Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with George Ella Lyon, January 23, 1993

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:04 - Early life

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Partial Transcript: This is an oral history interview with George Ella Lyon being conducted by Linda Beattie for the Kentucky Writers Oral History Project.

Segment Synopsis: Lyon describes her family, including the occupations of several of her relatives. The most important literary influences upon Lyon within her family are also mentioned.

Keywords: Aunts; Brothers; Coal camps; Dry cleaners; Early life; English professors; Family; Fathers; Grandparents; Harlan (Ky.); House builders; Influences; Instructive; James Madison University; Kentucky; Kentucky Commission on Human Rights; Lumbermen; Mothers; Names; Occupations; Only child; Parents; Relatives; Secretary of Commerce; Storytelling; Uncles

Subjects: Childhood; Employment--Kentucky; Families.; Genealogy

00:06:13 - Childhood

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Partial Transcript: Uh, what was your childhood like? What kinds of things to do you remember?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon reflects upon childhood experiences. Additionally, Lyon compares her own childhood to that of the protagonist in her book called "Borrowed Children."

Keywords: "Borrowed Children"; Adolescence; Backyards; Characters; Children; Children's books; Comparisons; Experiences; Freedom; Houses; Listeners; Mothers; Neighborhoods; Outdoors; Schools; Stories

Subjects: Childhood

00:09:56 - Education / book material from childhood experiences

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Partial Transcript: Uh, what was your early education like, and what was the school itself like?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon talks of her early education, mainly her elementary school years. Childhood experiences that later served as material for Lyon's books are also mentioned.

Keywords: "Borrowed Children"; Alphabet; Brothers; Children; Content; Elementary schools; Emotions; Family; Fathers; First grade (Education); Hearing; Hotels; Houses; Kindergarten; Lunches; Mothers; Mountains; Music theory; Readers; Reading; Resonance; Rural; Schools; Small towns; Songs; Sound; Southern; Storytelling; Tasks; Uncles

Subjects: Childhood; Education; Families.; Poetry

00:15:49 - Favorite subjects / teachers / junior high school

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Partial Transcript: Um, back to your early schooling, um, did you have a favorite subject? Were reading and writing among them?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon briefly explains which subjects in school were her favorite, as well as the teachers she liked the most throughout her educational experience. Then, the interviewee's time spent in junior high school is examined.

Keywords: Books; Boys; Code; Eighth grade (Education); Elementary schools; Feelings; First grade (Education); Fourth grade (Education); Gender; Golden books; Happiness; Junior high schools; Learning; Metaphor; Novels; Numbers; Outcast; Schools; Secure; Seventh grade (Education)

Subjects: Education; Poems; Teachers; Writing

00:19:54 - Religion

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Partial Transcript: Um, and I worked in a religious crisis and--

Segment Synopsis: Lyon talks of her religious beliefs, and how they have changed throughout the years.

Keywords: Aesthetic; Catholic; Christianity; Church history; Colleges; Community; Disciples of Christ; Episcopal Church; God; Graduate schools; Idealists; Kentucky writers; Liturgy; Open; Questioning; Relationships; Ritual; Satisfaction; Senses; Social issues; Socially active

Subjects: Religion

00:23:46 - High school

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Partial Transcript: What, uh, what was the rest of your high school like?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon recalls her high school years, including an English teacher who encouraged her to write and also served as a role model for the interviewee. Lyon's aspirations during this time are then outlined.

Keywords: Biographies; Boredom; Carl Sandburg; Centre College; Children; Clubs; Colleges; Concentrating; Creative writing; Danville (Ky.); Drawing; Dylan Thomas; Editors; Fantasy; Folk singers; Friends; Greenwich Village (N.Y.); High school; Identity; Influence; Influences; Jobs; Married; New York (N.Y.); Newspapers; Paper; Parents; Poets; Process; Role models; Songwriting; Standards; Students; Suggestions; Support; The Purple Onion; Words; Work

Subjects: Greenwich Village (New York, N.Y.); Poetry; Teachers

00:30:55 - Higher education

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Partial Transcript: Uh, what else did you do in college?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon talks of her higher education experience including her undergraduate, graduate, and PhD studies, as well as what her life was like during these educational periods.

Keywords: Academics; Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America; Centre College; Coloring; Community; Composers; Danville (Ky.); Dissertations; English; Graduate schools; Guitars; Husbands; Indiana University; Jingle writers; Literary magazines; Master's degrees; Money; Music; Peace movement in America; PhD; Piano lessons; Plays; Politics; Professors; Reading; Reading music; University of Arkansas; Virginia Woolf; Voice lessons; Walking; Work

Subjects: Civil rights movement; Education, Higher; Higher education; Musicians; Teaching; Writing

00:38:40 - Finishing PhD / classmates

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Partial Transcript: And then Steve got a job writing country music in Nashville.

Segment Synopsis: Lyon talks of finishing her PhD, as well as her personal life during this time. Next, Lyon describes her classmates at Indiana University (within the English department) and their respective writing careers.

Keywords: American literature; British literature; Dissertations; Drama; E. M. Forster; Essays; Husbands; Ideas; Indiana University; Lexington (Ky.); Life; Michael Allen; Music; Nashville (Tenn.); PhD; Poems; Politics; Published; Richard Hugo; Sons; Virginia Woolf; Writers

Subjects: Education, Higher; Higher education; Teaching; Writing

00:42:50 - Move to Lexington, Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: So, when you moved to Lexington, um, what was your husband doing, and after the baby, what were you doing?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon describes what her first years living in Lexington, Kentucky were like. Lyon also explains why she and her husband decided to move to Lexington.

Keywords: "Burger chef"; Dissertations; Life; Music; Occupations; Parents; Part-time employment; Pawn shops; PhD; Piano; Professors; Reading; Recording studios; Research; Revisions; Sons; Southeast; Work

Subjects: Education, Higher; Higher education; Lexington (Ky.); Teaching; University of Kentucky; Writing

00:47:31 - Teaching career

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Partial Transcript: And, so did, did you like your first teaching jobs? Your part-time teaching?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon reflects upon her first experiences as a part-time professor of composition and literature and creative writing at the University of Kentucky. The interviewee also discusses the macabre nature of the work that many of the students submitted for her creative writing class.

Keywords: "Anti-literature"; "Moral implications"; Action; Composition and literature; Courses; Creative writing; Disturbing; Fiction; Fiction classes; Films; Indiana University; Life; Murder; Mutilation; Part-time employment; Professors; Responsibility; Students; Television; Violent; Writers

Subjects: Education, Higher; Higher education; Teaching; University of Kentucky

00:57:39 - Teaching creative writing / creative writing theory

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Partial Transcript: Um, so what--do you have a theory of teaching creative writing, um, or how do you think it should be taught?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon gives her opinion on how creative writing should be taught at the collegiate level. Then, Lyon shares her theory on creative writing, essentially on how to help foster a love and appreciation for writing within children (in a non-competitive manner).

Keywords: Balance; Challenges; Children; Citizens; Community; Competition; Concern; Contests; Flannery O'Connor; High schools; Knowledge; Learning; Life; Non-competitive; Nurture; Political; Professors; Quotes; Reading; Spirit; Students; Success; Theories; Validation; Value; Working

Subjects: Creative writing; Education, Higher; Higher education; Teaching

01:02:38 - Career history

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Partial Transcript: Um, what about your career history? You started off, um, you said teaching part-time, and were looking for full-time jobs that didn't come to pass, so then what did you do?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon details her career history while living in Lexington.

Keywords: Appalachian Grant; Appalshop; Arts councils; Centre College; Classes; Community education; Danville (Ky.); Freelance editing; Gurney Norman; Humanities; Humanities councils; Local poetry; Occupations; Parks and Recreation; Publishing; Revision; Students; Taxes; Transylvania University; Visits; Whitesburg (Ky.); Workshops; Writers

Subjects: Education, Higher; Employment--Kentucky; Higher education; Lexington (Ky.); Teaching

01:05:34 - Children's books

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Partial Transcript: Then gradually, as I started publishing books for children, it became possible for me to get jobs going into the schools, and working with kids, and gradually I have done more and more of that.

Segment Synopsis: Lyon chronicles her career in writing children's books and the opportunities that have followed pursuing this endeavor. The inspiration behind a children's book written by the interviewee called "Borrowed Children" is then revealed.

Keywords: "Borrowed Children"; Anthology; Arts councils; Children's books; Continuity; Editors; High schools; Jim Wayne Miller; Letters; Life; Permission; Picture books; Poems; Poetry; Poetry anthology; Prose; Publishing; Schools; Short story; Students; Summer; Work; Writers

Subjects: Authors; Children's authors; Writing

01:10:18 - Identity as a writer / awards

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Partial Transcript: I was going to ask you since I think, uh, maybe not among your writer friends, but with people in general in the state, I, I think you're thought of primarily as a children's book writer, but you've written in so many genres.

Segment Synopsis: Lyon considers what her true identity as a writer is. Lyon also describes the impact and experience of winning a literary award on both her personal and professional lives respectively.

Keywords: Advertisements; Affirmation; Amsterdam (Netherlands); Awards; Bermuda; Books; Categories; Chapbooks; Childcare; Contests; Eudora Welty; Freelance; Genres; Hartford (Conn.); Husbands; Identity; Life; Manuscripts; Money; Music; Plays; Print; Switzerland; Time; Travel; Walt Whitman Award

Subjects: Authors; Children's authors; Children's books.; Poets; Writing

01:15:33 - Publications / categorizing writers

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Partial Transcript: And so, after that chapbook, and after you started writing that summer, how did the publications come?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon talks of the publication process of her work. Lyon then provides her opinion on categorizing writers by their perceived principal genre that they write within (the majority of the time).

Keywords: "Borrowed Children"; Appalachian literature; Categories; Challenging; Classification; Danger; Essays; Experience; Focus; Friends; Genres; Grants; Husbands; Identity; Imagination; Interest; Kentucky Arts Council; Kentucky Women Writers Conference; Literature; Messages; Nature; Non-fiction; Picture books; Plays; Rejections; Reviews; Sources; Stance; Stereotypes; Views; World

Subjects: Authors; Authors and publishers.; Publications; Publishers and publishing.; Women writers; Writing

01:26:12 - Children's literature / adult literacy / revision

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Partial Transcript: Uh, when you had your first picture book published, was that by the editor who asked if you had--if you would write for children?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon talks of the children's literature that she writes, as well as her efforts to combat adult illiteracy. Following this, the interviewee briefly describes the role of her husband in the revision process of her writing.

Keywords: Adult books; Editors; Friends; Husbands; Literacy; Literacy centers; Novels; Picture books; Plays; Radio plays; Readers; Reading; Revision; Songs; Theater; Virginia

Subjects: Authors; Children's authors; Children's literature; Writing

01:29:01 - Point of view / work

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Partial Transcript: I think your work is distinguished by an interesting handling of tense.

Segment Synopsis: Lyon discusses the role of perspective (point of view) in her writing. Lyon also provides examples of how point of view varies in her novels. Lastly, the interviewee talks of her upcoming novel, geared towards adults learning how to read.

Keywords: "Borrowed Children"; "Here and Then"; Adult literacy; Adult novels; Critics; Distinctive; Editors; Feedback; First person; Learning; Literacy; Novels; Point of view; Present tense; Readers; Revision; Speakers; Summary; Third person; Voice; Work

Subjects: Children's authors; Education; Writing

01:34:31 - Adult literacy

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Partial Transcript: I know you've been very involved with literacy in Kentucky, can you talk about that, and about that book?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon's experience with writing for adults who are learning how to read is considered. Additionally, Lyon briefly mentions her involvement in teaching writing courses for adults who have recently learned how to read.

Keywords: Adult literacy; Books; Confusion; Conversational; Daily life; Discipline; Experiences; First person; Harlan County (Ky.); High schools; Humanities; Kentucky Humanities Council; Metaphor; Project; Stories; Students; Tutors; Voice

Subjects: Education; Literacy; Literature; Teaching; Writing

01:40:39 - Children / writers workshop / artistry

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Partial Transcript: In the midst of your career here, you did have another son.

Segment Synopsis: Lyon briefly talks of her children, as well as her experiences with local writers groups. The benefits and drawbacks of writers groups are also discussed. Finally, Lyon characterizes herself in relation to her artistry as a writer.

Keywords: "The gift"; Artists; Cats; Classes; Community; Conferences; Danger; Friendships; Lewis Hyde; Lexington (Ky.); Librarians; Life; Money; Motivation; Overwhelmed; Preservation; Sons; Talking; Workshops

Subjects: Authors; Teachers; Teaching; Writing

01:47:07 - Nature of creativity / drive to write

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Partial Transcript: That brings me to the question I have said I have asked everybody I've interviewed so far about what you think the nature of creativity is.

Segment Synopsis: Lyon illustrates what she thinks the nature and origins of creativity are in people. Lyon then briefly talks of her innate drive to write, and what happens when she is not able to write. Additionally, other answers to the nature of creativity are shared, along with Lyon providing an elaboration of her thoughts on this subject.

Keywords: "Make something"; Answers; Centering; Connected; Creativity; Drawing; Exciting; Experience; Expression; Fiction; Greenwich Village, New York (N.Y.); Gurney Norman; Images; Jim Baker Hall; Leon Driskell; Life; Miserable; Music; Musicians; Numbers; Order; Painting; Paper; Pens; People; Personal level; Self; Spiritual; Stories; Story; Students; Trauma; Voice; Work

Subjects: Authors; Childhood; Writing

01:57:33 - Writing habits / possible job

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Partial Transcript: Your need to, to write in longhand I guess on I guess legal pads I see on your desk here...

Segment Synopsis: Lyon details what her writing habits and schedule are typically like. Subsequently, Lyon describes a potential full-time teaching job at the University of Kentucky, and why that opportunity did not come to fruition.

Keywords: Academia; Budget; Business; Children; Conferences; Cutbacks; Energy; Experience; Freelance; Friends; Full-time employment; Kids; Living; Longhand; Money; Mornings; Opportunities; Professors; Schools; Tenure; University of Kentucky; World

Subjects: Authors; Teachers; Teaching; Writing

02:01:22 - Children's interests / computers

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Partial Transcript: Um, have your children, uh, shown any interest in writing, other than music?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon discusses her children's interests in the arts. Next, Lyon talks of computers in relation her writing, as well as the experiences of other writers in this matter.

Keywords: Art; Books; Children; Computers; Drama; Friends; Interests; Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts; Music; Painting; Pencils; Printing; Revising; Sons; Typing; Useful; Wendell Barry

Subjects: Authors; Writing

02:04:09 - Kentucky writers / sense of place in writing

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Partial Transcript: Um, you have--(coughs)--a cir--quite a circle of Kentucky writer friends.

Segment Synopsis: Lyon characterizes her friendships and professional collaborations with Kentucky writers. Subsequently, the interviewee examines the role of place in her writing.

Keywords: Appalachian writers; Community; Conferences; Eastern Kentucky University; Friendships; Gurney Norman; Heinemann writers workshop; Identity; Journals; Kentucky Women Writers Conference; Kentucky writers; Life; People; Place; Published; Residencies; Setting (Literature); Speaking; Story; Talks; Work; Workshops

Subjects: Authors; Women writers; Writing

02:08:42 - Influences / Kentucky writing

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Partial Transcript: Uh, what about writers who have influenced you? Living or dead as they say. Um, and Kentucky writers you particularly admire.

Segment Synopsis: Lyon lists the most important influences upon her writing, as well as Kentucky writers that she respects. Kentucky writing and its progress, along with Lyon's own contributions to the genre are also mentioned.

Keywords: Anne Shelby; Appalachian Studies; Appalachian literature; Barbara Kingsolver; Bobbie Ann Mason; Books; Centre College; Diaries; Essays; Fiction; Guidance; Gurney Norman; Harriette Arnow; Influences; James Still; Jane Joyce; Jim Wayne Miller; Letters; Life; Literary canon; Model; Poems; Ruth Stone; The Kentucky Encyclopedia; Virginia Woolf; Women's studies; Writers

Subjects: Authors; Education; Literature; Poetry; Teachers; Women writers

02:13:40 - Future work / favorite authors

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Partial Transcript: Um, what about what you're working on now, and future work you have planned?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon discusses her upcoming literary projects. Then, Lyon lists her favorite authors whom she likes to read for fun.

Keywords: "Spence and Lila"; Accepted; Adult novels; Bobbie Ann Mason; Books; Closure; Collaborations; Collections; Comments; Editors; Focus; Gurney Norman; Manuscripts; Narrators; Notes; Novels; Picture books; Plays; Poems; Projects; Published; Re-writes; Reading; Rejected; Scripts; Work; Young adult novels

Subjects: Authors; Writing

02:20:08 - Advice to writers / process versus product

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Partial Transcript: I'm sure you've been asked this a million times, but advice to beginning or would-be writers?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon shares the advice she would give to prospective writers. Next, the interviewee compares her feelings towards the writing process to the final product of writing, and the tasks that are associated with each respective phase of writing.

Keywords: "Borrowed Children"; Advice; Audiences; Book signings; Children; Class; Collaboration; Comparisons; Competition; Confusing; Connections; Creation; Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca; Isolating; Limited; People; Possibilities; Process; Readers; Recognition; Rewards; Stereotypes; Uncomfortable; Work; Writers

Subjects: Authors; Writing

02:28:09 - Final thoughts / writers group

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Partial Transcript: Is there anything we haven't talked about that you think is important to know about you as a person or as a writer?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon shares her final thoughts on herself in both a professional and personal sense. Lyon then describes the role of writers' groups in the revision process. The friendships that these collaborations have produced are also touched on.

Keywords: Blacksburg (Va.); Bloomington (Ind.); Cars; Criticism; Drama; Essays; Fiction; Friends; Friendship; Helpful; Interviews; Kentucky Women Writers Conference; Lexington (Ky.); Misrepresentation; Moving; Poetry; Questions; Readings; Response; Talking; Thoughts; Transylvania University; Truth; Work; Writers groups

Subjects: Authors; Writing

02:31:29 - Reading poetry

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Partial Transcript: Yes, I have to ask if you would be willing to read a couple of your poems?

Segment Synopsis: Lyon reads out loud two of her poems. The first poem that she reads is called "Cousin Ella Goes to Town." The second poem read out loud is titled "Fallingwater." What inspired Lyon to write these poems is also considered.

Keywords: "Cousin Ella Goes to Town"; "Fallingwater"; Architecture; Editors; Fallingwater (Pa.); Frank Lloyd Wright; Houses; Inspirations; Kentucky; Languages; Poems; Reading; Shapes

Subjects: Authors; Poetry; Writing