Peace Corps Writers
Death of an RPCV Writer
Remembering Tim McLaurin
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Tim McLaurin’s full book list

TIM McLAURIN (Tunisia 1982–83), author of The Keeper of the Moon: A Memoir, among other books, died on July 11 of esophageal cancer. Tim grew up on a small family farm in East Fayetteville, North Carolina, a world he chronicled vividly and elegantly throughout four novels, two memoirs and a narrative poem.
     In October 1989, Tim was interviewed in RPCW Writers, the original newsletter of this on-line website, about his Peace Corps experience and his writing. He said then that:

    The Peace Corps has had a large influence on me becoming a writer because it made me see the region of the country where I was born in a different light without the influence and prejudice of living inside the culture. The Peace Corps also gave me time to write while further instilling in me discipline and pride, two strengths that are needed for writing.

An ex-Marine — as well as an RPCV — who pierced his ears and painted his toenails, and a one-time proprietor of a traveling snake show who became an assistant professor at North Carolina State University and a bona fide man of letters, McLaurin was also an alcoholic though he preferred the term drunk. He despised the liberal elite of Chapel Hill, but when he remarried two years ago, more than two dozen Southern authors — all his close friends — bore witness. It probably isn’t true, but somebody said afterward that it was the largest gathering of Southern writers since Faulkner’s funeral.
     Tim was drinking long before his cancer was diagnosed, and the alcohol took as much of a toll on his body as the multiple myeloma or the tumors.
     Tim wrote a little about his drinking in Keeper of the Moon, the best of his books, which covers his Peace Corps years, and in The River Less Run: A Memoir he recounted waking up in a hospital after a three-week binge. He hit bottom then, he wrote, and decided to quit. After a second bout of cancer, he became addicted to painkillers, and he tried to drink his way out. He finally got free of the alcohol, but fighting cancer without the pills was impossible.
     He shaved his head and covered his scars from the surgeries and treatments with tattoos — birds, snakes, the names of loved ones, a giant phoenix rising from the flames.
     He asked a friend, George Terll, to build his coffin. A farrier by trade, George fashioned a pine box with steel rims inlaid vertically and horizontally. It looked a little like a whiskey barrel.
     Tim asked Pete Hendricks, a novelist and stonemason, to build a tomb on his family farm, right next to where his father, Reese McLaurin, was buried. Pete and his wife, Robin, built the tomb with rocks Tim’s mother brought back from a 1999 cross-country family excursion — a trip Tim turned into The River Less Run. Pete said it took about 10 trips to the farm to bring all the rocks. Tim went along most of the time, frail as he was. It was built to beautiful on the inside as well as out — so Tim would have a nice view.
     Years ago, Tim asked Mary E. Miller of Raleigh, North Carolina’ s The News & Observer to write his obituary when the time came, but when he passed away, Mary had just given birth to a little girl and she also admitted that she didn’t want to see Tim down to 80 pounds and tethered to an oxygen tank. But in time, she did write:

    . . . there are so many funny, sad, inspiring, poignant stories I want to tell, but the most important things to know about Tim is that he deeply loved his children and his family, treated writing as a luxury, found a calling to teach, won the hearts of two extraordinary women, and pretty much did what he set out to do long before doctors turned over the hourglass. He died writing, with a manuscript completed and a magazine article half-finished. But the greatest triumph of his life might be that he didn’t die drunk and alone in the woods.
    . . .
         Wrapped in a sheet, with the tiny plastic bag of dirt from the farm that he carried around in his wallet, Tim was buried on the family land. After the service, old friends gathered to say goodbye, swap stories over fried chicken and pie, and write messages in markers on the tomb. It was a good party.

Tim McLaurin was 48.

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