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A Conversation with Caitlin Doyle, the first Thomas Wolfe Scholar

This interview appeared in The Thomas Wolfe Review

Joseph M. Flora

Caitlin Doyle of East Hampton, New York, was named the first recipient of the Thomas Wolfe Schoalrship, established at the University of North Carolina through the generosity of a $2 million endowment from Frank Borden Hanes Sr., a 1942 UNC graduate and himself a novelist, poet, and retired journalist. In Wolfe’s honor, Hanes wished to establish a fellowship for an undergraduate who would find at Carolina the encouragement that would speed him or her to a career in writing – encouragement evoking Wolfe’s undergraduate years.

Doyle was chosen from approximately 150 applicants. Having completed her first semester at Chapel Hill, she met with Atlanta Professor of Southern Culture Joseph M. Flora to reflect on her experience as the Thomas Wolfe Scholar. Readers of the Thomas Wolfe Review are invited to glimpse this talented young woman through their conversation.

JF: Congratulations, yet again, on being named the first Thomas Wolfe Scholar at his alma mater. From a talented field of high school seniors with an interest in writing, the Department of English felt certain that you were the right person for this award. Now, with a whole semester behind you, this seems a good opportunity to reflect on the award and your first experiences at UNC. Let me begin by asking you to tell us how you up there in the Northeast came to hear about the fellowship.

CD: My mother found out about the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship through the internet and called it to my attention. I was astonished that there could be a scholarship of that magnitude, especially at the undergraduate level, based on creative writing. UNC has the Morehead Scholarship for overall academic performance and leadership, as well as various scholarships for athletics, but until the Wolfe Scholarship nothing had been established exclusively for writers. I jumped on the opportunity right away.

JF: What went through your mind when you learned that you had been selected?

CD: It was like winning the lottery. Actually, it was better, because combined with an enormous sense of luck was a strong feeling of accomplishment. I felt so encouraged and vindicated for my efforts as a poet. I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to earn a full college scholarship based on writing, especially when most of what I submitted was poetry. One thing people say about poetry is that it doesn’t pay. Not only did it pay, it paid in a way I could not have imagined. The Thomas Wolfe Scholarship sends a powerful message to young writers that what they’re doing matters, that a good writer is as vital to the life of a university as a gifted scholar or athlete. When I found out I had been selected, I kept thinking that any school where a poet can receive a scholarship package equal to that of a star quarterback must be a very special place. And I was right.

JF: Could you tell us something about the selection process?

CD: The field was narrowed down to twenty semifinalists. Five finalists were selected from that group and we were invited to Chapel Hill for interviews. The finalists, three from North Carolina, one from California, and yours truly from New York, stayed at the Carolina Inn. We were flown in a for a three-day interview process. We toured the campus, spoke with current students about UNC’S Creative Writing Program, and met with the judges for an interview. On the last night, we dined with the judges at the Crossroads Restaurant in the Carolina Inn and then we went our separate ways. A week later, we were notified.

JF: What was the reaction back home from your family and community?

CD: Everyone was pleased and excited. There was a degree of confusion, though. Whenever I mentioned the scholarship, someone would say, “Thomas Wolfe? I love Bonfire of the Vanities!” Friends in my age group said, “the guy who wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? He’s awesome!” Although I protested that the fellowship was not named for the Virginian Tom Wolfe, lots of jokes were made about how I would come back home from college wearing double-breasted white suits and a white hat. But I set the record straight and people were thrilled for me.

JF: How much Thomas Wolfe had you read? How much did you know about him?

CD: I grew up hearing Thomas Wolfe’s name because every time we drove through Brooklyn my dad would inevitably get lost and start quoting from Wolfe’s short story “Only The Dead Know Brooklyn.” I also grew up seeing a book by him on the shelf in our living room, “Look Homeward, Angel,” although I didn’t crack the cover until I won the scholarship. I thought that as the first Wolfe Scholar I should be familiar with at least one of his major works. After discovering Eugene Gant, I developed an interest in Wolfe himself and since then I’ve read widely about his life, including David Donald’s “Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe” and Ted Mitchell’s “Thomas Wolfe: A Writer’s Life.”

JF: There are obviously a lot of differences in your university and Wolfe’s. When he came here UNC was much smaller and all male. He didn’t have the distractions of women except as he might think about them or read about them or remember Laura James. You, of course, are surrounded by many males. The gender equation is obviously very different.

CD: Right. That’s a very good thing. Especially from my view, coming from an all-girl high school. I studied at the Purchase College Film Conservator for a year but the male-to-female ratio there was woefully unbalanced. Now I find myself surrounded by lots of guys with many different interests – so many distractions, so little time!

JF: You are then, like Wolfe in that he went to an all-male school in Asheville before coming here. There is also the parallel that you left the Northeast to come south; he studied in his home state and then went to the Northeast, to learn to write plays. So there is the bond of writing for performance – stage in his case, film in yours. How did you get interested in film?

CD: My interest in film began at age seven when I saw Rocky with my two older brothers. I decided I was going to challenge Rocky for the world title and my brothers agreed to train me if I stayed away from their video games. Needless to say, our deal lasted about a week, but my fascination with film remained. I picked up my first camcorder at fourteen and I’ve been making movies ever since. As a writer, I am attracted to the storytelling possibilities of film. There are many differences between crafting a narrative on the page and crafting one for the screen, yet both skills feed and fortify each other. The visual part of my mind strengthens the literary part and vice versa. Young writers with a dramatic flair used to drift toward the theatre but today they flock to Hollywood. Film is a powerful and relatively new creative outlet.

JF: Wolfe got the bug here to write plays. He wouldn’t, as you suggest, have thought about film. He went to the movies, but the talkies hadn’t come in yet. His experiences at the old Pickwick seemed to be merely for fun, for release of youthful energy, letting off steam. Now he might well be interested in film. Do you think so?

CD: He would probably be in film school! He was a very visual writer, prone to long passages of colorful description. His characters exude pathos and larger-than-life drama. Wolfe also had a sentimental side that would have been well suited to the film medium. Considering the massive scale of his work, the sweeping ambition, I think he’d likely be in Hollywood if he were alive today. He’d be making epic film sagas, extravagant three-hour productions full of crowd scenes, panoramic landscape shots, and stirring swells of orchestra music.

JF: Tell us about your first semester here. What was it like?

CD: I had none of the existential struggle that marked Thomas Wolfe’s first semester. Unlike Wolfe, who had never left home before Chapel Hill, I came here after four years of boarding school and a year of film school. The growing up that Wolfe did during his first semester was already behind me when I packed my bags for Chapel Hill. I adjusted to the university and to the south rather quickly. Not to mention that the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship made my arrival an absolute joy; from the moment I stepped on campus, I felt blessed from head to toe. Besides getting acquainted with the school, the surrounding area, and some interesting new people, I had three standout classes last semester: Contemporary Literature, Honors Creative Writing in Poetry, and the Art and Science of Language (my first exposure to the study of linguistics). Other fall-term highlights: the Clef Hangers concert, the football games, and – of course – Halloween night on Franklin Street.

JF: Any Laura James Counterpart back there in your life?

CD: Actually, yes. Wow! There was a Laura James counterpart in my past, if you remove the boardinghouse aspect and switch the genders of Wolfe and Laura.

JF: Did it break your heart? Send you into despair?

CD: No. But I think I am due for one of those. It can make you a better writer. You’ve got to have at least one major heartbreak.

JF: Any thoughts about where your time here might take you? Might you end up in Hollywood? The West Coast? Or will it be New York City – as for Wolfe?

CD: I want to take advantage of all the things I can do here, like studying abroad and exploring the many internship opportunities available through the Creative Writing Program.  My older brothers are both living and working in Brooklyn right now. They have grown up a lot doing that. New York is where it’s at! Reading some of Wolfe’s descriptions of New York has affected how I see it. He viewed the city as a large and whirring machine full of faces, sounds, and sensations. Wolfe enlivened the city for me. I have visited New York throughout my life but now I see it differently.

JF: Wolfe found several professors here who influenced greatly what happened to him after he left UNC. Later he wrote about them. It’s early, of course, but do you feel ready to identify any faculty who have a made a big impact on you? Who might one day appear in your autobiographical novel disguised?

CD: There are a couple of people from here who would appear just because I love them. Bland Simpson – the director of the Creative Writing Program. Marianne Gingher, who teaches in the program. Michael McFee, the poet. They were judges in the scholarship competition. I met them when I came for the interview and they have been very supportive since my arrival on campus. I stop by and visit them. I haven’t had them as teachers yet. As far as a teacher here, Amy Weldon in the introductory course in Contemporary Fiction is one of the most passionate teachers I have ever had. She conveyed her interest in such an energetic manner. From high school, I have one. His name is Mr. Pasanen and he is the best teacher I have ever had. I had him for my freshman year and then for my senior year.

JF: Mr. Pasanen was your Mrs. Roberts.

CD: Right. And he wrote one of my recommendations for the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship. He encouraged me to apply for the scholarship.

JF: Wolfe was something of a journalist here, becoming editor of the Daily Tar Heel. Do you feel any pull that way?

CD: No journalistic tendencies here, but I do have a great deal of respect for the Daily Tar Heel writers. They get assignments that are due the next day and they manage to pump out well-written and well-informed pieces within major time limitations. I’m bad at fast writing and the DTH deadlines would make me a nervous wreck. But I also think such experience would be good for me, forcing me to kick my mind and pen into high gear. At some point, I may actually try working for the DTH, but right now I am focusing on my classes and my own creative writing.

JF: Have you gotten to meet Frank Borden Hanes, who endowed your fellowship?

CD: Yes, I did! I wrote him a thank-you note. Writing that took a long time, longer than it should have. I worked on it forever because I wanted to convey my gratitude without seeming perfunctory or gushy. Of course, I had written my share of thank-you notes before, mostly to aunts and uncles at Christmastime, never a thank-you note of this magnitude. Finally, I just sat down and wrote what I felt, and Mr. Hanes responded with a beautiful letter and an invitation to lunch. We had lunch at 411 West (a popular Chapel Hill restaurant), and I discovered that on top of being a generous and accomplished person, he’s also a great guy to talk to. I had read about his life and his own accomplishments before I met him and so I was somewhat intimidated. But he put me at ease right away and we had a wonderful visit.

JF: How aware of Thomas Wolfe are you as you go about your daily life on the campus?

CD: Very, very aware. Often Wolfe’s statements about Chapel Hill will drift through my mind and I’ll think about the fact that I’m standing exactly where he stood and walking where he walked. I’ve even had a few instances of seeing a tall, broad-shouldered figure in the distance and imagining that it’s Wolfe himself – or his spirit, rather, his essence. That is something that surrounds me every day here. As the Thomas Wolfe Scholar, I’m tuned into his voice and presence and I feel as though our lives are intertwined somehow, as though fate has crossed our paths for a reason.

JF: What new writers have you been discovering since you came to UNC?

CD: Amy Weldon’s class introduced me to several: Julian Barnes, John Fowles, and Jean Rhys, to name a few standouts. After hearing Elizabeth Spencer give the Thomas Wolfe Lecture this fall, I started reading her work. She is a wonderful writer! It was my privilege to present her with the Thomas Wolfe Prize medal when she finished her speech. What a thrill for me to be introduced to the packed auditorium that night, alongside Elizabeth Spencer.

JF: Would you have any words to say to the Thomas Wolfe Society, the group responsible for the campaign that led to the establishment of the Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lectureship?

CD: I would say “Keep it up” and “thank you.” Thomas Wolfe is a writer not enough people read anymore. He has gone almost completely out of fashion. The dominant contemporary mode of writing is far more influenced by the literary approaches of writers like Hemingway and Carver than those of Wolfe. But if fiction has benefited by becoming more carefully crafted and disciplined, it has also lost some of the spirit that Wolfe exuded. As someone coming of age after the millennium, accustomed to reading fiction full of restraint, spareness, and subtlety, I find encountering the raw passion of Wolfe a great pleasure. His unabashed emotiveness strikes me as refreshing. You get the feeling that every sentence is a matter of dire urgency for him. I think all young writers should read Wolfe because he puts you in touch with the reasons one should write in the first place. His sheer love for the process shines through every line. And so I would say to the Thomas Wolfe Society: Keep promoting and celebrating Wolfe. He deserves it!