honesty and insight. During a break from his booksigning tour in North Carolina, Carlson spoke about the writing life and the issue of loss and recovery. And he did so not without humor.
Flyer: After 32 years, you retired from teaching nonfiction writing. And now you're on tour with your own book of nonfiction, Hatteras Blues. How does it feel being the object of public attention?
Tom Carlson: I'm new at this dog-and-pony show, and the Rolling Stones are on tour too. I'm not sure I've done as well. At some of the booksignings in North Carolina, for example, people stood there and read from the book about themselves. But so far, I haven't been chased out of town. One woman, though, did complain that I'd called her house a mobile home. She took offense at that. I don't know why. Where I'm from, if a house has wheels on it, that's a mobile home. I should've called it a modular living unit?
But you're an old hand at feature stories. In fact, you were a founding writer at the Flyer's sister publication, Memphis magazine.
Yes, my first piece for the magazine was on drive-in movies. I went to every one in the city -- suffered through that. I've written about malls, The Orpheum, the days of vaudeville, Elvis.
And how did it go -- writing at book length compared to a magazine piece?
You mean, no word count? No deadline? It was absolutely wonderful. And with Hatteras Blues finished, now I can go back to fishing without taking notes.
As for the writing itself, I practiced what I've preached as a teacher, and once the story took on a life of its own, the question was where to stop. But Hurricane Isabelle in 2003 took care of that. The book starts with a hurricane 75 years earlier. When Isabelle hit the Outer Banks, I took it as a sign to end the book.
Given that you also taught American literature, were there writers that inspired you in Hatteras Blues?
Melville's Moby-Dick throughout. It's my favorite novel. Other influences? Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard and Men's Lives. John McPhee, James Agee, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion. If you've got good writers to go by, you steal from everybody. My work is tremendously influenced by everything I've read and I hope made better by it. But do I miss teaching? I don't. I loved it, and I left when I think I was supposed to. I've since started a new life. And I've got some chapters on a new, autobiographical book. But I'm no celebrity, and I'm not a serial killer. I'm just somebody who came of age in the second half of the 20th century.
After the damage of Hurricane Isabelle, what's the state of the Outer Banks today?
Hatteras Village is practically rebuilt. It's stunning how quickly it happened when you consider half the town was washed away.
Loss and recovery. They're twin topics in so many ways throughout Hatteras Blues.
Changes in the land itself, how things disappear -- loss is very much a part of the ecology of the Outer Banks. It ties into the other strands of the story, which is about more than deep-sea fishing.
The idea for the book began with the Foster family, about the loss of their livelihood to progress. Then it became the story of Hatteras Village -- its impending loss to commercial development. But there were problems. When I started my research, I had to go slow, but once the people of the village accepted me, the challenge was to listen carefully.
The second problem was narrative honesty. I had to ask: Where do I fit in? Should I be an objective, outside observer? Am I even part of this story? Then came a revelation. The book became personal, confessional.
My wife was seriously ill, and I thought I was going to the Outer Banks to escape my own problems. But I wasn't escaping my problems at all. I was learning how to accept them by learning from these people and this town -- the way the Fosters and others have dealt with loss in a graceful and dignified way.
I was afraid my problems didn't have a place in the book. But I'm told they do have a place, even if I don't know if I got it right. Maybe I have.