Craig Buchner and his father didn’t say much during their weekends in upstate New York checking spigots on sugar maples, chopping wood and boiling sap to make syrup, but the Western Carolina University student found comfort just spending time with his dad.
The quiet and the outdoors connected them, and Buchner’s reflection on how helped inspired his short story “Good Night,” which won a national Association of Writers & Writing Program award this year and will be published in the May 2007 issue of literary journal Puerto del Sol.
The story chronicles a son’s return home to seize one last chance to bond with his aging, widowed father, who has Alzheimer’s disease. “The extent of our relationship was based on a name that ended both of our signatures.” The character witnesses his father’s grief, anger and physical and mental deterioration. “He continues to stare at me as if my face were something of a math equation, a language he cannot read.” He describes his father shaking his head with a “chin like a metronome” and tears that “soak up the light of the bedside table.” The father never tells his son how he feels except in a letter sharing “words that I thought existed but never knew.”
Deidre Elliott, assistant professor of English, describes Buchner as an artist with language. “Craig strives to make each word in his fiction beautiful – even when what’s happening to the land or to the people who work the land isn’t so beautiful,” said Elliott. Buchner explores the natural world as a character in his fiction and examine relationships between people, and “the story that won the AWP award explores both of these very well,” she said. “It’s quite an honor for any student to win this AWP award. For one of our WCU students to win, this means that his work has gone up against the work of students from big-name schools with long-established, high-powered writing programs and come out on top.”
The award for “Good Night” marks the second Buchner has received in the field. The first was an excellence in creative writing award –a gold-plated genie’s lamp on a marble stand that he won in fifth grade. “The paint is actually chipping off that award now,” said Buchner. “The letter congratulating me for winning this award, though, was just as good.”
Just being asked to submit his best work to enter the AWP competition was an honor, Buchner said. It was only after a professor and writer that he greatly admires, WCU’s Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies Ron Rash, won the O’Henry Award that Buchner started thinking about what it would take to be published in a literary journal and considered for a similar honor. Like Buchner, Rash also weaves the environment into his writing and draws inspiration from family experiences. “To see Ron is to see someone dedicated to their art and really aspiring for greater things, raising the bar and reaching those goals,” said Buchner, who shares a deep commitment to writing.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve been trying to write stories,” said Buchner. “I would be just as happy working at a coffee shop and eating off of a hot plate as long as I can continue pursuing the art of writing.”
Buchner began developing the framework for “Good Night” a year ago while living north of Asheville in a one-bedroom mountain cabin with a creek through the back yard. “I was alone and did a lot of writing,” said Buchner, who carried a Moleskine journal during walks in the woods to write notes or draw pictures. He later translated the ideas into computer word documents and is incorporating the ideas into what he hopes will become a book. Newton Smith, an associate professor of English and Buchner’s thesis adviser, described his student’s work as captivating and breathtaking.
“Everyone on the committee that reviewed five of Buchner’s stories realized we were witnessing the beginning of a great career,” said Smith, an associate professor of English. “The stories in that collection exhibited an exquisite sense of style, filled with characters you wanted to know more about despite their off-kilter approaches to life, all of it painted across descriptions so carefully drawn and so precise that you could almost taste the air they inhabited. This is not the first award Craig will win, and I hope we will soon get to read his novel.”
Buchner will live in Vermont this summer and hopes to spend time with his father and grandfather for Father’s Day. He also plans to help his father build a cabin in the Adirondacks. “Hopefully, I will fuel the creative fire with that,” he said. “I try to be around him as much as I can. I appreciate the time we have.”