As a Southern writer, Rita Welty Bourke has often been asked one burning question.
“Everyone wants to know if I’m related to Eudora Welty since that was my maiden name… and unfortunately, no,” she said of the late Mississippian. “But when I was a small child I somehow discovered that there was someone named Wellty who was a writer and I thought, ‘well, if there is someone named Welty who is a writer, maybe I can do that too.’”
And that offered up some major inspiration as she was growing up on a farm near Gettysburg, Penn. The elder Welty was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for “The Optimist’s Daughter” in 1973 and Bourke followed a similar path, sending out short stories while she was attending college.
“… and of course being rejected,” she said with a chuckle.
After school, she got married and raised three children. But as they approached college, she decided it was time to recommit to her dream of her. She summarized writing short stories and saw steady success.
She published more than 40 works — both fiction and non-fiction — in literary magazines including the North American Review, Cimarron Review, Louisiana Literature, Shenandoah, Witness and the Black Warrior Review. Bourke was a semi-finalist in the Faulkner Words & Music Literary Contest for Novel-in-Progress in 2004, 2005, and 2006. She was a finalist in America’s Best Short Fiction Contest in 1994.
Her family, which is based in Nashville, started making regular trips to the Golden Isles more than two decades ago. Since that time, the area started becoming a consistent character in her work.
“My husband is a songwriter and a friend of my husband owns a condo at the King and Prince. Twenty years ago, he said St. Simons is a great place to eat. We’ve pretty much been coming every year since then,” she said.
“One year, early on we brought my oldest daughter and she picked up a brochure at the King and Prince that told about Cumberland Island. My husband is a bit of a historian so the Carnegie aspect really intrigued him. My daughter is an equestrian so her horses really appealed to her. We’ve been going there ever since.”
Bourke and her family feel that each trip has offered them a gift. And she’s reciprocated by writing her own love letter to the island, in the form of a book. “Islomanes of Cumberland Island” details pieces of the island’s history, certainly the Carnegies, as well as her family’s memories of her has made there.
“Islomane,” Bourke notes, is a word invented by writer Lawrence Durrell. It explains the feeling one gets when one is on an island and it perfectly captures her own feelings from her toward this bit of picturesque piece of coastline, which has lured everyone from Civil War generals to the Kennedys.
And of course, the wildlife that makes much of the magic of the island.
“For me, the one thing that’s really important is the preservation of wildlife. I think that’s symbolic of who we are and the freedom that we all desperately need. I think we all need time away from what’s happening on the mainland and that provides it,” she said.
“There is a huge debate about the horses there and whether they should be removed. In the book, I mention that the Cumberland horses lifespan is 10 years and in captivity its 20. But there’s that word, ‘captivity.’ There’s a price on both sides. I don’t know which but we always need to know that their are wild things that are out there. They’re life is different from ours but who’s to say that ours is better.”