“In writing about ordinary people, you’ll find the extraordinary.”
So says Rheta Grimsley Johnson, a syndicated columnist whose work has been running in the Knoxville News Sentinel for 27 years. Her column is in about 50 other papers as well.
Johnson was in town last week speaking at the Friends of Literacy Writers Hall of Fame at the Crowne Plaza downtown.
She said she is proud of her longevity with the News Sentinel and that she “gets some of the most wonderful letters from here – and some of the angriest whenever I delve into politics!”
After her speech, Johnson stuck around to sign copies of her newest book, “Poor Man’s Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana.”
The purpose of the evening, in addition to fundraising, was to induct five people into the Hall of Fame. They were David Madden, who won the award for fiction; R.B. Morris, who won for poetry; Sam Venable, who won for non-fiction; Richard Marius, who won the Lifetime Achievement Award; and Rhonda Cowden, who won the student award.
Here are highlights:
- Johnson said that during a stint in the Counce, TN, bureau of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, she often went to the haunts of “ordinary people” to get inspiration for her writings. It might be a diner, a gas station or a honky-tonk. In the honky tonks, she would always look at the titles on the juke boxes. Her favorite: “If You Don’t Leave Me Alone, I’ll Find Somebody Who Will.”
- She said she often is asked questions about being a so-called “Southern writer. ” One of her favorite comments on the subject came from author Flannery O’Connor who once was asked, “Why do you Southern authors always write about weirdos?” O’Connor’s answer: “Because down here we can still recognize them.”
- In a video-taped acceptance speech, novelist and scholar David Madden said, “My love of Knoxville has been a significant part of my life. Since my childhood, East Tennessee has fascinated me more than the exotic places I have lived and visited. Much of my writing is set in Knoxville and even if the novel is set in other places, the spirit of Knoxville is there.”
- Madden said that although he is considered a “Southern writer,” he considers himself a “mountain writer.” He plans to move this month to Black Mountain, North Carolina, to be near his son and granddaughter.
- R.B. Morris has been called “Knoxville’s modern day poet laureate” by Metro Pulse. He also is inspired by the city. “Knoxville’s literary history and musical history are as rich as any city’s,” he said. “Knoxville’s tradition of writing is a cutting-edge intense tradition that inspires people and moves them.”
- “Language is such a living thing, always changing,” Morris said. “It lives on the page, but it lives in the air as well.”
- Storyteller Sam Venable has been with the News Sentinel almost 40 years. He’s been a columnist since 1985 and prior to that was the paper’s outdoors writer for 15 years. “When all three of my friends found out about this award, they called me incredulous and asked me how the biggest BSer in Knoxville won an award for non-fiction!” he quipped.
- “When the fathers of the Universtiy of Tennessee bestowed upon me a ‘BS’ in journalism, I took them at their word!” he cracked.
- Venable said he actually does write non-fiction because real life produces such great stories. He said the five words he has most frequently used in his writing are: “I’m not making this up!”
- On a serious note, Venable said that since he joined the News Sentinel in 1970, “I have been on the most incredibly long leash any writer could ever ask for. That’s been a priceless gift.”
- Venable is very supportive of the cause of the evening: teaching adults to read. “I can’t imagine a worse prison to be in than not being able to read and write,” he said.
- Lanier Smythe, who was married to the late Richard Marius for 30 years, accepted his lifetime achievement award. “Richard was particularly attached to the place of his birth,” she said of the writer and teacher from nearby Dixie Lee Junction. The town of Bourbonville, in which several of his novels are set, is based on Knoxville, she said. “He lived here in his imagination,” she explained.
- Rhonda Cowden, the recipient of the student award, received a standing ovation when she told her personal story. She said she had been on “the frequent flyer program to the Knox County Detention Facility” when two felony DUI convictions resulted in a 10-month sentence. With the help of Friends of Literacy, she became the first female inmate to receive a GED while incarcerated there. When she was released, she used that certificate to land a job at a local McDonald’s and was quickly promoted to area manager while she attended electrician’s training classes. She then was hired by the University of Tennessee as the school’s first female electrician’s apprentice.
Alan and I reluctantly gave away our tickets to the Lyle Lovett concert at the Tennessee Theatre in order to attend this dinner. Now we are glad we did.