Lifetime Achievement Award — Leslie Garrett

The 13th Annual East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame to benefit Friends of Literacy will be held on August 18th 2016. During the event, Friends of Literacy will induct five local writers into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. This year’s Lifetime Achievement honoree is heroic Knoxville writer, Leslie Garrett.


A Favor for My Late, Lamented Friend, Leslie Garrett, is My Great Honor

 

By Don Williams

 

When Friends of Literacy induct their 2016 class into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame at 11:30 a.m.Thursday, Aug. 18, at the Lighthouse Restaurant in Knoxville, I plan to be there.

The event is especially gratifying to me, not only for the great work the Friends of Literacy do, and not only because Pamela Schoenewaldt—author of three wonderful novels–and Margaret Lazarus Dean—who writes beautifully about space travel, a passion we share–are among the five being inducted.

It’s especially meaningful because I’ve been asked to stand in for my late, lamented friend, Leslie Garrett, who’ll receive the Lifetime Achievement Award, posthumously. Better late than never. I’ve been asked to accept the award in memory of Les on behalf of family and friends. If all goes as planned, Les will put in an appearance too, thanks to an old VHS video made shortly before his death in 1993.

Leslie Garrett was a writer of wit, intelligence, and tremendous talent who overcame long odds to produce an acclaimed body of work. Poet and scholar Calvin Hernton called his novel, The Beasts, “Enthralling, magical, painful, delicate, subtle… a masterpiece.” The L. A. Times called his last novel, “In the Country of Desire,” a masterpiece as well.

It was a novel Les bled onto the page in a race against time, as he fought off the cancer that clutched him by the throat. Watching him finish that novel and see it into print was one of the most heroic acts I’ve ever witnessed, so that this honor is as much a tribute to his courage as to the work itself.

Les was the author of some dozen published short stories as well—including “Choo-Choo and the Last Dance,” which won the Alex Haley award from the Tennessee Arts Commission.

Although not a joiner, he was a founder of the Knoxville Writers Guild. It was at a small gathering in his Fort Sanders apartment one night in 1992 that writers decided to form a literary guild. Shortly before his death, June 3, 1993, Leslie asked that in lieu of flowers, attendees give money to help a struggling writer. That led to KWG’s Leslie Garrett Award, which, for nearly a quarter century, has bestowed cash prizes and trophies on deserving scribes.

The benefits of such encouragement were never lost on my friend, whose life I chronicled several times over the years. In my reporting—including a cover article for Poets & Writers magazine in the spring of 1993–I discovered a sojourner who traveled the literary underground from Philadelphia to New Orleans to San Francisco to New York to Paris and Ibiza, before landing at last in Knoxville. Along the way, Les became acquainted with Alan Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, James Jones, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni and, of course, Knoxville’s own Cormac McCarthy.

Both had just won awards for their first novel when they met in Europe. Cormac would later serve as best man at Les’s wedding, and they would keep in touch all the years. Shortly before Les died, Cormac was honored with the American Book Award for “All the Pretty Horses.” Among Les’s papers at the time of his death was a letter from Cormac which said, in so many words, “It should’ve been you, old friend.”

“He was never so alive as in the season of his death,” I once wrote for the News-Sentinel. “I still see him; his slight, wasted corpus wrapped in the comfortable old housecoat he wore from dawn to midnight. I see the thinning gray hair, the hawk-bill nose, sallow cheeks and watery brown eyes that widened to fill with light when a good story came to his alert mind.”

Those final days still stand as a defining moment in the life of Knoxville’s writing community, for they brought out the courage, vitality, wit and perseverance of one who never ever gave up in the pursuit of his art, his craft, and a greater understanding of humanity.


LES GARRETT’S WRITING LIFE

A far greater writer than I has written the script of my life.

— Leslie Garrett

The Beasts


Traveler of the Literary Underground

Les traveled from Philadelphia to New Orleans to San Francisco to New York to Paris and Ibiza, before landing at last in Knoxville.

Along the way, Les became acquainted with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, James Jones, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni and, of course, Knoxville’s own Cormac McCarthy.

Both had just won awards for their first novel when they met in Europe. Cormac would later serve as best man at Les’s wedding, and they would keep in touch all the years.

Shortly before Les died, Cormac was honored with the American Book Award for “All the Pretty Horses.” Among Les’s papers at the time of his death was a letter from Cormac which said, in so many words, “It should’ve been you, old friend.”


Short Stories

  • Author of some dozen published short stories
  • His short stories included “Choo-Choo and the Last Dance,” which won the Alex Haley award from the Tennessee Arts Commission.

Knoxville Writers Guild
  • Founding Member

It was at a small gathering in Leslie’s Fort Sanders apartment one night in 1992 that writers decided to form a literary guild.

The purpose of the Guild is to:

  • Facilitate a broad, inclusive, and egalitarian community among area writers
  • Provide a forum for information, support, and sharing among writers
  • Help members improve and market their writing skills
  • Promote writing and creativity in the wider community through education, publication, and sponsorship of writing-related public events.

In the Country of Desire

  • Published in 1992, HarperCollins (Amazon)
  • 10,000 first printing

With her grandmother dead, Willa Rheinman feels the time is right for her to seek out the mother she has never known, a decision that teaches her about her family history of brutality, drunkenness, and religion.

“[In the Country of Desire] reflects experiences of the Sixties generation and has the potential to become a cult classic in the tradition of William Burroughs’s works.” —Thomas L. Kilpatrick


Leslie Garrett Passes Away
  • June 3, 1993

Shortly before his death, Leslie asked that in lieu of flowers, attendees give money to help a struggling writer. That led to KWG’s Leslie Garrett Award, which, for nearly a quarter century, has bestowed cash prizes and trophies on deserving scribes.

“I regret the stories and novels that will now go unwritten, and the people I loved whose voices I will never hear again.” — Leslie Garrett


Lifetime Achievement Award

  • 2016, Posthumously

Longtime friend and sometimes mentee, Don Williams will accept the award in memory of Les on behalf of family and friends.


ARTICLES ABOUT LES

June 25, 1993

Leslie Garrett Cast A Long Shadow
By Don Williams

June 2, 1995

Above All There Was The Writer
By Don Williams

Nov. 18, 1990

Leslie Garrett Writes His Way Back
By Don Williams


Postscript: Leslie Garrett died on Thursday, June 3, following a battle with throat cancer. Hospice nurses discovered the body at his Fort Sanders apartment about 10 a.m. and I was called to identify him and take charge of the estate. He was 62. Garrett lived to see HarperCollins publish In the Country of Desire, which a Los Angeles Times critic called a masterpiece. Leslie often compared his life to the denizens that inhabit his novels and short stories. However, he once joked that, “A far greater writer than I has written the script of my life.” In a letter regarding his terminal illness, Garrett wrote, “I regret the stories and novels that will now go unwritten, and the people I loved whose voices I will never hear again.”


Don would love to hear from you, and to hear your memories of Les. Send him a message here.

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