Oprah is good at a lot of things. She's good at making people cry and catching sex offenders and giving away cars and building schools. She's also really good at making people read books and, consequently, making less-known authors really famous.
If it's on Oprah's book club list, they will buy, and in 2000 she added Robert Morgan's novel Gap Creek to her hallowed harem, helping it become a New York Times best seller. A story of love, work and the Appalachian way of life, Morgan's novels frequently pit contemporary fiction against a lost, rural past. And this fictionalized, if not romanticized, look at an authentic history is something he's ready to put on hold.
His new book, Boone: A Biography, is a sweeping panorama of the life and times of American legend Daniel Boone. This chronological retelling of the events that shaped the life of Boone and the American frontier is so comprehensive and excessively detailed it leaves little doubt as to why this real man was a folk hero, even in his own time, and why he has remained the iconic image of the great American trailblazer, a hunter statesman and explorer.
"Many boys, both old and young, feel a connection with Boone," Morgan says in the book's introduction. "But growing up in the mountains of western North Carolina ... hunting and trapping, fishing and wandering the mountain trails, I may have felt the kinship more literally than most."
And even more literally than that, Morgan actually shares a common ancestor with the mythic man.
"Although it seems to me everyone in America is related to Daniel Boone," he says by phone.
On a recent book tour stop in Lexington, three people came up claiming to be direct descendants. If that's true, then even though factual narrative is a departure for Morgan, this biography will not be in want of an audience.
"Boone will appeal to more men than my novels," Morgan says. "Most people who have read my novels have been women. Ninety percent of the fan letters I get are from women."
Morgan was originally classified as a poet, although he wrote his first short story in the sixth grade. By blending the two, he's able to infuse his prose with that organic but sentimental sensibility. But, because he says he began his writing career to challenge himself, he's straying from the usual and trying his hand at a new genre.
"I'm not a historian," he says. "I'm a novelist and poet."
He's also a researcher — even when it comes to his novels. While doing research for a novel set in the Carolinas during the Revolutionary period, Morgan rediscovered his interest in Daniel Boone. "And then I really got hooked," he says.
"What I did starting out was to create a big notebook and every other page had a gauge of one year of Boone's life," he says. "I came to feel he was pretty much a living person. He was often frustrated and often defeated, a great solitary explorer of the wilderness and a family man. He was able to alternate between two lives.
"I think it's very rare for biographer to come to admire the subject more," he says. "Most get sick of them before they're done."
But Morgan claims "at this moment in history we seem hungry to connect with our past, to get a firmer sense of ourselves through knowing what has gone before." And so in between American Indian battle scenes and scenes of the Virginia legislature, Morgan slips in information about the other parts of life as a settler in the Americas. He takes a look at the role of women on the frontier, the lives of American Indians and slaves and he indulges the reader in the details of the domestic arts.
By compiling all of this information, Morgan attempts to create a living narrative — a "more intimate, hands-on" look at the biography. In doing so, he also attempts to find a balance between his legion of female fans, his past body of work and the elusive interest of the non-fiction reader.
ROBERT MORGAN appears 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Books by the Banks festival at the Duke Energy Center. More than 85 regional and national authors will attend the festival, which runs from 10 a.m.to 6 p.m. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.