Source material: West Virginia life inspired writer
A newspaper story describes how a farmer fed his murder victims to his hogs. Old men swap tales of foxhunting as they sip coffee in a café. A woman abruptly leaves her fiance.
To anyone else, such events might be nothing more than the routine vagaries of life. But in the fertile mind of Breece Pancake, they were the simmering beginnings of powerful stories.
According to the late writer's mother, Helen Pancake, everyday life events, from the mundane collecting fossils in the hills of his native West Virginia to the most bizarre crimes reported in the local paper were the kernels around which he built gripping tales of defeat and triumph.
"We had no idea he was forming all those stories," she says. "Breece loved old people. He called them 'walking encyclopedias.'"
Mrs. Pancake recalled the genesis of "Foxhunters," one of 12 stories in a republished collection of Pancake's stories recently released by Little, Brown.
"He loved to sit with the old gentlemen at coffee shops," she says. "One day he came home and told me the story of foxhunters." Did they really stay out all night to catch foxes? "I told him what they said was true, and that's how the story began."
Helen Pancake's favorite story is one which critics applaud as well. "Trilobites," the tale of a young man whose mother is selling their homeplace and whose girlfriend has moved on, was one of Pancake's first stories accepted for publication.
His mother recalled the girlfriend one of three he had while he was a student at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. This one "broke Breece's heart" when she left with no explanation– after he had repainted his entire apartment to suit her.
"The stories are 90 percent fiction, but these things that happened were the beginnings," his mother says.
The Charlottesville connection began in the late sixties when Breece's older sister, Charlotte, was in nursing school at the university. On one of those visits, Charlotte's boyfriend, who was studying geology, introduced Breece to a professor in that department.
That meeting "lit a fire under Breece," his mother recalls, and he soon came to Charlottesville to study. Close friends such as writers John Casey and James Alan McPherson encouraged his writing, and publication in journals such as The Atlantic followed.
In fact, it was his first submission to that magazine, his mother says, that was the source of the unusual "D'J" he used as his middle name.
"When he sent his first story to the Atlantic," she recalls, "he used his full name: Breece Dexter John Pancake. He had added 'John' when he joined the Catholic church and needed to choose a saint's name.
"When they sent back the proofs, they had made that mistake D'J instead of D.J. and Breece was so uptight and nervous, like this mother," says a self-effacing Pancake.
"They apologized and wanted to correct it, but he said, 'Leave it alone. I like it.'"
And so the new name became permanent: Breece D'J Pancake. "John Casey always said that change enlightened Breece and made him more comfortable, loosened him up," his mother says.
Casey will be among those honoring Breece at a session during the West Virginia Book Festival in Charleston October 11-12. The panel will also include Breece's biographer, Tom Douglass, and Greg Bottoms, an author who discovered Breece's writing while reshelving books on the fourth floor of a university library.
Mrs. Pancake hopes that the conference will introduce Breece's stories to a new generation of readers.
"I hear from his fans all the time," she says. With the republished story collection, she's bracing for more calls.
"I think the new book is adorable," she says. "I just think it's wonderful that more and more people are hearing about Breece."
Mrs. Pancake left Milton, West Virginia, where Breece grew up, and moved to Spring Hill, Florida, to be near her sister.
"In Milton, they'd taken half of our yard for a parking lane, and the house was too close to the highway," Mrs. Pancake says. "Every time I'd take my dog out to tinkle, some big truck would pull over and the driver would want to know how to get to the wholesale grocer's. It was so awful. I knew I had to move."
Breece's two sisters, Charlotte and Bonnetta, have also left West Virginia to live in Minnesota and New Mexico, respectively. About her gifted and beloved son, Mrs. Pancake says, "We miss him all the time. We consider we were just so lucky to have him those 26 years."