Bookshelf: Atlanta authors hail the talents of others

Norman Maclean and Joyce Carol Oates subject of two new books.
Rebecca McCarthy is the author of "Norman Maclean: A Life of Letters and Rivers."
Courtesy of University of Washington Press

Credit: University of Washington Press

Credit: University of Washington Press

Rebecca McCarthy is the author of "Norman Maclean: A Life of Letters and Rivers." Courtesy of University of Washington Press

This week’s Bookshelf is about two new books resulting from Atlanta authors’ deep regard for two highly acclaimed writers.

Old man river: His name may not be widely known, but Norman Maclean’s 1976 novella “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories” is familiar to most largely because of the 1992 film directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt.

Set in Montana in the 1920s, it’s a semi-autobiographical tale about two brothers — Norman, who’s returned home after attending Ivy League college back east, and Paul, a hard-living journalist who self-destructs over the course of the story. The book sold close to 2 million copies, and the film won an Academy Award for cinematography.

Before the man behind the story became a published author, he was a highly regarded English professor at the University of Chicago for decades. According to a new biography, Maclean was an old school professor like the kind movies are made about — unequivocally opinionated, nurturing and harshly critical.

What makes “Norman Maclean: A Life of Letters and Rivers” (University of Washington, $26.95) such a pleasure to read is that it’s written by an acolyte of sorts, Atlanta author Rebecca McCarthy, who brings a tremendous amount of intimacy and insight to the telling.

A former reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, McCarthy met Maclean when she was 16 and spending the summer with her older brother at Seeley Lake, Montana, where Maclean summered. She was a neophyte poet at the time and her sister-in-law had shared her poems with Maclean prior to their introduction. At their first meeting he queried her about the poems and spoke at length about them. “I had never had an adult take me so seriously,” writes McCarthy.

Unbeknownst to her, Maclean was coming out of a deep depression at the time following the death of his wife, and in retrospect she believes he took her on as a kind of project that helped reinvigorate him. Over the next two years they exchanged letters and visited together during their summers in Montana. The primary topic of those communications was his insistence that McCarthy get out of the deep South (she lived in South Carolina at the time) and attend the University of Chicago — or at the very least, Duke or UNC – Chapel Hill.

She chose Chicago and arrived just as Maclean prepared to retire and began working on “A River Runs Through It.” They maintained a friendship throughout her college years and he continued to encourage her poetry but didn’t mince words when it came to criticizing her.

“I learned it was his nature to pass judgment on, well, everything and everyone, without worry about the fallout,” she writes.

From that intimate introduction, McCarthy broadens her scope, interviewing dozens of his friends and associates and reading his letters to tell Maclean’s life story with a focus on his writing and publishing life, which was marked by great highs and lows. It’s a compassionate account of a compelling individual whose exacting standards probably contributed to his loneliness later in life but also produced a literary legacy that endures.

"Joyce Carol Oates: Letters to a Biographer" edited by Greg Johnson
Courtesy  of Akashic Books

Credit: Akashic Books

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Credit: Akashic Books

Take a letter: Atlanta author Greg Johnson is a prolific author of novels, short stories and nonfiction whose appreciation for Joyce Carol Oates is apparent in the fact that his newest book is his third one related to the National Book Award winner.

His previous books include “Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of Short Fiction” and “Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates.” But the newest one, “Joyce Carol Oates: Letters to a Biographer” (Akashic Books, $28.95), edited by Johnson, promises to be the most personal one of all.

The book is filled with letters Oates has sent to Johnson since their epistolary friendship began in 1975. Although eloquently written, they are more casual than her fiction, naturally, and filled with details about movies, books, magazine articles, travels and, of course, her work, as well as her commentary on his work.

Fans of Oates will especially appreciate the day-to-day musings of this literary powerhouse.

The letters end in 2006, although their friendship continues, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a part two in the future.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She can be reached at