Reynolds Price Defies Cancer to Write His Finest Novel

updated 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There were times during the creation of his new best-seller that novelist Reynolds Price feared he would die before he ever finished the manuscript. A third of the way into his sixth novel, Kate Vaiden, he learned he had spinal cancer. "I was losing strength and losing the will to live and work," says Price, who is now a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. "Lots of people thought I was dying. I never dreamt I could finish Kate Vaiden."

Somehow, between hospital visits for surgery and radiation therapy, Price managed to forge ahead, and now he is enjoying a rich reward for his struggle. Long considered a major American author, Price is being hailed by critics for his finest work. Kate Vaiden (Atheneum, $16.95) has made the New York Times best-seller fiction list and is already in its fourth printing.

Price, 53, drew the inspiration for his novel from his family history. His late mother, Elizabeth Rodwell, served as the model for his spellbinding heroine Kate Vaiden (rhymes with maiden). "Kate was a gypsy who went on the road," says Price, "an outlaw in her time. I strongly suspect my mother of spiritually being an outlaw, but she never ran away." The novel, told in Vaiden's lyric voice, recounts her picaresque life growing up in rural North Carolina and Virginia in the 1930s and '40s. Kate is 11 when her parents die mysteriously, she loses her virginity a year later and at 17 she becomes the mother of a baby boy whom she soon abandons. "I've meant to be strong," says Kate. "Strength just comes in one brand—you stand up at sunrise and meet what they send you and keep your hair combed."

Price learned a great deal about his own courage in adversity while writing Kate's story. Shortly after he read part one of his manuscript to his mentor, Eudora Welty, he noticed a weakness in his left leg and had difficulty walking. That was in May 1984. Several days later he was at Duke University Medical Center for an operation that revealed a malignant tumor which ran from his hairline into his spinal cord. After the operation Price suffered through six weeks of daily radiation treatments. "The X rays were pretty awful," he recalls, "sort of like going to Hiroshima for lunch every day." By late November, Price was back working on his novel. "I thought, 'Let's go on, the hell with anything else,' " he says. " 'At least I'll have 100 pages of an unfinished novel when I die.' So I dived back into sentence one of part two and kept going. My legs quit but the rest of me got better."

Price was born in Macon, N.C.—"a town," he once wrote, "of 227 cotton and tobacco farmers nailed to the flat red land at the pit of the Great Depression." Reynolds started drawing and writing as a boy, activities that set him apart from his schoolmates. By the 11th grade he was writing plays and short stories. "I was conscious this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life," he says.

The aspiring author went on to study at Duke University. As a senior there he met Welty, who praised a short story he showed her as "very professional" and put him in touch with her agent. From 1955 to 1958, Price studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Back home he completed his prizewinning first novel, A Long and Happy Life, which was published in 1962. He then established a routine he has rarely broken, one that consists of equal parts writing and teaching literature and creative writing at Duke.

He doesn't like to be labeled a "Southern writer," or even a "major Southern writer." Says Price, "People don't refer to John Updike as 'a New England writer' or 'a Pennsylvania writer.' It is condescending to call someone a major Southern writer." Still, a strong sense of locale permeates his fiction. The author has lived in North Carolina all his life, the last 28 years in the same tri-level house outside Durham. He has added a one-floor wing in which he now sleeps and writes. Price, who has never married, has a graduate student help him get about and do the shopping and cooking. A 26-year-old writer named Daniel Voll—to whom Kate Vaiden is dedicated—lived with Price for the 18 months following his initial surgery.

The prognosis for Price is uncertain. Surgeons removed the top half of the tumor last May, an operation that has greatly improved his use of his arms and hands. Another operation is tentatively planned for later this month. But Price, who remains as warm, energetic and optimistic as he has always been, refuses to give in to bitterness over his illness. "I certainly would not have chosen it," he says. "But I have chosen to deal with the thing and not let it deal with me. It's already done its worst with me; now I have to do my worst with it."

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