The Importance of Place: Dinner with Lee Maynard

By: Blue Mesa Review on Thursday, November 1st, 2012

Jill Dehnert is a first year fiction writer in the MFA program at the University of New Mexico and serves as the Blog Intern for Blue Mesa Review.

The stories that I find myself drawn to lately are those set in a raw place, a place I’ve never been and never even imagined, a place so far removed from the overly saturated literary interpretation of New York City, where the grit of the city is trying to pass for the grit of what? Gentrified, upper-middle class life? Perhaps I am not alone in my longing for something new and maybe this is part of the reason for the recent resurgence of CRUM, a novel written by Lee Maynard in 1988. In fact, Maynard was recently interviewed on Fresh Air.

What is it about CRUM that so interests our contemporary literary tastes? Is it, perhaps, the rawness of it, the naughtiness? Or the fact that many of us could never imagine growing up in a place so poor, so desperate, so ignored? How could a place like Crum, West Virginia exist in the United States of America? It is fascinating. Like not being able to turn your eyes from a particularly brutal car crash.

But for Lee Maynard, it was his childhood. A few staff members from Blue Mesa Review had the pleasure of having dinner with Mr. Maynard, who would no doubt hate being called Mr. Maynard, so let’s just call him Lee. We are lucky that Lee lives near Albuquerque, where he runs The Storehouse and writes. Our community is lucky to have him, despite the fact that his writing is all West Virginia.

Throughout dinner, Lee continuously mentioned how he can’t teach creative writing. This was interesting, because all of his comments regarding writing were dripping with wisdom. And the one thing he kept coming back to was this idea of place. “When have you ever read a story, a good story, that didn’t take place somewhere?” Not only is that true, but it seems that the American audience is ready to read about new places. About places that aren’t urban centers of greed or Midwestern dysfunction. But other places in this country that birth, shape and mold Americans.

Crum is a town with no infrastructure, no classes other than poor, and no races other than white. The homogeneity of it is interesting enough, but it’s also simply a damn fine story too. And it is interesting that Lee ended up living much of his writing life in the Southwest. A place, that also, could seem to be forgotten about in the spectrum of what makes America American. This is precisely what we are interested in at BMR. We are a Southwest publication, and though Lee probably wouldn’t be considered a Southwest writer, we could say that he has experienced many of the same trials that disenfranchised regional writers often experience: his books have been banned, he’s had enormous backlash against his work from the community he is writing about, and while the book is brilliant, it hasn’t experienced commercial success.

All of these things made talking with Lee over dinner an absolute pleasure, and despite his claims of not being a good writing teacher we all learned a lot. Something that we all know, but perhaps don’t think about because it would be too depressing, is that writing isn’t done for profit, it is done because you have something to say, and Lee certainly has something to say. He also talked about the importance of experience – something he referenced by telling us about two motorcycle trips he took from Santa Fe to the Arctic Circle.

He is a fascinating person and generous with his stories. And while the deep lines in his face felt more weathered than aged, his words commanded the attention of old wisdom. When asked what he valued most in reading literature Lee said, “I don’t want you to preach to me, I don’t want you to educate me, I just want you to tell me a story. And it better be a damn good one.”

The CRUM trilogy is being rereleased by the University of West Virginia Press.
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