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Who is Clyde Edgerton?

Ben Steelman

One of North Carolina’s best-loved novelists, Clyde Edgerton has been a fixture on the local scene since 1998, when he joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina Wilmington as a visiting professor.

A coastal resort community in his 2008 novel “The Bible Salesman” is very loosely based on Wrightsville Beach, with a seashore pavilion similar to the famous Lumina.

Clyde Carlyle Edgerton was born May 20, 1944, in Durham, N.C., but grew up in Bethesda, a rural community in Durham County. An only child, he grew up in a community with a total of 23 aunts and uncles and a host of cousins living nearby. Both sides of his family, he later recalled, were filled with storytellers. His parents, Ernest and Truma Edgerton, were among the first members of their families to leave the farm.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he majored in English and enrolled in the Air Force ROTC. After graduating in 1966, he served a five-year commitment as an Air Force pilot, flying fighter jets in Japan and Korea and reconnaissance aircraft out of Thailand during the Vietnam conflict. His decorations included a Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in efforts to rescue downed American airmen in Cambodia. Edgerton would later fictionalize some of his wartime experience in his 1988 novel “The Floatplane Notebooks” and would discuss his sometimes ambiguous feelings toward his service and flying in his 2005 memoir, “Solo.”

After his discharge, Edgerton returned to Chapel Hill, earning a master’s degree in teaching in 1972. (Reading Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” as a college sophomore, he later recalled, confirmed his ambition to become an English teacher.) Soon afterward, he began teaching at his old high school. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from Chapel Hill in 1977. In 1978, however, he happened to watch the writer Eudora Welty read her story “Why I Live at the P.O.” in a Sunday afternoon telecast — an event, he told several interviewers, which convinced him that he wanted to become a writer.

Edgerton scored a coup with his debut novel, “Raney,” published in 1985 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Narrated in the first-person, the book described the sometimes rocky marriage of a young North Carolinian from a rural, Free Will Baptist background and her husband, a more liberal Episcopalian from Atlanta. The couple clash over race, sex, child rearing and other social issues but find their common ground in music.

“Raney” won critical raves, proved to be a best-seller and was a New York Times “Notable” book of the year, the first of five Edgerton novels to be so honored. The book raised the ire, however, of Edgerton’s employer at the time, Campbell University in Buies Creek. After some alumni and trustees at the historically Baptist school objected to the novel’s treatment of the Baptist faith and of religion in general, the administration withheld the untenured Edgerton’s teaching contract for the upcoming year. The controversy became a cause celebre in the field of academic freedom. (See George Hovis, “The Raney Controversy,” in Southern Cultures, Vol. 7 No. 2, Summer 2001.)

Edgerton (who taught at Campbell from 1977 to 1985) would later satirize a Baptist college in his 1991 novel, “Killer Diller.” He proceeded to teach at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College in Laurinburg from 1985 to 1989 before embarking on a full-time writing career.

In 1996, Edgerton delivered the August convocation address at UNCW; two years later, he would deliver the university’s spring commencement address. In 1998, after winning an apparent bidding war with N.C. State University, UNCW announced that Edgerton would become a visiting distinguished professor in the English department. He retained visiting status until 2002, when he became a tenured full professor in UNCW’s creative writing department.

A guitar and banjo player who frequently punctuates his readings and lectures with self-composed songs, Edgerton plays with the band The Rank Strangers. He frequently appears at UNCW with fellow writer and faculty member Philip Gerard as the combo “Dusty and Ace.”

Edgerton has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Lyndhurst Fellow. He was presented the North Carolina Award for Literature in 1997 and he has been admitted to the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

He lives in Wilmington with his wife Kristina and their three children. Edgerton also has one grown daughter from a previous marriage.

Three of Edgerton’s novels, “Raney,” “Walking Across Egypt” and “Killer Diller,” have been adapted as motion pictures; several have also been adapted as stage productions. A number of his short stories have been included in the “New Stories from the South” and “The Best American Short Stories” anthology.

Edgerton’s novels to date are “Raney” (1985), “Walking Across Egypt: (1987), “The Floatplane Notebooks” (1988), “Killer Diller” (1991), “In Memory of Junior” (1992), “Redeye” (1995), “Where Trouble Sleeps” (1997), “Lunch at the Piccadilly” (2003). “The Bible Salesman” (2008) and “The Night Train” (2011). All of his early novels and “Solo: My Adventure in the Air” (2005) were published by Algonquin; “The Bible Salesman” and “The Night Train,” however, was released by Little, Brown.

In 2013, Little, Brown also published Edgerton’s “Pappadaddy’s Advice for New Fathers,” a humorous parenting guide.

In 1995, Edgerton wrote the first and last chapters of “Pete and Shirley: The Great Tar Heel Novel,” a serial collaboration by several North Carolina authors, published by Down Home Press and the Raleigh News & Observer.

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