Celebrate the National Book Awards with West Virginia: A message from our director

Dear friends,

My colleagues and I are excited to share the news that West Virginia University Press’s book The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is one of five finalists for the National Book Award in fiction. Author Deesha Philyaw will be part of the finalists’ reading hosted by the New School on November 10, and the awards ceremony itself—referred to by former emcee Mika Brzezinski and others as “the Oscars without money”—will be held on November 18. Both events will be livestreamed, and I hope you’ll consider joining the remote festivities.

I don’t think it overstates things to say that this is the biggest development in our press’s history, and the wider world has taken notice. As a headline from the Washington Post puts it, the “finalists are a strikingly fresh group,” and Vox goes further, noting that “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies comes from West Virginia University Press, meaning we get the unusual sight of a small university press book in the fiction finals.” I was fortunate to have the opportunity to talk with Publishers Weekly about publishing a finalist, and about how Deesha’s book—a widely praised work by one of the region’s most highly regarded Black writers—fits into our broader publishing program at WVU. News of our book’s inclusion in the awards cohort is also reported by the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere—all signs, I think, of WVU Press’s wide-reaching public engagement on behalf of our university and state.

I’m deeply grateful to Deesha, to the press’s board and small staff, and to all of you for your support as we continue to grow.

Thanks and all best wishes,

Derek

Mid-fall roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies has been named one of five finalists for the National Book Award in fiction, as reported in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Public Radio, and elsewhere. The inclusion of a title from a smaller publisher is notable, with Vox reporting “we get the unusual sight of a small university press book in the fiction finals.”

Deesha Philyaw’s book is also covered in Vanity Fair (where it’s recommended by Roxane Gay) and public radio stations WESA in Pittsburgh and WYPR in Baltimore. It makes the Buzzfeed list “38 Great Books to Read This Fall,” and is called “an unforgettable look inside the hearts of Black women” in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Congratulations to author Deesha Philyaw!

Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll’s Appalachian Reckoning is winner of the Walter and Lillian Lowenfels Criticism Award from the American Book Awards, as reported in LitHub and elsewhere. The release of the Hillbilly Elegy movie trailer sparks attention for our book in Columbus Alive and the Hill.

And rounding out awards news, the Wisconsin Library Association names Krista Eastman’s book The Painted Forest winner of their Outstanding Achievement Award.Read More »

Pandemic publishing: A view from WVU Magazine

Diana Mazzella, one of many publishing professionals at our university who works for units other than WVU Press, is editor at West Virginia University Magazine. In this guest post, she describes the impact of the global health emergency on her work.

In 2014 when I became managing editor of West Virginia University Magazine, I didn’t really know what we’d achieve. I just knew we needed to make goals, meet targets, and advance, advance, advance.

When the pandemic struck, the magazine was as ready as it was going to be to meet this challenge after years of our staff making plans for an online future.

We hadn’t prepared for all of this, of course, and it affected us like everyone else: cuts and losses and uncertainty. We had been preparing for years to meet our digital-native audience where they were. And now we were all-digital much sooner than we had imagined.Read More »

Early fall roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies receives two glowing endorsements from major newspapers. “These are stories about Black women that haven’t been told with this level of depth, wit, or insight before,” says Tony Norman in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “so it will not shock me if Oprah gets around to selecting it before the end of the year.” And in an equally enthusiastic review, Marion Winik writes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “In this year of constriction and pain, juicy goodness bursts from every page of Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection. . . . This collection marks the emergence of a bona fide literary treasure.”

Previously the recipient of a starred review in Kirkus, Philyaw’s book makes another appearance in the magazine as one of four “must-read” story collections highlighted in its fall preview issue. It is also recommended on the Kirkus podcast, and called “cheeky, insightful, and irresistible” in Ms. Magazine. The free weekly Pittsburgh City Paper has two pieces on Philyaw’s “incredibly moving” book, which is excerpted in Electric Lit.

Library Journal‘s list of “35 Standout Summer/Fall 2020 Debut Novels” includes Lana Austin’s Like Light, Like Music.

Radical Hope is lauded in AEJMC: “Startlingly succinct, yet resonant with raw emotion,” it is “required reading for those of us struggling to figure out how to adjust and balance our work this fall.” Author Kevin Gannon is featured in an Inside Higher Ed piece about faculty responses to the Jacob Blake shooting.Read More »

I had played not house, but farmer: An excerpt from Joanna Eleftheriou’s This Way Back

 

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Praised by Kirkus for its “impassioned and hard-fought sense of self and place,” Joanna Eleftheriou’s This Way Back—a highly anticipated memoir-in-essays from West Virginia’s series In Placewill be published October 1. 

If you live, as I do, in a world where an overabundance of food is more a plague than hunger, you might be given to scrutinizing ingredient lists, and so have seen the words carob bean gum before tearing the plastic wrapper from, say, an ice cream sandwich, or the foil from a tub of cream cheese. Small quantities of carob bean gum do the trick, and so this natural stabilizer appears at the ingredient list’s end, the part that even serious health food nuts expect to find uninterpretable (for me, it’s a list of plants I can’t quite place, and words I remember from high school chemistry). Carob bean gum sounds harmless, natural, salubrious, even—beans healthier than meat, carobs healthier than sweets—and, indeed, harmless the carob bean is. Such harmlessness is all most of us want to ascertain when we venture into the ingredient list’s largely chemical tail. I have never made the effort to learn what lecithin is, though I often see the word—ditto for guar gum, potassium sorbate, xanthan, and xylitol. There is a limit to how much thought we can devote to the origin of our foods, to their ingredients’ history.Read More »

“Writing characters who break all sorts of rules”: An interview with Deesha Philyaw

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Hailed by Electric Lit as one of “24 New and Forthcoming Books That Celebrate Black Lives,” The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is Deesha Philyaw’s “tender, fierce, proudly black and beautiful” (Kirkus, starred review) debut collection. Here Philyaw talks with Holly Mitchell of Vesto PR.

When did you start writing this book?

The first story I completed was “Eula,” and I started it in 2014. But at that time, I didn’t think of it as the start of a collection. There were other stories, like “Jael,” that started with just a name or an idea or a line of dialogue that I sat with for a few years before developing them as stories.

At what point did you know your focus would be on church ladies?

In 2007, I started working on a novel in which the main character is a church lady, a pastor’s wife. I worked on the novel off and on for the next eight or nine years, but I just kept stalling. From time to time, I’d turn my attention to short stories, and they all featured a church lady or someone who is what I call church lady adjacent, meaning there’s someone she’s close to who is heavily influenced by the church. I grew up in the church, and these were the women who informed my understanding of womanhood and how to be (or not be) in the world. Although I wasn’t surprised that they showed up on the page, it wasn’t intentional, at that point.Read More »

July roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is named to Library Journal‘s list “Black Voices Matter 2020” and called one of “12 Must-Read Books by Black Authors” in Amazon Book Review, which says: “The stories of these women and their friendships come alive, beating with tenderness and imperfection, and build upon one another to create a beautiful melody of female determination.”

Philyaw is profiled in a cover story in Pittsburgh Current, where her book is called “full of lived-in humanity, warmth, and compassion.” She’ll launch The Secret Lives of Church Ladies as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures series, cohosted with the Carnegie Library and White Whale Books, on September 3.

Foreword Reviews praises Joanna Eleftheriou’s “heartfelt and heartrending” This Way Back, saying “the essays entice every sense.”Read More »

Summer signings: Early announcements of some forthcoming books

Twice a year we share our seasonal catalog announcing titles to be published in the next six months. But WVU Press’s acquisitions editors are always at work (even in a pandemic!) signing books where publication is even further out. In this space we’re pleased to share early news of some highly anticipated projects that have come under contract this summer, with publication expected in the next year or two. Working on a book of your own? Please feel encouraged to contact one of our acquisitions editors.

Eminent historian Joe Trotter has signed a contract for a collection of his essays on Black workers and the Appalachian coal industry. Look for it in fall 2021.

Anne T. Lawrence has submitted her oral history of the Appalachian Mine Wars, based on interviews she conducted as a student in the early ‘70s. We’ll publish next year to mark the Blair Mountain Centennial, with a foreword by Catherine Venable Moore and an afterword by Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. Catherine announces the book here.

Lou Martin at Chatham University has agreed to write a short history of Appalachian activism, from the Mine Wars to the teachers’ strike.Read More »

The shimmer of camaraderie: A conversation between novelists Lana K. W. Austin and Karen Salyer McElmurray

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In this guest post, Lana K. W. Austin, author of our Like Light, Like Music, talks with Karen Salyer McElmurray, author of Wanting Radiance, new from the University of Kentucky Press.

LA: Congratulations on the publication of Wanting Radiance! From the opening line where Miracelle described her mother Ruby’s hands as magic, I knew your novel was magical, too. It’s a lyrical powerhouse, pure poetry in prose. Please tell us about this ebullient story’s origin.

KSM: If I think about that phrase—“pure poetry in prose”—then I suppose Wanting Radiance began when I was twelve years old and listening to Vicky, the girl across the road from my granny’s house, play a twelve-string guitar and sing songs she’d written. Those songs settled inside my heart with a kind of longing I’ve felt all my life. It’s a longing that belongs to Miracelle Loving, this novel’s main character. The novel also began as a short story, one I wrote when I was an MFA student at the University of Virginia. The story was called “The Black Cat,” and it was set in a diner and gas station a great-aunt of mine owned. And the novel, of course, had its origins in fortune-telling. When I lived in Asheville, North Carolina, a long-term relationship ended, and I was devastated. I’d always loved Tarot cards and the I-Ching, so my visit to a local fortune teller became a way to assuage my grief.  I heard about a woman who told fortunes via reading the shadows in photographs and I went to see her. She lived in a trailer in a stretch of woods outside of Asheville, and I parked my truck and climbed a little hill to the trailer. I knocked and knocked until I heard her voice, calling me inside. Not a soul was in the living room, and the voice led me back to her bedroom. She was a gigantic woman. Huge. And she was laid up in a big bed with a velvet headboard. She’d been shot years ago by her lover, at which point she took up fortunes. My own fortune, she said as she studied the photographs I’d brought, was complicated. Look at this shadow, she said as her fingers traced my lover’s face and the tree branches behind him.  There’s a lot you don’t know. I allowed that this was true. Years later, I picked “The Black Cat” story back up again and found that it opened up like a magic box. Inside there was a woman who didn’t trust love who was looking for her past. There was a fortune teller who’d been shot.  There was a mystery that needed to be solved.Read More »