John Ehle [Ee-lee] was born in Asheville on December 13, 1925, and grew up the eldest of five children in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, which would become the setting for many of his seventeen books. He is the author of eleven novels and six nonfiction books and has won numerous literary awards, including the North Carolina Award for Literature, the Thomas Wolfe Prize, the Lillian Smith Award for Southern Fiction, and the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction, which he has earned five times—more than any other writer to date. He has been awarded four honorary doctorates and has earned the Governor’s Award for Distinguished Meritorious Service. In 1997, he was added to the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. His work has been translated into numerous languages, including French, German, Swedish, Czech, Spanish, and Japanese.
In addition to his contributions to literature, Mr. Ehle served as special assistant to Governor Terry Sanford from 1962-64, where he was a “one-man think tank,” the governor’s “idea man.” Some of his most notable ideas resulted in the creation of the North Carolina School of the Arts, the North Carolina Governor’s School, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, the North Carolina Film Board, the North Carolina Institute of Outdoor Drama, and the Awards Committee for Education, which provides educational enrichment experiences for gifted young African Americans, Native Americans, and white Appalachians. He was instrumental in establishing the first statewide anti-poverty program and integrating twenty-one southern prep schools. For nearly eight years, he sought out academically gifted African American students around the state and placed them in special summer programs at North Carolina universities. Later, Mr. Ehle worked with the Ford Foundation, with the White House Group for Domestic Affairs, and with the First National Council of the Humanities. Governor Sanford once said of Mr. Ehle: “If I were to write a guidebook for new governors, one of my main suggestions would be that he find a novelist and put him on his staff.”
As a youngster in Asheville, Ehle attended Lee Edwards High School, where he met Bertha Hunt, the teacher he credits for spawning his writing career, and later enrolled at Asheville Biltmore Junior College. At about that time, he also became a radio announcer for WISE Radio and worked there until the outset of World War II. Then eighteen-year-old Ehle was inducted into the Army as a rifleman, serving in the 386th Infantry Regiment. After combat action in Germany and Japan, he returned home and continued his studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received his BA in radio, television and motion pictures and an MA in drama. It was here that he met several other important teachers, among them, Robert Schenkkan, Sam Selden, Walter Pritchard Eaton, and Phillip Russell and upon graduating, began writing twenty-six half-hour radio plays for the American Adventure series, broadcast on educational stations nationwide and on NBC radio and Radio Free Europe. It was this work which got him noticed by one of his faculty advisors, the famous playwright Paul Green, who encouraged him to write a novel and then helped him get it published.
Originally released in 1964 by Harper & Row, The Land Breakers is the first book of seven in a sweeping saga detailing the opening up of the North Carolina Appalachian frontier. Rob Neuland of the Asheville Citizen Times has called Ehle’s series, “the greatest epic of our region.”
Mr. Ehle lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with his wife, actress Rosemary Harris. The two divide their time between Winston-Salem and two other homes, one in Penland, North Carolina, and another in New York City. They have one daughter, Jennifer Ehle, also an actress.
Monks: Why The Land Breakers? When the library approached you about possibly using one of your novels for its community read program, On the Same Page, why did you pick The Land Breakers? Is there anything in particular about The Land Breakers that makes it a good book for the community to read?
Ehle: It’s our frontier novel, the western movement of the first settlers to what had been, prior to our American Revolution, hunting grounds of the Cherokee. It’s the first of the mountain books. As you know, I wrote a number of those books set in the same area of western North Carolina. The Land Breakers was chronologically the first.
Monks: Will you tell me again the order of those books, chronologically?
Ehle: Yes. The Land Breakers, The Journey of August King, Time of Drums, The Road, The Winter People, Lion on the Hearth, The Last One Home.
Monks: But the first one you wrote was Lion on the Hearth. Is that right?
Ehle: Yes. I’d written two novels prior to that, and they were fine; they were accepted in the trade and all that sort of thing. But I didn’t feel as comfortable as when I turned to my own people. My uncle had told me a story about his uncle, and that incident that my uncle told me was the key incident in this novel. Writing it, I came to feel I knew more, maybe, about my own people and my own birthright.
Monks: And did that cause you, then, to seek to tell this epic tale, this larger story?
Ehle: Yes. I’d start writing the story of this part of America, my part of it, beginning when it was the frontier.
Monks: Once you finished The Land Breakers, did you realize you were working on a long series of books? When did you become aware of the fact that you were writing the mountain books?
Ehle: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think I ever saw it quite that way. I saw it as…You see, when I started out, I was writing a series of radio plays for the educational radio stations of the country; they were to be produced at Chapel Hill, and they were very successful. When I sat down to write another play about the American story—the name of this series was American Adventure—I didn’t try to write plays that lead into one another or that were comprehensive. Anything pertaining to the American adventure was an American Adventure. As for the novel, my intent was to look into various phases of the northern North Carolina mountains, using the same family and its descendents, if that relationship was manageable—and sometimes it was.
Monks: By following your interests, then, the stories organically became part of a longer body of work?
Ehle: Yes. To interfere with that, immediately people started calling and wanting the motion picture rights to The Land Breakers, and later to other mountain novels, and insisting on the rights to the characters to sequels. Most of those novels were optioned for movies, although only two have been made.
Monks: Did it take you longer to write The Land Breakers than it did other books?
Ehle: No. I spent three years on Time of Drums, the Civil War novel. I suppose The Land Breakers took longer than most. My editor at Harper, Buzz Wyeth, wanted more and more, objecting to my leaving out events that he had read about in previous drafts, such as the snake scene. I took it out, deciding that the terrifying scene stood out too much. I put it back in to please him and added scenes and detail to the book.
Monks: Well, the book went on to become a critical success and Literary Guild selection and found many publishers in Europe as well, so his judgment appears to have been confirmed. Wouldn’t you say?
Monks: How long did it take you to write The Land Breakers? I’ve read it took you nine months to write a novel.
Ehle: Well, I wrote the first 150 pages and I don’t remember where I was at the time, probably in Chapel Hill, and then I went to New York and worked for three more months. My editor, Buzz Wyeth, wanted more.
Monks: So much of the book is devoted to giving these very elaborate sets of instructions, about how certain kinds of work would have been done, for example. Did you feel any sense of obligation in literally recording certain parts of western North Carolina culture—the folk songs, the stories, the battles, the work? Were you hoping to find some balance with that literal recording of history and the more fictional parts of the novel?
Ehle: When I was writing about that period, that place, I did what I always did when I was writing anything. With those twenty-six plays, I’d written about the American adventure. Now I was writing a novel. Paul Green suggested that I quit writing radio plays and start writing a novel. So I was off writing a novel. Paul was a wonderful advisor. The first thing in undertaking any period in American history is I would do research on that period. In the case of these mountains, there were only two or three books that were helpful. So I took everything out of them that was helpful in terms of how people lived.
Monks: What about the characters? Is Mooney Wright modeled at all after a real person?
Ehle: No. No. None of my characters are ever modeled after real people.
Monks: Were you surprised by events that happened in the novel? Did you work with an outline, or did you dream the story as you went along?
Ehle: The latter. I never did an outline. I knew the mountain would have fangs as well as beauty.
Monks: I’ve heard you mention before that Ernest Plover is the comic figure in the novel. Can you talk about the characters a little? Mina is… well, let me ask you: Who is your favorite character in the book?
Ehle: [Laughs] I see. Mina Plover is certainly one of them. Well, if I said somebody other than Mina, she’d come out of the book and box my damn ears. [Laughs] She wouldn’t stop talking about it for twenty minutes. All the characters are real to me. I’ll not admit to a favorite, but I recall when Harvey Weinstein optioned my screenplay for The Land Breakers, he said he was in love with Mina.
Monks: Well, there’s this whole sense that the Plovers are all very charmed, Mina especially. She walks around and a bear is following her, sleeping nearby but never harming her. Mina has this magical quality to her. She seems almost like the mountain embodied, like just another creature there on the mountain.
Ehle: I’ve had other people read the book and say they loved Mina. They’re in love with Mina! [Laughs] I don’t know. But the bear, a bear isn’t likely to hurt a woman like that. Bears don’t generally go around hurting people without cause.
Monks: So it wasn’t that she had any special quality?
Ehle: Unless it does. [Laughs] I can’t think like a bear, but normally a bear is perfectly fine in the wild. If you try to run from it, it’ll outrun you. I don’t know.
Monks: Well, it isn’t just the bear, even. There’s a wolf and a panther that are also on that trail.
Ehle: Hmmm. A wolf and a panther. Yeah. Oh, and a panther has an historic reputation of sometimes being kind to mountain people. Wolves, in packs, have not, I suppose. But one wolf? He was lost, obviously. [Laughs]
Monks: So you don’t acknowledge that she has any special power over the…
Ehle: Of course she does. Because she’s natural.
Ehle: These people who are unnatural in the natural world will get hit by something in the natural world, don’t you see? A bear isn’t going to bother you. Obviously, you know, a tourist, if you feed it and then you stop feeding it…if you irritate them, that’s not part of the natural world.
Monks: What about the bear and the other characters and the livestock? Is it that those characters are encroaching on the natural world?
Ehle: A bear, a bear could be very hard on pigs [laughs]. And it could be…That was perfectly natural in the natural world, but there was nothing in the natural world like what people were doing up there. They were changing the natural world, and so the bear could be irritated and they were numerous. There were little children; there was one example of a bear carrying off a baby. I can imagine a bear doing that. If a baby was crying and irritating it. But bears don’t want to… Babies are not on the natural side of bears. When settlers come into the natural world and start building a community, the bears are going to have to accommodate themselves, sure, and bears do not accommodate themselves very well to anything other to what they’re accustomed to.
Monks: What about relationships in the novel—between Lorry and Mooney and between Mina and Mooney? I think it’s brilliant what you’ve done with them, in the way that Lorry is…well, I’ll let you talk about Lorry and Mina. It’s ingenious what you’ve done and what it says about marriage in terms of its practical aspects…and in terms of love, types of love. It’s very complicated, very sophisticated. I wonder if you can talk about that a little bit. What does Mina represent in terms of romantic love? She is obviously charming and beautiful and witty, whereas Lorry is much more stable.
Ehle: Well, in the early 1800s, romance was adjustable. [Laughs] I mean, who was able to do the work? And who was able to bear the children? And who was able to take care of them? And who was able to do the fighting and the hunting and the major labors, like take care of the horses while somebody else milks the cows? There was a certain division of labor, and you understand that all of these people were farmers. There wasn’t anything else. There were no stores. I mean if a man saw two women and either one of them he could propose to… The idea of simply falling in love was a false clue. I don’t know when that came in because it was not assumed that you were going to marry because you had fallen in love. Quite the contrary. If you were falling in love, you better watch it because you might wind up in the ditch [laughs]. Then, too, there was the dowry, the family standing.
Monks: And yet, you appear to be very conscious in setting up these two relationships…The conflicts you set up… Did you plan elaborately when you were deciding who was going to populate this setting?
Ehle: I wonder if I did. At the time, when I was writing this book, I would start writing first thing in the morning. If I dreamed about the book at night, that was all the better. And I would write. I would type on a standard typewriter. I would type twenty pages.
Monks: Wow! Every day?
Ehle: Or more. Five days a week. And then on Saturday I would read what I had written, and on Sunday I would think about it all and figure out what next week I was going to do. I might dismiss what I’d written. When I got through with the manuscript, the manuscript that I had typed day by day, was the height of this table.
Monks: So once that process was over and you had two and a half feet of manuscript, then what? Did you have to go back through…?
Ehle: Meanwhile, you had gone through and pruned, so you ended up with a three inch or four inch manuscript, and that was what the characters had done and said, as, living with them, I had come to know them.
Monks: Did someone help you with compilation?
Ehle: No, no. For the most part, that was a one-man…No, no, I didn’t have anyone to help me, though there were typists, editors, friends to judge the later stages. Now those manuscripts for The Land Breakers…I sent all those papers down to Chapel Hill.
Monks: In the archives?
Ehle: Yes. The Southern Historical Collection has over twenty feet of my papers and manuscripts. It’s absurd! [Laughs] The first time I started to write a novel, I had a short story which I’d written, and I showed it to Paul Green, who agreed that it could be a first chapter of a novel. And I wrote the second and the third chapters and brought them out to him and he said, “Yes, now write an outline of the remainder.” What a clever idea. And I wrote that, a page to a chapter… Some pages had only two or three sentences on them, and I wrote that and gave it to Paul, and he said it was fine; “Now write the book.” He then proceeded to help get it published. It was a novel about a black family [Move Over, Mountain], maybe the first un-stereotyped novel about black people written by a white American. What a wonderful friend Paul was, a great, great friend, great man. Very smart! Woo-hoo-hoo! I don’t know what Paul’s IQ was. He’s one of those people who could’ve done well in school or not. He was teaching school when he was just a teenager. Oh, he was brilliant. Anyway, the use of an outline was excellent, but I came to prefer visiting with the characters in their homes and their society.
Monks: There was another teacher, Bertha Hunt, who was instrumental in your writing career. She was a speech teacher?
Ehle: Forensics, it was called.
Monks: Forensics was a speech class?
Ehle: She also taught English, so the two periods were one, and if you got lucky enough to be in her class, which I was, due to my mother, by God, it was just…My mother thought every man should be able to get up and make a speech. She thought he might be called on. I guess she was thinking at weddings or baptismals and things like that…[laughs]… or maybe being a preacher. She rather always thought I should be a preacher and was waiting for God to call me. So she got me into this class with Bertha Hunt, the teacher. And Mrs. Hunt got up in front of the class and said the first assignment was to write a speech and bring it in Monday or Tuesday… but anyway not very long ahead; she didn’t give much time. She wanted everybody to write a speech about Ferdinand the Bull. Ferdinand the Bull was then a popular cartoon motion picture, which you may remember, a bull who got cast to be in a bullfight and he didn’t want to fight [laughs] and he ended up out in the pasture, sniffing roses, sniffing flowers, rather, and I don’t know whether Ferdinand… what the story was of the moment. But everybody had to make a speech about Ferdinand the Bull. Well, that made it kind of funny. Everybody wrote one, and everybody did one, and everybody was successful. And then after that it was debate and other speeches, and Bertha Hunt never told you how to do anything; she never gave you any assignment. Bertha Hunt simply turned over to you the problem of writing and debating…You go into competition. And when you went into tournaments, you often gave what was called an oration. Then there was extemporary speaking also. The topic was assigned once you got up on your feet. The judges were sitting there, and they told you what your topic was.
Monks: Do you think that conditioned your mind, your imagination, as you sat down to write, that you had to think quickly that way?
Ehle: I don’t know what it did, but it made me alive for the first time as a student. It was the first time I was ever really successful. I’d always been able to do pretty well. Nobody complained. No teacher ever complained. But all of a sudden I was on my own. Also, I was in the newspaper with other children who were going off on big trips to debate others. Your parents would have read it and your grandmother and all this. They’ve all got access to a newspaper. Even my old grandmother, my mountain grandmother, took the newspaper and read it everyday. And the wonderful thing about Bertha Hunt is she was not a participant.
Monks: Why do you think she did that? She would just sit back and let you…
Ehle: Well, I think she didn’t know how to debate.
Ehle: [Laughs]. Operating on the theory that her desk, as a speech teacher, should be at the back of the room. She wanted students to make speeches and they had to occupy the podium at the front. She did not comment on the speeches very much. She never, far as I know, corrected anybody. If she did, I didn’t know about it. She knew who won! [Laughs] What a great woman. What a great woman. She encouraged you.
Monks: Did she put less emphasis on winning and more on participating?
Ehle: No, hell no! [Laughs] She never expressed that thought. And I don’t know what her prescription would have been, but I imagine she thought winning was pretty damn important. [Laughs]
Ehle: And she thought it was pretty important to put it in the newspaper, whatever you did, anyway. So there was a wonderful array of stories about the debate team and so forth.
Monks: Well now did Bertha Hunt or maybe Paul Green and other teachers, did they have any influence at all on your later interests in education, when you were working with the governor? Did you have a particular fondness for education?
Ehle: I had an animosity toward it. [Laughs]
Ehle: You talk about a boy who has a fondness for education in the 1930s and 1940s, you’ve got yourself a problem. Boys were not made that way.
Monks: When you worked in the governor’s office, do you think you improved anything in education so that it was better suited for male students?
Ehle: Boys need to find something they, as individuals, do well and that they can dedicate their time and their attention to. My present day concern is that we are relegating boys to overall testing where many are not going to be able to do well or to become anything other than belligerent, which is not going to lead to a good family atmosphere later. Anyway, my days in Chapel Hill as a teacher, as a student and then a teacher and a writer/producer in the communications center where I did movies and radio plays, I seemed to believe the university at Chapel Hill was stuck in the mud, so to speak, for its treatment of ever so many of its students. And I wrote an article about it for The News & Observer in Raleigh; it’s a rather famous article in The News & Observer news rooms: “What’s the Matter with Chapel Hill?”
Monks: And that’s about when you became involved with the governor?
Ehle: He invited me over to his house and asked me if I would like to help develop various projects for the governor’s office to promote. It was a wonderful opportunity, a challenge, and at the same time, I was writing The Land Breakers, so I told the governor I couldn’t come to work right then. I had to go to New York for three months and finish this book. I had taken a leave from the university for a year so I could just write and live in New York City. The great literary mistake of my life is I didn’t do that. Because I had everything going for me. I had the major publisher going to finance me, publish my work, and all I had to do was take the money to live on.
Monks: But you decided to go work for the governor.
Ehle: Yes. And we did a lot of things for Terry Sanford; some programs were for gifted students; some of them were for students who were not doing very well in school, who were below average on exams. But I helped with the founding of The North Carolina Advancement School and the Governor’s School, the School of the Arts, and the School of Science and Math (which was later, under Governor Hunt), and the first statewide anti-poverty program called the North Carolina Fund.
Monks: Were there any books you wanted to write but didn’t get to write? Are you still working on those books?
Ehle: Oh yes. I’ve still got novels and biographies that aren’t published, that aren’t finished or published.
Monks: Which writers influenced your writing? What did you like to read?
Ehle: In college, I took several courses in dramatic literature. I took writing courses. I took a hell of a lot of… I took eight writing courses. The literature courses were all in drama. In boyhood, the Bible. One Christmas, my request to Santa Claus was the Bible. My grandfather Ehle sent me many books. Uncle Wiggly stories and other children’s stories. Tarzan of the Apes. I first read that book, I imagine, soon after it came out. He sent me a book about Nolichucky Jack—John Sevier—my first meeting with him and his settlement in what is now eastern Tennessee. He sent me Charles Dickens’ novels.
Monks: What playwright did you most admire?
Ehle: Eugene O’Neal was one I was particularly fond of. And the Greeks, the Greek dramas, and I would… and the Elizabethans. Also I have a background in motion pictures and documentary films. As a boy, every Saturday afternoon, I went to a motion picture. Usually a western; sometimes a jungle picture. There were other movies I went to see, but you had to go to Asheville to see them and I was living in West Asheville.
Monks: Do you think it was right that you became a novelist, then, instead of maybe a playwright?
Ehle: Early on, I went to Annie Laurie Williams, who was an outstanding representative of playwrights in New York. I went to see her and she was very receptive, and I told her I wanted to write a play, a Broadway play that would encompass what I’d originally done with my radio plays, which had not only been successful, they’d been twice rebroadcast on the NBC network. They’d been very successful. I had my own series on Thursday nights at eight o’clock at a time when there were still radio networks. Before PBS.
Monks: But she discouraged you from writing plays?
Ehle: Oh yeah. She said, “John, I can’t do anything with them. We can’t get any plays produced. I can’t tell you how many people are writing plays and nobody…Who is producing them? Nobody is producing them. Write a novel and I will sell it to the movies.” And I was so into the movies. [Long pause.] So I did.
Monks: That’s what you did.
Ehle: Later I had a conversation with Annie Laurie, after publication of The Land Breakers, and she said, “I have this”—she called me on the phone and I was down in Chapel Hill and I went into the kitchen where the phone was and she had an offer from I don’t remember which big Hollywood company it was and they were offering whatever it was and she wanted a hundred thousand dollars, so she rejected their offer. She said, “Was it all right for me to turn it down?” And I didn’t know anything. I said, “Yes, I think so.” And I saw her later and she said, “John, they called back the next day and they said, ‘What’s the least Mr. Ehle will take for this book? We want it.’” She told them, “What do I care? I told you what we wanted.” And she hung up on them. [Laughs] The stories of a writer in this business. But in answer to your question what is my literary background, well, the Bible, plays, motions pictures including cowboy movies, nonfiction books about American history and a lot of subjects in Appalachian folklore, and novels. When I was in my forties, I read my first Thomas Wolfe novels. I read all of them. I even edited a stage play using Wolfe’s work—other than Look Homeward Angel, which already had been a stage play—and my adaptation was approved for producing by his trustee and family. But it never was produced. Maybe I should read it again.
This interview was conducted in 2006. At that time I was co-owner of Press 53, a small literary publisher in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which was re-issuing Ehle’s classic Appalachian novel The Land Breakers, first published by Harper & Row in 1964. The novel had been chosen by the Forsyth County Public Library for its summer 2006 community read program On the Same Page. For more information, visit www.press53.com.