Meredith Sue Willis teaches novel writing at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. She is the author of twenty-two books, including A Space Apart, Love Palace, Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories, and Oradell at Sea (West Virginia University Press). She has received literary fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and has won awards such as the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, the West Virginia Library Association Literary Merit Award, and the Appalachian Heritage Denny C. Plattner Prize for both fiction and nonfiction. Their Houses, her latest novel, is now available to preorder.
Long before I moved to New York City, at my first college in rural Pennsylvania, I became accustomed to a lot of nonsense from otherwise intelligent people who thought it was okay to make hillbilly jokes. To this day, decades later, people will still openly make remarks about Appalachians that they would never openly make about other groups. I think this is probably less about malice and more about deep, appalling ignorance. It is an ignorance, however, that contributes to making West Virginians and others feel marginalized.
In the Northeast, there is only episodic awareness of West Virginia. We happen to be just now, in the summer of 2018, in one of those moments when West Virginia has been in the news—which is probably why Kirkus Reviews called my new novel “timely.” Oh, please. Is this what it takes to be noticed? A drug crisis (as if white people never abused drugs before)? A president whose popularity among Appalachians can’t be fathomed by people in the Northeast? At least one of the newsworthy items is the determined West Virginia school teachers demonstrating for a living wage, but it’s as if everyone forgot the mine wars of the 1920s and the United Mineworkers and Mother Jones. Or maybe never knew. We aren’t very strong on history in the U.S.A.
Growing up, I generally didn’t think much about the stereotypes. When The Beverly Hillbillies came on TV, I was mildly amused but didn’t see any connection to my life. My parents were teachers, and we were, in spite of an exceedingly low income by today’s standards, proudly middle class. Yet, ultimately, the stereotypes did affect me. I left home young, partly looking for adventure, but also because I bought into the stereotype that there are no writers in West Virginia; writers live in New York.
I’m not sorry that I left—to be sorry would be to reject the life I’ve lived—but I often imagine the equally satisfying life I might have had if I’d stayed, and this is one of the sources of my fiction: an alternative biography for myself. Living away, though, has made me always feel like a little bit of a double agent. I explain West Virginia to people in the Northeast, and sometimes I try to take home the lessons I’ve learned while I was away. This is also part of what I explore in my writing.
To people in the Northeast, I point out the diversity in north central West Virginia where I come from: the upper-class writer of the famous prep school novel A Separate Peace came from coal-mining country; jobs in the mines attracted people from Italy, and the county seat where I was born has a yearly Italian heritage festival. I note that a region of twenty-five million people can hardly be summarized by nasty jokes about incest.
I also try to convey something you learn if you live in an Appalachian community where everyone you meet—on a street or walking down a road—has a relationship to you. You may or may not have been introduced, but your working hypothesis is that they are important to you in some way. You don’t ignore them. In fact, when I first went to New York, without knowing I was doing it, I used to try to memorize all the faces—the whiny little child, the bag lady, the cop, the hippy, the crazy man talking to himself. I didn’t know how to ignore them.
When I go home, I point out that the Northeast isn’t monolithic either. The worlds of art and publishing are mostly run by “come-heres” to New York from the Midwest and the South and Appalachia. And Appalachians aren’t the only people who feel like outsiders. There are people in Brooklyn and Staten Island who live in little enclaves and talk about going to “the City” with the same sense of distance as people on a bus tour from West Virginia. I try to explain that we are not the only “out” group. We may be unique and very special, but we aren’t special for being outsiders. We are one of many groups who have been laughed at and who have experienced marginalization.
Consider the recently deceased Philip Roth who was, if you count numbers of books sold and prizes won, a quintessential insider in the literary world, but who spent much of his writing career brilliantly detailing the world of a subgroup—not just Jews, but Jews from a certain neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, a city that used to be viewed as a kind of poor cousin to New York. America is full of outsiders and the descendants of outsiders.
If it is true that all politics is local, then it is equally true that all art is specific, and I believe our only route to reaching each other across the barriers is to listen and learn in great specificity how it feels to be the other. Our mission as writers and citizens, I believe, is to be true to our own experience—our own places and histories—and then to use that particular vantage point to make the leap into the world of others.
My new novel started many years back on one of my many transitions between West Virginia and the Northeast. I was driving along Interstate 68 through western Maryland into West Virginia, and somewhere on that mountainous highway, set on a cleared hillside, was a small lighthouse with a cross on it, everything outlined in neon. As I drove, I mused on the meaning of another quirky Protestant church, made in the image of someone’s personal life experience and spiritual impulses. Unbidden, a man took form in my imagination, a man who wanted to start his own church, which he would call the Lighthouse of the Cross, or maybe the Cross of the Lighthouse.
Like most ideas for novels, it was the merest hook of interest on which I started hanging other things: the news about America’s plethora of homegrown terrorist groups, and then the bungled plot to blow up the FBI center in Harrison County, West Virginia, and a time in an interstate rest area when I’d seen six small stair-step Mennonite girls in print dresses. I was thinking about the devastation of chronic illnesses, physical and mental, and all the people struggling to form the world to fit their needs. So I started a novel, in my effort to bridge the gaps, to explain to myself our difference and our sameness. To tie and bind some of the things I’ve learned and people I’ve met and places I’ve loved.