Hopes in Stacks

In an old bank basement, new literature

Early in the morning, Brian Griffin carries a postal crate loaded with thick envelopes down Market Street and into the Crystal Building. Once Valley Fidelity Bank, the '60s-style glass office tower was, until recently, a predictable place where efficient people in suits spent the day answering telephones.

But Griffin, a gray-bearded man in his 40s who wears hiking boots and a tweed jacket, even on a warm May morning, looks something like a novelist. His first collection of stories, Sparkman In the Sky, won the Mary McCarthy Prize a couple of years ago.

Officially, Griffin is Writer In Residence at UT. He has an office there, but lately he's been spending most of his time in a basement office near the old bank vault, surrounded by piles and piles of thick unread manuscripts. Griffin is in charge of a national literary competition known as the Peter Taylor Prize, and this is its headquarters.

This basement suite still bears the label of its original tenants, Human Resources Employee Training. On the wall are old volume dials marked Muzak. These antiques from the '60s don't work anymore. The building's owner, Brian Conley, a sometime novelist himself who didn't have many prospective tenants clamoring for a windowless basement office on Market Street, offered the rooms for use by the Knoxville Writers Guild.

In the carpeted hall are a dozen mail crates full of envelopes, and in each envelope is one novel that arrived in time for last Monday's postmark deadline. In another room, piled in stacks not quite tall enough to cause injury by toppling over, are more manuscripts. In all, Griffin says, they've received 375 novels, each of them hundreds of typed pages long. Only one will win $1,000 and a publishing contract with UT Press.

The most comfortable room down here is the one without fluorescent lighting. Equipped with orange naugahyde furniture, and a thrift-store table lamp, it's the reading room. Volunteers from the Knoxville Writers Guild apply to help cull through the piles of manuscripts, and much of the reading is done right here. Maybe in honor of his volunteers, Griffin has placed a headless porcelain orange-clad football player on an end table.

"I've tried to make it comfortable," says Griffin, admitting he's an idiosyncratic decorator. On the wall is a framed photograph of a stack of towels. On the table is a 1953 copy of Life magazine with Vice President Nixon on the cover.

Griffin governs the activity, but he's not a judge. Led by KWG member Jeannette Brown, the volunteers, all of whom have some sort of editorial qualifications, weed out the obviously unsuitable submissions. Later, a panel of professionals will narrow it down to a half-dozen or so. The final choice will be made by a nationally distinguished writer. This year, it's Doris Betts.

Submissions come in from across the western world: New Mexico, California, New Hampshire, North Dakota, New York, even Paris and Rome. Each of them paid a $20 reading fee just for a shot at the prize. "Part of it's the Peter Taylor name," Griffin says. "It would be nice to have that attached to your portfolio."

That name belonged to the Tennessee novelist and short-story writer who authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Summons To Memphis. Though Taylor is much more strongly linked to Nashville and Memphis, he has Knoxville connections. Griffin's route from the post office to the Crystal Building takes him near the site of Taylor's mother's childhood home on Church Avenue. Her stories about turn-of-the-century Knoxville inspired some of Taylor's own stories. His final novel, In the Tennessee Country, a roman a clef partly about his famous grandfather, governor and senator "Fiddlin' Bob" Taylor, opens with scenes at Knoxville's Old Gray Cemetery.

Griffin has his own connections to Taylor, who died in 1994. Originally from Soddy Daisy, Griffin was an MTSU grad and a disgruntled wedding photographer in 1984 when he took a graduate class from Taylor at Memphis State. They struck up a friendship; in 1988, Taylor, partially disabled from a stroke, invited Griffin to come to Charlottesville, Virginia, and work as his clerk and typist. Griffin learned to decipher Taylor's hieroglyphics, and, for two years, Griffin helped Taylor prepare some of his last works. He remembers one story, "The Witch of Owl Mountain Springs," which Taylor and Griffin worked on for three months, before Taylor summarily discarded it. "He threw it away! Threw it in the trash can! He started over with a new voice, first person, and we worked on it for another three months."

Years later, Griffin was working with the KWG preparing a Knoxville-based fiction prize. They originally chose to name the prize for James Agee, but when they encountered resistance from the Agee estate, Griffin and UT English professor Allen Wier discussed honoring another Tennessee novelist. They approached Taylor's widow, Eleanor, with the idea; she was enthusiastic.

On the wall hangs an empty linen summer-weight suit, the same suit pictured in advertisements for the contest in English departments across the country. It's not Taylor's suit, but it looks as if it could have been. Griffin says Taylor's example governs many of their choices.

"Peter Taylor cared about sentences," Griffin says, "more than anybody I ever heard about in my life." He says some of the work they get in is careless, seeming to assume, the editor will fix this for me. They won't get far.

"Peter Taylor was a master of human psychology," Griffin says. "We'd rather have novels that have strong human elements, ones in which the plot rises from the characters, not the other way around."

They're not likely to publish genre fiction, like romances or spy thrillers; in Taylor's fiction, the drama is often subtle. "Nobody's sinking submarines here," Griffin says.

But he says there may be exceptions to the rule. "If you get a piece of writing that captures you and holds you and you forget about where you are, and you go into that trance, well, don't worry about the genre. But I want it to be new, something different."

Griffin also thinks Taylor would approve of their current quarters. "There's no computer, no telephone. I love it here."

Griffin says he often tried to convinced Taylor to use a word processor. He'd tell the author about the computer's cut-and-paste function, and the novelist professed a polite interest. "Really!" Taylor responded. "That would be useful. But let's don't do that."

"He just didn't like the idea of it," Griffin says. He has come around to see Taylor's perspective.

"I've been writing letters on letterhead, by hand," he says. "And, to be honest, it's quicker. People ask, 'How do you keep track without a computer?' I use numbers and pens." He also has a big bag of rubber bands. He gets a lot of his own writing done down here, especially before the volunteers show up later in the morning.

Griffin's usually abstracted air is a little more abstract than usual. He's on painkillers, recovering from a traffic accident in Bearden last week. He escaped with minor injuries, and says he's lucky he'd just dropped off that day's shipment of novel submissions; otherwise they might have been strewn across Kingston Pike along with his groceries. "That would have been hard to explain," he says. "I'm sorry, your novel was involved in a traffic accident. It's totaled."

Last year's winner was The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts. The volunteer readers didn't know the author was DeWitt Henry, a successful essayist and editor. Now in his 50s, Henry had never published a book-length novel before he won the inaugural Peter Taylor Prize. Under the terms of the contest, UT Press will publish The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts this fall.

Supported by Alcoa and UT, the prize is doing well, its proceeds supporting young writers' programs, a cause close to its namesake's heart.

The suite's innermost chamber is officially titled "The Lost Sheep of Dixie," inspired by the title of one unsuccessful novel submission last year. It's where they store the manuscript remains of last year's contest. Griffin means to recycle these hundreds of pounds of paper, but hasn't yet had the heart to discard them. He picks up a couple. "Some of it's very well done," he says. "There are books right here that, with the right marketing idea, could do very well."

He mentions Cold Mountain, the novel by an unknown North Carolina writer which became a major bestseller. "There are books in here that are as well written as that one was," Griffin says.

"It's almost heartbreaking to look through this and see all the energy," he says. "There are a lot of hopes here."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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