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Award-winning novelist and former N.C. poet laureate Fred Chappell’s best-known novel ends with the question: “Are you one of us or not?”

The answer to that question is found in the book's title, "I Am One of You Forever," a coming-of-age story which follows a young boy and incorporates themes of family and community, as well as a strong sense of place — hallmarks of Southern literature.

More poignant, however, is the poetic description of 1940s western North Carolina, inspired by the sprawling mountains and memories of Chappell's hometown in Canton, N.C., where he was born in 1936. 

By the time he died on Jan. 4, 2024, he had amassed over 20 written works spanning genres of fantasy and science fiction, Southern gothic and poetry. 

Before he graduated from Duke University, Chappell married his wife, Susan Nicholls Chappell, and had a son, Heath. He went on to win countless awards for his writing, among them being the North Carolina Award for Literature in 1980 and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in 1972. He served as North Carolina’s poet laureate from 1997 to 2002.

He is still one of the most accomplished writers to emerge from western North Carolina.

Despite his many literary accolades, his longtime friend and colleague Terry Kennedy said that one of Chappell’s proudest awards was the Oliver Max Gardner Award in 1987, the highest teaching award that the UNC System can bestow upon a faculty member.

Kennedy, director of the Creative Writing program at UNC Greensboro, met Chappell in 1997 and studied under his mentorship in the creative writing program.

“He always talked about — his legacy was his students,” he said. “And the work he did with them, I think was really important to him.”

Chappell began working at UNCG in 1964, where he helped develop the creative writing program and taught for 40 years before retiring in 2004

Ruth Dickey, executive director of the National Book Foundation, was another one of his students from 2002 to 2004. She said he was her master’s thesis adviser when she attended UNCG and has continued to exchange letters with him for the last 20 years.

She said she appreciated his ability as an author to bring stories of rural, mountain communities to life, as well as his ability as a teacher to connect with his students.

“One of the things that I respected most about Fred was that he approached each of his students — and really every person — with such humility and respect and this feeling of really honoring people's lives,” she said. “And as a student, it's incredible — from such an accomplished teacher to feel that respect.”

She said she valued his attention to detail when reviewing her writing — a sentiment that Kennedy shared from his time as Chappell’s mentee.

Kennedy recalled a poem he wrote and shared with Chappell in which a young boy goes hunting with his family.

“We talked about the poem and he complimented a lot of the imagery in it and the movement in it, and then he said, ‘There's no dogs — where are the dogs? It’s quiet,’” he said.

Former colleague at UNCG and longtime friend Stuart Dischell described Chappell’s teaching style as “tough attentiveness,” which brought attention to the smallest details in his students’ work — ambient noises and setting descriptions.

“And I think what I’ve learned from Fred as a teacher, is that the highest compliment you can pay to someone’s writing is to read it carefully,” he said.

Details characterized Chappell’s writing and placed his stories firmly in the mountains of western North Carolina. Much like his stories, he rarely left the state. He did not pursue book tours or aspire to international acclaim.

However, Dischell said Chappell’s books found audiences even in the remote mountains of Europe, where he remembered finding several books in the library of a writing retreat in rural Switzerland. 

When Dischell was living in Paris in 2001, a bookstore window near his home displayed the works of a featured author — Fred Chappell. 

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“His writing is in one way localized in that his writing seldom left, in his novels and poetry, the mountains of North Carolina, yet his vision was so intense that it received international accolades,” he said.

@ktrchurch

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