Reprinted for archival purposes from http://hamptonroads.com/2009/10/odu-literary-festival-words-still-matter-91yearold-writer
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By Bill Ruehlmann
At 91, Norton Girault – veteran, teacher, poet – has cut back on the writing a bit.
Once it was mornings and afternoons. Then it was mornings. Now he’s down to two hours, every day.
“It comes,” Girault says, “from a sense of writing being important and giving meaning to what is going on all around us.”
As when that night in Kula Gulf
The theme of the 32nd Annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival this week is “Writers in Peace and War.” Girault, Capt. USN (ret.), of Norfolk saw both. He was a communications officer in combat aboard ships in the Atlantic and the Pacific during World War II; served in the Korean conflict and later became Project Mercury recovery officer with NASA, reclaiming from the sea the first American manned orbital spacecraft and its pilot, John Glenn; and taught English composition and literature for 15 years at Norfolk State University.
He will read a short story and three poems. He will then take questions. He hopes some will be asked.
“I don’t want to imply I’m making a big deal of this,” Girault said.
He spoke over coffee on the porch of Fair Grounds in Ghent. Spare at middle height, white hair swept straight back and curling at the collar, Girault provided an eagle’s intensity behind his spectacles. But when he smiled, the author turned owlish.
“I’ve been writing for a hundred years. I’ve been to so many writing workshops you wouldn’t believe it. But I’ve never published a book.”
He is not a self-promoter. In fact, the printed list of his published work and the literary prizes it has earned runs to three pages. Short fiction like “Wonder Waits in the Wings” (Contempora), “Dragon in the Box” (Webster Review), “How We Stopped Old Hitler’s Clock” (Roberts Writing Awards Annual). Poetry like “Dreaming Blind” (Key West Review), “Iwo Jima Love Story” (Dominion Review), “Ars Poetica: Kikusui” (Pendragon).
Essays like “The Narrator’s Mind as Symbol” (Accent).
Said Sarah Pishko, the owner of Prince Books in Norfolk who has known Girault for 25 years, “I am always so impressed with how dedicated he is to his avocation.”
They came burning down toward us, those ships,
“The so-called Greatest Generation has been romanticized too much,” Girault said. “The generation was great, but not the greatest. We had our draft dodgers and black marketeers.
Born in New Orleans the son of a dock laborer who “had a hard time with emotions,” Girault treasures the memory of two crucial gifts from his dad: a punching bag and a typewriter. The bag gave the boy a way to use his hands. The typewriter gave him a way to use his head.
“I pounded out this cornball story about a kid captured by gypsies,” he said. “My father would get me to read it out loud when we had guests. He embarrassed the hell out of me.”
Girault thought about pursuing journalism at Louisiana State University, but a sophomore course on Shakespeare’s history plays changed his life. The professor was author and critic Robert Penn Warren, an enchanter in the classroom.
“And yet, with all his intensity,” Girault would write in a tribute, “Warren somehow managed always to communicate a genuine gentlemanliness, warmth and concern, not only to students, but to everyone he came in contact with, on campus and off.”
Warren brought literature alive and contributed importantly to it. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel “All the King’s Men” and two more for his poetry. He and his wife, novelist Eleanor Clark, became lifelong friends and often shared their Vermont summer home with Girault years later, on his way back from annual writers’ conferences at Bread Loaf.
Girault saw a future in academe, but the war intervened.
“Repeated operations at sea taught us you’re always going to face situations in which you’re vulnerable,” he said. “So whatever it is, get through it. The attitude I adopted was live for the present.
“Seize the day.”
For a while after the war, then-Lt. Girault was a graduate fellow at the University of Minnesota, where Warren had relocated. Girault shared an office there with a “very intellectual, very hyper” Saul Bellow, who, decades later, would win a Nobel Prize for Literature.
But reserve officer Girault was offered a commission in the regular Navy and took it to become executive officer on the destroyer-minesweeper Carmick, half a world away.
Over the years, he composed a lot of operations orders for which the stakes were considerably higher than for professional fiction.
But upon military retirement in 1969, Girault sought work in pursuit of his first passion, teaching English, at Norfolk State.
He also appeared in NSU dramatic productions.
Like his famous mentor, Girault was devoted to the printed word and his students.
“Forty years ago I was Ghent Quarterly poetry editor,” said Jane Ellen Glasser, longtime Norfolk poet and educator. “We published one of Norton’s poems in our first issue. He’s always there, whenever anything literary is happening, a wonderful writer and a very generous man.”
Girault spoke memorably to one of her classes at Norview High on structure in the short story. His advice to them in 1990 remains the same for the person of any age who would publish: “Read and read and read. You can’t read enough. And then write and write and write.”
“Be prepared to revise, revise, revise.”
It’s solitary work, which is why there are writers’ conferences and literary festivals.
“If you can find a community of writers,” Girault said, “it helps a lot to just talk with them and know there are other people doing the same things you are, having the same problems, and that consider writing important.”
Beautiful! The Gun Boss said.
At 91, Norton Girault – veteran, teacher, poet – remains driven to make art of life, every day.
Thoughts from two speakers
Two of the most well-known authors on the schedule are Jane Mayer and Mark Bowden:
Jane Mayer, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday: Reading, Q&A.
Mark Bowden, 7:30 p.m. Thursday: President’s Lecture Series.
– Erica Smith, Books editor