Interview with Courtney Balestier
© The Gerards. Used with permission.
We spoke with journalist and podcast creator Courtney Balestier about her work as a writer, a podcast host, and native West Virginian. Courtney trained in journalism at West Virginia University and at New York University, and her writing has appeared in a variety of national publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Wired, and Oxford American. Often, she writes about food and food-related trends. Bon Appétit, Punch, Gastronomica, and Gravy, are just a few of the food magazines where her work has been featured. Courtney is particularly fond of the West Virginia pepperoni roll, which she described once as “a poem: self-contained, complete, economical in every sense of the word.”
But Courtney is also committed to Appalachia beyond its unique foods. She defines herself as a “writer whose work focuses on the intersection of place and identity.” Her journalism often explores the contradictions and complexities of Appalachia, what she calls “that dance of resourcefulness and respect, extraction and exploitation.” Her commitment to dismantling stereotypes of the region and, instead, telling our whole, messy story, is one of the hallmarks of her reportage.
When Courtney started work on a novel, she realized she needed to talk to other fiction writers, so she created the WMFA Podcast, a broadcast devoted to full-length conversations with contemporary writers as well as Courtney’s short explorations of craft issues and psychological challenges related to writing and the writing life. (We’re featuring one of Courtney’s “minisodes” from WMFA in our Still Life section.) In this interview, we talked with Courtney about food, place, and identity, as well as the challenges involved in keeping up with a podcast while writing a novel.
Courtney Balestier: I think the biggest thing about my early life that influences my writing is that I’m the only West Virginian in my family: My parents compromised on Morgantown when my mom, who’s from southwestern Pennsylvania, didn’t want to be far from her family. (My dad is from northern New Jersey, which is where I get my love for New York, where I lived for eight years.) I’m so glad they did, because it let me grow up close to my maternal grandmother, who is a huge influence on my work. Her cooking is what I’ve written about the most, but these days I’m thinking about her whole life. She grew up in a mining camp in Appalachian Pennsylvania and had to take over the household as a teenager when her mother was badly injured. That’s what she did ever since: caring for dying relatives, raising four children, feeding everyone. That type of Appalachian woman—sturdy, capable, loving in a direct way—is on my mind a lot lately while I’m writing.
Still: Your journalism has been published in so many respected publications, and often you write of food or food-related topics. Did you intentionally set out to establish that sort of niche for yourself—to be a journalist of food?
CB: Thank you so much! I definitely didn’t set out to do it. When I was at NYU getting my master’s degree in magazine journalism, I interned and later worked at Every Day With Rachael Ray magazine. That job made me start to see how big a role food played in my family—most significantly with my grandmother, but just all around. My family, if you tell us you went out to dinner, we need to know where you went and what everyone ordered.
Still: Tell us about your on-going interests in foods that appear so often in your work, namely, the West Virginia pepperoni roll, ranch dressing, and pawpaws, just to name three. What connections or significances do you see between place and food?
CB: Being new to New York, I also used food as a barometer of where I was and where everyone else was coming from. I remember going out for Thai with some new friends and someone remarked that they were sick of ordering pad Thai, and that struck me as the snobbiest thing I’d ever heard. Probably because I don’t believe I’d had Thai before that night. So I was also picking up all these new cues about how food signified what you knew or didn’t, what you could afford or not, that weren’t really apparent to me back in West Virginia.
Still: One of the themes that keeps emerging in your non-fiction work is that Appalachia is a complicated and conflicted story but often that story gets truncated or simplified into a few, unfortunately, enduring stereotypes. Apart from your obligations as a journalist to “set the story straight,” what drives you as an Appalachian to keep getting our messy, complex story out into the world?
CB: It was born of frustration: over being told who and how I am, over perception, over those stereotypes not being my personal story. And I’m not just talking about the negative stereotypes. It can be tempting, when we talk about Appalachia, to go too far in the other direction and romanticize all the pain away: “Appalachia is not the opioid crisis; it’s my mawmaw’s chow chow,” when in reality it’s the opioid crisis and your mawmaw’s chow chow and a million other things. The problems start when we make one or two signifiers carry too much weight.
Still: We love your podcast, WMFA, and wondered if you could talk about the evolution of that project?
CB: Thank you! It’s more on that theme of creating the thing you want that doesn’t exist. I had just started writing a novel and had no idea what I was doing (not that I don’t still feel that way). I also felt isolated in the process. The podcast was a way to create community and learn more about the craft. Writing is such lonely work, but when we talk about it, inevitably we’re going through the same issues. It’s energizing to geek out with someone and let that light your fire for writing and reading, and it’s comforting to remember that it’s hard because it’s hard, not because you’re terrible.
Still: How do you choose writers to interview?
CB: Usually I gravitate toward writers whose work I already love or want to read. A conversational podcast is all rapport, and I can’t fake being interested in writing I don’t like. (This is why I could never be an investigative journalist—I only want to talk to people I want to talk to and who want to talk to me!) To your question about telling Appalachia’s complicated stories, this is such an exciting time for complicated stories in general. I want to make a show that lifts up as many of those as possible. There are way more great writers out there—especially women writers, LGBTQ writers, and writers of color—than there are column inches in the major book reviews. I also have dream requests that sometimes come true. Two recent ones were Morgan Parker and Karen Russell.
Still: What kind of preparation is involved in getting those interviews up and running for listeners?
CB: Often I schedule by the publishing calendar, because it’s easier to fit into an author’s schedule when they’re promoting something, and timeliness is important. That’s the most fun part: going through catalogues and requesting galleys. (I have so many books in my office right now! It’s the dream!)
CB: I might steal that phrase, meditations on the psychology of writing. I love that. I wrote “Writing Without Writing” while I was in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I remember talking about this when Silas House came on the show, but I’ve always struggled with accepting writing—and especially reading, which is writing’s lifeline—as work. I think that’s common when you come from a culture where work looks so different. No one ever told me outright that creative work isn’t “real” work, and I didn’t need them to; at some point, I just internalized it. That’s so damaging.
Still: What are the challenges of writing and editing for print as opposed to broadcast?
CB: I’m still figuring that out. For a while I “wrote” the minisode scripts by free-talking and then reverse-engineering a script, but now when it’s time to write one, I can start thinking in that cadence. For sure your sentences need to be shorter for broadcast, which is, let’s say, unnatural for me. I’ve never met an em dash I didn’t like.
Still: Because you certainly must be busy constantly reading the works of other writers and researching those writers for your podcast, how do you find time to center on your own work? Tell us about your typical writing day. How do you manage your time, your processes?
CB: In a weird way, the podcast keeps me on task: If I’m not doing my own work, then I don’t have material or feel I have the authority to talk about writing so much. But you’re right, between the novel, the podcast, and my client work (mostly copywriting and communications), it’s hard.
Still: We know you have a novel in progress. Can you talk a little about that story?
CB: The novel is about two generations of a family in the “Hillbilly Highway” migration between Appalachia and northern industrials cities in the mid 20th century. It’s set in the present and in the 1960s in West Virginia and Detroit. Between all the characters’ storylines, I can zoom in and out on so many things that engage me: place, identity, the concept of home, generational memory, spirituality and the land, isolation and community, activism, labor.
Still: And what, for you, are some particular encounters you’ve had in crafting fiction when so much of your writing is rooted in reportage and journalism?
Practically, I do have to burn through my “journalism mode” in writing. Sometimes the writing is flowing and I can see the whole thing in a global way, and so it comes out more artfully. But often, when I’m just putting one word after another, I can slide into sounding like an information delivery system: declarative sentences of every minute action in chronological order. My first time at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, Robert Gipe said a passage read like I was telling myself the story, and he was exactly right (as Gipe often is). I’m learning that sometimes in that first draft I need to tell myself the story first, then figure out how to tell it more artfully to the reader. I’m also learning that that’s OK.