A Conversation with Brent Martin

The Assembly’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State. Acclaimed author Wiley Cash helms the newsletter, which includes older books with new relevance, new titles with timely appeal, reviews, author Q&As, and excerpts. You can sign up for the newsletter here.

This month’s featured interview is with Brent Martin, author of the recently released George Masa’s Wild Vision: A Japanese Immigrant Imagines Western North Carolina. You can read more about the book in this month's column.

Martin is the author of three chapbook collections of poetry, as well as The Changing Blue Ridge Mountains: Essays on Journeys Past and Present. He lives in the Cowee community in western North Carolina, where he and his wife, Angela Faye Martin, run Alarka Institute.

The following is a lightly edited transcript. 

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Wiley Cash: Given that your book is not a biography of George Masa, what was your goal with this project, and how did it change once you got started?

Brent Martin: I wanted it to be more of a visual project. There are various types of images in the book, not just Masa’s photography. I wanted to create a book that included Masa’s business card and his trip reports for the Carolina Mountain Club. The goal was to have a visual representation of Masa’s life through various formats. 

It was also an opportunity for me to get out on the landscape to see these places that Masa photographed to try to contextualize them with a twenty-first-century perspective. And of course, then the pandemic hit and there was a lockdown. Once the lockdown was over, I took off into the landscape and went to places like the Smokies, where millions and millions of people were descending on the landscape to get away from cities during the pandemic. And then after Black Lives Matter, the book took a different path for me as all these issues bubbled up so profoundly.

WC: At what point did you know that you’d be drawing such stark connections between Masa’s time and our own?

BM: Well, I didn’t even mention the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918! That would’ve been the perfect bookend in writing about the pandemic. How did I miss that? Masa lived during that health crisis, too. 

WC: Like a lot of people, I’d always pictured Masa as Horace Kephart’s sidekick. I didn’t know what an industrious person he was on his own. 

BM: He was definitely a hardworking businessman, and he wasn’t ashamed to borrow money during the Depression. He was trying to find people to invest in his business. He was ambitious. And at the same time, the aesthetic that he sought so deeply in the Smokies was his guiding star in life. That’s who he was. He’d bounced around trying to find his place in life, and he found it in the Smokies. 

Someone brought this up during a discussion at one of my readings recently: maybe Masa felt better in the southern Appalachians because it felt more like Japan—the vegetation and the species that we share in common. 

WC: I’m wondering what drew Kephart and Masa together, beyond their interest in the Smokies. As an immigrant, Masa was kind of an orphan, and Kephart had left his family behind in St. Louis. These were two very solitary people.

BM: It’s just another piece of the puzzle. Kephart was so popular as a writer, and was the consummate American outdoorsman at the time. That he would hook up with this diminutive Japanese man—5'1" and a hundred pounds soaking wet—to traipse all over the Great Smokies … it’s really interesting. 

Not knowing who Masa really was as a person—I don’t think he ever gave in-depth interviews, and no one’s uncovered any of his personal thoughts about his own life—you’re left to wonder if he’d suffered something in Japan that drove him to this country alone. What kept him here? But we know that he and Kephart both shared that love of solitude and healing that they got from nature. What an interesting pair.  

WC: This book really speaks to the nature of time in western North Carolina, and what the region has been to so many people over the centuries. What are your thoughts about the region’s future?

BM: We’re going through an incredible transition right now. There’s a wave of people coming into the area where I live (the Cowee Valley, north of Franklin). I’ve watched the landscape fill up with people in the past two years. It makes me wonder how the rural culture that’s been part of this landscape for so long will hang on in the face of the wave that’s washing over this place right now. 

While researching the book, I went into the landscapes Masa had visited one hundred years earlier. What will this place be, one hundred years from now? It feels like it’s being urbanized so quickly. 

WC: But after witnessing what Masa was able to achieve in terms of conservation and preservation, do you have hope?

BM: Absolutely. To live here is to live with a commitment to the well-being of the place. I do see a lot of people here who really care deeply about this place. There are a lot of organizations doing good work to keep the cultural landscape intact, as well as the natural landscape. Not that there aren’t problems with the cultural landscape—nothing’s perfect or pure—but there’s a history here, and that history is important. 

The work that’s being done here to keep the natural world intact and to educate people about the natural world—that is what keeps hope here alive. A lot of the people moving here are moving here because they’re in love with the natural world. They want to be in a place where they can get outdoors and enjoy a clean river or take their kids on a bike trail. But it’s a really delicate situation. 

WC: One thing that really shocked me about Masa was how intertwined his social life, his recreational life, and his artistic life were. Were you surprised by that? 

BM: What a holistic approach to life he had. It’s really amazing how much he accomplished, especially outside of his native culture and language. I think the strands of his life were all one and the same. I think the aesthetic quality of his work is apparent in everything he does. His true love and passion was photographing the great outdoors. You see an intimacy with Masa and the camera in those photographs. He carried that intimacy into his business life as well. 

WC: So many people, myself included, saw Masa’s work as being utilitarian, an artistic means toward the goal of conservation. Are you hoping that your book brings more awareness to his work as an artist? 

BM: Absolutely. The negatives of his work were all lost, so there’s nothing left out there except these prints that can be used for high-res scans. You know, it really bugged me when I started researching Masa’s images and Ansel Adams popped up as having been here in the Smokies, complaining about how hard it was to get the images he wanted. He never mentioned Masa. 

That was just 15 years after Masa died, but by then Masa’s collections had already gone to the wind. The negatives had been lost forever, and people were stealing his images by that point. I think his work is every bit as interesting as Adams’. Masa spent time studying plants—attempting to get the right feel, for example, of a rhododendron in bloom. That’s something he hasn’t been credited with enough: his artistic contribution to the landscape. He knew more about the Smokies than anyone.

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Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.