Still’s editors got to know Kentucky writer David Dick (1930-2010) in the late 1990s, and the kindness and support he showed to us remains unsurpassed. Although we knew him mainly as a Kentucky writer, David Dick had a long career as a correspondent at CBS News (1966-1985). Today, we might call his style of journalism “old school”—the kind of on-air talent who actually reported a story, wrote the copy, and delivered the news on-camera. He covered three presidential campaigns by Alabama Governor George Corley Wallace and received an Emmy in 1972 for his coverage of Wallace’s attempted assassination. He was one of the first correspondents on the scene after the 1978 mass suicide in Guyana when Jim Jones and 900 of his followers drank poisoned Kool-Aid and died in the jungle. He covered wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Beirut, Guatemala, and Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands.
After he retired from CBS, he became professor of journalism at University of Kentucky and was appointed director of the School of Journalism. In April, 1988, David began writing the back page for the monthly Kentucky Living magazine, and soon began publishing what would eventually become 15 books, most of them based on the quiet lives of Kentucky residents. Since 1992, David and his wife and co-author Lalie, were popular guests at the annual Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort. David’s courageous battle against prostate cancer rarely slowed him down. He published A Journal for Lalie: Living Through Prostate Cancer in 2008, and his last book was a simple song of faith and humor, Outhouse Blues (2009). Throughout his illness, David continued to prepare manuscripts for publication, keep a detailed daily diary, make personal appearances, and lend his enthusiastic support and courage to other writers. He died peacefully at his home, surrounded by his family, on July 16, 2010.
This interview was conducted in October, 2005 at David and Lalie Dick’s ancestral home, built at Plum Lick Creek in Bourbon County, Kentucky, in 1799. Although the interview was primarily with David, Lalie would occasionally offer corrections of dates and details from the kitchen as she prepared our lunch and conducted Plum Lick Publishing book business on the telephone.
Still: Have you always lived here in Bourbon County?
David Dick: I was born in Cincinnati. My father was a doctor and he died when he was about 36. My mother brought us back to North Middletown, which is about five miles over the hill from here. And we moved in with her Mother. I graduated from high school in North Middletown.
Still: When did you think about becoming a writer?
D.D.: I had vague notions about writing and about acting while in undergraduate school. I always wanted to act. (Lalie names all the parts he played in college productions.) But soon I was in my first marriage, and my family was coming along, and I wanted to go to UCLA to study writing and acting after I got out of the Navy, but my allegiance was to my family, of course. Anyway, so little by little, I had a series of bad jobs before graduate school. I happened to run into someone associated with Kentucky Educational Television and I got a broadcast journalism scholarship to help me get my foot into graduate school. I went to University of Kentucky thinking I was going to study journalism, but I ended up studying English Literature. So I, who, became a journalist for CBS; I, who became the director of the Journalism School at the University of Kentucky, dropped Journalism 101! During this time, I also began working for WHAS in Louisville as a writer and on-air journalist.
No one in my family was literary, really, and I didn’t really read much as a child. In college, while studying English, I told one of my professors that I might like to become a writer and asked him how I could do that. He told me that maybe I should spend a summer in a Kansas wheat field. I’ll never forget that. I thought, I’m not going to go to any Kansas wheat field. But later, with the passage of time, I found myself in Central America in the killing fields. I was describing death and battles in very simple, short, direct sentences. Around that time, I think, the writing seeds were re-sown in me.
(At this point, the formal interview was interrupted so that Lalie could show us her office, from where she conducted most of the business of Plum Lick Publishing, the Dick’s publishing company. The proofs for their latest book project, Kentucky: A State of Mind, were on her desk.)
Still: Now what is this book about?
D.D.: It’s a collection of essays that have appeared in Kentucky Living or in the Farm Bureau newspaper but not in book form. It’s a continuation of the genre we have done before, like Home Sweet Kentucky and The Quiet Kentuckians.
Lalie: With Rivers of Kentucky we did the same thing, but those stories were interwoven with the rivers because the stories were about people who identified with the rivers in some way.
Still: Do you think Rivers of Kentucky can be interpreted as an oral history?
D.D.: I think maybe virtually everything we do is kind of an oral history. We have one piece of fiction in Kentucky: A State of Mind called “The Visitor.” And it’s an elf who appears one day and we have a conversation.
Still: When you were working on Rivers of Kentucky, you said that you thought the waterways of Kentucky were a metaphor for writing.
D.D.: Yes, a metaphor that is not original to me. I’m sure I got that from somebody else! All the water that is here now was here in the beginning, and all the water that is here now is all the water there will ever be. When I was a child, I lived on a farm in this county and I was fascinated by a stream that ran through our property. I played there a lot. So early on I got caught up in this enthusiasm and wonderment about the water that flows, and where it went. I love rain and how it comes of its own mind. Our bodies are largely water. So the water metaphor is not only a comforting phenomenon, but for me, an inspiring one. So I’m looking forward to today and looking ahead to the next book. Look outside right now. (It was raining.)
Still: What does this place do for you as a writer?
D.D.: I would like to hope that it causes me to take stock in my individuality so that I don’t get caught up in what everyone else is doing. There’s a “quietude” here. I have a certain expectation for quietude here—that is to say—“peace at the center.” I don’t want there to be an air strip here or a race track or a circus, but that there be grass here and that when we need to augment our heating needs, we can find an old dead tree on the property and split up the wood with our neighbors. There’s a mystical quality here. I don’t need to go to Ireland or Scotland to find it, even though I’ve been to both of those places. This is not a fancy place—no hot tub or tennis court—but it’s a nice old shoe.
We never thought there would be anything ever called “Plum Lick Publishing” when we moved here. We were involved in two local newspapers, both of them immensely unsuccessful financially, so we moved on from that. Just as I wanted to act, I also wanted to write. But I spent a lot of years doing other things that were loosely connected to writing, but even when I was in graduate school, I couldn’t see myself as a writer yet.
Still: Have you ever thought about writing a book about George Corley Wallace?
D.D.: Yes, I have, but I really know enough about my own ability to know I’d be in over my head and there have been two or three books written about Wallace that I couldn’t top, especially Marshall Frady’s biography. Wallace hated Frady. Wallace used to say Frady should have been hanged. I’m not a good investigative or political reporter. My mind doesn’t work that way.
Still: But don’t you think you had to work that way when you were writing the Jesse Stuart biography?
D.D.: Yes, but I had good help. Lalie is a better researcher than I am. The Jesse Stuart Foundation was helpful and cooperative, and other professional librarians and archivists were very generous. So I probably was pushing myself as far as I could go on that book. We went to LMU and Murray State and Vanderbilt and University of Louisville and Morehead State University and University of Kentucky. And all that research just fell into a particular structure when we were putting that book together. We were lucky to meet good archivists.
Still: You tend to leave yourself out of most of the nonfiction you write, but in this book, there was a sense of you, a sort of commentator, in the Jesse Stuart book.
D.D.: One of the criticisms of the book was a problem with voice. Some readers didn’t care for it. But it caused me to remember my student days and the idea of a voice matter that needs to be reckoned with. People who are fans of Jesse Stuart think we know all about Jesse Stuart, but I wanted to try to re-create many of the things for which there was no documentation, like his birth. But I hope there is a certain intimacy there, an intentional narrative strategy; it just came naturally to me.
Still: How long did you work on that book?
D.D.: Back-back burner and I can’t remember how old the stove is . . .
Lalie: May of 2002 is when we started.
Still: How would you categorize the types of books you prefer to write, and who reads them?
D.D.: I want to write non-stereotypically; I want to write to be understood. When we go to the Apple Festival in Paintsville or the Mountain Masters in Harlan or to celebrations in Pikeville, there are people who come up to us who have an obvious appetite, if not hunger, for the type of book we like to write. One of the things that we do is get out books out there through Plum Lick Publishing. We don’t have to wait for an endorsement from the East Coast. We don’t have to bow and scrape and write in a style we might not want to. We call the shots, and we do everything except the actual printing. This week, we’ll be taking delivery on 3,000 books. We stack them in the garage and dining room, and our kitchen table becomes our shipping station. We go to the Kentucky Book Fair and Kentucky Crafted in Louisville; we try to make radio and/or television appearances. We hope for good reviews. But the point is, we do it all, from writing to marketing, and we don’t apologize for being self-publishers. We’re independent. When we put our books on the table, they have an appealing physical quality. People like to pick them up. I couldn’t do this without Lalie. With Lalie, I get to bypass agents and publishers.
Still: How do you find all these people you’ve written about in Kentucky?
D.D.: You know, you just find them. They’ll run up sometimes and bite you on the ankle.
Still: Could you say one or two phrases or sentences about each of your books or maybe some challenge you didn’t anticipate that you had to overcome in the writing of each book?
D.D.: The View from Plum Lick: What you should report and what you should write about is right beneath your feet. I guess I had a feeling of “sense of place” before the phrase became a cliché. It’s about people and animals.
Follow the Storm: A disappointment, but we re-did it later. In Sunday School yesterday I read a little bit from that book and it seems to resonant better and maybe somebody who is interested in being a journalist might want to take a look at it.
Peace at the Center: An idea I had harbored a long time because I like the Quaker expression “inner-contentment” and dealing with mortality and my own window of time.
Conversation with Peter Pence: I always wanted to write what might be called a self-help book but there are tons of them so how could mine be exquisite? So I started doing it anyway and it evolved. It’s a simple philosophy. A fable.
The Quiet Kentuckians: The beginning of my traveling throughout Kentucky and coming upon really interesting people who seldom get attention or recognition.
The Scourges of Heaven: It started out to be a scholarly work and we had a research grant for travel, but I decided that I would make it into a novel. So I had a field day inventing a prostitute and getting her into New Orleans and into a convent. That book really means a lot to me.
Home Sweet Kentucky: It was the first book that Lalie and I co-authored book; more of The Quiet Kentuckians.
Rivers of Kentucky: a magical journey! It’s become our best seller, I think.
Jesse Stuart: The Heritage: a turning point which helped me get another notch of maturity and to help me understand the heritage of my life and land.
Kentucky: A State of Mind: It has a nice theme to it; maybe it’s a better book than any of the ones before it. I wanted to try to overcome the stereotypes that people still hold about Kentucky. There’s more to us than murder and mayhem. There is a hope for quietude and of strength.
Still: What projects are you working on?
D.D.: To make the most of the next phase of my life. I’m wanting to be 100 years old, or 105. I want to be surprised. I would like to write a sequel to Scourges of Heaven. I’m interested in going back to fiction. But immediately, I want to stave off senility by being increasingly open and willing to work and being my own motivator. I’ve done my academic thing and my network news thing and my community newspaper column, but my passion is writing and working with Lalie to make substantial books on the shelf.