- Published: 13 November 2019 13 November 2019
Veteran novelist Amy Greene (Bloodroot and Longman) and debut novelist Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne have several things in common: both are native Appalachians, both write about their mountain origins, and lucky for us, they both have a book coming out from Blair this fall. Elizabeth’s debut novel is Holding On To Nothing (pub. date 10/22/19). Amy Greene, with her husband Trent Tompson, edited Step into the Circle: Writers in Modern Appalachia, a collection of essays and photographs in which writers write about each other and their homes in Appalachia (pub. date 12/1/2019).
Amy and Elizabeth sat down recently for a chat about their upcoming books.
Amy Greene: Elizabeth, I've had the good fortune over the past year to become familiar with you and your writing. We grew up in the same mountains, but you left East Tennessee to study at Amherst College and have now settled in Massachusetts with your husband and children. What moved you to return, as a storyteller, to your Appalachian roots?
Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne: I think home is home. When people ask me where I'm from, I still answer “East Tennessee,” even if they are actually asking what town I live in now so we can arrange for school pickup. It's just not a choice to give another answer. I've been a long time gone, but East Tennessee is still my home. And, perhaps because our childhoods are so formative, my brain and heart still beat with stories and characters, both real and imagined, from there. At some point, maybe I'll catch up and start telling stories from the place I've lived for a while now, but it hasn't happened yet. I also think that there may never be enough stories about our region, which is a shame given that through music and storytelling it's occupied such a formative place in American history. I just never tire of the people there, of how hard-working, joyous, and hilarious they can be, even when circumstances might dictate otherwise. It was such a gift to be from there, and I miss it every day.
Now, from me to you: What made you and Trent want to explore Appalachian writers through pictures and words? It is an absolutely stunning book, and I can't wait to put it out for people to read. Why did y'all want to explore that topic now and have other writers profile each other (which I loved!)?
AG: When Trent and I met at a writers' colony in the Tennessee mountains, we connected both because of our Appalachian roots and our love of literature. Since then, we've had countless conversations over coffee about how the arts—particularly the literary and visual arts—have given our people voices to tell their own stories, through words and images, in ways the media from outside the region often gets wrong. Those conversations over morning coffee became a vision for a coffee table book combining the literary and visual arts to show how the literature of Appalachia has helped to progress its entire culture.
ECS: I love that. Those conversations over morning coffee are sometimes the most universal ones! And I couldn't agree more about the portrayals of Appalachia. I started writing my book because I felt that the media from outside the region just didn't portray the people I knew accurately. When people tell their own stories, the full complexities of their lives get portrayed. That's what I tried to put on the page with Jeptha and Lucy's story.
AG: Now, a fun question: How did you celebrate when you learned that your debut novel would be published by Blair?
ECS: I celebrated the news the way I celebrate all good (and bad!) days in our house: I popped the top on a beer! Like Jeptha, my main character, I very much enjoy a good beer. I've gotten a taste for super hoppy New England-style IPAs over the years, and I always keep some craft IPA in the fridge. They are my go-to for celebrations! I especially love one from a local Cambridge brewery called Lamplighter, and my favorite of theirs is called Birds of a Feather. (I edited much of Holding On To Nothing after my kids went to bed while sitting at Lamplighter, nursing one beer over three hours and listening to bluegrass.)
AG: A very fitting way to celebrate! When I got a book deal for Bloodroot, I bought a pair of leather boots I'd had my eye on—but they were on sale, which probably speaks volumes about where I come from and how I was raised.
ECS: I love that. And yes, the on-sale part definitely does speak volumes about growing up where we did, doesn't it? One thing I loved so much about Appalachian Reckoning, the amazing book edited by Meredith McCarroll and Anthony Harkins, was that I learned the word bricoleur, a person who makes new things of the things they've collected around them. It was a fancy word for the way I grew up and the way I saw people all around me live.
Back to you:After writing such gorgeous fiction (Bloodroot and Long Man) for so long, how was it to be immersed in nonfiction, both the writing and the editing, for a while with Step Into the Circle? Was it hard to transition between the two?
AG: It wasn't too hard to put on my editing hat. For me, revising is more than half the writing process. It doesn't hurt that I learned from the best. My editor at Knopf, Robin Desser, is brilliant at what she does. Her editorial voice lives in my head, and I listened while reading the essays included in Step into the Circle. To be fair, there wasn't much editing to do, given the caliber of the writers involved in this project.
ECS: Editors are the best, aren't they? And, is it just us or is there something about editors named Robin?! [e.g., Robin Miura, editor at Blair]
AG: One last question (well, two last questions) for you: It sounds like as a writer you'll continue to mine the rich literary terrain of our homeland. What can we expect from you next? Are you working on another novel?
ECS: I'm almost done with the first draft of my next novel, and yes, it's set in East Tennessee! One or two of the characters from this book come back in that one, although the book is very different. I spent a lot of time in my twenties reporting on tuberculosis, now the number-one infectious killer in the world. It's a huge issue and not one that many people in the U.S. care about, despite there being regular, if small, outbreaks here. I wanted to write fiction about tuberculosis, but I also wanted to write another book set in East Tennessee. I found an article about a very infectious strain of TB that broke out in an OshKosh factory in Tennessee twenty years ago and thought, "A ha!" Currently, I'd describe the book this way:
Tennessee native Alice Campbell had been living happily in Kenya, working as a doctor, with her husband and two kids. But when her daughter Rosalind dies from an undiagnosed tuberculosis infection, Alice’s marriage falls apart and she will do anything to get away from the disease, even take over her father’s old medical practice back in East Tennessee, a place she swore she’d never move back to. Unbeknownst to anyone, however, a TB epidemic is about to rage through East Tennessee and the United States, and Alice is the only one with the experience, courage, and insight to fight against it.
And last question for you:What are you working on? I can't wait to read your next book!
AG: I'm so excited to see what you write next and how your writing life takes shape in general. I know great things are ahead, both for and from you!
Right now, I'm working on another novel set in East Tennessee as well, about a quarry town during the Great War. Working on Step into the Circle has been such an inspiration as I birth this third book, being steeped in the words of so many writers I admire.
Thank you, Elizabeth, for this conversation, and for sharing your beautiful story with me and the world!
ELIZABETH CHILES SHELBURNE grew up reading, writing, and shooting in East Tennessee. After graduating from Amherst College, she became a writer and a staff editor at the Atlantic Monthly. Her nonfiction work has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Boston Globe, and Globalpost, among others. She worked on this novel in Grub Street’s year-long Novel Incubator course, under Michelle Hoover and Lisa Borders. Her essay on how killing a deer made her a feminist was published in Click! When We Knew We Were Feminists, edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan. Holding On To Nothing is her debut novel. She lives outside Boston with her husband and four children.
AMY GREENE's first novel Bloodroot was a New York Times and national bestseller. In 2010 Greene won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Fiction. Her second novel Long Man was a Washington Post “Top Book of the Year.” In 2016 Greene won the Willie Morris Award for Southern Literature and was inducted into the East Tennessee Literary Hall of Fame. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times and Glamour magazine, among other publications. Greene has lectured and conducted workshops across the country. Amy is cofounder of Bloodroot Mountain, a nonprofit organization based in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.