Here in Appalachia, we are, like it or not, voices of a place. I find that so many of my conversations with other journalists, writers and community members explore the myriad ways we navigate and relate to Appalachia. It is a place of baggage and struggle and poetry and loss. A place of shame and of pride. A place of solutions, resilience and wicked humor. We reject most of what the world has to say about this place, and we have a lot to say in return.
I had the pleasure of hosting one of these place-based conversations with Appalachian writers Valerie Nieman, Carter Sickels and Robert Gipe at the Greensboro Down: A Literary Festival, held in May in Greensboro, North Carolina, which we have excerpted here.
Valerie Nieman’s fourth novel, To the Bones, is a genre-bending horror/mystery/satire of the coal industry and its effects on Appalachia. She is also the author of a short fiction collection and co-author of an award-winning history of the university where she teaches writing, North Carolina A&T State.
Robert Gipe lives in Harlan, Kentucky. He is the author of two novels, Trampoline (2015) and Weedeater (2018) both published by Ohio University Press. Gipe is also the producer of the Higher Ground community performance series.
Carter Sickels is the author of the novel The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury), a Finalist for the 2013 Oregon Book Award and the Lambda Literary Debut Fiction Award. He is the recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award. He is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers’ Studio Low-Res MFA program.
A Conversation about Environment and Place
Coester: One of our editors at 100 Days in Appalachia, Mike Costello, wrestles with the burden of representation of a region. In the aftermath of the visit to West Virginia by the late Anthony Bourdain last year, Costello said in an interview:
“Parts Unknown” gave us an opportunity to tell a few stories we don’t normally get to tell on national television, but it’s still incomplete, and that’s what we should expect. I think sometimes we fall into this trap, feeling like every story of Appalachia should encompass everything we like and nothing we despise about this place.”
Tell us about a character or conflict that most embodies this tension in your own work…Are there characters or scenes that encompass what you both love and despise about a place?
Neiman: Lourana, who is one of the lead characters of To the Bones, has the divided heart of so many West Virginians. I’ll let her speak – this is an edited selection from Chapter 17, as she’s talking with the other main character, the “outsider” Darrick:
“We think we can grab onto one little corner of happiness and nail it down, keep it for ourselves, but it doesn’t work that way,” said Lourana. She went over to a group of family photographs, lifted one off the wall. “You know, you love your family, your home, your town. Even when the problems are bigger than you want to admit.”
“How can people let things go on like this? How can they stand it?”
“We can’t, really. We cuss and gripe and lots of folks leave, always have done, but we still love these hills, more’n you can imagine. We make a home here because it is home, not because it’s easy. We grow up learning to fish, hunt ramps, shake down apples. We build our homes in places that don’t make economic sense. And we dig coal, because that’s what we’ve done for generations, and there’s pride in having the skill and guts to do that even when we know the cost.”
“Outsiders say we’re fatalistic, or backward. That we keep mining for the money, even when it’s destroying our land. What they don’t get is the pride part. For a man to go under the earth like his daddy and earn a good living for his family. So yeah, we know that the mines poison the rivers, tear up the roads, wreck our lungs. Nobody knows that better or feels the pain of it worse. We ain’t stupid. You’d be surprised how many guys with college degrees are running the longwalls. It hurts to see the damage, but it’s worse when the mines close and there’s no place to work, and families slip away one at a time till there’s not half a town left.”
I really like what Costello said, that stories now have to demonstrate “everything we like and nothing we despise” about Appalachia – sort of like the expectations that people who are elderly or ill should also be saintly. Appalachia is a complicated and diverse place, with many accents, many ethnicities, many ways of life. It has problems, like every place, complicated by the rural nature of the region– 40 percent compared with 20 percent nationally– and physical barriers…[but] we’re called back.
Today, I live just 20 miles from the official border of Appalachia, my life taking me out of the region where I was born, educated, worked, built a farm and became a writer. I can tell you I remember every detail of that West Virginia home, from the sycamore tree where spring morels appeared to the mine crack in the back field. I helped build that place from the ground up, and I know the difficulties and the pain that went into its making and losing. I miss it.
Gipe: I think one reason the southern mountains, and especially the coalfields, are such fertile ground for storytellers is that there is so much pressure on and so much beauty in the people and in the place itself. Coal is formed by pressure, by the mountains pressing down on themselves, and the coal passes that pressure onto the people. Of course, some things crack and break under pressure. Some people act ugly under pressure. Pressure causes people to make hard compromises, to learn to live with broken things.
There’s a monologue in Trampoline where Dawn is talking about how she goes to the woods for solace. She talks about how the drift of the clouds and the lizard on the rock, among other things, confirm and console her in a way that is both vital and irreplaceable. And she acknowledges that her neighbors who work on strip jobs probably need the mountains in the same way she does, and in order to stay in them, they have to destroy a part of them. The pressure on those miners comes both from without and within, and is real and is hard for those not of the place to understand. And it results in circumstances that most would despise, or at least, wish could be avoided.
In that moment, Dawn is trying to reconcile herself to her place, her feelings, her neighbors. In showing her doing so, I do not frame my errand as telling a story of Appalachia. I reject responsibility for explaining Appalachia. I reject the notion that my task is to present either what I love or despise about some thing called Appalachia. Of course, I acknowledge people’s right to frame my errand however they like.
I write what I write to mark a time and place, to describe how I experienced it, using fiction because of its inherent weaknesses, its built-in lack of authority. I guess I write in the pursuit of wonder, although I hate to acknowledge that. The pursuit of wonder, which is but one way to describe the storyteller’s task, is not always the preferred method for working out social policy, getting one’s candidates elected, or making people’s understanding of Appalachia as sophisticated as the average mountain toddler’s, but perhaps it is a part of figuring out those things, in the right circumstances. I don’t know. It’s untelling.
Sickels: My novel The Evening Hour takes place in a fictional town in the coalfields of West Virginia, and follows Cole Freeman, a 27-year old nurse’s aide at a nursing home and a small-time drug dealer who must decide if he’ll stay or go. His family lives under a massive mountaintop removal coal mining operation. I tried to capture what it is like for him to live in a place of natural beauty that is now being systematically destroyed—its ecology, culture, and economics. In Eric Reese’s powerful book about mountaintop removal coal mining, Lost Mountain, he writes, “[W]e love what we find beautiful, and we do not destroy that which we love.” And, yet we do. The novel explores the tension of that beauty and destruction, and how it affects Cole’s decision to stay or go.
I also thought about my characters who may encompass what Cole both loves and hates about this place, and I think his grandfather embodies this dichotomy. His grandfather dies early on the novel, but he looms large in Cole’s consciousness. He was a Holiness preacher, all fire and brimstone and judgment, and represents the more troubling aspects of religion—the patriarchy, the homophobia. He is emotionally abusive, and yet Cole loves him. In one of Cole’s fondest memories, his grandfather would go up to the mountain to be with God, and there, in nature, he was a better man.
Coester: A few months ago, I was speaking with a journalist at a national media outlet, living in a coastal city, and he asked me “What would you say to national journalists about what it’s like to live in a bubble?” My eyes narrowed (as they tend to do when I’m about to get bristly) but I responded gently, “Are you sure it’s me and not you that is living in a bubble?”
It can be argued that the modern contours of Appalachian identity are quite literally drawn from poverty. In 1965, the Appalachian Regional Commission graphed the contours of the region by drawing a map of counties in economic distress rather than other cultural or geographic characteristics.
If this is so, much of what we do since 1965 — whether as community members, or journalists or storytellers — is to negotiate that overriding cultural narrative, and to be constantly engaged in confronting, “Who gets to define a region?” And is the “othering” built into our work perhaps necessary?
With that in mind, is there an implicit audience for your work? – And I don’t mean who is the book marketed to, but rather, who do you feel like you are you speaking to? Other Appalachians? Figments of your internal world? Editors at Paris Review? National media? And is your implicit audience ever in conflict with how your works are reviewed, or even promoted?
Neiman: First, your audience is yourself – a writer is always in conversation with him/herself. Characters gain their voices and begin to push back on what the writer intended to write. It becomes a collaboration between the plotting conscience and the subconscious and deep memories.
Then, I write to an audience used to popular culture versions of Appalachia. As a genre mashup, To the Bones puts forward stereotypes only to undercut them, from the idea of outsiders attacked by “hillbillies” to the perception that every Appalachian is a coal miner and believers all handle snakes. The damage wrought by two centuries of extractive industries and exploitation furthered by those stereotypes can’t be addressed in one book or a dozen, but we can add some nuance to that conversation.
Finally, and most fraught, I’d say I am speaking to family, to people and places I loved and left. To the Bones is a satire, and as such depends on exaggeration. But the deep story in this novel is one of love and despair, people who are devoted to the land of their birth and rearing, and who clearly see the despoiling and destruction wrought by the extractive industries that put food on the table. Dark humor sometimes doesn’t go over well, but I believe it can both wound and cleanse.
Gipe: One welcomes all readers, of course, and is appreciative of all those who do read one’s work. That said, it has been important to me when students at the community college where I work read what I have written and say that it doesn’t suck. That has happened a few times, and one feels one has hit a target when it does. I like having written about where I live and continuing to live there. When I’m in a store or walking down the street and someone says they’ve read something I’ve written, it is an admittedly nerve-wracking moment, but, I think, a necessary one for people writing about so specific a place as ours.
I once worked at Appalshop, a media arts center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, an Appalachian coalfield town, and I always thought it one of the organization’s most admirable qualities was that they made movies about environmental and labor and other cultural issues in communities where those issues are controversial, and then lived and worked in those communities, in daily eyeball-to-eyeball contact with the people about whom they were making media. The local was the first audience, the one to whom we were most directly accountable. But of course, Appalshop also aggressively distributed its work outside the region, and the idea that one could do both was formative to my sense of how I wanted my work distributed. I also think considering the local audience first has an important and positive impact on how the work is created and what work emerges.
Sickels: The question of audience is a difficult one for me. I don’t typically think about an audience while I’m writing. Once the book is published, I hope it will reaches a wide community of readers and writers. But, I like your point about implicit audience. The most meaningful letters and feedback I’ve received have come from my readers who grew up in Appalachia, especially those who came from a Holiness or Pentecostal upbringing, and tell me “You got it right.” And, as a trans man, I want to reach a community dear to my heart, the queer community. So, if I have an implicit audience, I would say queer folks from Appalachia or rural environments are the people I most want to reach.
Coester: A few years ago, my husband and I were watching an indie post-apocalyptic film produced in New Zealand that takes place in the Eastern U.S. While most of it was filmed in New Zealand, in an early scene, as the female protagonist visits a clearly post-apocalyptic town to pilfer supplies, my husband blurted, “Hey that’s Welch in McDowell County!”
Indeed it was. We were excited, not dismayed, to see the familiar curve of the road as it turns past the train tunnel and on in to a town we know well.
We struggle to find language that aptly describes the decay of once-prosperous Appalachian coal communities to outsiders – towns whose streets once teemed with the life of small business, now lined with crumbling mansions and boarded up florist shops. We’ve tried “post-colonial” or “post-industrial,” but “post-apocalyptic” worked for these filmmakers, and strangely we didn’t object. It was our apocalypse. We felt seen.
Valerie– as far as investigating coal families and toxic sludge, To the Bones is better than journalism. In your book, Darrick is the outsider, and in a perfect reclamation of hillbilly horror such as Wrong Turn, Darrick stumbles into a gruesome mystery in Redbird, West Virginia. There is a delicious, somewhat inside joke with Lourana’s deadpan response to his introduction: “I’m from the government,” Darrick says, and she finishes his sentence with “…and you’re here to help us.”
But help he does, in that all-too familiar dance of mutual distrust and need, as he and Lourana embark on what is part mystery, part fable, with a hint of Zombie. You reference this novel as “genre-bending” – can you comment on why a genre-hopping novel is really the perfect way to complicate and add dimension to the Appalachian characters and landscape you portray?
Neiman: Fantasy, science fiction, and horror allow us to hold up a mirror to ourselves. The ways of the uncanny or alien can be contemplated when it’s too difficult to see those unpleasant elements in ourselves, whether that be racism or sexism, violence or fanaticism, and so on. This book is a love letter to the genres that have thrilled and inspired me over the years, from Tennyson’s Arthurian cycle to Poe’s tales of madness, to Lovecraft and Bradbury and so many more, and films from the schlocky to the great. “Night of the Living Dead” is in here, also “Night of the Hunter.” And Appalachia has produced a great body of folk tales and traditions and stories of otherworldly events. I think of Ruth Ann Musick’s classic “Tell-Tale Lilac Bush.” The Library of Congress positions [this book] as West Virginia fiction and mystery fiction. Amazon calls it Southern Fiction, Small Town & Rural Fiction and Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction. It’s like the platypus when it first was brought to Europe– so many unlike things in one beast, but all working together under that skin.
As a poet, I’d say that much of this book is based on metaphor, on the powerful vernacular language that we use to make something tangible. In Appalachia, we’ve talked about outside entities that drain the lifeblood of the region, suck it dry — vampire metaphors. And zombies, well, we live in a time of zombie corporations and zombie software, of things that somehow just can’t quit. These and other concepts are pushed to the limit and over in To the Bones.
Apocalypse is nothing new — Appalachia has gone through a number of apocalypses, from timber clear cuts to mine wars to mountaintop removal. Anyone who’s driven through an area being fracked has just encountered the latest one. “War zone” is not purple prose – convoys of menacing black tankers bearing unknown chemicals, massive light installations and gravel roads and equipment installations suddenly appearing. My first novel, Neena Gathering, dealt with the aftermath of biochemical warfare, so it seems I’m inclined to the consideration of End Times.
Coester: Robert– in an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, you said that one of your reasons for creating the “Weedeater” character, along with Dawn, who narrates your latest novel, was that you were “interested in a potentially threatening male character who was actually trying to be a decent person” as a counter to the “Deliverance” hillbilly stereotype. How does your place-based performance work with the Higher Ground project inform the inner lives of your characters and humanize the hillbilly of popular imagination?
Gipe: Higher Ground is a theater project our community started in 2003 in response to the opioid crisis. We interviewed over 200 people, not just about drugs, but about everything, really, and worked with playwright Jo Carson and a professional theater director to create an original OxyContin musical with eighteen choreographed musical numbers and storytelling that explores the drug crisis and celebrates our resilience, creativity, and humor— the assets we felt would help us stare down the drug crisis. Eighty local people were in the first play, and it was extremely well-received by the community. Since then, we’ve created six more plays addressing a range of issues and [have expanded into] a strong community organization of which the plays are only a part.
From the beginning, we’ve told hard stories and drawn on a comic tradition that some might say feeds stereotypes. But we have been so focused on our community as audience for the work, and understood the challenges we are trying to discuss as so serious and real, that we haven’t paid much attention to how our work might play into whatever stereotypes people might hold.
Our guiding principles in Higher Ground have been to respect all points of view and try to present them in the course of our plays, and [to] present a vision of our community that is realistic enough to be recognized, but one that presents best-case scenarios that represent what we might become if only we were, as a community, to answer to, as Abraham Lincoln says, the better angels of our nature. We also strive to create work that will make people laugh, cry, and think.
Higher Ground is part local journalism in theatrical form, part community-wide group therapy session and part communal artistic expression we hope will be open to the broadest range of community members, both as audience and participant. It is shared work and it moves forward based on conversation and consensus among the cast. It is community survival work, and we will occasionally throw away a scene or a joke for being too stereotypical, but that’s usually because it isn’t true to the complications we are trying to address, or draws away from the reality of the circumstances we are trying to describe and work our way through as a community.
When I’m doing my thing as a member of Higher Ground or working on a novel, “humanizing the hillbilly of popular imagination” is not on my mind. Hillbillies are already human, and the “popular imagination” is more the product of a rapacious, corporate, consumerist gaggle of greedheads than it is the populace, or the better angels of anyone’s nature.
Coester: Carter– in your novel, The Evening Hour, you paint a version of the post-industrial dilemma in what one reviewer called, “A richly grim setting that evokes a pre-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel.” In your town, “families either die off or leave for bigger cities…Those who stay wind up working at Wal-Mart, the local bars and cafes, or in the brutal mine pits”
This ongoing tension between staying and leaving is a central anxiety in rural America, and the distressed landscape of central Appalachia in particular. To return to the post-apocalypse film that opens in Welch, I realized I love that movie because what followed was a rebuilding — of infrastructure by hand and of community by heart. Can you talk about this tension, in both your fictional and your real-world community, between the tug to stay or to leave?
Sickels: I mentioned earlier that a central tension in my novel concerns Cole’s decision to stay or leave, which is a struggle so many in rural America face. But, I think there is another story here to talk about, and that is the story of queer people leaving the place where they’re from, a place that does not support or accept them, to move to cities where they can experience acceptance, love, anonymity and be their true selves.
As far as real-world experience and community, I grew up in rural Ohio, and I couldn’t stay. It’s difficult— the loss, the yearning. But I also experienced a bigger, more diverse, and loving world where I could be myself. Now, I witness the struggle with my students. Most of them are from eastern Kentucky, and though their feelings about home vary, the majority of them love Appalachia, their families and hometowns; however, it’s nearly impossible to exist in this world. It’s a struggle for them, and very painful to have to make this choice, which feels so stark.
But, the reality is, most of Appalachia doesn’t want them. My young trans student cannot stay— not just because of the judgement of his family and church, but because there is absolutely no healthcare or resources for trans people in the county where he’s from. Or, there’s my gay student whose mother has told him repeatedly she’d rather have a dead son than a gay son— is he supposed to stay?
So, while I’m inspired by the good work people are doing, the rebuilding, there is still so much to do. And, it’s not just about creating jobs or trying to piece back together the environment; this kind of healing requires massive, deep change in attitudes and culture. Appalachia must be supportive of its vulnerable and marginalized citizens, and must champion its queer youth— in all their diversity.
This conversation took place during Greensboro Down: A Literary Festival, held each May in Greensboro, North Carolina. The festival’s mission is to celebrate “diverse voices from around the world, honor North Carolina’s long and varied literary traditions, and welcome an inclusive community of readers from Greensboro and beyond.”