Kathy Giuffre woke up about six years ago with the first line of a novel pulling her out of her sleep and back to a place where a story, long shackled in the caverns of her mind, was set free.
The sociology professor at Colorado College got out of bed and wrote down her thought.
“This was in the days when nighttime used to mean something.”
By the end of the next week, Giuffre had the first chapter of her first novel, which is set in Waterville, a fictional town with many similarities to Chapel Hill.
“It just fell out of my head,” she said. Then the rest of the book was about five years in the making.
The result is “The Drunken Spelunker’s Guide to Plato,” a warm, witty and philosophical look at friendship, community and what makes a family.
Giuffre takes readers back to a time when “The Star-Spangled Banner” blared from the TV screen at midnight, then the screen faded to black or that snowy static that signaled a quiet until dawn.
Gas stations locked up.
But in the quiet darkness of those hours, Guiffre found a lovable band of misfits whose hearts were as big as the beer cups that fueled many of their late-night and early-morning adventures.
Giuffre, who spent the late 1980s and much of the 1990s in Chapel Hill while getting a master’s degree and doctorate in sociology, has been in the Triangle this month promoting her book.
Last weekend, she was at a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance gathering in Raleigh, where her book was celebrated as one of the 2015 Summer Okra picks, selected because it represents “the best in Southern lit, fresh off the vine.” She also squeezed in appearances at McIntyre’s Books and The Roost in Fearrington Village in Chatham County, and the Cave in Chapel Hill, where she worked for almost nine months.
Anybody who spent much time in Chapel Hill’s West End in the 1990s, going back and forth between the Cave, Tijuana Fats restaurant, Mama Dip’s Kitchen, the Internationalist bookstore and Pyewacket restaurant might find striking similarities between the haunts of Giuffre’s characters and those that hummed in the late-night and early-morning hours along West Rosemary and Franklin streets almost three decades ago.
But Giuffre insists her work is fiction.
Her characters are characters; their words, relationships and conversations imagined by her.
“It’s me, imagining what I would say in a situation and then answering myself,” Giuffre said in a recent interview. “It’s like playing chess with myself. It’s like they say with fiction, but the characters really did start to take on a life of their own.”
Josie, the narrator, is a small-town Smoky Mountains girl who bounds straight off the bus into Waterville. She quickly becomes a bartender at The Cavern, which, much like Chapel Hill’s famous Cave, is underground “down a dingy flight of concrete stairs from the street above, breathing in an updraft of cigarette smoke, dampness, stale beer fumes, and subterranean cool.”
The adventurous, but somewhat naive tenderfoot dives into the bar life, finding the “enormous comfort to be had in friends who see the worst of you and do not turn away.”
She soaks it in from Vera, The Cavern’s tough-minded but tenderhearted owner. From Pancho, the “philosophical piano tuner,” and Blossom, a motherly restaurateur whose nurturing often comes with fresh-baked pie or a hot cup of coffee.
She befriends Commie Tom, the exceedingly generous proprietor of the Hammer and Sickle Bookstore, which resembles the Internationalist when it was a fixture on West Rosemary Street.
These characters take her through love and loss, through hangovers and the philosophical pondering that include lessons from Plato and the ancient philosopher’s “The Allegory of the Cave.”
They become her rocks, her family, the community she built while trying to answer questions about the nature of reality and what she was supposed to do with it. Just like Plato.
Rife with wit and introspection, “Drunken Spelunker” evokes a strong sense of place and Giuffre’s admiration for Everyman philosophers, artists and musicians, sometimes marginalized because of the less-worn paths that they followed.
As she weaves these stories of bus-boy poets and carpenter bluesmen through her coming-of-age story, one can almost smell the decades of smoke, spilled beer and who knows what else absorbed in the walls and tables of the barroom and poolroom in Waterville’s Cavern.
Close your eyes and you can easily imagine the squint of the drunken spelunkers who climbed back into the daylight after an evening and early morning with the dreamers, barflies and musicians who made up Josie’s family.
Giuffre was born and raised in the Arkansas Ozark Mountains, where her family goes back at least five generations. She landed in Chapel Hill after getting a bachelor’s degree with honors from Harvard University and traveling through Asia with her brother.
“That Josie character,” Giuffre said, “that isn’t me. It’s a character who did things I wouldn’t necessarily do and said things that I wouldn’t say.”
But writing the book was cathartic and rewarding for Giuffre, an academic whose research often puts her in a position of studying cultures as an outsider.
As an associate professor and chairwoman of the Colorado College sociology department in Colorado Springs, Giuffre’s work has taken her to the South Pacific.
While there, on the island of Rarotonga, she studied a region with a wealth of artists, writers and musicians, and tried to figure out what about their culture led to such riches. She studied social networks there and concluded that the Polynesian people, especially on that island, were a generous group and that generosity led to the nurturing of the arts community there.
Giuffre said she noticed the same thing about the relationships she developed while working at the Cave.
“Part of the reason that I worked on this book is that I wanted to explore a culture that is my own,” Giuffre said. “I wanted to explore a culture from the inside, not the outside as I do in my research. And that’s what I’ve done as a novelist.”
That exploration into the world she knew sat in a box in her home for a while. She put her unpublished novel in safekeeping after getting a few rejection letters from publishers shortly after finishing it. Then a friend persuaded her to send it around again. John F. Blair, Publisher, in Winston-Salem contacted her almost a year ago.
“I really wanted to remember those people because they were really special people in my life,” Giuffre said.
Giuffre still smiles about the generosity of those days. She remembers showing up at people’s homes, unannounced and uninvited, and being graciously welcomed.
For one Thanksgiving holiday, she drove from a job in Boston to Chapel Hill. She found two old friends at the bar where she worked, and they took her home and shared their traditional holiday fare – two Cornish hens divided among the three of them.
She has fond memories of sitting on porches or in cow pastures listening to spontaneous music from friends who had not yet given up on dreams of making a living doing what they loved.
In those days, she recalled, few of her friends locked their doors, and they barely blinked an eye when they arose in the morning to find someone unexpected asleep on their couch.
“It’s a really beautiful culture filled with incredible generosity, incredible kindness,” Giuffre said.
Giuffre has two sons, a 17-year-old and one in college now who was born in Chapel Hill.
She has been married for 10 years to a man she met on her first day of college. They went their separate ways shortly after she moved to Chapel Hill and then reunited after 9/11.
Giuffre said her “Drunken Spelunker’s Guide to Plato” was written, in part, to give her sons a glimpse of a world they don’t know. But neither has read it yet, she said. “It’s not age appropriate.”
The Drunken Spelunker’s Guide to Plato
John F. Blair, 240 pages
Meet the author
Kathy Giuffre will be reading and signing books at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham.