Journalist Avett’s fiction draws stems from stories

Every town tucks a few unsavory stories deep within the folds of its old, worn-thin fabric with the hope they’ll stay there.

Living in the Great Smoky Mountains for the past 40 years, retired newspaperman Wally Avett has heard some whoppers.

Avett will share how he wove strands from many of those true stories into his first fictional work, “Murder at Caney Fork,” when he speaks at the Pfeiffer University Friends of the Library’s fall brunch at 10 a.m. Sept. 19 in the library on the university’s Misenheimer campus.

The annual brunch and lecture showcases Southern writers from Montgomery, Stanly, Rowan, Union and Cabarrus counties. Proceeds go toward special renovation projects at the university’s three libraries on its Misenheimer, Raleigh-Durham, and Charlotte campuses.

Avett grew up in Cabarrus County, with a long line of family storytellers before him.

“Before television, people would sit on the porch and talk, and I’d listen to them,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in the stories that old people tell – the oral tradition.”

It’s a talent that apparently has traveled through the family’s bloodline. Avett’s popular nephews, Scott and Seth, the folksy songwriters known as the Avett Brothers, have also picked up the family’s gift of storytelling.

To their uncle, true stories have always carried more weight than fiction.

“I love the truth, and I love a good story,” Avett said. “Bless his heart, but I don’t care anything for Stephen King. I’ve got no use for science fiction because there’s no logic to it.”

So when he sat down at his electric typewriter to try writing fiction a few years ago, the newspaperman he’d been for decades before tagged along, too, carrying a nagging piece of advice: The truth is essential.

“Murder at Caney Fork,” a story about a vigilante homicide set in a small mountain town, is based on real events, although the characters’ names and the geographic location have been changed.

As told to Avett, the story goes that a preacher drew the short straw in a secret contest among a few townspeople to determine who would kill a vile store owner who had committed a heinous crime against another resident.

Avett wrote the novel around the oral story, filling in lapses and drawing character traits from other stories he’d heard or from people he had known firsthand.

Remaining loyal to the truth was a hard lesson for the newspaper writer to unlearn.

“I had to keep reminding myself that I’m not writing a documentary. I don’t have to stick 100 percent to the truth,” Avett said. “But I think that the fact that it’s based on the truth gives it an authentic ring.”

Sometime this month, Avett’s new book, “Last Bigfoot in Dixie,” will be released through BelleBooks, a popular publisher of Southern fiction. It’s a story about an outdoorsman tasked with finding a killer black bear in a woods crawling with unexpected, more threatening dangers.

The journalist-turned-novelist hopes it won’t be his last. He plans to continue writing truth-based fiction as long as the mountains have plenty of stories to tell.

“These mountains out here are full of stories,” he said. “I have a little diary, and when I hear a good one, I’ll write it down.”