On being a community publisher: Our year in sixty seconds

With things settling gradually into some new normal—and publishing experiencing continued growth despite the challenges of the pandemic and supply-chain crisis—the staff at West Virginia University Press are pleased to take sixty seconds to look back on a year of genuine celebration and unparalleled achievements. We’re proud of our authors’ many successes in 2021, from national recognition (the PEN/Faulkner Award, the year’s “100 Notable Books” in the New York Times) to regional accomplishments (the Weatherford Award, the Blair Mountain Centennial commemoration) to frequent appearances, by our scholars of teaching and learning, in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.Read More »

Conversations with indies: An interview with Ian from Ghost Palace Books in Thomas, WV

The holiday season’s approaching, and supply-chain concerns make it a good idea to shop early. In that spirit, we’re excited to introduce the blog’s readership to some of the region’s indie booksellers, highlighting the important work they do with authors, publishers, readers, and communities. Second in the series is Ian from Ghost Palace Books in Thomas, WV.

How did Ghost Palace come to be? What’s your role there?

Ghost Palace started out as four people, incidental friends, unhappy in their work, meeting behind the backs of their employers to plot an escape. They soon realized they all shared a deep, abiding love (or a mild habit, at least) of reading and, utterly ignorant of the matter, figured owning and operating a bookstore together would be just the answer to their troubles. How right and how wrong. Not long after making this decision, a global pandemic came along and slammed the door shut on the whole “economy” thing. Perfect! A sign. They all left their stupid jobs to convert half an old duplex into a retail space and, presto, a few months later Ghost Palace was open for business.

From the start we tried to organize ourselves, loosely, as a collective, and decided we would share all operational tasks equally, so my own role, really, is basically the same as everyone else’s. In practice this works out as a rotation. One week I’ll be responsible for placing and receiving book orders; another week I’ll be on janitor duty, scrubbing the toilet. I have to say, it’s nice to change things up—regularly.Read More »

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

William H. Turner’s book The Harlan Renaissance continues its much-celebrated rollout, receiving attention from Inside Appalachia, WYMT television in Hazard, the Lexington Herald Leader, and the Black in Appalachia podcast. In a video posted to social media, W. Kamau Bell teases Turner’s appearance on CNN’s United Shades of America—watch this space for updates!

In the first published review of Kate Daniels’s Slow Fuse of the Possible, Kirkus calls the book a “poignant confessional from an award-winning poet,” saying “Daniels is a keen observer of visceral moments and powerful emotions.”

New York Times bestseller Morgan Jerkins anticipates Neema Avashia’s Another Appalachia on The United States of Anxiety from WNYC public radio. She names it one of two books she’s excited for the rest of the world to read, praising Avashia for writing sensitively “about that part of society which is oftentimes narrowed to deleterious stereotypes.”

Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies has been longlisted for the L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Fiction Prize. It receives attention in Deadline Hollywood, the Miami Herald, Library Journal, and Cascadia Weekly. On November 10, Philyaw will participate in an online event celebrating University Press Week hosted by Chicago’s Seminary Coop Bookstore.Read More »

Conversations with indies: An interview with Gregory Kornbluh of Cincinnati’s Downbound Books

The holiday season’s approaching, and supply-chain concerns make it a good idea to shop early. In that spirit, we’re excited to introduce the blog’s readership to some of the region’s indie booksellers, highlighting the important work they do with authors, publishers, readers, and communities. First up is Gregory Kornbluh, owner of Downbound Books in Cincinnati. Get to know Gregory in the interview below, and please support independent bookstores this holiday season!

You worked in university press publishing before you opened Downbound. Can you tell me about that transition?

I did come from Harvard University Press, but was a bookseller for a spell before that, so fortunately I wasn’t coming into this blind. I also got to work with booksellers while at HUP, which isn’t always the case at a university press. We certainly did our fair share of titles that were never meant to attract attention outside of the academy, but also had books with some potential for a broader audience. We were often fooling ourselves on that, of course; unlike you guys at WVUP, we weren’t rolling out must-read National Book Award finalists. But there are ways in which the structure of the publishing process incentivizes projecting best case scenarios for books as they work through the pipeline—dreamy comps, media fantasies, etc.—and I’ve had to train myself away from some of that. In my case, too, just being in Cambridge and haunting its bookshops reinforced some of those ideas we at HUP would sometimes have about the general book market. So, it was sort of a double bubble. Coming home to Cincinnati and opening Downbound has helped me adopt a more realistic stance towards the broader market for scholarship and serious nonfiction. I’d like to think that our shelves hold more UP titles than would be expected in a 500-square-foot shop in a midsize Midwestern city, but there are fewer than we started with. Personal commitments aside, footnotes just aren’t a hill we’re gonna die on. You’ll find us dead and happy on Board Books about Poop mountain instead.Read More »

First look: An excerpt from Keegan Lester’s book Perfect Dirt

Keegan Lester’s new book Perfect Dirt: And Other Things I’ve Gotten Wrong has just been released and ships now when ordered from West Virginia University Press. We’re pleased to share this excerpt, called “A Snapshot.” You can hear Keegan read from the book here.

In the city I grew up in, there was no glimpse of West Virginia. There was no place to eat the food that my father was raised on. There was no one who spoke like my grandma or grandpa or believed in magic or the improbable. There were no trains whistling at night or woods that whispered their secrets.

My father would wake me up at seven in the morning Saturdays in the fall from the time I was eight or so and we’d call all the bars in our city and neighboring cities to see if anyone had the West Virginia University football game on through a satellite feed. Then he’d take me to a bar and we’d eat chicken wings at nine in the morning. While all the surfers were out surfing and the people who brunched weren’t even awake yet, and while skaters dreamed their ethereal dreams, we watched our giants run into other giants through a grainy television screen and my dad would get choked up on beer and tell me a little bit about being a boy in Morgantown.

My father is my father but once he was only Joseph. Then he was Joe, then Fatty, then he grew into a redwood of a man and was renamed Bigs. Then he grew into all these other people and one day he turned thirty-two and a month and some change, and he became my father and now he’s my father and Big Joe because I know his secrets.

My mother was born Kathleen and grew up Kathy in South Florida. Stunningly beautiful her whole life. She was a class president and a prom queen and once someone took a picture of her while she was jogging and they put it on billboards. Then she became a nurse and took care of babies who were born too small during the crack epidemic, babies who were too sick to live on and, despite everything dying does to the body, she’d tell these babies you must continue on, you must live on, you’re meant to live on and she would hold these babies in her reed basket arms, telling them she loved them, long after everyone else had gone to sleep. You are loved and you are loved and you are loved. And sometimes she named the babies. And some nights I imagine her sitting up in bed looking out at the night sky recalling names of these babies she named until running out of stars in the Western Hemisphere. And one day she drove across America until she arrived on a beach shouldering the Pacific. And a few years later she became Mom.

And then I was one of the babies born too small.

And so I was raised by these people in a place that was like neither of the places they came from, and I never took to the language of the place where I was raised.

Sometimes I like to imagine my father moving from West Virginia to Colorado to California. I imagine everyone telling him forget. And I imagine him closing his eyes, trying to forget. I imagine him taking his clothes off, putting new clothes on, and then opening his eyes as someone whispers to him Forget everything you’ve ever known if you want to be one of us.Read More »

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

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, an essay on John B. Thompson’s Book Wars uses West Virginia University Press to make a point about the state of publishing in an era of corporate consolidation. “University and independent publishers, operating outside the New York–centric Big Five model, create opportunities for writers to get their work out,” writes Jennifer Howard. “For instance, West Virginia University Press published one of last year’s biggest literary successes, the story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw.”

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is also one of two WVU Press titles lauded in Book Riot‘s “20 Must-Read Books from University Presses,” where it’s joined by LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia. And Secret Lives author Deesha Philyaw makes new appearances this month across media—in Ploughshares, the Bitter Southerner, and as part of NPR’s coverage of the Library of Congress National Book Festival. She’ll appear at the festival on September 23.

Foreword Reviews has the first published review of Keegan Lester’s Perfect Dirt, which is deemed “powerful and insightful.” Reviewer Ashley Holstrom finds: “Places are fleshed out alongside people, with West Virginia being the book’s star.”

Chuck Keeney and his book The Road to Blair Mountain are cited widely in reporting on the Blair Mountain Centennial events of Labor Day Weekend. He’s the focus of a segment with Melissa Harris-Perry on WNYC’s The Takeaway, and is featured in Smithsonian Magazine, Facing South, West Virginia Public Broadcasting‘s “Us and Them,” and the Charleston Gazette-Mail. A much-circulated AP piece featuring Keeney is picked up by media in San Francisco, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Winston-Salem, and elsewhere. The New York Times links to Keeney’s book in their coverage of the commemoration.

Also prominent in the Blair Mountain coverage is Anne Lawrence’s book On Dark and Bloody Ground, which is called “magnificent” on the Shabbat reading list from Jewish Currents, and is featured on West Virginia Public Broadcasting, in 100 Days in Appalachia, and in the West Virginia Observer, where it’s described as a “valuable tool to keep this history alive.”Read More »

The labor history of Appalachia’s essential workers: Previewing John Hennen’s new book

The union of hospital workers usually referred to as the 1199 sits at the intersection of three of the most important topics in US history: organized labor, health care, and civil rights. John Hennen’s A Union for Appalachian Healthcare Workers, coming November 1 from West Virginia University Press, explores the union’s history in Appalachia, a region that is generally associated with extractive industries but has seen health care grow as a share of the overall economy. We’re pleased to share an excerpt from the book’s introduction.

The West Virginia teachers’ strike in 2018 briefly focused attention on the history of labor-management conflict in the state. A cross-section of mainstream and progressive media drew a crooked line to the teachers’ rebellion from earlier battles between coal operators and miners, especially the Mine Wars of 1913–1921. This attention to a significant part of the state’s working-class history was welcome and a long time coming. Some academic and independent historians have studied and written that history for decades, but the contributions of regular working people are still too often airbrushed out of the standard narratives of American history. As I write these words, the world is grappling with how to survive the shocks of the coronavirus pandemic. The curious phrase “essential workers,” although it has been around for a while, has now become part of our daily vocabulary. It reflects an awareness, finally, that the workers who feed us, protect us, clean up after us, drive us around, deliver our stuff, teach our children, and care for the old, the sick, and the injured are not just assistant people. They are “essential.” Will our appreciation for essential workers inspire a structural realignment in America’s distribution of wealth? Or is it just a transitory thing, which soon enough will fade back into the old reality, that the more essential the work, the less the pay?

This book tells the story of how some essential workers in Appalachia built a healthcare workers’ union, usually referred to as “1199,” between 1969 and 1989. That union had a history dating back to the early 1930s, where the original New York City Local 1199 was founded by a Russian immigrant with radical ideas. His name was Leon Davis. His radicalism was defined in part because of his political affiliation. In the early 1930s, when he began organizing pharmacists and drugstore workers, he was a Communist, active in the Trade Union Unity League. But he was also radical in the greater sense, in that he believed that marginalized workers in the hospital industry—Blacks, Puerto Ricans, poor Whites, women—were human beings who should be recognized, respected, and paid a decent wage. They were pharmacists, nurses, nurse assistants, janitors, housekeepers, laundry workers, maintenance workers, cooks, and dishwashers. Davis believed these workers were entitled to a dignified and comfortable life as much as anyone else. That was a radical notion. No other unions in the 1950s, when 1199 began organizing hospital workers, wanted much to do with them.

Read More »

The Harlan Renaissance: An Interview with William H. Turner

West Virginia University Press is thrilled to be publishing William H. Turner’s The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns, which has just been released and ships now when ordered from our site. Turner, who was also a contributor to our 2019 collection Appalachian Reckoning, considers this book the summation of his life’s work studying African American communities in Appalachia. Here he talks to Vesto PR’s Caitlin Solano for our blog. You can hear him read from his new book here.

Alex Haley, the author of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, gave you advice and encouragement to write this book back in 1990. How did it all come together over the 30 years until now?

WHT: When I met Alex, he was already familiar with me from a book I’d coedited with Ed Cabbell back in 1985 called Blacks in Appalachia. Alex told me that book would only appeal to sociologists or folklorists and that he didn’t think that it spoke to real Blacks in Appalachia, or what he called, “your grandmama on the porch.” He went on to say, “Bill, I hope you never write any more bullshit like this. Write something that your mother and her people in your hometown can read and appreciate.”

In the ensuing years between Blacks in Appalachia and The Harlan Renaissance, I grew a lot, I met a lot more people, I listened a lot more, and I tried to write this book with a different voice. The result is a book that’s somewhat memory, somewhat history, somewhat sociology, but I hope that as a package it’s a voice that tells a down-to-earth review of my journey but also reflects a group’s biography—the journey of lots of folks who grew up like I did in eastern Kentucky.Read More »

Late summer roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

Anne T. Lawrence’s oral history of the Mine Wars, On Dark and Bloody Ground, is excerpted in Harper’s. Lawrence will join fellow WVU Press authors Chuck Keeney, Ginny Savage Ayers, and Catherine Venable Moore at the roundtable “New Books about the Mine Wars” on September 4. The event, which is previewed in the Charleston Gazette Mail, is hosted by Taylor Books as part of the Blair Mountain Centennial celebration. In other Mine Wars news, Chuck Keeney and his book The Road to Blair Mountain are the subjects of a profile from Pittsburgh’s WESA radio.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies has been named a nominee for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in the debut fiction category, with the winner to be announced at a ceremony on October 15. It is praised in Elle Magazine, where Jasmine Guillory writes: “I loved every single one of these short stories.” Deesha Philyaw and her book also receive attention at Boston.com and in Vineyard Gazette, Kirkus, Book Riot, and Revealer (“West Virginia University Press gave Philyaw a book contract and the autonomy to write boldly”). In Poets & Writers, Walton Muyumba connects Philyaw’s success to praise for university press publishing: “After the great success that Deesha Philyaw had publishing The Secret Lives of Church Ladies with West Virginia University Press, we all ought to give more attention and love to university presses.”

Geoffrey Hilsabeck’s American Vaudeville is excerpted in LitHub and reviewed in Broadway Direct, which finds: “Hilsabeck brings the seedy, magical world to life while unraveling its sudden death.”

Berea College Magazine talks with William H. Turner about his forthcoming The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns. “It’s a book only Turner could write,” they say, “and without it, this slice of American culture would be lost forever.” Turner also talks with the Appalachia Meets World podcast.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Cyndi Kernahan—author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom—provides perspective for anxious faculty preparing to teach about race in a politically charged environment.Read More »

“We’ve got all the exciting elements of a compelling documentary”: An interview with James Maples, author of Rock Climbing in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

James Maples, author of Rock Climbing in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge: An Oral History of Community, Resources, and Tourism (available now) emailed with Kentucky-based filmmaker and photographer Mike Wilkinson about the challenges of oral history, working with local communities, and the dream of making a documentary about the Red.

You can read the recently updated climbing economic impact study on the Red, or watch a presentation of the report on YouTube.

What’s your connection to the Red River Gorge? Are you a climber?

I am not a climber, but I am an outdoor recreation enthusiast. I grew up in the woods of rural East Tennessee. I spent my childhood in scouting and eventually earned my Eagle Scout rank. I understand the connection to outdoor areas. I feel it every day and I’m glad to have my life’s work centered around it.

Joining the faculty at Eastern Kentucky University back in 2014 put me in the right place to work with the climbing community in the Red. EKU is a strong supporter of regional research, so it was a great fit. Visiting the Red and the surrounding region reminds me somewhat of where I grew up, and it has become a surrogate hometown for me in recent years.Read More »