If ever there were two names that are synonymous, it would be Tommy Hays and the Great Smokies Writing Program (GSWP). As the program celebrates its twentieth anniversary, it also bids goodbye to Hays, who has retired from his position as Executive Director of the program and as a member of the faculty at UNC Asheville.
In the writing community in and around Asheville, North Carolina, the GSWP, created specifically for inspiring, training, and launching adult writers, is renowned for its breadth of offerings and quality of instruction. Yet it wouldn’t exist without Hays’ drive, vision, talent, and reputation.
Hays, a South Carolina native, came to Asheville 32 years ago in pursuit of an MFA at Warren Wilson College, with an eye toward teaching at the college level. Hired by UNC Asheville as an adjunct professor, he taught night classes, such as Advanced Fiction and Intro to Creative Writing, leading to his becoming a full-time faculty member.
At about the same time that Hays joined the faculty, Rick Chess a professor in the Language and Literature Department at the University, and Asheville-based (at the time) novelist Valerie Leff, began formulating the concept for an adult writing program, sponsored by UNC Asheville, that would be open to the community. “Valerie had come here from New York,” Hays says, “and she had things in mind that she wanted to do. She saw a need for a creative writing program, and Rick was also thinking along those lines. They met with Debbie McGill, who was the Literature and Theater Director of the North Carolina Arts Council, and their idea started to become a plan.”
Elaine Fox, an administrator at the University, got involved, and the plan became a reality. “In the beginning,” Hays says, “the program was going to be [offered through] continuing education, which is what Elaine did, but it became an off-campus program instead.”
“During the initial months,” Hays says, “Rick mentioned me to Valerie. I was teaching a poetry class, although I knew nothing about poetry. Valerie took my class. At the end of the class, she asked me to direct the Great Smokies Writing Program. I said sure, because I wanted a job that would complement my writing and get me out into the community.
“At first, the program was very small,” Hays continues. “Kathy Sheldon taught a poetry class and I taught a fiction class. The classes met at A-B Tech [Asheville-Buncombe Technical College. The program started to grow, but after two or three semesters, A-B Tech started their own writing program, so we started meeting wherever we could find a place. As interest and faculty grew, we got bigger over the years. We’re now at ten or eleven classes.”
Even as the program was just getting off the ground, Hays had already begun thinking about its future. “At first, we wanted classes for beginning or inexperienced writers. Over time, it became clear we needed classes for people who were more accomplished or experienced, so we started offering two or three more advanced classes. Now, the classes are designed for different levels of skills within the same class. Classes can be difficult for more experienced people, but sometimes new writers ask basic questions that make us revisit and examine what we’re doing. One strength of the program is the mix of skill levels. It works.”
A program like the GSWP depends on a combination of experienced and dedicated faculty and students who are eager to learn and improve. Over the program’s twenty years, Hays actively recruited and built a strong and diverse faculty comprising professional writers with expertise in all aspects of creative writing, including Young Adult (YA) and children’s books, nonfiction and personal essays, and flash fiction, as well as fiction and poetry. Well aware that once a student’s work was complete, he/she might want to publish it, Hays also included faculty members who could direct classes through the process of publication. Many of the instructors have academic experience on the university level and others had careers in journalism or related fields.
Hays prospected among his colleagues at UNC Asheville and his contacts at Warren Wilson College in search of excellent candidates. Sometimes writer friends would make recommendations, or he would hear about good candidates by word of mouth. “There aren’t many great jobs for teachers,” Hays says, “so some would seek me out.”
Occasionally, Hays heard about talented candidates through unexpected sources. “I did something at a radio station, and the person there asked me, ‘Have you ever met Eric Nelson? He just moved here from Georgia.’” Hays hadn’t, but talked with Nelson and ultimately offered him a job. “He’s become one of our main poetry teachers,” Hays says.
The breadth of backgrounds of the students is notable. They are doctors and teachers, scientists and published fiction writers, businessmen and businesswomen and community volunteers, clergy and seekers of personal growth and satisfaction. Some want to become professional writers and others want to learn how to write a family history or a memoir or that one book that captures something significant in their lives. One local doctor even took a poetry class to learn how to write love poems to his wife.
Students come to the program through various routes. “We’ve advertised in the Mountain Express and Asheville Citizen-Times,” Hays says. “Steve Plever and the public relations people at UNC Asheville have been very good about getting out the word on our classes. We had flyers printed, and I would take a ton over to public library and they would disperse the flyers to their branches. We advertised on WCQS [the flagship public radio station for Western North Carolina]. Word of mouth also helped.”
Hays paused to give a shout-out to Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville’s premier independent bookstore, and to express his gratitude for their support and promotion of the GSWP, especially their hosting of the program’s Writers at Home series. That series offers writers the opportunity to read from their work to an audience comprising Malaprop’s customers and the general public.
“Writers at Home was very helpful in publicizing the GSWP,” Hays says. “People would have just moved here and were into writing, so they would go to Malaprop’s for readings and while there learn about the GSWP. I would bring up the program as a way for them to participate in the writing community, and it became a good way of recruiting new students.”
The synergy between GSWP and Malaprop’s has benefitted the Asheville writing community in an exciting way. “The relationship between us has grown over the years,” Hays says, “and through that relationship we were able to help bring a number of well-known writers to UNC Asheville.” Some of the notable authors co-sponsored by GSWP and Malaprop’s who have appeared at the University are Denise Kiernan, Ann Patchett, and Eric Larson.
After spending so much of his adult life with the GSWP, Hays reflects back on the highs and lows, and thinks of his legacy with the program in terms of how it has influenced others. “It’s always exciting and affirming to meet people who’ve taken our courses over the years and to learn what a difference those courses and those teachers have made in the student’s work and in their lives,” he says. "I hope that even if they don’t stay with writing, they have developed some insight into and appreciation of books. For those that found importance in writing, I hope that will continue. I also hope I leave a legacy of helping people write and discover, or rediscover, what literature can do for you.”
Members of the GSWP community already embody Hays' wished-for legacy. The accomplishments of students and faculty abound. Megan Shepherd, a former student and teacher, has published and won awards for a series of YA novels. Heather Newton, also a former student now a teacher in the program, won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award for her debut novel, Under the Mercy Trees. Several students have gone on to earn MFAs and are now full-time writers. Faculty members—Vicki Lane, Katherine Soniat, Rick Chess, Tina Barr, Christine Hale, and Hays, to name a few—have published books while teaching in the program.
Hundreds of students have participated in the GSWP over the years. Those new to writing, or who hadn’t written since college or even high school, stand out in Hays’ memory. “A lot of times, people who hadn’t written very much became engaged with their writing, and some even got serious about it,” Hays says. “Some would tell me, ‘It’s meant the world to me. It’s given structure to my life and is something that is crucial to who I am.’
“That’s the really cool thing about the program, that people who thought they couldn’t write found out that they could. Yes, some good writers came to the program and made connections and got even better, but those who said they never really wrote, or wanted to write, or wrote some in college—they got excited and discovered it. That, to me, is the really good thing about the program. It’s always exciting and affirming to run into those people. I think our courses gave direction and purpose to many folks, and that’s really awesome.”
One significant addition to the GSWP was The Great Smokies Review, which debuted ten years ago. The Review, for which Hays was the Publisher, is a biannual compendium of outstanding student submissions in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, complemented by faculty craft sessions and profiles of published writers connected in some way to Western North Carolina.
“I’m very proud of the Review,” Hays says, “not that I had much to do with it, but I was around as it came together. I remember when Elizabeth [Elizabeth Lutyens, Editor-in-Chief of the Review and instructor of the Prose Master Class] first approached me about the idea. Watching that all come together with various volunteers was one of the high points for me.
“And what a wonderful publication the Review has become. It has embodied and reflected some of the best work done in the program. It’s a kind of reflection of what the program has accomplished. And it’s a real resource with the craft discussions by faculty and the interviews with writers.”
Hays is proud of the quality of the program he's help build, and he also is grateful for an important but more intangible gift the program has given him. “A pleasure with the GSWP was getting to meet so many remarkable writer/teachers,” he says. “I’ve developed friendships and connections I wouldn’t have otherwise. Many of them have become good friends. Getting to know the students, too, connected me to a community I wouldn’t ordinarily have access to. I’m not usually an outgoing person, but the program required that of me, so I made a lot of friends and met people who are important to me.”
As with any program, the GSWP presented its challenges. The most challenging aspect of the program was something no writer wants to deal with—"administrivia," the day-to-day drudgery of keeping the program running. “One major challenge,” Hays says, “was finding locations for our classes. Over the years, various community organizations like Asheville School and Hangar Hall donated space. Other organizations charged a minimal fee. We met at Riverlink, the YMI, the Black Mountain Center for the Arts, the Yancey County library, The Asheville School, and the First Baptist Church of Asheville, among many others. Meeting in these places in the local area has made us more of a community program.”
Although teaching was his primary focus, Hays learned several things about himself from the program. “I learned it’s important to me to meet different people and to get to know them. That helped me with my writing, but more so socially. I don’t want to stand up and talk—ugh. I feel that way about class, too. Right before class, there’s this little sigh, but, by the end of class, I’m energized. So I’m putting myself out there, and it’s in those interactions that I learn things. Things I didn’t know I knew or thought…not a big, profound thing, but something about writing, or working on a novel, or an aspect of craft I haven’t thought about—connections that pop up. It asks more of me than just sitting around thinking. With COVID, how much I needed interaction became clearer to me, because writing is isolating.
“I’ve also learned that’s it’s important to me that that side of me is important and that things that are hard, that I don’t want to do, are almost always important to do. It sounds simplistic, but it isn’t for me. It requires some deliberate effort on my part, but with the job the structure was built in—I’m going to do Writers at Home, I’m going to meet my class today—so that was all really good for me. This helped me see how other people are thinking and helped me enter into other people’s worlds. It’s made me healthier that way.”
“With COVID, people are alone now,” Hays says, “so the current situation lends itself to writing. Some people feel pressure to write and it shouldn't be that way. Art is what pulls us out of difficult times.”
Since he retired, Hays has a lot more time to work on his own writing. “I’ve been revising something I've been working on for six or seven years between other novels. Without the administrative duties of the GSWP hanging over me any more, I'm free to pursue this."
While directing and teaching in the GSWP and the MLAS program, Hays managed to find time to publish four novels and to have a few more in different stages of completion. He won the prestigious Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award for his first novel, In The Family Way. His second novel, The Pleasure Was Mine, a touching story about the impact of Alzheimer's disease on a family, won several awards and drew attention from the medical community as well because of its subject matter. Hays' success continued with his award-winning YA novel, What I Came to Tell You. He also wrote another YA novel that couldn’t find a home when his publisher, “a really good publisher,” went out of business. In the last few years, Hays juggled several other projects that, by necessity, put a long-delayed novel for adults, now in its fourth revision, on the back burner.
His writing process also figured into the delay. “With my writing,” he says,” I need consistency. If I don’t get to spend time on something, it’s sort of like I have to start all over every time I go back to a project. Now I’m writing just about every day, working on that adult novel. It’s gotten better with each revision.”
“Once I start writing a book, I don’t stop until I have a complete draft. Then writer friends and my agent can look at it and give me feedback. So, with the current novel, I finished another draft around May and my agent got back to me quicker than she usually does, but it’s nice now because I have this time and can give the book the time it deserves.”
Although Hays is retired, he isn’t about to sit in a rocker on his porch and watch traffic go by. He plans to continue to teach, offering occasional private classes. he's currently teaching an online class in creative prose. “While I prefer in-person teaching, online classes are a good option during the pandemic, giving writers a way to continue to connect." Hays believes writing lends itself to online classes in a way other subjects might not. "I can't imagine a time when I'm not teaching," he says. "It demands something of me that nothing else does, getting me out of myself, connecting with other writers, making discoveries with them and finding camaraderie."
Hays' current class is made up of several academics and other professionals, some older, some retired. "Now they're seriously pursuing creative writing, giving shape and meaning to their lives. I think that's pretty great."
In addition to writing fiction, Hays would also like to get back to writing occasional features. "I used to write pieces for magazines and newspapers, and I miss that. I used to go out and interview people and tell their stories and always enjoyed getting to know the person I was writing about." Besides writing, Hays and his wife, Connie, would like to travel. "Connie loves to travel, so we'll definitely do more of that, exploring other parts of the United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico--anywhere really. We'll pester our kids, too, wherever they happen to be living at the time." But for now, Hays' focus is the unfinished book on his laptop, waiting for him to get back to it.