During its 20 years in operation, the Great Smokies Writing Program has served over 1000 writers in Western North Carolina. Upon the retirement of its Executive Director, Tommy Hays, The Great Smokies Review and the Great Smokies administrative office at UNC Asheville invited some of the program’s long-standing students and faculty to honor his leadership of this community.
–Elizabeth Lutyens and Lilly Augspurger
My first class with Tommy was in the fall of 2000. I had recently moved to Asheville and discovered his first book Sam’s Crossing at Malaprop’s. I remember feeling nervous and self-conscious in those first few classes. But Tommy had a way of putting us all at ease and inspiring us to trust our own voices. His compassionate guidance within a community of talented writers gave me the courage and confidence to write stories that had been hidden in my journals and in my heart for years. I am forever grateful to Tommy and the Great Smokies Writing Program. Thank you, Tommy, for all that you’ve so generously given to our writing community.
When I first came to Asheville, I heard about the Great Smokies Program, and after a reading a couple of years later, Tommy came up to me and said something like, “I’ll keep you in mind for teaching in our program.” At least that is what I recall! Beginning in 2012, I taught 10 courses in poetry for him. He was always incredibly supportive. I also read his books and found them delightful, particularly his use of vernacular diction. I actually think he is a much better writer than more “famous” Southern writers. He has a great ear for language. And he is a shining example of a writer with a great heart. I shall miss him very much.
The GSWP is a tremendous resource for aspiring writers and folks who want to be a part of a vibrant writing community. I started taking classes through the program about five years ago and haven’t stopped. I’ve made writing friends and met kindred spirits while pursuing my passion for fiction writing. Tommy’s class was among the best. His encouragement and constructive feedback allowed me to grow and gain confidence as a writer and inspired me to continue. I hope that the tradition Tommy started will continue so that more aspiring writers can hone their skills while fueling their passion and creativity.
Tommy was one of my interviewers when I was up for a job at UNCA. I didn’t get a good sense of him through a virtual conversation, besides the obvious fact that he was quite friendly. But when I arrived in Asheville and met Tommy and my colleagues at the MLAS [Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences; now discontinued] Program in person, I couldn’t believe how easy it was to integrate into my new environment. I had grown accustomed to academic departments being a place of suspicion, jealousy, competition, and doubletalk. But getting to work with Tommy, I had my first experience of elaborating a collective vision of a program that was primarily concerned with the learning experience of the students.
Tommy is the real deal. He immediately reached out to me, and ever since, I have felt able to connect with him on any issue, from work troubles to the minutiae of life. But the clear evidence of how special Tommy is came when I witnessed his role as a teacher; how loved he is by his students. Tommy’s students talk about his classes as being a transformative experience—and they always want to keep learning with him. Though it’s not unusual for certain teachers to have their devotees, Tommy’s relationship with his students is genuine: a genuine concern for fostering their interests and talents, and also a genuine way of talking about writing. When a teacher treats students in the way Tommy does—meets them where they are, for who they are—a special learning relationship takes hold. Unlike many other writing teachers, Tommy doesn’t sit behind his wonderful list of books and leave it there—he digs into the work with his students, and this is why they love him. Though I was never a formal student of Tommy, I am so grateful my path crossed with him, that I have learned and been inspired by him, and gotten to work with him at the MLAS and the Great Smokies Writing Program. Though Tommy is retiring from this part of his work, I am looking forward to continuing to talk with and learn from him—but also to continue reading Tommy Hays!
I was terrified in those first Great Smokies classes, but Tommy (where did he get such patience?) held us to his very high, all-important workshop standards. His stellar critiques were infused with kindness, even for my clueless, terrible, embarrassing! early submissions. “You might want to think about…” I can still hear him carefully guiding us toward better writing, and just as importantly, language and compassion for each other’s missteps. And his laugh! So infectious and fun, showing us how to not take ourselves too seriously.
I’m proud to be one of the earliest Great Smokies members! It’s been a community and lifeline for my writing life all these twenty plus years. I still open The Great Smokies Review like it’s my own baby, then get knocked back by the quality and beauty of the writing in every issue.
Tommy, I love your martini-dry sense of humor. And your timing is impeccable. You crack a joke, pause just the right amount of time, then give us your one-of-a-kind laugh that has us all joining in.
When I get a paper back full of your comments, I smile at your double wavy lines under a sentence, sometimes under an entire paragraph. Without words, it’s your thumbs up, “I like this. Good job.” Those wavy lines inspire me. Thanks for being such a great teacher.
For this tribute, go to the craft session for this issue.
One evening, as we strolled to our cars after class, I told Tommy that I was buying my first house. I told him I was particularly excited about the garden and landscaping, using the word “mature” to describe it. After congratulating me, he gave me a questioning smile and said he’d never heard that term used in the context of plants. I looked around Asheville School’s pristine landscape and some long-established gnarly rhododendrons, illuminated with outdoor lighting. “Like these.” I pointed. Tommy’s question made me consider my turn of phrase and how I’d come to it from my plant professional background. It made me smile to think that this rather ordinary usage to me might be interesting to others; make them think about plant life in a different way.
As I remember and thank Tommy for his impressive career, inspiring countless writers and nurturing a mature writing community in Asheville, I also want to thank him for his humble curiosity that showed me a quiet, yet powerful way to investigate language. Most of all—I’d like to thank Tommy for believing in my writing and encouraging me to keep going.
I thought long and hard about what to write about Tommy. My first draft focused on what a wonderful instructor he was while I was in the MLAS program, how much he helped me grow as a writer, how much I learned about the craft of writing, and how I became a more astute reader by writing what seemed like a million annotations. All that is true, but when it was time to submit that writing, I realized it didn’t quite capture what I value most about him.
What I appreciate most about Tommy is that he is simply a good person. He cares about others. Now more than ever, this feels like a gift. His kindness and honesty are reminders that there is still kindness in this world. It’s not feigned or forced, but a natural expression of his innate humanity. He isn’t pretending to be kind. It is genuine and you feel it. His honesty and willingness to show others when those traits are tested, make him human. His humor in these admissions, have made me laugh more than once and served as an example to not take myself so seriously, to know that it’s okay to be pissed off and put off at times. It’s so refreshing to believe that what you see is what you get. All this serves as confirmation that all is not lost in these depressing times. There are still people who speak from a place of truth. There are still people guided by compassion and their own conscience. There are still people who are willing to admit their humanness. While I value all that I learned as a student in his class, I am most grateful for this. Without trying, he remains a steady light in his own unpretentious way.
For decades, I had a mental block against writing creatively because I spent so much energy writing straight facts in my day job. But in 2008, I lost my main writing contract during the recession. I decided to just give creative writing a try and signed up for a class with Tommy in the Great Smokies Writing Program. He opened a door for me that I will never be able to shut, no matter how much I sometimes want to lock it tight again when writing gets difficult. He showed me how to translate what’s in my head onto the written page. He showed me the rhythms of beauty—and I will be forever grateful.
I have taken only two brief workshops with Tommy, a few hours each, so I am short on memories, but his advice to write about what scares you has stood me in good stead. My sister and I also found his novel The Pleasure Was Mine a great comfort after losing our mother to Alzheimer’s.
For many people, Tommy has transformed writing from a pursuit into an identity, an identity that can never be shed. As one of those people, I sometimes curse Tommy, especially on those days when a deadline looms, or the muse remains hidden. But always, I am filled with profound gratitude for this gift he has given me.
Thanks, Tommy, for inviting me 20 years ago to teach one of the first poetry classes in the GSWP. I feel privileged to have been a part of such an outstanding community program, first as an instructor and later as a student where I honed my craft in courses with such wonderful poets as Pat Riviere-Seel and Katherine Soniat. Thanks also for The Great Smokies Review online that showcases writings and recognizes the achievements of instructors and students.
The Flatiron Writers Room owes so much to our dear friend, colleague and mentor, author Tommy Hays, who has just announced his retirement as Executive Director of the Great Smokies Writing Program and Core Faculty of the MLAS Program at UNCA. As part of the GSWP Program, Tommy ran the Keeping Ourselves Company creative writing workshop where Heather, Maggie and many of our other members, teachers and students originally met. He offered guidance and support to many of us who were just embarking on a writing path, and encouraged his more seasoned writers to stay the course when they were ready to give up. Without his workshop as a craft and community base for all of us, the Flatiron Writers Room might never have been established. We are so grateful for all Tommy has contributed as a writer, teacher and supporter of the WNC writing community. We will miss you Tommy, but we look forward to reading more of those wonderful books you're going to have time to write now!
Well, thanks very much Tommy for shepherding a program that's meant so much to so many for so long! I've probably taken twenty or so courses with Great Smokies, stretching back into the nineties. I've gotten something of lasting value out of every one and I believe your well-tending of everything made a tremendous difference. Hope we meet on a trail soon and, in the meantime, here is a passage from a memoir piece called "The Art of Being Lost." I include it because of your insistence on the importance of place and space in conjuring fiction, non-fiction and memory. Cheers and congratulations for a job well done!
As I began to pick through the web of roads driving east across Provence, an indelible image from my last week of sketching seemed especially sharp. One morning after jogging along narrow farm lanes lined with sycamores near the inn, I came upon a sewn field and seven or eight men in gabardine and tweeds walking cross-grain in a horizontal line, looking to flush a grouse or rabbit. In the middle of the men, a young fellow, maybe ten or eleven, trundled the field with his elders, his shotgun pointing at the ground. As I stood and watched, it was obvious that the men were carrying the boy along, teaching him about safety and how to shoot, sharing thoughts and stories and, mostly, silence. The colors smudged and ran together, the rusts and golds and mauves, the grey-blue sky. So seemed the passing, from one generation to another, of something rather splendid. Or that's what it felt like to me, the curious American, standing on the edge of the field, between lives.
I first met Tommy through his work, his wonderful book, In the Family Way. It was set in Greenville, SC, his hometown, and a place I visited every summer as a child. As I read, the memories flooded back. I was mesmerized. I could not put the book down. How can a writer evoke such emotions in the reader?
Not long after that, I saw in the local newspaper that Tommy was teaching a writing course in Asheville. Never having written a word of fiction, I was drawn to the course, and signed up. What an experience it was, and for the next ten years I was in his class. I have a manuscript of a book completed and several published pieces.
Tommy, thanks for being the supportive teacher that you are. You are a gifted writer, but also such an encouraging coach and mentor. Your method of instruction gets the best out of people. Never did I leave your class feeling anything but motivated. Your praise and your criticism both made me a better writer.
I love the books you have written through the years and wait expectantly for your next one. I know you will keep writing.
I first enrolled in one of Tommy’s GSWP classes nearly twenty years ago, not long after the start of the program. It provided me with a much-needed creative outlet and the friendship of a community of fellow writers. When his book In the Family Way was first published in paperback a few years ago, he asked me to design a cover. Tommy guided me through some of the early drafts of what became a memoir and provided a safe, supportive environment in which to share my work. I know he will be greatly missed!
For me, Tommy Hays represents the heart and soul of the Great Smokies Writing Program. I worked for and with Tommy for a dozen years, and my enduring impression of him is his kindness to all, his gentle nature, and his unflappable calm. No matter what went wrong—no chairs in that classroom? building locked up tight five minutes before class time? blizzard? flood?—Tommy found a remedy and kept his stress to himself. But my greatest pleasure in knowing Tommy has always been reading his words. From Facebook ruminations on what he saw and whom he passed while running, to his beautiful, warm-hearted novels, Tommy makes language sing.
MARY JEAN HERZOG
Retirement commemorations used to be a big deal. My grandfather got a big reception and a gold watch when he retired as state highway engineer in New York after a 50-year tenure. My father followed his footsteps into engineering but didn’t make the 50-year mark. Instead of a gold watch, he got emphysema from years of breathing sewers and water systems in underground construction. Or maybe it was the two-pack-a-day Lucky Strike habit.
In my 40 years of teaching I had two movings-on and one finale. When I left Asheville City Schools, I got my $10,000 retirement and used it as a down payment for a sweet, two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow on four acres in Weaverville for the huge amount of $30,000. I taught at Warren Wilson for 11 years, and when I left, I got a beautiful, very large bowl from Seagrove. When I retired after 25 years at Western Carolina University, I got a reception and another beautiful, very large pottery bowl. Both bowls sit on their shelf awaiting large dinner parties which have become a thing of the past due to the pandemic gripping the world, calling a halt to big gatherings.
Will Tommy Hays get a gold watch? Thousands of dollars to buy a second home – maybe on the beach? A salad bowl from a local potter? I don’t know what kinds of tangible gifts he will get, but I do know he will get words. Words of appreciation from his students from his years of teaching. Words in stories they wrote in his classes. From me, Tommy gets a thank you for his classes which forced my hand to write and for his always thoughtful feedback and quiet encouragement. Thanks Tommy, and here’s a virtual toast to you. Now, go write.
Tommy, great thanks and admiration for your splendid enrichment of our community by your creation and years-long management of the Great Smokies Writing Program. Many of us who might not otherwise have undertaken to improve our craft are stronger writers because of the skilled guidance of the faculty you enlisted (real writers!), the genre range of courses offered, and the accessibility of off-campus classes. The Writers at Home presentations at Malaprop’s have meant a lot to the wide community of writers and readers as well as demonstrating support for that Asheville treasure of an independent bookseller. Your work in GSWP will go on indefinitely to influence many people, not only directly but also secondarily—a magnificent legacy.
Tommy, thank you for your patience, teaching and editing skill, wonderful sense of humor, and ability to “manage” so many groups of maverick adult learners—including your stable of boundary-pushing instructors. Hats off to you for your remarkable and sustained leadership of the Great Smokies Writing Program. No words are adequate for the contribution you have made and no doubt will continue to make as writer, teacher, editor, facilitator, and citizen. I am especially grateful for the encouragement and guidance you gave me as I struggled to go deep and tell my story as well as I possibly could. An excerpt follows:
During all my growing up years in our home on Rawson Circle, I strained against invisible chains and over time broke free from Mother’s ambitious expectations, mercurial moods, and irrational determination to control my destiny. Untethered at last in my college years and beyond, I put great distance between Rawson Circle and me. Fleeing from the chaos in my home and from the relentless pressures for
conformity of thought in my hometown, I headed out like a pirate for the open sea of ideas and adventure, experience and discovery. Accepting no limits on my range of movement or direction of thought, I knew in my bones that I could and would become my own man. One thing I surely inherited from my mother was her penchant for exaggeration and her ability to turn any story into a fable. I give her credit for that and for many other remarkable gifts—love for language, empathy for people from all walks of life, willingness to take risks, devotion to her children, courage in the face of adversity, enjoyment of the absurd—that serve me well still. Shining through the chaos in my Mother-dominated home was something strong, bold, yearning, and precious. I have long ago forgiven my mother for failing to nourish me with what she did not have and what she could not control.
My first reaction to Tommy’s retirement from the GSWP was “Oh no! How can that be?” The GSWP without Tommy would be fries without ketchup, Gilbert without Sullivan, Tweedle Dum without Tweedle Dee. How can it go on?
I was wrong. The program will not only go on, but will grow from the foundation Tommy has built for twenty years. He knew the craft of creative writing applies to a program as well: structure (the variety of classes), character (the knowledgeable instructors), sense of place (the grounding of our regional setting), and point of view (multiple viewpoints with one purpose: encouraging the best from every student).
Congratulations on your new path, Tommy. We’ll be looking forward to reading more of your work now, and while the GSWP will miss you very much, we know you’ll still be an integral part of our literary community. Write on!
BRIAN LEE KNOPP
Back in 2011, when I was trying to rustle up twelve WNC writers to collaborate on a crime novel parody that eventually became Naked Came the Leaf Peeper, Tommy Hays' name kept appearing in the mix. No one told me exactly why he should be selected, though. I kept hearing how he should, he could, he would be good; that he's nice. But no specifics. The pervasively vague, smiley-faced, noncommittal approbation made me leery. Too many catastrophic blind dates had started the same way for me. Nevertheless, I invited him to take part in the project. Big mistake.
Oh. I don't mean his inclusion in the collaboration. And it wasn't about working with him, which was effortless and rewarding (NOTE: I've been told that no other writer collaboration in modern history has been described as both effortless AND rewarding. Another dubious first for me. Platform I have.) No, the huge mistake was that no one mentioned his brilliant character portraiture and perfect narrative pacing. Or how gutsy he was to yank the chains of certain predatory politicians while still dependent upon his state university gig. A gig he is now giving up to our loss and, presumably, for his gain.
I expect bigger, better, even more gutsy work from you, Tommy.
There. Is that not the perfect passive-aggressive curse from an envious fellow writer?
Break an adjective for me, dude!
Tommy has been my idea of the ideal administrator—patient, kind, understanding, flexible. Plus that great smile and quiet humor. I’ve always felt fortunate that he asked me to teach with GSWP. He will be missed.
What a valuable program you created and kept going all those years! I only wish it were a nationwide offering—including here in Tennesee. So much wisdom and encouragement to be shared with blossoming writers everywhere. I’m sure it exhausts you to even hear those words, Tommy, but you done a good thing that deserves sharing and expanding!
Oh Tommy, you will be so missed by all who have walked through the "doors" of the GSWP! You inspired me and nudged me in such positive ways, and I learned so much in your workshop over the many semesters I attended. You taught us all how to see the positive in every piece of writing, and to give our impressions about the work of our fellow writers in ways that were nurturing, kind, and incredibly useful. I'm so sorry that we can't all get together for a giant blow-out party in your honor to celebrate all the students you have helped and encouraged in the past 20 years. I am eternally grateful for everything you have done for me personally as a writer, as well as all you’ve done to help create and sustain a vibrant writing community here in WNC, including the Flatiron Writers [for which Maggie is Operations Manager]. You have been a true pillar of support and contributed SO much. But now I will look forward to reading your next book, and to the day when we will be able to clink glasses again in person—hopefully soon! Stay well, my friend, and happy writing!
A friend once told me that there is a big difference between a teacher and a mentor. A teacher is there for a finite period of time and in a limited, though important, way. A mentor’s influence, however, is vast and life altering. Though good teachers come and go, a mentor may come along only once in a lifetime. Then again, if you have a good mentor, once in a lifetime is, perhaps, enough.
I met Tommy when I took his advanced prose writing workshop in 2007, and soon after that, I began leading Great Smokies workshops. Ever since then, Tommy has been a teacher, an encourager, a guide along my writing journey and in my human journey. Of course, he has taught me a lot about writing—about how less is often more, about how to be kind and empathetic to my characters, about how to dig until I find that snippet of dialogue that says exactly what it ought to say, about how to avoid clichés like “I can’t wrap my head around that,” and so much more. Through his example, he has also taught me just about everything I know about how to be a teacher, a mentor, and a friend to other writers.
This has been my personal experience with Tommy, and I know that I am not alone. Through the Great Smokies Writing Program, Tommy has built a rigorous, supportive writing community based on the ideals he embodies daily—character, dedication, graciousness, and steadfastness—and I feel incredibly lucky and proud to have been part of this program for the past thirteen years. Tommy, here’s wishing you a joyful retirement filled with family and friends and long runs and books and books and more books! So much left to read. So much left to write.
When I heard of Tommy's retirement, my first thought was to email and tell him how much the Great Smokies Writing Program, the program he put in place, had impacted my life, that it was an incredible and unexpected blessing for me as a writer. And though it's true, as I also told him, that some of the sweetest, most beautiful moments that life has to offer still lie ahead, I can't help but feel so sad that that part of my own life, the part that saw him every Wednesday night for several semesters, is over. I will miss him immensely.
When I moved to Asheville and started meeting other writers and artists in this amazingly creative city, several people mentioned Tommy Hays as someone I should meet. One person went so far as to say he was “the nicest man in Asheville.” A while later, when I attended my first Writers at Home reading at Malaprop’s, which Tommy organized and hosted, I enjoyed his relaxed, slyly witty way of introducing the readers and of making the audience feel welcome. Afterwards, we talked a while, and I came away thinking that he was indeed a nice man, maybe not the nicest man in Asheville, but easily in the top five.
When Tommy gave me the chance to teach in the Great Smokies Writing Program, I was thrilled to join this unique program that has, under Tommy’s leadership, nourished the creative spirit not only of the program’s faculty and students, but of Asheville itself.
Tommy made it seem easy, but running the GSWP is a hard job that requires constant fine tuning of its many moving parts—meeting the needs and wishes of faculty and students, developing schedules, securing class locations around the city, insuring course variety, and so on. Tommy’s patience, commitment, and, well, niceness, was the driving force behind the program’s growth and success over the past twenty years. While he was at it, Tommy also taught classes in both the GSWP and in the graduate program [MLAS] at UNCA, and—oh yeah—continued to write and publish his award-winning novels.
It’s almost enough to make you not like him, except that he really may be the nicest man in Asheville, and the hardest working, too. GSWP, UNCA, and the city of Asheville owe Tommy a huge tip of our hats for everything he has done in the past twenty years to make the GSWP the widely known and much-loved program that it is. Thank you, Tommy! It’s been beyond nice.
Gerard Voos [former MLAS Program Director and Professor] taught me that I did not know to write and then started teaching me to write. Tommy taught me I did know how to write creatively and then enabled my creative writing skills. I vividly remember the first lesson.
For our first assignment in his creative writing Locating Our Stories class, he asked each of us to write a story located where we grew up. In class, he asked if any of us wanted to read what we’d written. I naively volunteered. I started reading. After a few minutes, he loudly interjected, “Stop.” He said no more. I got the message. My style and story line did not work. Tommy patiently worked with me through meetings and very detailed written feedback to put my real self into my stories. And to write to engage the reader.
Later in Tommy’s course, I wrote Mr. Johnson’s Barbershop, Economics 101. That article explains for the current generation at Davidson College, my alma mater, the stark lessons learned from our efforts in the ‘60s to break down integration barriers. The Davidson Journal Online published that article, and one member of the Davidson Community recently told me the article brought her to tears. Here is the beginning and the conclusion:
Davidson, NC, April 1968—I joined the picket line of white students who were trying to force the Black-owned barbershop for white people to cut Black people’s hair…
The closing words of David Played a Harp, a memoir by Black barbershop owner Ralph Johnson, captured his angst:
"It was over. Alone now, in my dead and empty place of business, I was filled to overflowing with tears that washed my face and blinded my eyes. Then the convulsive sobbing came and I screamed to let out of my body the bitterness and hurt that held me shaking in its grasp. After a long while, when the crying was through and I could see again, I wrote on an index card the following notice and taped it to the glass in the door:
JOHNSON’S BARBER SHOP CLOSED
Opened March 24, 1921
Closed November 15, 1971
Then I locked the door behind me and went home to stay."
I did not understand Mr. Johnson and what he had done for the Davidson Black community. We were sure we knew best, but we had engaged in “feel-good” civil rights. I did not understand the chasm between the privileged students of Davidson and the working-class Blacks on the other side of the track. Confrontation was easy. The engagement and dialogue Mr. Johnson wanted and needed was not to be.
Today, are we again drawing lines in the sand? Are we afraid to run the risk of engaging in difficult discourse with adversaries?
(From Mr. Johnson’s Barbershop, Economics 101 published in the Davidson Journal Online, December, 2018.)
When I had finished a draft of my novel Under The Mercy Trees but not yet sold it, I looked around for a writing community and found it in Tommy’s Keeping Ourselves Company workshop. Over the course of three semesters, I benefited from his constructive, kind criticism of my McMullen Circle collection of linked short stories, and the supportive atmosphere he fostered in the workshop. I made dear friends, Tommy among them. No one has been more supportive of my writing than Tommy, blurbing my books, allowing me to teach for the Great Smokies Writing Program and read as part of the Writers at Home series, and cheering on and partnering with the Flatiron Writers Room. Tommy and the GSWP are gems. I’m so grateful for his leadership of the GSWP all these years, and know that he is leaving a strong and healthy program that will serve WNC writers for years to come.
Tommy Hays’ mentor and friend Reynolds Price used to recount a comment he’d once made: “I don’t know what kind of writer comes from a trailer park.” A man had jumped out of his chair, insisting, “Well, I do! I am one!” Price told this as a kind of joke on himself, on the rarified perspectives that he’d once associated with writing. Tommy made every student understand that they had a story, and that their story was worth telling. Let me rephrase that: in Tommy’s classes, every student learned they had a perspective that was rich and already full of stories. “We’re all writers here.” It was a kind of permission that was, at least for me, exhilarating.
The only kind of writing that was discouraged was writing that limited any aspect of a character’s humanity. “The act of writing is fundamentally an act of kindness,” Tommy told us. In my memory, that phrase had an almost scriptural emphasis, a pole star by which to find our way. This lesson changed my writing, but it also changed my life.
One thing about Tommy is that you can email him at any hour, and within minutes, you’ll get an email back. It’s uncanny. His email will be short, usually, and to the point. One of the first emails I sent included a few pages I’d written one Sunday afternoon. Tommy replied:
Carolyn—You could think of it as a first scene and then follow the narrator to the next scene. Could be the beginning of a longer story.
This scene would be my first novel, and I’m far from alone in this experience. The Great Smokies Writing Program, under Tommy’s leadership, has seen the beginning of so many longer stories. As a writer, I am grateful to have learned from him; as a reader, I can’t wait to see where his longer story may lead.
Thank you, Tommy, for your vision, your commitment, your generosity and the work you have done (and continue to do) in creating a community of writers!
Tommy has always been able to attract top quality teachers to the Great Smokies Writing Program and in the last 20 years has grown the program to reach areas of western NC that do not have access to writing classes. Since 2004 I’ve had the privilege of teaching in the program both in Asheville and Burnsville. I first came to the program as a student in 2000 when I took a class from A. Van Jordan. The following year, while I was in an MFA program, I took a class from Kathryn Stripling Byer. Those two classes were crucial to my development as a poet. I am just one of countless writers who owe Tommy and the Great Smokies Writing Program he directed much gratitude.
When my agent called to tell me we had a contract on The Past Is Never Dead, after we had been turned down by twelve publishers, I called Tommy as soon as I could. I was of course thrilled, but before I could even finish telling him, Tommy started shouting my name over and over with joy and said he was doing his happy dance while still holding the phone. I told him I only wished I could feel the intense happiness he did.
Writer, teacher, mentor, and friend, Tommy Hays excels at all of these. Tommy shared many instructive, supportive, and encouraging words while I finished my first novel in his classes, but this quote on the back jacket of my book is one I will never forget.
“As someone whose job is to read, I’m always looking for any excuse to go fix a cup of tea or to get up and look out the window. But as I read Oberlin’s Anomaly, Chance Shiver’s riveting, eloquent embodiment of an alien world within our own, my tea grew cold and whatever the neighbors were up to had to wait. Taken might be another title for Shiver’s thoughtful page-turner, because that’s what readers will be from page one.”
Beautifully written, this elegant, professional review completed the cycle, enabling me to put a book on the shelves of Malaprop’s Bookstore here in Asheville and out into the world. That’s Tommy Hays.
We will all miss you, Tommy, and we hope that the GSWP might indeed continue under new leadership, in that it provides a unique service to Western North Carolina. Good luck to you and happy days ahead!
Tommy Hays took a chance on me, and I remain grateful for the opportunity. In 2014, he brought me into the Great Smokies Writing Program community by accepting my proposal to teach a class. Later that year, I taught poetry in Write Now, a creative writing summer camp sponsored by GSWP [now the Great Smokies Young Writers Workshop], and have done so ever since. His innate kindness, literary voice, and sense of humor are all things that stand out to me about Tommy. He has served as a mentor to many—in person and from afar—and he will be missed. I hope to see him around Asheville and at literary events going forward.
GERARD VOOS, former MLAS Program Director and Professor at UNC Asheville
I learned over the years that what you see on the surface with Tommy—the kind, genteel southern gentleman—was not the entire story. Students would tell, one after the other, always through a huge grin, of their first experience getting an assignment back in class. They were so proud of their first product, but then, once they looked at their story and the blue ink that covered it, they quickly returned to earth. Tommy didn’t pull any punches with his criticism, but he also did not hold back his praise. That balance is what made him such a good teacher and valuable mentor to his students.
Tommy was one of the co-developers of the Great Smokies Writing Program. It was a labor of love when they created it 20 years ago and it has aged into the most popular community writing program in the region. Tommy’s classes in the GSWP (and the MLAS) were always the first ones to fill, and every semester he would have to expand the class size beyond the published limit.
Most of my MLAS advisees were hesitant to take any courses outside of their comfort zone in the social and natural sciences. Repeatedly, I told them, “You have to take a Tommy class.” Often, they balked and waited until it was their last course to take, but after they did, they wished they hadn’t waited so long. Tommy helped each and every one of them find an inner voice they hadn’t known existed
Congratulations, Tommy, on a retirement well earned. I could not have asked for a better person to work beside for the last twelve years. Thank you.
It makes me smile to think of Tommy dancing with abandon under the moonlight at Wildacres, struggling to suppress his laughter as he shares a funny story, reading his own words with great humility and deep feeling—Tommy being Tommy. Congratulations and well-done.