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 »

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

IMG_3392.JPG

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 »

“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 »

“Putting off-the-map oddities at the center of the universe”: An interview with Krista Eastman

credit.Sharon Vanorny.jpgKrista Eastman’s new book The Painted Forestdescribed by Publishers Weekly as “thoughtful and elegant”—is now available in West Virginia University Press’s series In Place. Here the author talks with series coeditor Jeremy Jones.

Jeremy: “What strangeness, I asked, is this?” This is the question you pose to yourself walking around the Painted Forest—the fraternal society hall covered in murals of, among other images, a man riding a goat. It’s a good question. So good, I’m pointing it back at you. There’s so much beautiful strangeness in your book. Were you looking for strangeness when you found places and experiences to write about? Was that a central criterion for these essays?

Krista: I hadn’t thought about it that way but the attraction to strangeness is definitely there. I do thrill to weird things. I look at something as deeply strange and antiquated as fraternal societies and I can’t look away, but mostly because I see in all of it this arresting proof of our collective strangeness, as well as proof of how bizarre and byzantine we will all look one day, how wrong we’ll have been, how obviously conflicted we all were (are). Read More »

“I’ve thought about writing directly about white racism for a long time”: An interview with Greg Bottoms

Greg Bottoms is “one of the most innovative and intriguing nonfiction writers at work,” according to Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. Bottoms’s latest book, Lowest White Boy—a study of growing up white and working class in Tidewater, Virginia, during school desegregation in the 1970s—is new in WVU Press’s In Place series. Here Bottoms talks with Jeremy Wang-Iverson.

What inspired you to write about racism from your boyhood experience?

I’ve written a lot about the South and Virginia, and I’ve touched on racism many times and in different ways in other books, both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve thought about writing directly about white racism for a long time because it was so prominent in my childhood personal geography. But it is our political climate of rising racism and the pushing back on civil rights of all kinds that really made this feel urgent to me. Jeff Sessions was AG. Steve Bannon developed core ideas for the Republican candidate, now president. Stephen Miller is in the White House. Racism is the subtext and often the text of Trump’s words. These men are white supremacist, first and foremost, and a solid minority of our country supports their ideas with votes. White ethno-nationalism is now a fundamental pillar of one of our two major American political parties and has a powerful media ecosystem that magnifies these views. I’m describing an objective, factual reality.Read More »

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.

Read More »

“Appalachia loves stories”: A conversation with Travis Stimeling

Stimeling photosTravis Stimeling is associate professor of music history at West Virginia University and a series editor and author with WVU Press. Here he talks with Jacob Kopcienski, a lecturer in the WVU School of Music. Don’t miss Travis and musical guests at Taylor Books in Charleston, WV, on December 19.

JK: What inspired your interest and scholarly engagement with Appalachian music and culture?

TS: I grew up in Buckhannon, West Virginia, in Upshur County, about an hour and change south of Morgantown. Toward the end of elementary school, we started going to a Methodist church. In our neighborhood you were either down in the holler or up on the ridge, and church was up on the ridge. We shared the minister with three other churches, so we only got a preacher on the first and third Sundays of the month. Second and fourth Sundays were lay speakers and, in months with five Sundays, the preacher got the last Sunday off. On those fifth Sundays, all four churches got together in the evening for a big sing-in. So, from the time I was nine to eleven years old, I was singing gospel music with my mom, and singing in the church choir. Mom and I were a little duo that was a lot of fun. I would sing the harmony and she would sing the lead. When my voice changed, we flipped parts.Read More »