Born: July 22, 1937 – Grundy, Virginia
Fiction writer, essayist, literary critic, editor, screenwriter, teacher, and mentor, Gurney Norman is widely recognized as an authority on the literary and cultural history of Appalachia. Most of his career was spent as director of the University of Kentucky’s Creative Writing Program, fostering student luminaries such as poet Frank X Walker.
Norman was reared in southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky by two sets of grandparents. After his education at the Stuart Robinson Settlement School, Norman graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1959 with degrees in literature and creative writing. At the university, he befriended fellow writers Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan and Bobbie Ann Mason. In 1960, after a year of graduate school, Norman received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford University where he studied with literary critic Malcolm Cowley and Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor.
After two years in the U.S. Army, he returned to eastern Kentucky in 1963 to work as a reporter for the Hazard Herald. Three years later he resigned to concentrate on writing fiction, taking a job with the U.S. Forest Service as a fire lookout in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon in the summers of 1966 and 1967.
In 1971, his novel Divine Right’s Trip was famously published in the lower page margins of The Last Whole Earth Catalog and the next year in book form by the Dial Press and Bantam Books.
In 1977, Norman’s book of short stories, Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories, received Berea College’s Weatherford Award. The Courier–Journal in Louisville praised this collection upon its release: “Like that of his mentors, Norman’s work is novelistic in scope while preserving in the individual episodes the essential qualities of the short story. This new work can only enhance his reputation by suggesting that Norman may be the outstanding storyteller of his generation.”
Norman joined the University of Kentucky’s Department of English faculty in 1979. He served as director of the Creative Writing Program until 2014 when Julia Johnson was appointed to succeed him and establish an MFA Creative Writing degree program. Norman continues as a professor in the English Department and serves as a core faculty member in the MFA program.
In the late 1980s, Norman’s began a collaboration with Kentucky Educational Television to produce three one-hour documentary programs. The documentaries were written and narrated by Norman in association with director John Morgan. Norman also collaborated with filmmaker Andy Garrison, who directed three films based on Norman’s short stories. His short story “Fat Monroe” was made into a film starring Ned Beatty in 1990.
Norman’s other awards include the 2002 East Kentucky Leadership Conference Award, for outstanding contributions to advancing regional arts and culture; and the 2007 Appalachian Studies Association Helen M. Lewis Community Service Award, which recognizes exemplary contributions to Appalachia in service to its people and communities. He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Berea College in 2011.
Norman was named Kentucky Poet Laureate for 2009-2010. He served several years as senior writer-in-residence at Hindman Settlement School’s annual Appalachian Writer’s Workshop.
Divine Right’s Trip: A Folk-Tale, New York: Dial Press, 1972.
Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories, Frankfort, KY: Gnomon Press, 1977.
Book One From Crazy Quilt: A Novel in Progress. Monterey, KY: Larkspur Press, 1990.
Ancient Creek: A Folktale. Lexington, KY: Old Cove Press, 2012.
Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes: Back Talk from an American Region, with Dwight B. Billings and Katherine Ledford. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
An American Vein: Critical Readings in Appalachian Literature, with Danny Miller and Sharon Hatfield. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005.
(Writer and presenter)
Time on the River (1987). A historical look at the important role the Kentucky River played in the settlement of Kentucky. Kentucky Educational Television.
From This Valley (1989). A look at the Big Sandy region of Eastern Kentucky, including its trails, people, history, and literary heritage. Kentucky Educational Television.
Wilderness Road (1991). This film retraces the route of the famous pioneer trail from Kingsport, Tennessee, to Boonesborough, Kentucky. Kentucky Educational Television.