CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Barry Kitterman, an Austin Peay State University creative writing professor, had what might be called a typical, Midwestern upbringing. He grew up in the small town of Ivanhoe, populated by farmers and situated hundreds of miles from anything resembling a large city.
But this Midwestern childhood actually occurred not too far from the Pacific Ocean, in northern California, causing a few people to scratch their heads when Kitterman tells them about his past.
“When I would tell people I was from California, they had a certain set of assumptions as to what that meant,” Kitterman said. “It was so far removed from my real experience that I thought I wanted to write stories about the California I grew up in, which is rural, agricultural, a long way from the ocean and, something I realized much later, very poor.”
Kitterman did write those stories over the last 30 years, and in May, they were published by Southern Methodist University Press as the short story collection, “From the San Joaquin.” The title refers to the region in California where the town of Ivanhoe is located.
At 8 p.m. on Dec. 7, Kitterman will give a reading from his new book in the Music/Mass Communication Building’s Concert Hall on the APSU campus. The event, which is sponsored by the APSU Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts, is free and open to the public.
The stories are, according to Kitterman, “straight up realism,” and the writing hints at some of his literary influences, including Sherwood Anderson, Louise Erdrich and Ernest Hemingway. Al Young, California’s poet laureate emeritus, even likened the APSU professor to John Steinbeck.
“Kitterman’s fiction gets at the gut and soul of a scuffling, blue-collar farming, lumbering, trucking tottering California,” Young said. “A heart-stirring collection of stories.”
William Gay, the best-selling author of “Provinces of Night,” described the stories as “deeply human” and “touched with grace and compassion and a strong sense of place.”
“These are sturdy, no-nonsense, character-driven stories that make turning the pages a necessity as well as a pleasure,” Steve Yarbrough, author of “Safe from the Neighbors,” said. “Kitterman’s book is superb.”
In September, Kitterman traveled to Washington, D.C., for a special celebration honoring the newly established Peace Corps Writers Collection at the Library of Congress. The collection was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps and to honor the numerous writers who served as volunteers over the years.
Kitterman joined the Peace Corps in the late 1970s and worked as a volunteer in Belize. He memorably depicted some of his Peace Corps experiences in the 2008 novel, “The Baker's Boy.” The book tells two intertwined stories of Tanner Johnson. The first deals with him as a middle-aged man, so haunted by his past that he flees from his pregnant wife and the stable life he knew. That past informs the second story in the book, which focuses on Johnson's traumatic struggles and disillusionment 25 years earlier while serving with the Peace Corps in Belize.
The work struck a cord with many of his fellow-returned Peace Corps volunteers, and in 2009, it was awarded the Maria Thomas Fiction Award by the website, www.peacecorpswriters.org. The award, named after the late novelist and Peace Corps volunteer Maria Thomas, is given annually to a work of high literary merit. Previous winners include best-selling authors Paul Theroux and Kent Haruf.
“In reading Barry Kitterman, I find myself rediscovering the pleasures of reading Dostoyevsky — admittedly an extravagant claim in response to a first novel,” Ann Neelon, a poet and Murray State University professor wrote in a review of the book for the website. “Like ‘Crime and Punishment,’ ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ ‘The Idiot’ and/or ‘The Possessed,’ ‘The Baker's Boy’ constitutes a powerful work of moral imagination.”
A book signing will follow the Dec. 7 reading. For more information, contact Susan Wallace, with the Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts, at email@example.com.