Congratulations to Deesha Philyaw, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award!

In another first for any book from a university press, Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies has received the PEN/Faulkner Award, given annually to the best work of fiction by a living US writer. Previous recipients of the PEN/Faulkner range from established luminaries (think Updike, Patchett, DeLillo) to leading newer voices like recent winners Chloe Aridjis and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was one of 419 submissions this year from 170 publishers.

“I’m deeply honored and thankful to receive the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction,” said Deesha Philyaw in her acceptance statement. “I wrote The Secret Lives of Church Ladies in hopes that Black women would see and hear themselves in my characters who are all, in some way, striving to get free.”

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was previously named a finalist for the National Book Award, and it was the first book from a university press (or small press of any kind) to win the Story Prize. Philyaw’s collection is also a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in the first fiction category, with the winner to be announced on April 16, and it is currently being adapted for the screen for HBO Max.

The PEN/Faulkner Award has several connections to West Virginia. John Knowles of Fairmont won the Faulkner Foundation’s original prize, then known as the William Faulkner Foundation Award, for A Separate Peace. And the award in its present iteration was founded by Mary Lee Settle, a novelist born in Charleston whose fiction was often set in West Virginia. The staff at West Virginia University Press are proud to honor and extend this prestigious award’s relationship to our state, and we’re grateful to Deesha Philyaw for trusting us with her extraordinary book.

The PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony will be held online on May 10, with free registration available here. The event’s sponsors include West Virginia University.

First look: Neema Avashia’s memoir of growing up Asian American in Appalachia

In response to the renewed urgency of amplifying Asian American voices after last week’s Atlanta tragedy, we’re proud to share an excerpt from Neema Avashia’s book Another Appalachia: Coming up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, forthcoming from West Virginia University Press. Please check back for a formal publication announcement and ordering information.

I grew up in West Virginia with one foot in the boom, and one foot in the bust. I was born in a valley with thriving industry and all its associated complications, and graduated from high school in that same valley, now saddled with dying industry and all its complications. The place I call home is the small, unincorporated community of Cross Lanes: population 9,995. A town that doesn’t even warrant a dot on the state map—a string of gas stations, fast food restaurants, and residential developments built in the 1950s and 1960s to house the employees at the burgeoning chemical plants in Nitro and South Charleston. These workers—the children and grandchildren of coal miners—found their way into a more middle-class existence than their ancestors because of the steady pay, union protections, and guaranteed health benefits that work at the plant provided. And my Indian immigrant parents, who arrived from the state of Gujarat to the United States in the early 1970s, capitalized on that same employment to create their own foothold in the middle class. Along with about 100 other Indian families who moved to the Chemical Valley around the same time, we created an Indolachian existence for ourselves, encountered West Virginians who both embraced us and rejected us, and simultaneously both embraced and rejected elements of the culture we found ourselves immersed in.Read More »

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

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies has received the Story Prize—the first book from a university press (or small press of any kind) to win this recognition as the year’s outstanding collection of short fiction. It has been named one of five finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the first fiction category, and also (continuing its remarkable run of awards attention) advances from longlist to finalist status for the PEN/Faulkner Award. The book earns mentions in New York Magazine, the Rumpus, Pittsburgh Magazine, and the bulletin of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, and author Deesha Philyaw appears on the podcasts from Storybound, Read More, and Black and Published. Watch for the announcement of the LA Times winners on April 16 and the PEN/Faulkner winner on May 10.

Jim Lewis’s “continuously engaging” Ghosts of New York is reviewed in Booklist, which praises the author as “a master at painting developed characters captured in various moments in time.” Lewis will launch the novel—which is excerpted in Air/Light Magazine—at a free online event with Shakespeare & Co. on April 2. Harper’s magazine will cohost.

Volume editor Travis Stimeling and contributor Paige Zalman discuss The Opioid Epidemic and US Culture at 100 Days in Appalachia. The title is reviewed in the Southern Review of Books, where it’s praised for “bringing awareness to damaging stereotypes and further victimization of those caught in the opioid epidemic.”

Also at 100 Days in Appalachia, Eric Kerl reviews So Much to Be Angry About, praising author Shaun Slifer’s “insightful eye,” and calling the volume “a testament to the ingenuity of our social movements.”

Joshua Eyler, author of How Humans Learn, talks with the Chronicle of Higher Education about universities, grief, and the importance of mourning as a response to covid.Read More »

Guest post: James Lang welcomes Michelle Miller as series coeditor for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

Dear Friends:

I hope this message finds you well, and that the coming of spring and vaccines means we can all find reason to be hopeful about the future. I write with some exciting news about the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series from West Virginia University Press.

For the past couple of years WVU Press director Derek Krissoff and I have been thinking about adding a coeditor to the series. With close to a dozen books published now, and approximately that many in the pipeline, the workload has really grown too much for me to handle on my own. More importantly, we wanted to expand the vision of the series by engaging a series coeditor who could balance out some of my experiences and interests, but who would still have the same passion for what I view as the primary strength of our series: excellent writing. When the manuscript for Michelle Miller’s new book came in a couple of months ago, and I sat down to read it, I was floored both by the elegance of the writing and by Michelle’s ability to digest complex areas of research into accessible recommendations for college faculty. I realized too that Michelle’s background in cognitive psychology, and her work with diverse student populations at Northern Arizona University, would provide some important balance to my own background teaching English at a liberal arts institution in New England. Derek and I agreed that she would be our ideal coeditor for the series, and she has happily accepted our invitation.Read More »

Midwinter roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

The screen deal bringing Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies to HBO Max is widely reported, with Deadline Hollywood, Poets and Writers, Kirkus, LitHub, Pittsburgh Current, and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette spreading the word. Kirkus reports the good news that Philyaw has been longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and her status as one of three finalists for the $20,000 Story Prize is noted in Publishers Weekly and LitHub. The author and her book also appear on the Black in Appalachia podcast, in Next City, and in the Boston Globe, where novelist Robert Jones, Jr., says: “This is the kind of book I needed at this moment.”

In the New York Times, Chuck Keeney and his book The Road to Blair Mountain are featured in “The Real Meaning of Hillbilly,” an op-ed piece by Abby Lee Hood.

Foreword Reviews has a pre-publication review of Ghosts of New York: “In Jim Lewis’s wondrous novel Ghosts of New York, encounters among strangers result in unexpected relationships and a montage that celebrates a city of manifold graces. . . A subtle, dexterous novel.”

Renée Nicholson’s “lyrical and fascinating” book Fierce and Delicate is anticipated in Buzzfeed‘s preview of “18 Books That Will Help You Better Understand Disability and Chronic Illness.” Nicholson talks with Shaun Slifer, author of our forthcoming So Much to Be Angry About, in the inaugural episode of the “Short Talks” series from the WVU Humanities Center.Read More »

Celebrating Black History Month in Appalachia: An early look at William Turner’s Harlan Renaissance

William H. Turner’s The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns is coming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2021, and will be announced officially in our next catalog. In this preview from the manuscript, Turner—a sociologist and recipient of the lifetime of service award from the Appalachian Studies Association—reflects on Black life in his hometown of Lynch, Kentucky.

Lynch was a model company town, among the first planned communities in the mountains of the South. The engineers estimated that there was enough coal to stay in business for a century, so they, by design, constructed the business, mining, recreational, health care, and residential structures of the most durable materials. All municipal services were first-rate. By mid-September 1917, the year of my father’s birth, 300 cars of materials had been unloaded and the building of the town began. A mine was opened, and rail tracks were extended from Benham, which was owned by International Harvester, another of J. P. Morgan’s companies. The new town was named after Thomas Lynch, the president of US Steel, who had passed on three years earlier.

Within the blink of an industrial eye, between 1917 and 1920, the population of Lynch increased dramatically, to 7,200. The first nonnative residents in Lynch were Italian and Hungarian stonemasons brought directly from Ellis Island by the company; these robust souls were the first line of laborers who carved out what became a colossal coal camp, carved into the wilderness. By 1940, Harlan County’s population (75,275) was exceeded in Kentucky only by the counties of Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington).

Lynch and towns like Harlan, Hazard, Jenkins, and Wheelwright (in eastern Kentucky); Big Stone Gap, Grundy, and Stonega (in southwest Virginia); and Gary, Keystone, and Beckley (in southern West Virginia) were as racially and ethnically diverse—each group living in their neighborhoods and with traditions openly displayed—and as booming and blooming as New York City. Harlan County was to Kentucky Black coal mining families in the 1920s through the 1940s what Harlem was to Black New Yorkers in the same period. It was the cultural and social epicenter of the region for Blacks; and, as “the blackest town for mountains around,” Lynch was equivalent to 125th Street in Harlem—the school was our Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Pool Room was our Apollo Theater.Read More »

“Everything feels like it’s at once past, present, and to come”: An interview with Jim Lewis, author of Ghosts of New York

Jim Lewis’s Ghosts of New York (WVU, April 1) has been called “a marvelous novel” by Rabih Alameddine and “masterful” by Richard Price. Lewis—the author of previous books with Knopf and Graywolf—talked with Claudia Acevedo of Vesto PR for our blog. You can hear him read from his new book here.

Was there a particular event that made you set out to write Ghosts of New York?

There was a series of them, not all of which are manifest, or even hidden, in the book itself: a reporting trip I took to the eastern Congo 15 years ago; the deaths of some old and dear friends and exes, and the regrets that they induced in me; my sense that it was time I wrote a novel set in my hometown, now that I no longer live there, and to write something about being an artist, in particular about being a photographer, since I write so much about photography in my other life.

What draws you to the idea of ghosts?

Well, they’re everywhere, aren’t they?  Even if they don’t exist at all, they’re everywhere.

A lot of the book feels like a memorial. The most obvious example of this is the “Ghosts of New York: A Partial Account” chapter, which is basically an obituary for dozens of people with nothing in common except for the city they lived in. Who were they, and how did you learn/find their stories?

Oh, I made them all up. A few of the background events are real, of course: the Happy Land Disco fire, the AIDS horror, 9/11, the 1918 flu, but the others just came to me, and all of the specific characters and deaths are fictional. It was great fun to write, and I could have come up a hundred more, but I had to stop or they would have overwhelmed the living population of the book.Read More »

WVU Press welcomes Charlotte Velloso

This month Charlotte Velloso joins West Virginia University Press in the new role of office manager and operations associate, an expanded version of Floann Downey’s longtime office manager position. We wish Floann all the best in retirement, and are excited to welcome Charlotte to our growing team—now, for the first time, with a full-time staff of five!

A Morgantown native, Charlotte is a graduate of McGill University in Montreal and WVU’s MA program in public history. She worked with WVU Press as a graduate assistant for two years, developing skills in project management, intellectual property, and professional communication that she’ll apply in her new job. Please join us in both welcoming Charlotte and in congratulating Floann on her superlative career with West Virginia University. And thank you for your support as we continue to grow!