Tag Archives: Coalfields Appalachia

The Monday Book: NIGHT GARDEN by Carrie Mullins

carrie mullinsI bought this book at the recent Appalachian Studies Association Conference, after a mutual friend introduced me to Carrie and announced it was her publication day. I’m glad I did, as I enjoyed Carrie’s writing. Very descriptive, which is not usually my thing, but the characters are well-drawn, which is.

The protagonist is a teen girl with a dead brother, difficult parents, and a teacher who helps her score substances. So it’s only natural that soon after she should have a boyfriend who edges toward emotionally abusive, and women around her who urge her to understand. The dysfunction here is told in third person but primarily from her point of view as she struggles to believe that Bobo (her boyfriend) loves her, that being pregnant isn’t so bad, that she has a good life. That she can get out.

It’s a story with a lot of detail in how the people live, and a building sense of emotional dread mixed with resignation and strength. You’re not really sure how it’s going to end, and I’m not putting any spoilers in here. If you like Appalachian dysfunction, delicate touches on tough subjects, or descriptive novels, NIGHT GARDEN is for you.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

The Rituals of Writing – Plus a Monkey Wrench or Two

Many many thanks for your patience, gentle readers, and thanks to those of you who got in touch to see if we were okay. Yes. Better than okay because Fall or Fly: The Strangely Hopeful Story of Adoptions and Foster Care in Coalfields Appalachia has gone to the publisher on time.

We all know writing comes with a few rituals. Some people work in specific locations, others have lucky editing pens, or writing clothes. Me, I get sick as soon as the book is in. That’s how it goes. The relentless rush to the last deadline, followed by five days of lying catatonic in bed, staring at Scandal on Netflix. (How many ways are there to murder someone without getting caught in DC? Don’t answer that.)

So I pushed send on Monday, and then lay down in a stupor. But the two weeks prior to that, I had been doing nothing but type and crochet for so long, my right hand went numb. When I got on the Crochet Addict Black Sheep list (this is for people who have been kicked off Crochet Addict, a thing that is not hard to accomplish) they gave spot-on advice naming the actual muscles that needed attention by number. I went up to see the amazing TNB, aka Brandon Tester, chiropractor to cat rescuers everywhere (his wife is the local vet) with the recommendations, and he went down the list and made everything okay again.

But he did suggest, given the frenzied typing, that I cool it with the crochet for a bit, saving the muscles. For which I apologize to those waiting for their braided scarves. My crojo (mojo for crochets, ya know) is back and all orders will get filled by St. Paddy’s Day. My hand is in order, my book is in, my life is my own again, and my threads are running true.

So thank you for being patient – about the disappearance of this blog, and the crocheted stuff. And for continuing to be patient about Fall or Fly. It is in the Spring 2017 publication list from Swallow Press. I’ll be getting final edits back in May, and another month of ducking and diving will follow, and then this book full of shadows and light will be ready to roll.

It’s such a different book from Little Bookstore. And yet it’s a community story. I’m looking forward to its telling. A couple of the readers have suggested I will be getting it in the neck, because there aren’t a lot of punches pulled in it. But there it is. My hand didn’t go numb for nothing.

Meanwhile, back to the threads of a different life, and onward toward Spring of this year, with its many promises. Including snow tonight, in the Gap. Stay warm, neighbors.

(For those interested, this is the photo that got me kicked off Crochet Addict into the arms of the Black Sheep.)

DSCN0278

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Filed under animal rescue, between books, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, crafting, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, Scotland, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

The Wednesday Book Deal (or: why writing is like mining)

mine entranceMany of you have noticed that “the bookstore blog” has been the wee bit irregular this last month. It’s a combo of two things: the Celtic Festival, which we are wrapping up after its very successful 8th annual permutation Sept. 27-28; and the final “throws” of a book deal.

May 2017 will see Fall or Fly from Swallow Press. It is about adoption and foster care children in the Coalfields, and holds two things I love most about writing, plus one I never experienced before and hate (or perhaps fear).

On the one hand, my journalistic roots show when I write about people, and I absolutely love listening to others tell their life stories. They’re fascinating; people are so cool when they’re not pro tellers but are just telling what they know. It is my favorite part of any writing I’ve ever done.

But, to use a metaphor, writing in this instance is like coal mining. It’s dark, and from the entrance comes an unwelcoming smell of decay. Brave people secretly telling me their stories are the guides, lights that shine in the unhuman, inhospitable environment. They are resilient, these storytellers.

Especially the young’uns who came up through this system. With some of the least opportunity to be so, they emerge from all that pressure shining as diamonds: rock-solid, dependable human beings.

One day, after the bookstore Cafe had closed, I spent two hours talking with one person embroiled in the foster care system. When we came downstairs, Jack said the storyteller seemed “ten years younger” while “you looked as though the whole world had settled between your shoulder blades.”

For all that, they’re amazing stories, amazing people, and I’m so pleased to be writing this book. It will be smaller, more intimate than Little Bookstore. (And yes, for those of you asking, a cat book is in line, but Fall or Fly will be first.)

So deep breath, and here we go, diving deep. It’s a wonderful thing – only this time it’s in a dark pool inside a mine with just a few lights. Scary, but the words will come and make the way to get out of the dark places. And that makes everything worth it, because that’s the second part of writing I love: say what you mean, mean what you say. Find the words to tell the stories that need to be told, that other people will feel validated, empowered, even challenged to hear.

Is there anything more satisfying?

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Hunger Games, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, VA, Wendy Welch, YA fiction

The Monday Book: GRAY MOUNTAIN by John Grisham

tumbsNormally I only do Monday Books on those I’ve liked. This one is a bit half-hearted, but Grisham’s latest is set in our region and tackles the much-ignored topic of mountaintop removal, so almost everyone around here feels an obligation to read it. We need opinions for the church potlucks.

Obligation is a pretty good word. I don’t like dissing authors, or books – unless they’re real creeps, and Grisham isn’t. He just….. kinda didn’t do anything exciting in this book. And, inevitably, even though he spent time in SE Kentucky with some people dedicated to stopping MT removal AND bringing social justice to the Coalfields, he got some important stuff wrong.

It isn’t a big deal that the mileage and directions are way off in his book. It’s fiction. It isn’t a big deal that sometimes he slides into stereotypes even though you can tell he’s trying not to – kinda like a kid learning to ride a bike will guaranteed hit the pothole she’s watching with her whole being, intent on avoiding it. You always hit what you concentrate on avoiding, because you’re concentrating on it rather than the story you have to tell. We don’t mind; it was nice of him to try.

But I knew we were in trouble when Grisham started the serious action of his book with an old “legend” that circulates about SW VA/SE KY/NE TN mountain roads.

The book itself opens with the heroine getting laid off from her high powered-yet-hated legal job. She has a chance to keep her health insurance if she goes to work for a nonprofit, and she winds up taking the “bottom of the barrel” with the only remaining option: in the Coalfields of Appalachia. It must be hard for an author to try not to stereotype while writing about a NYC character coping with moving out of Manhattan. He tried, bless his heart. It made the book a bit flat because at the points where people would’ve been asking some serious questions, the heroine gets all open-minded. Still, his mechanism for driving her to VA is a good one: keep your health insurance if you leave the land of the midnight latte for the exile of rural America. Nice try, Johnny, but your logistics are showing.

Maybe that’s the biggest problem throughout the book. HOW he was trying to tell the story showed as much as the story.

Anyway, she drives into a town thinly disguised as being not-Grundy, VA, and a guy pulls her over in an unmarked police car and threatens her with all kinds of things if she doesn’t come back to the station with him. Including handcuffing and a gun. Turns out he’s the local learning impaired dude who pretends he’s a cop and only pulls over people with Yankee license plates.

We are not amused. You can look up the stories on Snopes, but there really was a rape and murder under this scenario; the guys weren’t handicapped; they were felons. It is not funny to display color local characters in this manner, let alone a town complicit with such dangerous actions. {“Yeah, he’s weird, but he’s ours.”} I began to hate the book at this moment, and probably couldn’t give it a fair read from there forward.

From then on the words skimmed past my eyes very much like an Arthur Hailey novel: all explanation and no storytelling; the facts of mountaintop removal thinly disguised as a fish-out-of-water story; lots of sensational details added about the main characters, a la the unnecessary drama of a Hollywood plot built around a love story. The whole thing just read like… well, like reading the script of your average mid-week 8 pm tv drama. I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters, because I didn’t believe they were real.

Which is annoying, because–let’s give him credit–Grisham is the FIRST big deal author to tackle MT removal, and I don’t care how much I didn’t like the book, I love him as an author for doing that. GOOD FOR YOU MR. G!

But can I add, very sadly, that I wish he’d done a better job of telling a story rather than so obviously trying to talk people into hating the bad guys? The complexities suffered, and so did the communities. But thanks.

mtr

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Filed under bad writing, between books, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

Comfort Food

liberian foodI’m in Richmond for a few days to advocate for Coalfields Appalachia. Introvert that I am, trekking up and down the Halls of Power leaves me whacked.

I totally understand how important it is to know, respect, and talk with your legislators, particularly about things that can help your community: roads, school policies that play fair, healthcare access to close a coverage gap. Witness West Virginia; eyes might not have looked the other way, balls might not have been allowed to drop, and the blame game might not now be flowing faster than poisonous water.

So I’m not a cynic about the process of democracy–although when one of the legislative aides I know well winked and said, “Time to make the sausages,” we both cracked up. You know the famous quote, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

It’s not cynicism that leaves me exhausted, but introvertism. (Is that a word?) I’m shy, and advocacy is important, so I do it. At each desk, the secretary asks which axe you’re grinding and the legislative aide wonders what you want; you smile and tell them, shake hands, move on. Smile some more. Once a Senator’s aide could be heard through the wall, saying in an exasperated voice to the secretary, “Well, just find out what she wants and tell her we’ll support it.” I get it, sweet child; it’s a hard job, dealing with people coming all day with their hands out. It’s a hard job, spending the day with our hands out. As one does one’s spiel and watches others do theirs, the place feels like a food warehouse with a thousand hungry people storming it.

Having spent the morning doing what feels vital rather than natural, I went out at lunchtime to recharge. Several restaurants nearby serve everything from barbeque to Middle Eastern lunches. A Liberian diner? Yes, please.  Stepping into the tiny “Africanne on Main,” I beheld a steam table laden with Cassava Leaf  and Smoked Trout and Oxtail Soup. The concept was simple; take what you want, $6.99 per pound. Behind me in the payment line waited a man with skin the color of caramel, salt-and-pepper dreadlocks reaching past his knees. When I turned, we almost collided; I smiled and apologized; he smiled and released my elbow where his hand had steadied my plate.

The meal proved delicious, fresh, hot, and calming (despite its fiery peppers). As I sat enjoying my out-of-the-comfort-zone comfort food, the First Lady spoke from the diner’s TV, rolling out an initiative to help disadvantaged students enter colleges. I thought of my morning in the Halls of Power, of the number of needy people in the Coalfields and other rural places who would honestly give back if given a chance, of the obstacles standing between them and a fair shot. And it felt like swimming upstream, to go back to the Halls of Power and ask, again and again, humbly with my hand out, for help for a whole bunch of people who wanted to give back, if only they could be given to.

And the man from the food line appeared at my table.  Without preamble, he said, “Hi, I just wanna say, in this era of school shootings and people on the make, with all that’s happening in the world, when I see someone with a warm, genuine spirit, I like to say, ‘hey, good for you, someone gets it.’ You have a great day.” And before I could swallow to speak, he was out the door.

Sir, you have no idea how much better you made my day. I flew back to the Halls of Power on wings of golden light because of you.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA