On April 8 at 7:30 p.m., fiction and non-fiction writer Randal Kenan read his story “When We All Get to Heaven” at the University Center Theater as part of the annual Spring Literary Festival, sponsored by the English department. The story is one of his newer works, and according to Kenan, it will be published later this year in the next issue of the “Virginia Quarterly Review.”
Dr. Annette Debo of Western Carolina University’s English department introduced Kenan before he read. According to Debo, Kenan has also wrote several books, including “A Visitation of Spirits,” “Walking on Water,” and “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead,” which is a collection of stories. Debo also said that his writings focus on the value of history, family ties, community and sexuality.
Kenan’s story takes place in New York City, where the protagonist, Ed Phelps and his wife are vacationing from North Carolina. While wandering through the city, Ed has an odd encounter with 80s British rock star, Billy Idol. During Ed’s run-in with Billy, Billy takes him backstage of his concert, where he pretends Ed is a famous musician as part of a joke he plays on his producer.
The comical way in which Kenan tells his story, brings out the amusement of what Kenan described as placing “. . . Southerners in New York.” It also highlights the distinction between the older and younger generation. By using humor, Kenan shows how different old people and young people are from each other by emphasizing how confusing they are to other. However, Kenan ties the two generations together through the theme of music. Through music, both the elderly Ed and the young, mischievous Billy Idol reach a common ground of understanding.
After the reading, Kenan set aside time to answer any questions the audience members had. When asked about the simpleminded way in which he composed Ed’s voice, Kenan answered with an account of how he grew up with men like Ed Phelps, and how there was a certain plainness about them that he found beautiful.
The audience was intrigued with Kenan’s inclusion of Billy Idol, especially the members who were teenagers during the time of his popularity. Many questions arose relating to why Kenan featured Billy Idol in his story, and what his opinion was of him.
“I’ve always been fascinated with Billy Idol in a trashy sort of way,” Kenan said.
He related his opinion that his music is not particularly the best, but yet he admires how he gets away with it through his bad-boy image.
Along with answering questions about his story, Kenan also gave some helpful tips to the prospering writers in the room. When asked about his writing process, Kenan revealed the countless times he edited his drafts, the useful advice he picked up from other writers, such as not being too showy when writing, and his delight in varying the voices in which he tells his stories (i.e. cross-gender, cross-species and different ethnicities).
Earlier in the day, Richard Chess spoke at 12 p.m. in the University Center Theater as part of the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poets Series. Chess has published several books of poetry, including “Third Temple” in 2007 and “Chair in the Desert” in 2000.