Dawn Major interviews Robert Gwaltney

Dawn Major has followed author Robert Gwaltney’s writing career and has been delighted to watch it grow in leaps and bounds after a very successful reception of his debut novel, The Cicada Tree. Since running into him at a fellow author reading at FoxTale Book Shop a couple of years ago, she counts him as a confrere and a friend. Gwaltney is the type of writer who hits the road, puts his time in, and gives back to the writing community in spades. In October of 2022, Gwaltney was invited to be the resident writer at the Pat Conroy Center outside Beaufort, SC. He spent a week on the island of St. Helena in the Pat Conroy residency cottage deep in the low country and then agreed to share his experience with Southern Literary Review.

Dawn Major

DM: For those who do not know what it means to be a writer in residency, will you please share some of the activities, expectations, and responsibilities involved during your stay at the Pat Conroy Center this past fall?

RG: The October residency is an exciting opportunity for a few reasons. Of course, it is wonderful validation to be selected through the application process, and we writers all need that every now and again. Also, the residency runs concurrently with the Pat Conroy Literary Festival, and as a writer in residence, I was invited to attend the two days of events. Most importantly, the residency gave me the concentrated time in a beautiful setting to focus on my work in progress, a novel that takes place on a Georgia coastal barrier island. A highlight was a cocktail party hosted in my honor where I had the opportunity to spend time with author Cassandra King Conroy, who also happens to be Pat Conroy’s wife.

DM: Most writers can recall the moment in their lives, an epiphany of sorts, when they heard the voice of the muse for the first time—the call to be a writer. Often, it is a significant book or author that has had a profound effect on them. Pat Conroy said that his visit at the age of 15 to the Thomas Wolfe house was a “moment of communion for him.” Will you describe your moment? What author was it for you? And if that author was Pat Conroy, what book was it and why?

Robert Gwaltney

RG: Centuries ago, when I was attending Mrs. Glenda Morton’s third grade class at Southside Elementary School in Cairo Georgia, I had an epiphany of sorts. On a bleak winter’s day, a classmate’s mother, Brenda Graham, visited our room to discuss her life as an author. Up until that very moment, I imagined writers living in faraway magical lands like New York City. I regarded writers much like unicorns and mermaids; I believed they existed, but never thought I would have the opportunity to actually experience one. That day was life changing for me, because I reasoned if Mrs. Graham of Cairo Georgia could write a novel, a boy like me might have a chance.

Oddly, my interest in writing Southern fiction was first guided by my fascination with the Bronte sisters and the gothic elements within their work. In the fourth grade, I read Jane Eyre, and my life was changed forever.

DM: In your piece, “Lick the Sherbet Sky,” you speak about feeling like an imposter, of not belonging in the writing world, and share your anxiety over your sophomore book. Thank you for baring your soul so exquisitely. You are one of the most socially active writers I know. How do you conquer your critical inner voice, especially when you have to present confidence?

RG: There is an aloneness innate to the act of writing which I accept and understand, but the lonesomeness is altogether a different beast—that feeling and state of being that extends for me beyond the act of writing. Walking bleary-eyed from the world I create within my writing back into the real world can be disconcerting. Does the plot work? Is the protagonist compelling? Do I possess the writing chops to pull it off? In the end, I am able to assuage the doubt and critical inner voice through my friendships within the writing community and the understanding and acceptance that self-doubt perches universal.

DM: Robert, it’s always a pleasure to work with you and watch your writing career evolve.  On behalf of Southern Literary Review and myself, it was a pleasure reading about your experience as a resident in writer at the Pat Conroy Center. We wish you the absolute best.

About the Residency:

Writers’ Residency – Pat Conroy Literary Center


  1. Dawn,
    I truly enjoyed your interview with Robert Gwaltney. He is a dear friend and a wonderful writer. I also liked the questions you posed to him. They made the interview extremely interesting. All the best…..Joy Ross Davis

Leave a Reply