As we sat in his shop escaping the summer heat in 2014, electric bass specialist Roger Morillo and I tacked back and forth from English to Spanish as we talked about the similarities between his home community in the mountains of Táchira State in Andean Venezuela and his more recent home in St. Albans, West Virginia. He drew on his experiences living in mountain environments and attributed the uniqueness of wood craft in the mountains to his impression of the freedom that mountaineers have to create and find meaning from their material environment. “It’s the environment and traditions that we have,” he said, leaning back into his steel folding chair. “Remember, in the past, these people used to get into the woods. They would build their own house, especially with woodworking. Then they’re thinking, ‘I’m going to build my own kitchen cabinet’ and after that say, ‘I’m going to build my own banjo because I want to be happy sitting in the house that I built, on the chair that I already built, playing the instrument that I already built. I made everything by myself.’ ” For Roger, this was an expression of an essential characteristic of every mountaineer all over the world: “They want to be free.”Read More »
We are pleased to publish Kristen Gentry’s debut short story collection Mama Said this week. The linked stories in Mama Said are set in Louisville, Kentucky, a city with a rich history steeped in tobacco, bourbon, and gambling, indulgences that can quickly become gripping and destructive vices. Set amid the tail end of the crack epidemic and the rise of the opioid crisis, Mama Said evokes Black family life in all its complexity. Maggie Henriksen from Carmichael’s Bookstore said about the book, “The characters contain a depth not often seen in a collection of stories, and readers are sure to be thinking about their lives and relationships long after finishing the last (tear-jerking!) page.” In this Q&A below, Gentry talks with Holly Mitchell of Vesto PR.
What drew you to short fiction?
I gained an appreciation for short fiction in undergrad creative writing classes where I was introduced to stories by ZZ Packer, Junot Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid. That appreciation grew during my graduate study at Indiana University. I love the way characters in a short story can be sharply drawn and feel known, but the form and its economy (of language, plot, setting) create just enough mystery to leave readers wondering about the characters, the motivation for and effect of their choices, and the world they inhabit long after the story ends.
Our distribution partner Vesto Books published their first book earlier this month: Sol Gittleman’s An Accidental Triumph: The Improbable History of American Higher Education. An Accidental Triumph tells the engaging story of how American higher education evolved from a patchwork of seminaries in the early nineteenth century into the world’s leader in research by the middle of the twentieth. Gittleman – professor emeritus at Tufts University who served as the provost from 1981-2002 – writes with authority, frankness, and unfailing wry good humor.
Valerie Nieman is a professor of English at North Carolina A&T State University. A former journalist and farmer in West Virginia, she is the author of three novels, as well as collections of poetry and short fiction. She is a graduate of West Virginia University, and she received an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. To the Bones, her latest novel, is now available.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time digging: century-old crockery pulled up from dumps behind fallen-in houses, jack-in-the-pulpit and native azalea dug out of the woods and toted home, stones pried out of hillsides. (That last led to a broken ankle, when I stepped in the hole I’d created earlier.) My bedroom was adorned with trilobites, the skulls of wild creatures, slab-sided patent medicine bottles.
In the newly published LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia, editors Jeff Mann and Julia Watts have collected works “that give Appalachian queer voices—members of a double minority—an opportunity to be heard at a time when many people in power would prefer to silence or ignore them.” This collection, the first of its kind, gathers original and previously published fiction and poetry from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer authors from Appalachia. In this conversation, Mann and Watts take a closer look at what growing up queer in Appalachia was like for them and how their identities influenced their reading and writing.
Matthew Ferrence is department chair and associate professor of English at Allegheny College, and the author of the memoir Appalachia North(WVU Press, 2019) and All-American Redneck: Variations on an Icon, from James Fenimore Cooper to the Dixie Chicks. He talked with Margo Orlando Littell, author of the Appalachian novel Each Vagabond by Name, about his memoir. The following is an edited selection of the conversation.
Bonnie Stewart, an award-winning journalist and former professor of journalism at West Virginia University, is the editorial adviser for Daily Titan, California State University, Fullerton’s student newspaper. While at WVU, she spent five years researching and writing No.9: The 1968 Farmington Coal Mine Disaster, an investigative book about the mining disaster that killed seventy-eight men at a Consolidation Coal Company mine on November 20, 1968. In 2014, the miners’ families sued the coal company, which subpoenaed Stewart for unpublished interviews. Claiming reporter’s privilege under the First Amendment, she fought the subpoena in federal court and won.
Fifty years have passed since seventy-eight coal miners died underground in the Consolidation Coal No. 9 mine in Farmington, West Virginia. Some good came from that tragedy. The deaths moved Congress to pass the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which is credited with saving untold numbers of miners. Although that has given the families of the seventy-eight dead some comfort, it has not erased what happened that cold November day in 1968 or why it happened.
Natalie Sypolt is an assistant professor at Pierpont Community & Technical College. She coordinates the high school workshop for the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop at West Virginia University and has served as a literary editor for the Anthology of Appalachian Writers. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Appalachian Heritage, Kenyon Review Online, and Willow Springs. She is the winner of the Glimmer Train new writers contest, the Betty Gabehart Prize, the West Virginia Fiction Award, and the Still fiction contest. West Virginia University Press will publish The Sound of Holding Your Breath, her first book, this November. Learn more at nataliesypolt.com.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I attended the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop for the first time. I was shy, pretty awkward, and more than a little scared of the workshop leader I’d been placed with—West Virginia writer Pinckney Benedict. Now, looking back at my 19-year-old self, I’m still surprised that I actually did it. I can’t help but feel proud.
Chuck Kinder is the author of four novels—Snakehunter, The Silver Ghost, Honeymooners, and Last Mountain Dancer—and three collections of poetry—Imagination Motel, All That Yellow, and Hot Jewels. West Virginia University Press has just published new editions of Snakehunter, his first novel, and The Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life, his latest novel. Here, Donna Meredith, associate editor of the Southern Literary Review and award-winning author of The Glass Madonna, The Color of Lies, Wet Work, Fraccidental Death and Magic in the Mountains, explores Kinder’s remarkable career.
A dozen Chuck Kinder personas are sitting in a honky tonk. Would the real one please stand up?
At times, Kinder seems like your basic outlaw author, the “Jerry Lee Lewis of American Letters” he aspires to be (Last Mountain Dancer, 452). The man who ran wild at Stanford with short-story giant Raymond Carver and befriended fellow writers Scott Turow, Tobias Wolf, and Larry McMurtry. Later in his career, Kinder and Lee Maynard even embarked on a book tour under the Outlaw Author banner.
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.