I write about heartache, longing, and despair. These are the elements I love most in stories, songs, and movies. Without an element of sorrow, I can’t relate. I know I am not the only person who identifies most with these feelings. What is the root of this?
For me, I think it has to do with where I grew up. The landscape, culture, history, and experience of southern Appalachia is rich with trials, isolation, perseverance, and longing for times to be just a little better. The people are both dependent upon and at the mercy of nature, beneath the ground and above it. Hearts are pulled to stay and minds are pulled to leave. Staying makes one always wonder about leaving and leaving proves that Appalachia can’t be left behind.
When I was old enough to read adult novels, I struggled to relate to the women on the pages. I knew their lives were ordinary, but not my kind of ordinary. The main character may have been troubled, someone had broken her heart once and she may never trust again. I just couldn’t relate, not that my heart had never been broken. It had. But the women in those novels had it all. They had amazing jobs in big cities. They never ran out of food and their hands were never callused. They were always clean and had the perfect outfit for every occasion, occasions I never knew existed until I started reading. I read a lot of romance novels, trying to figure out what ordinary was supposed to look like. For me, it was like reading fantasy and trying to figure out how to be a unicorn.
I will readily admit that by the time I was born in 1972, times had changed; east Tennessee was nothing like the stereotypical hillbilly culture. Most of the kids I went to school with reviled their heritage. The life we lived was far from the hardship of my parents’ and grandparents’ years. But the stigma persisted and there was no escaping how the world viewed us. By the late ’80’s, strangers stopped asking me if all my family had shoes. By the mid 90’s I no longer engaged with people young and foolish enough to ask me to say certain phrases for their entertainment, but I was well aware of how my speech was heard.
There are exceptions. Not every person in Appalachia likes a sad and lonesome song, nor do they all believe that’s what Appalachia is about. Not every person who likes a tear-jerker novel full of heartache does so because they’re from a place where sorrow abounds. I am only saying this is true for me. Sorrow is the backdrop which gives meaning to joy, magnifies every pleasure, and never allows us to take life for granted. I identified with it early and was drawn to those equally in its grips.
No matter what genre I write, no matter where my characters are born or die, they will inevitably carry this aspect of southern Appalachia with them. My palette for creating them is as diverse as mountain flora, but they all spring up from the soil of heartache.
My first novel takes place in Maryville, Tennessee. The next will take place mostly in eastern Kentucky. They will make you cry, you will feel more alive, and you’ll want to hug someone you love. That’s what it means to me when I say I am an Appalachian writer.