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Kansas author Thomas Averill opens series

September 02, 2011 12:00AM


The 2011-2012 Pittsburg State University Distinguished Visiting Writers Series will open on Thursday, Sept. 8, with a reading by well-known Kansas writer Thomas Fox Averill. Averill will read from his new book, "Rode," at 8 p.m. in the Balkans Room of the Overman Student Center.

"I always love it when Tom comes to campus," said Laura Lee Washburn, a member of the PSU English Department faculty and series director. "He's just a dynamic personality and a true performer. His imagination is fabulous, so he always has something new for us."

Averill, writer-in-residence and English professor at Washburn University in Topeka, said his inspiration for "Rode" came from a bluegrass song by Jimmy Driftwood called "Tennessee Stud." Averill said he found the song hauntingly compelling and even sang it to his children as a lullaby.

After he'd sung the song to his son and daughter "countless times," he began to think about the story behind the lyrics. He researched the song's history, even retracing the route from the song from Tennessee into Arkansas, through Texas, and into Mexico. His research took Averill to racetracks, Spanish missions, historical museums, a living history farm, and national parks.

"Rode" captures the spirit of "Tennessee Stud," and it tells the story of the Stud and his owner Robert Johnson, a man in love who is pursued by a bounty hunter, Native Americans, and his own conscience.

"Thomas Fox Averill's prose is beautifully rendered," said Lori Baker Martin, PSU English instructor. "He has created a strong, memorable character in Robert Johnson, particularly.  The influence of the song is clearly there, but Averill has managed to make "Rode" his own story."

Averill, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is the author of three novels, three collections of short fiction, and many articles, poems, and short stories. He's been at Washburn University for 30 years and for 40 years has been an avid Kansas supporter. He helped found the Washburn Center for Kansas Studies and was the first director there. He created a Map of Kansas Literature, and developed the Thomas Fox Averill Kansas Studies Collection at Washburn's Mabee Library. Averill lives in Topeka and divides his time between teaching, speaking, and writing. He is the recipient of the O. Henry Award for short fiction, and his collection of short stories Ordinary Genius, was on the 2006 Kansas Notable Books List.

Averill has been series adviser and occasional scholar for Sunflower Journeys, an educational television series produced by KTWU at Washburn University. He's the voice of William Jennings Bryan Oleander of fictional "Here, Kansas" for Kansas Public Radio. Averill has edited several books for Woodley Memorial Press and the Washburn Center for Kansas Studies. His play, "Abide With Me," won the first Great Plains Play Competition and was produced by the University of Kansas Theater in 1997. Averill edited the 1991 "What Kansas Means to Me: Twentieth Century Writers on the Sunflower State."

The event is free and open to the public, and is sponsored by the PSU English Department and the Student Fee Council. A reception for the author in the Heritage Room of the Student Center will follow his reading.

©2011 Pittsburg State University