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 »

Midsummer roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is featured on NPR’s All Things Considered (“Whatever we call the new American short story, I think Deesha Philyaw should name it”), in Book Riot, and in Mississippi Today. As part of the Buzzfeed guide “58 Great Books to Read This Summer,” bookseller Sydne Conant of Madison’s indie bookstore A Room of One’s Own recommends the title. Philyaw’s book is also among several topics addressed in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s article “A Big Book from a Little Press,” which calls WVU Press “a new publishing heavyweight.”

Jim Lewis’s Ghosts of New York is reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle, where it’s praised as “a collection of connected stories that is so imbued with the city in which it’s set that it could not possibly have taken place anywhere else.”

Chuck Keeney, author of The Road to Blair Mountain, is interviewed in Jacobin and (with Catherine Venable Moore, who introduced our edition of The Book of the Dead) on the podcast from the Smithsonian. Keeney and Moore will be joined by Anne T. Lawrence and Ginny Savage Ayers for the WVU Press showcase “New Books About the Mine Wars,” cohosted with the WVU Humanities Center and Taylor Books, on September 4.

William H. Turner’s forthcoming book is reviewed in Daily Yonder, which says: “One of the oldest and most enduring myths about the Appalachian Mountains is that they are now and always have been overwhelmingly populated by white Scots-Irish. Dr. William H. Turner has written a new book, The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns, that kills that myth about whiteness and, for good measure, buries several more myths as well.” The piece is picked up by 100 Days in Appalachia.Read More »

Edward Watts discusses a newly discovered novel of nineteenth-century West Virginia

Based mostly on his own experiences, Theophile Maher’s local color novel Cannel Coal Oil Days challenges many popular ideas about antebellum Appalachia, bringing it more fully into the broader story of the United States. Written in 1887, discovered in 2018, and published now for the first time, it offers a narrative of life between 1859 and 1861 in what was then western Virginia as it became West Virginia. The novel’s protagonist, a mining engineer, works closely with a Black family to organize the local abolitionist mountain folk into a Union militia to aid in secession from Virginia.

We talked with Edward Watts, editor of WVU Press’s edition of the novel, which will be published on August 1.

Tell me about how you discovered the manuscript, and about your personal connection to it.

The 390-page manuscript for my great-great-grandfather’s novel Cannel Coal Oil Days, handwritten on a series of steno pads in 1887, was given to my mother by members of another branch of the Maher family. I found it among her papers after her death in 2018. I read it and decided to pursue editing and publishing it, not only as a means of preserving family history, but also because, as a literary historian, I saw its value in the traditions of realism, Appalachian fiction, abolitionist and Civil War narrative, and mining history. My family still owns the Michigan land that Theophile bought, and stay in his daughter’s cottage there.

When people hear “coal” and “West Virginia,” they immediately have certain ideas.  But what’s cannel coal?

Cannel coal is a soft malleable coal found throughout the Ohio River Valley. While its only current use is hand-molded sculpture in arts and crafts, in the middle of the nineteenth century its distilled oil was developed as a replacement for whale oil in lighting American homes. Over-fishing had made whale oil scarce and Victorian-era homes had been fitted with oil burning lamps and chemical and mining engineers such as Theophile set to work on producing safe, clean, inexpensive, and non-odorous oil for that market. Read More »

“Every book is a process and its own story”: An interview with Gillian Berchowitz

Gillian Berchowitz was director at Ohio University Press until 2018, and among other accolades she is recipient of the Cratis D. Williams/James S. Brown Service Award from the Appalachian Studies Association. She talked with Derek Krissoff, director at West Virginia University Press, for the blog.

Tell me about the biggest change you’ve seen in your time as a publisher, and maybe about something that hasn’t changed as much as people predicted it would.

Very broadly, I think the biggest change has been the digitization of every aspect of publishing, but that’s almost meaningless now.

In some ways the publishing process has been democratized and in other ways a great deal of expertise has been lost, and writers find it harder to make a living, which is very undemocratic. Self publishing is no longer stigmatized and that’s all to the good, but the skills that editors, typesetters, text and cover designers, and professional publicists bring to the act of publishing are less—or no better—understood now, it seems, than ever before. The invisibility of what publishers bring to the finished book is elusive for many authors who are starting out and I wish that there were better ways of connecting authors with the many independent publishers that are out there. In the last 30 years or so, university presses, in addition to their scholarly publishing programs, do the work of independent publishers, but many writers don’t know that.Read More »

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

In Slate, Nadia Owusu reports on the publishing story behind Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, quoting the author, WVU Press staff, and others. She finds: “This is the kind of acclaim that most books—much less a short-story collection, much less a debut, much less a debut collection published by a university press—never receive.” John Warner comes to a similar conclusion in the Chicago Tribune, saying: “There is no better publishing story this year.” Philyaw appears in Sojourners, Bitter Southerner, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Left of Black from Duke University. She moderates a conversation among debut Black writers for Kirkus.

Ghosts of New York, previously reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, lands in the Memorial Day Weekend edition as one of “10 New Books We Recommend This Week.”

Renée Nicholson’s Fierce and Delicate is excerpted in Longreads, and receives a rave in Library Journal, which calls it “an elegant collection of essays from a dancer’s soul that will uplift all readers.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education provides teaching tips from Susan Hrach’s Minding Bodies, new in James Lang and Michelle D. Miller’s series Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Hrach also appears on the Think UDL podcast, and her book is joined by others in West Virginia’s series by Jenae Cohn, Joshua Eyler, and Sarah Rose Cavanagh in Tophat‘s “Ultimate Summer 2021 Reading List for Professors.”Read More »