“Writing characters who break all sorts of rules”: An interview with Deesha Philyaw

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Hailed by Electric Lit as one of “24 New and Forthcoming Books That Celebrate Black Lives,” The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is Deesha Philyaw’s “tender, fierce, proudly black and beautiful” (Kirkus, starred review) debut collection. Here Philyaw talks with Holly Mitchell of Vesto PR.

When did you start writing this book?

The first story I completed was “Eula,” and I started it in 2014. But at that time, I didn’t think of it as the start of a collection. There were other stories, like “Jael,” that started with just a name or an idea or a line of dialogue that I sat with for a few years before developing them as stories.

At what point did you know your focus would be on church ladies?

In 2007, I started working on a novel in which the main character is a church lady, a pastor’s wife. I worked on the novel off and on for the next eight or nine years, but I just kept stalling. From time to time, I’d turn my attention to short stories, and they all featured a church lady or someone who is what I call church lady adjacent, meaning there’s someone she’s close to who is heavily influenced by the church. I grew up in the church, and these were the women who informed my understanding of womanhood and how to be (or not be) in the world. Although I wasn’t surprised that they showed up on the page, it wasn’t intentional, at that point.Read More »

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.Read More »

AWP flash sale!

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With health concerns keeping some from the annual meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) this week in Texas, we’re extending our conference discount to the general public. Save 30% on new works of fiction and literary nonfiction using code WVUAWP at checkout on our site. Full list of discounted titles below.Read More »

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

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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 »

“Are the birds really electric now?”: Sadie Hoagland talks about American Grief in Four Stages

Sadie Hoagland is the author of American Grief in Four Stages, a new collection of stories from West Virginia University Press. Here she talks with Tessa Fontaine, the author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts, a New York Times pick, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers choice, and an Amazon Editors’ Best of the Month featured debut. 

Tessa Fontaine: Many of your stories are written in the first person, with characters who must reckon with a crisis. Though they may be surrounded by other people, they mostly wade through grief alone. Do you think the short story form lends itself particularly well to these kinds of stories?

Sadie Hoagland: I think the intense grief that is the subject of many of the stories does fit the short story form well. For one, the reader doesn’t necessarily want to be in that space longer than a short story. But in addition, the short story allows for a kind of reading that asks us to consider emotional territory and space over plot investments; we can’t know the characters as well as we can in a novel, but the glimpse we are given into their lives is incredibly intimate. I think the brevity makes it all more poignant.Read More »

Learning to dig: A creative writer on her start as a journalist

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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.

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LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia: A conversation between editors

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.

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Notes on the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, a vital part of the state’s literary landscape

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 WritersHer 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.

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Donna Meredith searches for the real Chuck Kinder

Chuck Kinder is the author of four novelsSnakehunter, 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.

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Meredith Sue Willis is a double agent

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.

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