Robert Day’s novel The Last Cattle Drive was a Book-of-the-Month Club
selection. His short fiction has won a number of awards and citations, including two Seaton Prizes, a Pen Faulkner/NEA prize, and Best American Short story and Pushcart citations. His fiction has been published by Tri-Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, Kansas Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, Summerset Review, and New Letters among other belles-lettres magazines. He is the author of two novellas, In My Stead, and The Four Wheel Drive Quartet, as well as three collections of short fiction: Speaking French in Kansas, Where I Am Now, and The
Billion Dollar Dream.
His nonfiction has been published in the Washington Post Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes FYI, Modern Maturity, World Literature Today, American Scholar, and Numero Cinq. As a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, his essays have been reprinted in numerous newspapers and journals nationwide, and on such internet sites as Counterpunch, and Arts and Letters Daily.
Recent book publications include We Should Have Come By Water (poems), The Committee to Save the World (literary non-fiction), and Chance Encounters of a Literary Kind (memoir), Let Us Imagine Lost Love (a novel,) and Robert Day for President: an Embellished Campaign
His teaching positions include The Iowa Writers Workshop; The University of Kansas; and the Graduate Faculty at Montaigne College, The University of Bordeaux. He is past Acting President of the Associated Writing Programs; the founder and former Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House; and founder and Publisher of the Literary House Press at Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland.
Among his awards and fellowships are a National Endowment to the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, Yaddo and McDowell Fellowships, a Maryland Arts Council Award, and the Edgar Wolfe Award for distinguished fiction.
Born in Shawnee in eastern Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, in 1941, Day grew up there
before it was all one big suburb. He finished his B.A. and M.A.
degrees (the M.A. in 1965) at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, then went on
to teach at Fort Hays University, Hays, Kansas. He took a Master of
Fine Arts degree at the University of Arkansas and began working in
the English Department at Washington College, where he was currently
writer in residence. He returns to Kansas for the summers, living in Ludell, a small town in Rawlins County. Kansas
remains the setting of much of his fiction.
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Q: What inspired you to write The Last Cattle Drive?
A: I had read Log of a Cowboy by Andy Adams and wondered if I might
write something like that for the modern reader. I had also hoped
to emulate Huck Finn. In this way, I roped both stories together,
and then re-roped them to my own experiences
Q: How did your writing career start?
A: Well, I was a youngster here at the University, and I took a
course called “Narration and Description” from Professor
Olmstead. I didn’t even know what narration and description
meant. I knew what narration meant, and I knew what description
meant. I was in the class, and I learned a bit, but
my real breakthrough came when I wrote a short story. One of my
professors, Professor Ed Ruhe, who later became my mentor, asked me
if I’d like to get it published. I couldn’t think of
why anything I could write would be worth publishing. We just turned
them in for classes so I was sort of startled by this and of course
flattered. So we sent it to a small contest at a magazine that was starting
up in Kansas City. I sent it there; he showed me how to do it. The
magazine came out and my story was not published, but my name was
in it! It said somewhere in the introduction, “We are sorry
that we couldn’t publish a number of other stories especially
stories by so-and-so and so-and-so and Robert Day!” I thought, g--, there's my name in print!
It was exciting! It seemed sort of amazing to
me. I didn’t realize I had any particular talent, but somebody
out there was saying I did: a professor. So then I started writing
stories; some of them have been lost. I took Professor
Wolfe’s creative writing workshop when he was here. And once
again, it was a moment when I was startled becausehe gave me
a compliment. We used to play handball together. We were sitting
in the locker room one day and I had written a short story called
the “War Eagle River Story,” now completely lost. I have
no idea where it is. I was nineteen years old or twenty years old
something like that. I was sitting next to professor Wolfe in the
locker room, and I turned to him and I said, “Did you get
my short story?" I had turned it in for class. And He said,
“Yes,” and I said, “I hoped you liked it.”
I was shy and still looking for some praise. He turned to me and
said, “I think it’s a classic.” I just about fell
off my chair.
I thought, my God this is amazing. This was a man who had read a
lot, and he had. In those days you turned in stories to him when
you were finished, but he would select stories,
only the best ones, to read. There would be 15
of us in the class, and you would sit there hoping that you would
be chosen. And so the next class he handed me my story and I read
it to the class. So that was another moment, and I think that helped
me to be a better teacher. The best thing that you can do for students
who want to be writers is to give them opportunities. Give them
chances to read their work in front of audiences. Colleges and universities
should offer a plethora of opportunities for them to publish, have
a small magazine for them to publish in, and present them with opportunities.
The better ones-- we can't all be writers, then we’d have 3oo
million writers in the county--will find their names
in print, and their stories in print, and they will go on. It’s not rocket science.
how I began--at the University of Kansas. People provided
me with opportunities. They encouraged me, in fact. It was smaller
then. We went to the homes of our professors. They invited us for
dinner. They talked about and they read our work. So you could go
home with Gerhard Zuther. He invited me to come home; his wife was
making potato pancakes. They were frugal people. They were poor.
The pay for professors wasn’t a lot, but he read my short
stories in some campus magazine. He talked to me about them. He
took me seriously. So that was my beginning.
Q: You helped found the Cottonwood Review, is that correct?
A: Yes, I was the founder of the Cottonwood Review. I wrote an
article about it for the alumni magazine. Actually, an English department
person—once again one of those people who had a lot of energy and
a lot of interest in students—discovered over in Strong Hall a fund: money, money...he discovered money! It was supposed to be
used for a literary magazine and he came to me and said, "You’re
sort of our writer here—our young student writer. Would you like
to have this money and publish a magazine?" Well, I said, “Yes.”
But I had no idea what I was saying yes to. So I rounded up a bunch
of writers and we got into a class and tried to figure out how to
do this. We made this editorial chart, as big as an editorial
chart for Time magazine, for God’s sake. But in the end we
thought to ourselves, we’ve got the money, we can figure out
how to do this and in the end we did. We started publishing the
Q: Is it still in print?
A: I think it is. I have no idea exactly how it is
funded. I see that it still exists, I think that it comes out periodically. Tthere’s an office down here that says Cottonwood Review, but
I haven’t had anything to do with if for 30 years. But I started
it. I might have even been an undergraduate, but I had lots of
help. People were really enthused and I don’t know if I ever
published in it until later in my life. I think they wrote and asked
me for something, and I gave them something.
Q: You mentioned that you were inspired by another book? Was writing The Last Cattle Drive part of a class?
A: I had been searching I think for a frame or some kind of structure
that I could use to write something longer. I am by nature a writer of short
stories and novellas. Novellas are especially difficult for
publication. I thought,certainly I can figure out how to write
a novel. I just needed a frame of some kind to do it. Some writers
– I’m one of them – look to
other writers not for inspiration, but for literary techniques that
they can borrow. I think it was Eliot who said minor poets are influenced,
major poets are thieves. So if you look at this book from the point of view
of how it was built, not what it means, but how it is built, then
i'ts built like Huckleberry Finn. Tthere’s a preface, a period
of time when they are not moving, that sort of sets the scene and
introduces the characters. Then there’s a period when they
move--in this case instead of moving down a river they move across
Kansas. Screenplay writers call this a road show. And it's one of
the basic techniques of fiction, to get your characters moving
because once they get to moving they stop and have episodes and
things happen. So I stole it from Mark Twain, a very fine person
to steal things from. I’m very pleased that I’ve stolen
I also was aware of a book called The Log of
a Cowboy by Andy Adams. When I started writing it The Last Cattle Drive, I was reading
that as well. And then I was influenced by my education here at the
university. One of my professors was an 18th century scholar, so
I read a lot of 18th century literature. I knew how they built
books as well. That’s how it happened. Now, how to fill in the
frame. Once I had the frame, I simply took a car one day and a map.
The map is in my file somewhere, and I drove the route. I made notes
on the map about this and then went back. And I think I might have
had some pieces of paper, index cards, and so forth. I went back
to where I was writing the book whichwas in western Kansas. I drove
all the way to Kansas City. I think it took me about two days to
do it. I just made notations of a route and that map exists somewhere,
and I got back and just started typing. That’s the inspiration
from literature. That’s not inspiration. That’s what
I’ve gotten from literary technique.
Now as to what part of the book is “real.” It is true
that I worked for a small ranch in western Kansas, and we did drive
cattle. So I knew how to do it. The character Leo is not me
in this sense. I knew more about how to do things than Leo does.
Leo is the narrator and he’s very innocent. He comes from eastern Kansas as I did, but by the time I
wrote the book, I knew. I myself had a horse and I knew how to ride.
I worked on a farm here in Lawrence as a matter of fact, so I knew
how to do these things. But it seemed to me that I had to create
a character who was largely innocent of these things so I eliminated
some of the knowledge I had. And he has all these questions. I wanted to write
in the first person; I like the first person narrative style. So
that’s basically how it happened.
Q: As far as anniversaries go, most people look back on time. Do
you want to say something about how you are feeling right now since
this is such is an important moment, given the fact that The Last Cattle
Drive has lasted for so many years?
A: Well, I’m surprised that it has lasted so long. In a lot
of ways I don’t have a literary career. I mean, I’m a
writer but I do other things in my life, and I’m a teacher.
So it never dawned on me when I wrote it and I published it that
one of its qualities would be how long it would stay in print. Because
I don’t live in New York and I don’t know about all these
things that people do. Now I do, of course, but then I didn’t
know. I thought, "My golly, someone wants to publish this book and
sell it and I’d make a little money and I don’t have
to teach that semester." I’d buy myself a better bottle of
wine and so forth and so forth. So for awhile I kept thinking to
myself, you know, that maybe I should write another one—another book.
But I wasn’t called upon to do that.
I didn’t mind that so much, but other people kept saying,
“Why don’t you write another book?” I’d
say, “Well I don’t know, it’s a mystery to me.”
It didn’t bother me. I wasn’t upset about it. I’d
write stories and for awhile I worked for the Washington Post. Writing
big feature pieces for the Washington Post magazine I won a lot
of awards for my stories. I like my stories. I like them as much
as I like this book. I think my stories are probably even better written than The Last
Cattle Drive. But you asked me about looking back on it I can say
it’s great fun to have this friend of mine, this book. It’s
30 years old and so I think, well, it's sort of celebrating a birthday. I think, "G--, there’s my book. It's 30 years old."
Q: You already did a partial cattle drive going from point A to
point B before the actual re-enactment of The Last Cattle Drive,
is that correct?
A: Well, actually I wouldn’t say that I did it. Newton King
is this Lawrence pharmacist who’s got this idea that
he wants to have this cattle drive. I can’t tell you how wonderful
I think it is. It ’s a little nuts. But yes, we did. He rounded
up some people, me included. And we got some horses together and
we got some cattle together. Our idea was to see what would happen
if we drove a half-a-dozen, maybe a dozen, of the straggliest looking
critters I’d ever seen: misshaped horns, you know; an old bull
with one testicle; nasty looking bunch of critters. Our idea was
we were going to drive them six miles into Paradise, Kansas.
We couldn’t do it because somebody forgot that there was
no fence along a milo field. So all the cattle
ran into the milo field.
So, at the end of the drive, there was a whole bunch of people in Paradise, Kansas, waiting for this cattle drive to come in. The
cowboys came in, but no cattle. Everybody was running around the
pasture looking for the cattle. So it was a spectacular failure;
it was wonderful! And I fell off my horse, so that helped
as part of the story. I do think that Mr. King is going to get the
whole thing together in time for next summer when the “real”
drive takes place. But I think it will also be a fiasco. The Last
Cattle Drive itself was a was a fiasco in places.
Q: After 30 years, what do you think is behind the enduring success
of The Last Cattle Drive?
A: It is a story that is a clash of cultures. Of youth and age.
Of the old half- dead West and the new very-dead suburbs. Most people
cheer Huck Finn when he says he wants to head out to the territories
and doesn't want to be civilized by Aunt Polly or Sally, because
he has been there before. But most people would rather read about
it than do it. The Last Cattle Drive is reading about it. Also it
is a profane book that lacks charm. Both are enduring, if not endearing.
—This is a summary of an interview with Robert Day that took place
at the University of Kansas in October 2006.
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Speaking French In Kansas
and Other Stories
This book provides an honest and direct look at some of the characters
who are represented in the folklore and history of Kansas. It also
includes the short stories "In My Stead" and"The
Four Wheel Drive Quartet".
From "Speaking French in Kansas":
David was still trying to remember what the Frenchman said, but
he thought he might lose it unless he went outside and said it aloud
a few times. He didn't want to leave without his father though,
and besides the sheriff was talking on the phone and everybody was
listening, so David looked out the window onto the street and tried
to make the cottonwood seeds float into patterns in the air that
spelled out what he thought he'd heard. But that was too difficult,
and so h'ed give one floating seed one sound and the next floating
seed another sound until he got to the end of 'Je m'appelle Andre,'
and then he'd start over again. (p 8)
From "In My Stead":
It was Mother on the phone. She has called three times today, once
waking me out of a sound sleep. "It is six in the morning,
Mother. Do you know it is six in the morning where I live?"
She might not. They live in Wolf, Kansas, a tiny town with the distinction
of being on the Central/Mountain Standard Time line. Once, years
ago, a man from the government stopped in Wolf to explain we could
have whatever we wanted: Mountain or Central. It was up to us. Well,
it was up to adults; I didn't have much to do with it. In any case,
Mother took the government man to mean she could have any time she
wanted on any given day--any given minute, really. She knows better,
of course, but in a way she doesn't. (p 25)
From "Four Wheel Drive Quartet":
The day rotates down: A drink. A friend. Drinks. Friends. Dinner.
Wine and Dinner. Chopin in the speakers and among the talk. Espresso
I make myself from an Italian machine that spits and steams, wheezes
and coughs. Irish Cream on the side. Friends leave. The Chopin changes
to Mozart; the Mozart to Beethoven; in the blue black of night the
Beethoven gives way to Charlie Parker, Leadbelly and Coltrane. A
friend leaves. Terry Riley in C arrives. It is the story of our
lives as we know them. (p 118)
Above excerpts are from Speaking French in Kansas published
in 2005 by the Washburn University Center for Kansas Studies. For copies, write c/o Thomas Fox Averill , Washburn
University, MO 300, Topeka, KS 66621.
Cottonwood Review, Fall 1980, No. 23, includes an interview
Cottonwwod 40, dedicated to Edgar Wolfe, has an essay,
"I Look Out For Ed Wolfe," Day's reflections about
his former professor.
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