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Writing's wry side

It's hard to believe that North Carolina's Clyde Edgerton was once an unknown writer with a pile of rejection letters – 202 to be exact.

That was before “Raney,” his best-selling 1985 debut novel. “If I were single, I'd marry it,” one critic declared.

In the 23 years since, “Raney” and four other Edgerton novels have been named New York Times Notable Books. And countless readers have delighted in Edgerton's humor-filled stories populated with characters who seem a lot like people we know.

On Monday, with the publication of “The Bible Salesman” ($23.99; Little, Brown), we meet another memorable Edgerton creation – 20-year-old Henry Dampier (pronounced damp-yer.)

It's 1950, and Henry's selling Bibles door to door when he hitches a ride with low-life car thief Preston Clearwater. Clearwater uses a ruse – he says he's an FBI agent working to crack a car-theft ring – to hire Henry as his assistant.

Henry can't believe his good fortune. “So you know J. Edgar Hoover – you're a actual G-man?” he asks his new boss.

In this coming-of-age story, Henry learns you can't believe everything people tell you. But you can be a Christian without believing every literal word in the Bible, which, by the way, includes two conflicting creation stories plus sex outside marriage.

Edgerton, 64, lives in Wilmington, where he's a professor in UNC Wilmington's creative writing program. He recently talked with Reading Life Editor Pam Kelley about inspirations for this book, including his fundamentalist Christian upbringing, Flannery O'Connor and Bible sword drills. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q. The Bible and church play big parts in many of your novels.

I grew up in what would be fairly called a fundamentalist church – a Southern Baptist, fundamentalist church in the late '40s, '50s, and into the '60s. In that church, there was a belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible and that every word was written by God.

So things were quite complicated for me, as I began to question some of this belief about where did the Bible come from and what is it. Once I started reading the Bible myself, there came to me all kinds of astonishing and fascinating questions.

Q. Just like Henry. He's often perplexed by inconsistencies: Why would God need to rest on the seventh day? How could somebody who's perfect get tired?

Just like Henry.

If I hadn't been so engrained with the belief that God wrote down every one of those words, if I hadn't been practically indoctrinated with that, I'd be writing different material.

Q. “The Bible Salesman” began as a short story written as a tribute to Flannery O'Connor.

Yeah, it was a short story. There's a short story called “Good Country People,” by Flannery O'Connor. And in the short story, a woman with one leg is seduced by a Bible salesman who steals her leg. And the character who is the Bible salesman in the story has walked his yellow socks down into his shoes. (Laughing.)

He's an incredible character. That's one of my favorite stories on earth.

Another character very interesting to me is in O'Connor's “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” – the Misfit.

I said I'm going to take those two characters – the Misfit and the Bible salesman – and I'm going to make up two characters who are not them but maybe kind of resemble them, and I'm just going to put them together and see what happens.

So I did that in the short story, and it was fun. I was intrigued enough with the characters that I decided to develop it into a novel. And when I did that, I had to change the character of the Bible salesman somewhat, and make him less cocky and more naïve.

Q. Henry's sweet and earnest, and yet he's making money on Bibles that were meant to be donated. Would you call him a scam artist?

I would call him an innocent scam artist, because he rationalizes it in such a way that, theoretically, the Bible people wouldn't mind.

The truth is this: The early Henry (in Edgerton's short story) was mean and crafty and kind of crooked.

Well, to make the novel more interesting, I realized he had to be much more innocent. But part of the early Henry stayed with the good Henry, and that part was selling those Bibles. I just liked that so much, I couldn't get rid of it.

Q. As a child, Henry excels in Bible sword drills – races to locate and recite a specific Bible passage. Were you a sword drill champion as well?

I wasn't a champion, but I sure did 'em.

The sword drill was real business. And aptly enough, it was all military metaphors there – “Attention!” and “Charge!” and “Draw your swords!”

I'm surprised there wasn't something, you know – Kill your enemy! Let's all turn to where Jesus says, “Love your enemy.” (Laughing) Charge! Attention! Prepare for combat!

I think there were different kinds of ways of doing it, but you learned your Bible. You learned your Psalms. And if you wanted to get Psalms, you opened the middle of the Bible.

Q. In the book, fictional Swan Island, just off the N.C. coast, shows movies on a screen that's set up in the surf. That's fascinating.

Oh, you must, if you ever come to Wilmington, go to Wrightsville Beach, and go in their little museum. That's all right from there.

Swan Island is a little bit like Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach. The Lumina (Pavilion) on Wrightsville Beach, back in the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s, advertised electricity. And it was a tremendous dance floor. All the big bands came from up North and played there. Benny Goodman played there. Tommy Dorsey played there.

And at night, they played silent movies – they put a screen up in the surf and showed movies. And people sat on the beach and watched them.

Q. You've got an intriguing sentence in your acknowledgements – thanking an unnamed woman you met at an N.C. Council of Churches fundraiser “who told me a story about a red dress and a funeral.”

I was doing a fundraiser, a reading, and afterward a woman approached me, said she had a story. She told me about a neighbor falling in her garden and nobody could find her till late in the day.

She hadn't been able to get up, but she wasn't injured. Those who found her noticed first that her hands were dirty, and second, that she'd weeded as far as she could reach.

That was a great story. I felt lucky. But she went on to tell me another. A woman liked a red dress that another woman bought her mother, said it brought out the mother's color, et cetera.

The friend's mother died and woman No. 1 went to the funeral. The mother was being buried in the red dress … so woman No. 1 says, “I'm so glad you buried her in that red dress … you know, they do get pale at a time like this.”

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