In a Faulknerian way, Durban tries new ways of communicating timeless and impressive experiments in storytelling.
Novelist, short story writer, educator. Durban was born in Aiken, South Carolina on March 4, 1947, the daughter of Frampton Wyman Durban, a real estate appraiser, and Maria Hertwig. The writer grew up in Aiken, where her family has lived for generations. In the family tradition, she attended a Catholic grade school, St. Mary Help of Christians. She left Aiken to attend the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1969.
In the 1970s she wrote as a freelancer for Osceola, a newspaper published by people associated with Clemson University, followed by a stint as a contributing editor for the Atlanta Gazette (1974–1975). In Atlanta she taped interviews with women in a textile mill community and published them as Cabbagetown Families (1976). Portions of the book were made into a play called Cabbagetown: Three Women. She attended the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, from which she received her M.F.A. in 1979. On June 18, 1983, she married Frank H. Hunter, a photographer. Their son, Wylie, was born in July 1987, and she received a Whiting Writer’s Award the same year. She was a founding editor of the magazine Five Points and served as its fiction editor from 1996 to 2001. Durban has taught creative writing at the University of New York at Geneseo (1979–1980), Murray State (1980–1981), Ohio University at Athens (1981–1986), and Georgia State University (1986–2001), where she was awarded an NEA Fellowship in 1998. In 2001 she became the Doris Betts Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Throughout the early 1980s Durban published short stories in periodicals, and in 1985 she collected seven of them in All Set about with Fever Trees, and Other Stories. The well-received tales are mostly set in the South, and the South Carolina roots are evident. In a Faulknerian way, Durban tries new ways of communicating timeless and impressive experiments in storytelling. The Laughing Place (1993), her first novel, is a stylistic triumph with its graceful and poetical narrative voice. It is a story about a woman who returns to her hometown in South Carolina to learn about her birthplace, her father’s life, and the family secrets. The novel is a major statement on the southern obsession with the past.
On the publication of her second novel, So Far Back (2000), Durban said: “I’ve been influenced by my upbringing in all sorts of ways, and I became especially aware of that when I was writing So Far Back. That book deals with what I see as some fundamental South Carolina attitudes, and I realized as I was writing it that I’m very conversant with them all.” The novel is about the last descendant of an old Charleston family and her life up to 1989. Through the diary of an ancestor from the 1830s (with an emphasis on 1837), she discovers how her life is entangled in the family history. For that outstanding novel, Durban was awarded the Lillian Smith Award for Fiction.
In The Tree of Forgetfulness (2012), her third novel, Durban focuses on the racially motivated killings of the Lowmans, one woman and two men, who were dragged out of jail by a mob and shot in Aiken County, South Carolina, on Oct. 8, 1926. The case was highlighted with thirty front-page stories in the New York World. The novel moves between 1926 and 1943 in order to show the secrecy, the lingering complicity, the denial, and the slow erasure of the murders from the communal memory. In her creation of the right characters, Durban manages to flesh out the haunting past in convincing detail, so it becomes an essential part of our mental make-up today: would we, if we were there as one of the seventeen complicit in the mob violence, have actively participated, have felt guilty, and have tried to forget? Durban excels in small town satire, particularly through Minnie Settles, the help, and “the curious grandchild,” who could be a portrait of the author herself.
Durban is working on a book of nonfiction, primarily of a biographical nature, of which the sections “The Old King,” “Veterans,” “Clocks,” and “A Southern Story” have already been published. She is also completing her second collection of short stories, tentatively titled “Soon” and Other Stories, which includes the award-winning title story and the highly praised stories “Gravity” and “The Jap Room.”
Gretlund, Jan Nordby. “Lines Out across the Gap: An Interview with Pam Durban.” American Studies in Scandinavia 38, no. 2 (2006): 104–9.
–––. “Pam Durban: So Far Back.” Still in Print: The Southern Novel Today. Ed. Jan Nordby Gretlund. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010: 58–72.
Reid, Cheryl. “Making Fictions: An Interview with Pam Durban.” Carolina Quarterly 52 (summer 2000): 61–77.