A new history of Civil War–era West Virginia: Scott MacKenzie talks about The Fifth Border State

West Virginia University Press will publish Scott MacKenzie’s book The Fifth Border State: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Formation of West Virginia, 1829–1872 on January 1. Here MacKenzie talks with William Hal Gorby, author of our book Wheeling’s Polonia: Reconstructing Polish Community in a West Virginia Steel Town.

Gorby: West Virginia Statehood is such an intriguing story. What new perspectives do you hope to bring to this popular narrative?

MacKenzie: My goal was to un-intrigue the history of West Virginia’s formation. For 160 years, every book on the subject has explained the event in only one way. Inherent cultural, economic, social, and political differences, it goes, led the free labor-oriented counties of northwestern Virginia to separate from the slave plantation-based east at the start of the Civil War. This thesis has two flaws. First, it underestimates how much the region’s white population supported slavery. Given that the ‘peculiar institution’ caused the conflict, it is impossible that it played little or no role in the state’s genesis. Second, it focuses too closely on intra-state relations while neglecting possible broader contexts. Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware also believed that the remaining within the Union better protected slavery than seceding from it. I think that West Virginia formed for the same reason, differing from the others only in not being a state yet. My approach should prompt serious rethinking about the subject within the state and in the wider academic field.

Most people think slavery did not play much of a role in Western Virginia before the Civil War, but your book shows this general assumption is not correct. What role did the institution of slavery play here?Read More »

“Recently I’ve wondered how my coworkers and I ended up in these lower-wage jobs as adults”: An interview with Rachel King, author of Bratwurst Haven

This fall, West Virginia University Press will publish Rachel King’s first collection of short stories, Bratwurst Haven. Over the course of these twelve interrelated stories, King gives life to diverse, complex, and authentic characters who are linked through work at a Colorado sausage factory. Rajia Hassib, author of A Pure Heart, said about the book: “These all-too-relatable struggles make the stories not only engrossing but also an intriguing and tenderly rendered study of this flawed world we call home.” Here King talks with Vesto PR’s Caitlin Solano for our blog.

When did you start writing this collection of interrelated short stories? What inspired you to center the stories on low-wage workers at a sausage factory?

I wrote the first story in this collection in the summer of 2016, a few months after I moved back to my hometown of Portland, Oregon. My spouse has worked at a sausage factory, so many of the physical details of the space came from there. Each story’s main character and plot came to me in a different way, however—a composite of all I’ve imagined, observed, heard, and experienced. I didn’t admit I’d written a linked collection until I was done; I just wrote one story, then hoped I could write another one.Read More »

“I felt like Morgantown itself was a character in the book”: An interview with Tom Bredehoft, author of Foote

This summer, West Virginia University Press is pleased to publish Tom Bredehoft’s Foote: A Mystery Novel. (While the official pub date is August 1, the book ships now when ordered from our site.) It’s a tale of a private investigator in Morgantown who has a secret he dares not reveal: he is a bigfoot living in plain sight, charged with keeping his people in the surrounding hills from being discovered. Jordan Farmer said of the novel: “Part mystery, part fable but all original, Jim Foote is sure to be one of your favorite literary detectives—cryptid or otherwise.” Here Bredehoft talks with Vesto PR’s Caitlin Solano for our blog.

What inspired the story about a bigfoot private investigator?

My wife and I came up with the idea on a walk along the Mon River Trail in Morgantown, looking up at some of the rock formations and idly thinking that they might make a good hiding place for a cryptid. Neither one of us remembers clearly who said the actual phrase “bigfoot PI,” but as soon as it was out there, I knew I could have fun with it. She says that she’s had lots of conversations when someone has said “That could be a novel!” but I think she was surprised when I actually wrote it.

What kind of research did you do for this novel?   Were you able to find a comprehensive history of bigfoot sightings in West Virginia and the greater Appalachia region?

I don’t think I did any research on bigfoot at all! I have often heard the old advice to “Write what you know,” and so I just told myself at the very start that no one could know any more about my bigfoot (and their history and place in the world) than me, so I pretty much felt free to go my own way. I did do some small bits of research on West Virginia history here and there to make the setting seem right.Read More »

Complicating the narrative: A conversation with Neema Avashia about coming up queer and Indian in Appalachia

In March, West Virginia University Press will publish Neema Avashia’s Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, which examines the roots and the resonance of Avashia’s identity as a queer Asian American teacher and writer from Appalachia. It’s hailed by New York Times-bestselling author Morgan Jerkins as a book that “subverts the mainstream’s hyperfocus on white male-dominated narratives from rural America and commands your attention from the first page to the last word.” Here Avashia talks with Vesto PR’s Holly Mitchell for our blog.

What inspired you to center Appalachia in this collection? 

There’s no way I could have written this collection without Appalachia at the center, because Appalachia is at the center of who I am. I can’t write about my identity and experiences without also considering the ways in which place shaped who I am, and how I live. I think that might be one of the hallmarks of Appalachian writing—place is a character in our work as much as people are. And certainly, there was also a second factor, which is that in 2016 a book that shall not be named here came out. That book got held up as definitive in its descriptions of Appalachia, and yet the descriptions in the book didn’t resonate for me as a person from Appalachia at all. I didn’t see myself or my family or my friends or my neighbors in that book. I didn’t agree with its core premises about why Appalachia is in its current state. I felt like there was a need to expand the definition of Appalachia, and Appalachian people, being presented to the world. And I thought that potentially, telling the story of growing up queer and Indian in Appalachia would be a way to complicate the mainstream narrative around Appalachia.

When did you know the essays would not just stand alone but come together in a book?

In 2017 I went to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and had the opportunity to share some of my writing with an amazing writer, teacher, and educator named Geeta Kothari. She is such a skilled reader of work, and was able to start identifying themes in my writing that I wasn’t totally seeing yet. And the more those themes got articulated, the more I realized that the essays hung together in a way that could lead to a collection.Read More »

Conversations with indies: An interview with Ian from Ghost Palace Books in Thomas, WV

The holiday season’s approaching, and supply-chain concerns make it a good idea to shop early. In that spirit, we’re excited to introduce the blog’s readership to some of the region’s indie booksellers, highlighting the important work they do with authors, publishers, readers, and communities. Second in the series is Ian from Ghost Palace Books in Thomas, WV.

How did Ghost Palace come to be? What’s your role there?

Ghost Palace started out as four people, incidental friends, unhappy in their work, meeting behind the backs of their employers to plot an escape. They soon realized they all shared a deep, abiding love (or a mild habit, at least) of reading and, utterly ignorant of the matter, figured owning and operating a bookstore together would be just the answer to their troubles. How right and how wrong. Not long after making this decision, a global pandemic came along and slammed the door shut on the whole “economy” thing. Perfect! A sign. They all left their stupid jobs to convert half an old duplex into a retail space and, presto, a few months later Ghost Palace was open for business.

From the start we tried to organize ourselves, loosely, as a collective, and decided we would share all operational tasks equally, so my own role, really, is basically the same as everyone else’s. In practice this works out as a rotation. One week I’ll be responsible for placing and receiving book orders; another week I’ll be on janitor duty, scrubbing the toilet. I have to say, it’s nice to change things up—regularly.Read More »

Conversations with indies: An interview with Gregory Kornbluh of Cincinnati’s Downbound Books

The holiday season’s approaching, and supply-chain concerns make it a good idea to shop early. In that spirit, we’re excited to introduce the blog’s readership to some of the region’s indie booksellers, highlighting the important work they do with authors, publishers, readers, and communities. First up is Gregory Kornbluh, owner of Downbound Books in Cincinnati. Get to know Gregory in the interview below, and please support independent bookstores this holiday season!

You worked in university press publishing before you opened Downbound. Can you tell me about that transition?

I did come from Harvard University Press, but was a bookseller for a spell before that, so fortunately I wasn’t coming into this blind. I also got to work with booksellers while at HUP, which isn’t always the case at a university press. We certainly did our fair share of titles that were never meant to attract attention outside of the academy, but also had books with some potential for a broader audience. We were often fooling ourselves on that, of course; unlike you guys at WVUP, we weren’t rolling out must-read National Book Award finalists. But there are ways in which the structure of the publishing process incentivizes projecting best case scenarios for books as they work through the pipeline—dreamy comps, media fantasies, etc.—and I’ve had to train myself away from some of that. In my case, too, just being in Cambridge and haunting its bookshops reinforced some of those ideas we at HUP would sometimes have about the general book market. So, it was sort of a double bubble. Coming home to Cincinnati and opening Downbound has helped me adopt a more realistic stance towards the broader market for scholarship and serious nonfiction. I’d like to think that our shelves hold more UP titles than would be expected in a 500-square-foot shop in a midsize Midwestern city, but there are fewer than we started with. Personal commitments aside, footnotes just aren’t a hill we’re gonna die on. You’ll find us dead and happy on Board Books about Poop mountain instead.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 »

“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 »

“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 »

“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 »