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Sunday, February 1, 2009
Vicki Lane - Writing Appalachian
Vicki Lane is the author of the critically acclaimed Elizabeth Goodweather Appalachian Mysteries: Signs in the Blood, Art's Blood, Old Wounds, In a Dark Season (2008), as well as The Day of Small Things, a standalone coming in 2009.
A descendant of pioneer Floridians and Alabama farmers, Vicki was raised in Tampa, Florida. She married her high school sweetheart in 1963 and taught high school English at a prep school in Tampa. They should have been happy.
But in 1975, seduced by The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News, Vicki, her husband, two dogs, and their three year old son moved to a mountain farm in Madison County, North Carolina where they learned how to milk cows, butcher pigs, plow with mules, and raise tobacco. Twenty five years later and still on the same farm with the same husband, one more son, and many more dogs, Vicki remembered that she was an English major and decided to try her hand at a mystery novel.
Working from the premise ‘Write what you know’ she chose a middle-aged woman on a mountain farm as her protagonist and started writing. Five years later, Vicki’s first novel was published by Bantam Dell.
But wait! There's much, much more at http://vickilanemysteries.com/ and http://vickilanemysteries.blogspot.com/
WRITING APPALACHIAN by Vicki Lane
Before I was published, a well known writer of Appalachian novels gave me a piece of advice – actually, it may have been more of a warning – don’t write about the mountain people in a patronizing manner. “We’ll come down on you if you do,” I think was what this writer said. Well, it scared me some and I tried very hard to make sure that the deep respect and admiration I had long felt for those tough, wise mountain folks who were my neighbors came through loud and clear in my writing.
Here’s the thing: a native Appalachian novelist can write as one whose family roots are deep in this region. I, on the other hand, since I’ve lived on our mountain farm for only 33 years, am a transplant -- one of those “damn Florida people.” I can’t pretend to know Appalachia as a native does but I can bring to my efforts at depicting mountain culture, the eyes and ears of one to whom Appalachia is utterly fascinating -- at times as familiar as the memory of my grandmother’s voice, at other times as indecipherable as a song in an unknown tongue, heard at a distance.
No, I can’t be a native, but even a transplant can put down roots that grow deep and take nourishment from an adopted home.
The Appalachian poet and essayist Thomas Rain Crow, in his lovely memoir Zoro’s Field, uses a term “the new natives.” This is his name for those who come to a place and “strive to work reciprocally and in balance and in harmony with the native people and the land.”
I like to think that that my protagonist, Elizabeth Goodweather, and I are new natives – we may be Florida people but at least we saw the error of our ways and moved to the mountains where we got to know our older neighbors and tried to learn from them, to work with them. Rather than sealing ourselves away in an
exclusive compound comprised of other newcomers, we tried to make a place for ourselves within the existing community.
And there was so much to learn from that community! Those folks who had lived on and with and by the land for generations had a wisdom that couldn’t be found in books. They were attuned to the weather, the seasons, the phases of the moon in a way that seemed almost uncanny to someone like me who’d grown up in suburbia where central heating and air conditioning made weather almost irrelevant and the moon was only occasionally glimpsed through a web of power lines and television antennas.
Like the song catchers who once roamed these mountains, writing down the old ballads and recording the old tunes, I listened and learned and remembered and often jotted down some of the wonderful things I’d observed. And when the day came that I began to write a novel, there was all this wonderful material just begging to be used– characters who became Miss Birdie and Aunt Omie, the landscape and life of the mountain farms and forests, the history of the region, and the language -- oh, the language like poetry!
“I wuz weedeatin’ in that ditch there and one a them big ol’ gorf rats like to run up my britchie-leg,” said my neighbor Mearl. Another lovely phrase rings in my memory from the time when, at the top of our mountain in October, we met a neighbor from down the other side. She and her grown son had been gathering apples from a volunteer tree there near the top. “We’re just walkin’ and feastin’,” she told us, smiling the sweetest smile and tossing away an apple core.
These mountains are full of stories. My first book, Signs in the Blood, opens with a scene described to me by a friend who was a home health aide – an old woman dying peacefully at home, surrounded by friends and family, a church choir is there singing, and two teenage grandchildren have just gotten saved in the kitchen. I wrote down the bare bones of this scene years before starting a novel. It was just too wonderful to take a chance of forgetting it.
Another story that I used in this same book is the tale of a young woman, who ran off with her boyfriend back in 1901, leaving her husband and infant behind. When I first heard this story, about thirty years ago, it was said that when the young woman came back for her baby, her husband locked her out and so she would climb up the logs of the cabin to look in the window and see her child. They said you could still see the scratch marks of her fingernails. This is the story that convinced the Big New York Editor who was looking at my manuscript to offer me a contract.
I tell people that my books are, in a way, a love song to the place I live. I’m trying very hard to write about a world that is fast slipping away. My husband and I were fortunate to have moved to our farm at a time when many people were still living as they had in the early years of the century, when there was no television, no internet, no cell phones. Instead, conversation, story-telling, and homemade music on the front porch were the entertainment. These people are the backbone of my stories and readers write from all over to say that they are reminded of their aunt, their granny, their great uncle, their childhood.
But I have to write about the changes too – the new people of all sorts who are moving to the area. Elizabeth’s world, like my own, is seeing an influx, for good or bad, of all sorts of pilgrims from all sorts of places – Florida people looking for cooler summers, Northerners looking for warmer winters, earnest organic farmers, telecommuters with jobs in far off cities, artists and artisans, New Age seekers, Latin American laborers, all adding spice and savor to what was once a dish with only one ingredient.
I remember back in ’76, being introduced to a young woman whose family had lived in the same community for seven generations. As I recall, she looked at me with a wary distrust, probably the same way the Cherokees looked at her folks when they first began to move in to the Cherokee’s hunting grounds. And it’s probably the same way, God forgive me, I look at some of the more recent newcomers to the area. And what changes are You going to make? the look says.
Not long ago I was talking with a lifelong resident of the area and the subject of her neighbor – another of those Florida people -- came up. “Him?” she said, “He ain’t showed me nothin’ yet.”
By their works shall ye know them, I think she was saying. And the fact is that many, many of these new people are enriching the mountains, bringing an energy and freshness of outlook to the on-going work. Those who do it best, listen to the long-time residents, respecting their wisdom and experience and hearing their concerns. Yes, Change is inevitable, but it can be done cautiously and respectfully so all that is good and lovely in the land isn’t lost forever.
Back when we first moved to the mountains, one of my neighbors invited me to go with her to Decoration Day at their family cemetery. A group had gathered there atop the gentle hill at the edge of our farm. It was a mild day, the first Sunday in June, under one of those crystalline blue skies that they say proves God is a Carolina fan. The invited preacher hadn’t been able to come, so some of those present took turns reading from the Bible or speaking a few words. And then Sylvie, another neighbor -- a short stout woman, known for her ability to outperform a man in cutting and barning tobacco -- Sylvie began to sing ‘Amazing Grace.’
Her voice was rough, with a heavy mountain twang, and she sang from her heart and her belly and her soul with the same strength she brought to the tobacco field. Her song was a shout, a statement of faith, a declaration of who she was and where she was – and an anthem for all who once were lost but now are found. It raised goose bumps on my arms and when the last fierce notes fell away, losing themselves in the trees and pastures around us, I was fighting back tears. I once was lost but now I’m found, I thought. Was blind but now I see. This is the place I’ve been looking for and here I am where I’m meant to be.
Amazing Grace – it’s here all around me in these mountains. And last year, when I was doing a talk at our local library, I got another taste of it. A woman, a native of many generations, brought up one of my books to be signed. She looked me in the eye and said, “We’re glad you moved here.”