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 »

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 »

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 »

Read West Virginia’s spring books today with NetGalley and Edelweiss

With wintry days of reading on the horizon, West Virginia University Press is pleased to make it easy to get complimentary access to two of our highly anticipated spring books. Use your free NetGalley account to read Shaun Slifer’s So Much to Be Angry About: Appalachian Movement Press and Radical DIY Publishing and Jim Lewis’s novel Ghosts of New York. Like what you’ve read? Then consider reviewing it on a site like Goodreads—authors will appreciate the positive word-of-mouth, and so will we.

And if you’re a bookseller, librarian, or reviewer with access to the Edelweiss platform, you can also read Larry D. Thacker’s Working It Off in Labor County and Charles B. Keeney’s The Road to Blair Mountain. We add general-interest titles to Edelweiss on a regular basis, so check back for forthcoming books by Renée K. Nicholson, Geoff Hilsabeck, and more. And happy reading!

The shimmer of camaraderie: A conversation between novelists Lana K. W. Austin and Karen Salyer McElmurray

austin_des_cov_lg_cmyk

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.Read More »

Too explicit to name: An excerpt from Storytelling in Queer Appalachia

gradin_storytelling_des_cov_sm_rgb

One of the first collections of scholarship at the intersection of LGBTQ studies and Appalachian studies, Storytelling in Queer Appalachia, edited by Hillery Glasby, Sherrie Gradin, and Rachael Ryerson, amplifies voices from the region’s valleys, hollers, mountains, and campuses. It blends personal stories with scholarly and creative examinations of living and surviving as queers in Appalachia. We’re pleased to share an excerpt from the collection, available now and shipping from our site, by contributor Matthew Thomas-Reid, collaborating with Michael Jeffries and Logan Land.

Down in the holler, I am a boy who is good to his momma: an eccentric who listens to classical music and brings a delicacy to every potluck. Being a boy good to his momma, I come from a tradition of the queer [phonetically kwar] in Appalachia. There is a rich history of the queer [kwar] in my community, from my lifelong bachelor great uncle to my father’s “rebel younger brother,” who died under unknown circumstances at the height of the AIDS crisis. Schooled in the southern Appalachian Brushy Mountains of North Carolina, queer [kwar] identity narratives abounded while queer [kwir] identities were marginal, simply too explicit to name in anything louder than a whisper.Read More »

Conference preview: Appalachian Studies Association 2020

Screen Shot 2020-02-19 at 11.37.41 AM

Update: We’ve decided, after much deliberation, not to exhibit at the meeting. The press is offering 30% off, with free shipping, on all books that would have been exhibited with code WVUASA20 on our website.

West Virginia University Press will exhibit at the annual meeting of the Appalachian Studies Association from March 12–15 in Lexington, KY. Find us in the exhibit hall, and if you can’t make it to Lexington, have a look at our new offerings in Appalachian studies below.

Championed as “an important addition to our region’s literature” by Ron Rash, Mountains Piled upon Mountains features nearly fifty writers from across Appalachia sharing their place-based fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry. Much of the work collected here engages current issues facing the region and the planet (such as hydraulic fracturing, water contamination, mountaintop removal, and deforestation), and provides readers with insights on the human-nature relationship in an era of rapid environmental change. Contributors to the volume will read at the conference on Saturday at 10AM.Read More »

“The high points and the imperfections”: An interview with Wesley Browne, author of Hillbilly Hustle

Screen Shot 2020-01-29 at 10.39.42 AM.png

Wesley Browne talks with Sarah Munroe, WVU Press’s marketing manager and acquisitions editor, about his new novel Hillbilly Hustle, now available on our site.

SM: By only reading a synopsis and your brief biography, it’s immediately clear that you are 1. very busy, and 2. at least in some ways “writing what you know.” How did you come to the idea of the novel (I assume you are not selling weed out of your pizza shop, but perhaps you’re a poker player?), and how did you translate aspects of your life, people, and places onto the page? (And if you are a poker player, what’s your tell?)

WB: My family co-owns Apollo Pizza in Richmond, Kentucky. Under previous ownership you could buy marijuana there. It was kind of an open secret in town. The local police told stories about it, but they never went out of their way to bust it. It struck me that as a novel premise there was a lot I could do with it. I took a novel class with Amy Greene at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop and started developing the idea there. Nothing about the marijuana operation at the fictional Porthos Pizza in the novel is drawn from real life except the use of “spinach special” as code for a pot order, and the location of the shop, which is on South Second Street in Richmond, just like Apollo.Read More »