Earl Hamner, Jr.
Emancipator staff-member Nicole Golden recently had the opportunity to interview a living legend: Earl Hamner, Jr. The creator of the beloved series The Waltons, Hamner is also the author of the classic novels Spencer’s Mountain, The Homecoming, and others. Among his many accomplishments, Hamner is also the original screenwriter for Charlotte’s Web and Where The Lilies Bloom, as well as writing several classic episodes of The Twilight Zone and creating popular 1980s drama Falcon Crest, among others. In 2007, LMU is honored to have Hamner visit our campus where he will serve as the keynote speaker for the second annual Mountain Heritage Literary Festival.
Golden: What is your opinion of the current state of Appalachia?
Hamner: I cannot claim first hand knowledge of what Appalachia is like today. I live in the Hollywood Hills and they just don’t qualify. So these observations are based on visits back east, from talking with friends and family back there, and from what I read. Certainly, like the rest of the country, Appalachia is undergoing political, religious, and social change. An influx of people from the outside is bringing new ideas, new approaches to old problems, and a fresh look at the time honored values and customs. Politically the area still tends to be conservative, but liberal ideas and concepts are being examined and put into practice with more frequency. Religion is still a strong force but “that old time religion” has frequently given way to more sober, more intellectual quest for a deeper meaning to the religious experience. Most ministers tend to be better educated than in the old days. In some cases, there is an unhealthy use of religion as a political tool in violation of the mixing of church and state. Coal continues to be a curse and a blessing. Scraping the top off a mountain is an insult to God’s work, and while the mine owners assure us they are making the mines safer, we are not confident that there won’t still be major disasters again some day. Tobacco fields are being replaced by vineyards. It’s hard to find “moonshine” these days but cocaine, meth and marijuana are all too available in most any small town. You hear more foreign languages spoken: Spanish, Thai, Chinese, Arabic and Farsi. Television has taken its toll. There’s an antenna on top of every roof spewing endless commercial messages, gross entertainment and demeaning images of mankind. Still, the time honored values of independence, self-reliance, respect for our elders, the honor of work and belief in Higher Power are still celebrated here and preserved. It is still an area where patriotism and love of country is still alive. I find it heartbreaking when reading the lists of young men and woman who are killed or wounded in Iraq that such an unusually large number of them come from the Appalachian area. There’s a Wal-Mart and a fast food joint within driving distance and the lucky small towns still have the diner or the customary morning spot where the locals meet for coffee and gossips every morning. Fishing’s still good as it used to be but mysteriously huge colonies of honeybees are disappearing. Nobody knows why. Most everybody’s got a couple of bucks to spend. People live longer, and the merry-go-round just keeps turning, turning, and turning.
Golden: What are your thoughts on the long lasting success of The Waltons?
Hamner: First I thank the powers that be for “a long lasting success.” The number of us who work in television who achieve this kind of record is comparatively small, and I’ve had two. This year marks the thirty-fifth year since The Waltons first went on the air. It is still being discovered in syndication in countries around the world and is still being shown on cable here at home. And eventually every episode will be available on DVD. There were many factors that made The Waltons successful. People of every race, religion, or background have told me that it reminded them either of how they grew up or how they wish they had grown up. Many people have said it became their family after loss or just because they had never had a happy family relationship of their own. The stories we told had the verisimilitude that came from having been inspired and based upon the events in the lives of real people (my own family for there was a real family member for each of the Waltons we met on screen). The series presented affirmative images of likeable characters, winning life’s battles some of the time, losing them just as often. Often a television series will fail because it has a weak link in the chain. Perhaps one of the actors is miscast. Maybe the music doesn’t work. The scripts or direction are weak. Not so here. The series was produced with care to assure that each element was the best it could be and contributed to the overall show. Acting, directing, production, editing, music, writing—all were excellent and melded into each other to produce a faultless production. Well, some of the time! Occasionally an alien plant like a bamboo or palm would show its head in a landscape that was supposed to represent Virginia where no such plant ever grew. Sometimes an actor who had never been to church a day in his or her life wouldn’t know the melody to “Throw Out the Lifeline,” or some other old Baptist hymn, but what the heck! We were human. We were Waltons.
Golden: How much of “The Waltons” was based on the preceding novel and your own experiences while growing up?
Hamner: Each character on the series as well as in the books Spencer’s Mountain and The Homecoming were based on actual people: my mother, father, sisters and brothers and me. The grandparents were composites. Some members of the community were used as models, but interestingly none of them recognized themselves. Two of my favorite models were a mother and sister who lived down near Esmont and were bootleggers. In real life, they served their “shine” in a tin dipper. On television they became the two elegant, addled sisters who made excellent apple brandy and had been in love with a University of Virginia student named Ashley Longworth. Both the book and the series were set against that time period of The Great Depression of the twenties and early thirties. The physical setting always was a rural community in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in an area called, “The Ragged Mountains.”
Golden: What did your family think of your “using” them?
Hamner: Every member of my family should have sued me for invasion of privacy, but the truth is they were each good sports. When the series first went on the air, my mother had recently been widowed. I think she was lonely and welcomed the tourist who began arriving “looking for Walton’s Mountain.” Later she enjoyed flying out to Los Angeles to meet the cast and watch the show being filmed. Each of my brothers and sisters became associated with the film characters, but as far as I know it never caused any of them any discomfort. I am sorry that my father died before he could see himself portrayed by Ralph Waite because Ralph gave the character a good many of the characteristics that made him strongly reminiscent of my real father.
Golden: What is it like to work on a variety of programs, to go from films to television to books?
Hamner: I hope it does not sound boastful but I have written books, films, television, short stories, poems, essays and I even once wrote The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade script. In fact, I have written everything but matchbook covers. The secret, of course, is that I am a professional writer and can write from a self-motivated start or I can from inspiration or I can write to order. I am not saying that this is good or bad, but simply that it has worked for me. Other writers may define themselves more narrowly as being a novelist or a poet or an essayist or a critic. It’s up to the individual and where his passion and his talent take him or her.
Golden: Did anything you read as a child influence you to write?
Hamner: Not something I read, but something I wrote. I wrote a poem about a dog that I did not have, and a little red wagon that I did not have, and a new sweater I did not have, and a puppy that I did not have. It was called “My Dog”, and my mother sent it to the Children’s Page of the Richmond Times Dispatch and they published it!
Golden: Who are your favorite authors?
Hamner: I am drawn to Southern writers: Thomas Wolfe, Lee Smith, Silas House, Eudora Welty, William Styron, to name just a few.
Golden: What is your favorite comment a critic has made about your work?
Hamner: Orville Prescott in his New York Times review of my book, You Can’t Get There From Here, said, “To give this book a bad review would be like kicking a cocker spaniel puppy.”
Golden: What is your least favorite comment made by a critic?
Hamner: She was not a critic, I don’t know what she was, but some writer who had no idea what she was talking about condemned The Waltons when it first went on the air in The New York Times because it did not conform to her vision of the American south during the Depression. In the first place, her vision seemed to have been formed entirely from looking at photographs of slattern like women, ragged and emaciated, men without chins or abnormally thick foreheads, and tubercular elders. What bothered me about it was that even if those kinds of people had existed they were not the kind of people I was portraying and certainly not the kind of people in my family. I have never heard of the woman again, but I believe my sister Marion did write her a threatening letter.
Golden: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Hamner: First I would stop saying I am aspiring writer, but that I am a writer. And of course to say this honestly one must write and one must write every day. Try to experience as much of life as you can—travel and keep your eyes open; study your fellow beings and try to determine what makes them tick; expand your experience by reading anything and everything. And surprisingly - Keep healthy! Writing is hard work. It’s a meat and potatoes job. You need all your strength. A place to write is important. Find a place, whether it is in the attic, in the park, in the kitchen, or under the bed, some place private if possible where you won’t be interrupted and where you can cultivate the “habit” of writing. A time to write is important. Writing at the same time of the day helps to make it a habit, something that is a part of your day, something you would miss if you did not do it that day. Write what you have a passion for. Only you can decide what that is. Write what you know. This gets said so often it sounds not worth repeating, but it’s it can never be said too often. Do not start worrying about an agent! Often fledging writers put the cart before the horse and worry about finding an agent or a publisher long before it is necessary. If the work is worth of publication, chances are, with persistence and luck, it will find the light of day. It does not always happen, but the chances are not all bad.
Golden: Is there anything no one has ever asked you?
Hamner: Yes, what is it like to be eighty-four years old? You wake up in a room that looks vaguely familiar but you can’t remember precisely who you are or what you are doing here. You get some hint when a woman who says she is your wife comes by and asks if you really intended to sleep till ten o’clock. Assured of your identity, you start assembling various body parts. It helps to locate one’s eyeglasses first. They should be on the bedside table but you remember that you read yourself to sleep and that the book, along with the glasses, has artfully concealed themselves under the bed covers. Once armed with sight, the next goal is to find one’s teeth. They turn out to have soaked overnight, not in their regular tumbler, but by accident in a half finished glass of chardonnay—a good vintage, but not at its best for having stood all night and been the host to a set of artificial dentures.
Dentures, once installed, can improve the host appearance, but he would still like too be able to hear. Hearing aids appear to be made of plastic but they miraculously sprout claws like crabs and during the night they run away and conceal themselves in all sort of unlikely places. One had scuttled into the toe of my shoe. The other seems permanently AWOL.
Finally one gets dressed, calls a friend to report that one is still alive, and would the friend like to meet for lunch? The friend is agreeable so off we go and only have to turn back once because when we dressed we put our pajamas bottoms back on instead of our pants. In spite of the frivolity of getting the day going, it’s good to be alive. Each day is a gift. You have a nice one. –e-