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.

LA: This novel works concurrently on a micro/macro level in terms of narrative structure. There’s this unique individualistic story centered on Miracelle trying to find out who shot her mother and who her father is, but because it’s set within a larger context of Appalachia with so much of that lore and history, from its haints and hollers to its music and maddening men, you’ve created a dichotomous story that I believe will appeal to many people in many ways. How much research about history and Appalachian lore did you do and did you enjoy that process?

KSM: Oh, there’s always research. As I wrote I read about mountain ballads and the ingredients in a variety of love potions. I read about tiny towns and their particular legends surrounding ghosts. I talked with a woman who is an amazing guitarist about the language used when it comes to fiddle-playing.  I read about paper mills and the equipment used to make paper. A lot of my worry was about time needed to research, as well—when logging happened, when Internet was in vogue, when this song or that song was known.  As a novel opens, research becomes both, as you say, micro and macro. I found myself looking up everything from who wore what, when, to the names of famous fortune tellers and the foundational books on magic. So, yes, I did fall in love with researching, which made sense–once upon a time, I dreamed of being a librarian. But research wasn’t the thing at the center of this book. The heart of the book is my longing for home. I’ve lived all over—thirty-seven houses, and a dozen states, if I count right. Home is what I long for, what Miracelle longs for. For me that home was my granny’s warm house, chestnut and pawpaw trees, a mountain I used to climb.  Greens with names like Cressy and Poor Man’s Bacon. Quilts called Trip Around the World, Double Wedding Ring. I circled back and circled back to that home and its things for so many years. All of it is gone now—people, roads, voices—but knowing all of it is my heart.

There are many connections between our books.  More connection comes with the idea of “radiance” in my book, and light in yours, specifically in the titles. Talk about how “light” is important to the heart of your book.

LA: I’ll confess. As much as I wanted to tell a truly original story here, the truth is that some of who I am bled into this story. Specifically with how the main character, Emmeretta McLean, sees the world and chooses to believe in impossible things, in beautiful, light-filled things, even amidst a sometimes intrinsically dark landscape. Emme possesses a unique synesthesia and/or possible magical “mountain gift” where sight turns to sound and back and forth. And sometimes what she sees becomes visions of the future, her very specific version of “the sight.” Darkness, of course, at times permeates the narrative, with racial strife, rape, and prejudices of all kinds running rampant, just like in real life. But I see the world via hope and light, I honestly do. And so does Emme. So this story is ultimately infused with light. Hope isn’t just an intangible, ephemeral thing. I feel/dream/see it as a tangible entity, actual light. Maybe that’s my own kind of synesthesia? The tenacious McLean women (Emme bands together with her feisty aunts and cousin) are stubborn about their hope, too. They hold on no matter what and also see the world with light. Ultimately, that light/hope is as much a character as anything else is. And because of the synesthesia, sight becomes sound and vice versa, so music also defines the narrative because the light is the music. The light/music convergence touches everything in this story!

KSM: The idea of women and murder, specifically women and murder ballads, connects both our books as well.  Tell me about your interest in and connection to those ballads and old-time music.

LA: Little cerebral geek that I am, when I went down the rabbit hole researching Murder Ballads and old-time music, I almost didn’t come back. I looked into PhD programs where I could study folklore and/or Appalachian studies. I’d already studied some of this for an MFA project. But when viewing the songs through this new context, knowing that I was funneling them into this particular story, it was a paradigm shift! The sheer brutality and misogyny of some of the ballads was horrifying . . . and perfect for my novel! So many jealous lovers murdered women! But then there were some where the women got their revenge, like in the classic Child Ballad “Lady Isabel and The Elfin Knight.” And all the lore incorporated in some of the ballads set me on fire because the magical elements also aligned perfectly with my story. Oh, the epiphany I had when I read about the types of supernatural revenge in such Murder Ballads as “The Twa Sisters.” Everything I read massively influenced my novel, which I believe is a kind of twisted (but ultimately intensely hopeful!) Appalachian Fairytale/Murder Ballad combo. Having come from such a tough background with my early years in foster care in rural Kentucky before being miraculously adopted as an older child, the idea of not so much revenge, but of righting wrongs and of redemption in the face of heartbreaking violence, particularly as it most often affects innocent women and children, is a potent concept to me!

You’ve had to release this during the middle of a pandemic. I know you put so much work, talent, and HEART into this novel, though. And not just from you, but your fabulous press also had to work diligently to bring this book to life. But then to have the world disrupted in such an apocalyptic fashion right as it’s coming out, that’s certainly had to have impacted your promotion. Honestly, how have you felt about it all?

KSM: Here are some words, most of which you will well know, with your own book coming out: overwhelm, excitement, fear, disappointment, worry, effort. I have felt all of these things and more. I worked on this book for over seven years, so that’s a long and deep investment of the creative spirit. Some days I want to just let it all go. I want to watch the book float on past in the stream of books floating on past, let it find its own way. Other days I research review possibilities, write people, find partners like you in this difficult endeavor called publishing a book. In the final analysis, the thing I tell myself most often is that making art is a thing I do. Writing is my dream—my life’s dream, as well as spirit’s dream. Somehow, and I hope in ways that count, this book will have readers and hopefully some of those readers will find something, be it character or language or place or mystery, that will move them. I used to have a quote from the painter Robert Motherwell tacked above my desk: “Far from being merely decorative, the artist’s vision is one of the few inherent guardians of the human spirit we have today.” I believe this. I have to try harder these days to live that vision.

LA: Let’s please talk a teensy bit about this informal women writers’ collective we’re part of now during the pandemic. I know the coronavirus has been a paradigm-shifting event for me in myriad ways, including with my own novel coming out in August. But I’ve found, clichéd as it might sound, a silver lining has been growing some of my online friendships with fellow writers like you. Banding together to try to help support each other in these harrowing times when we’re trying to birth books in brand new ways is vital. It’s always difficult to promote our books, but particularly now because getting out and doing readings is the lifeblood of promoting and we can’t do it in a pandemic. Even in the casual way that we’ve done it with this group of women who know each other or of each other with mutual friends/presses in common, to have some kind of “promoting family” in the pandemic has been a beautiful thing. Amidst a heartbreaking time, there’s this shimmer of camaraderie with our unofficial women’s collective. What’s been your reaction to this unusual collective approach? 

KSM: I like some of the language you are using here: growing friendships, birthing books, lifeblood, camaraderie.  To have a community that actively supports making and publicizing and discussing work is a dream of mine. I have long believed in the power of collaboration, but have often felt that such a vision is perceived as naïve in a world based on the bottom line.  At the same time, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t say that I am competitive, wishing for a success in my work that inherently involves comparison to others. Nevertheless, that vision is very much part of who I am. Supporting others in their work. Generosity. Just plain help when it comes to getting out “the word” (and I mean both publicity and the power of writing itself). What else is there, especially in difficult times, besides that shimmer of camaraderie?  I am honored to be included in the women’s collective you have founded.

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