photo by Page Hamrick
Denise Giardina is widely considered as one of the great Appalachian authors. Her masterpieces, Storming Heaven (1987) and The Unquiet Earth (1992), are essential reading for anyone who is interested in the labor history of our country, Appalachian culture, or those who simply crave an epic American story. Her work has been international as well, with books like Good King Harry (1984) and Emily’s Ghost (2010) being set in England, and Saints and Villians (1999), a novel about Dietrich Bonhoeffer set mostly in Germany. Giardina’s work usually focuses on aspects of social justice and religion. When she ran for the governor of West Virginia in 2000 on an anti-mountaintop removal platform she became a folk hero and is often looked to as one of the primary commentators on the state of contemporary Appalachia.
Giardina grew up in coal-mining family in a coal camp called Black Wolf, in McDowell County, West Virginia and currently lives in Charleston, West Virginia, where she recently retired from West Virginia State University. She is an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church. She has started work on a memoir and a new novel.
We recently interviewed Giardina about writing, prejudice against Appalachians, changing definitions of the place and its people, and much more.
STILL: At Still: The Journal we are very interested in expanding the definition of "Appalachian writing" so that it is more inclusive. We believe that this kind of writing is more about a complex understanding of the culture and self-identity than it is about topography and/or geography. Would you agree or disagree with that notion? Can you expand on what your own definition of "Appalachian writing" is?
DENISE GIARDINA: I still struggle with this, and change my mind all the time! I definitely think the definition should be as inclusive as possible, and that self-identity has a great deal to do with it. I self-identify as an Appalachian writer; and yet half of my work has taken place in England and Germany. Still, I don’t self-identify as English. In the same way, writers should never be limited in subject matter, and it is certainly okay if someone from, say, San Francisco, writes about the Appalachian region. I would expect them to do their research, and approach their subject with respect. Would that make them an Appalachian writer? I don’t necessarily think so, any more than I am an English writer. But I might change my mind if they began to self-identify with the region.
I also want to avoid stereotypes, for sure. But I do think there are some elements that I connect to Appalachian writing – passion, for example, lack of pretension, and a clear understanding that good and evil exist. There’s a paragraph in Storming Heaven where Carrie Bishop is talking about Wuthering Heights. She says, “It has the sound of a lost and precious place, Wuthering Heights. I learned from that book that love and hate are not puny things. Nor are they opposed. Everything in this world that is calculating and bloodless wars against them both, wars against all flesh and blood, earth and water.” Carrie is not just talking about Wuthering Heights; she’s talking about Appalachian literature. That’s the criteria it has to fit, for me.
Which links to something fun I’ve taken to saying, which is that I think Wuthering Heights was the first Appalachian novel. Of course Emily Bronte never got near the mountains, but if she had, I think she would have fit right in. And her characters—the “servants” who don't take any stuff off anyone. Rich or poor, they all have been thrown together and just bang off each other. Heathcliff running around digging up graves—that’s the passion I’m talking about.
STILL: For many years now you've lived in Urban Appalachia. When most people think of the region they never think of cities. Why, and how do we change that way of thinking?
DG: I don’t know. I think early Cormac McCarthy also makes that point. The Appalachian stereotypes are so strong—rural, Scotch-Irish, coal miners—all so limiting. We just have to keep writing about the region in as many ways as possible, but realistically outsiders are always going to filter us through their own inaccurate prisms unless they take the time to look deeper.
STILL: On that same note, how is being an "urban Appalachian" different than being an Appalachian who lives in a rural place, besides the obvious rural/urban divide? Does being "urban" change your notion of also being "Appalachian"?
DG: I don’t think it really changes my notion of being Appalachian except to maybe enlarge it. For one thing, growing up in the coal camps of eastern McDowell County back then had a much more urban than rural feel. There were thousands of people and you drove straight from one town to another, and they all had restaurants and movie theaters and so forth.
There are, as you said, the obvious differences in urban and rural. Charleston is ethnically and racially diverse, it’s pretty liberal on social issues compared to more rural areas. But that’s pretty standard across the country, if you look, for example, at an election map of how the counties in the nation voted, and you see blue islands in a sea of red in every state, from New York to Alabama. There’s a bit more wealth in Charleston than in rural West Virginia. But Charleston is a very Appalachian city to me. I’m especially aware of that when I visit a city like Lexington, for example, which is Kentucky, but outside the region, geographically, anyway. It’s like two different worlds, in some ways. I think an impartial observer, studying both places, would see Lexington as more slick, far more thriving and affluent. Charleston looks old and shabby in comparison. But I think of it as comfy, like an old shoe. And that, to me, is Appalachian.
STILL: What's the best contemporary book about Appalachia that you know of?
DG: I’m always a bit uncomfortable with this kind of question, partly because I haven’t read everything, not by a long shot, and I must admit I haven’t kept up with things that have come out very recently. (My reading in general is about three years behind the times!) Also to me every book is different, so it’s “what do I like best, apples or oranges?” Let me just mention a few favorites – I think Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies towers above a lot, and Oral History is a very important look at the region’s culture and literature. A Parchment of Leaves by Silas House is haunting. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna is a wonderful read and demonstrates how a story primarily set in Asheville, in the mountains, can stretch far beyond, from Washington to Mexico, and encompass the entire world.
In 2004 I was the Writer-In-Residence at Hollins University and taught a course in Virginia and West Virginia fiction. The two books that seemed to touch the students most viscerally were The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake and Jayne Anne Phillips’s Machine Dreams.
It was awesome to sit in the middle of a West Virginia audience when Matewan premiered. When Mary McDonnell shot the Baldwin-Felts guy at the end, people in the audience stood and applauded. That one struck a nerve.
STILL: We know you’re a film-lover. Is there a contemporary film that you think gets Appalachia right?
DG: If I were bestowing the Appalachian Oscar, it would go to Coal Miner’s Daughter. Interesting that it took a British director to get it right, isn’t it? I suspect an American, with American prejudices, might have ruined it. My strong runners-up would be Matewan and Night of the Hunter. It was awesome to sit in the middle of a West Virginia audience when Matewan premiered. When Mary McDonnell shot the Baldwin-Felts guy at the end, people in the audience stood and applauded. That one struck a nerve. And Night of the Hunter? Just great film noir, and the scene where Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish duel with “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” is one of the great scenes in movie history. And let us not forget that awesome documentary, Harlan County, USA.
STILL: What do you think is the worst film portrayal of the region?
DG: I think that would have to be Deliverance, in part because it was so influential. But so wrong in so many ways. Most of the really bad films are so bad that they’re actually kind of laughable, kind of camp. I’m thinking particularly of Next of Kin. Some, like Wrong Turn, I can’t bring myself to watch.
STILL: Although you are widely known as a novelist you have recently delved into playwriting. Tell us about that process, what you like about it, what's difficult about it, how it is different from novel-writing, etc.
DG: I really enjoyed the writing, but I feel like I haven’t had the entire experience yet, because I haven’t been able to get a production. I think the collaborative part of the process would be a lot of fun. I actually enjoyed the difference from novel writing because I’ve always had good dialogue, I think, and narrative is a bit more difficult for me, especially descriptions. So not having to deal with that was kind of a vacation. I think the most difficult part of writing a play is that as a novelist, you have room to spread out, to sprawl. With a play, you’ve basically got to keep it to 90 pages. You really have to go from using a telescope to a microscope.
STILL: What is the greatest threat facing us as Appalachian people today?
DG: Mountaintop removal. How do we be mountain people without mountains? How do we keep our identity when many of us are saying mountains aren’t valuable, aren’t important, and should be treated like so much trash? How do those of us who love mountains live among our neighbors who have sold their souls?
STILL: Do you think being identified as an “Appalachian writer” has hindered your writing career in any way?
DG: To be honest, I think it has. Perhaps not so much the identity, as the fact that I continue to live in the region. I think the most successful in terms of gaining some national attention—Barbara Kingsolver, Lee Smith, Jayne Anne Phillips—spent major portions of their lives outside the region. I lived outside for only a brief time and then I came back to West Virginia. I’m not known in writerly circles. I don’t know that there’s any literary critic on a national level who knows I exist. So yes, it has been a hindrance.
STILL: You recently retired from teaching. How many years did you teach? What were you looking for in a creative writing manuscript that let you know a student had what it takes to be a writer?
DG: I taught for 21 years. What I looked for in a creative writing student – someone who took time to describe things using the five senses. And they were rare.
STILL: You've always been vocal about your strong Christian identity but in the past few years the word "Christian" has become synonymous—for many people—with words like "conservative", "traditional", and "right-wing." Does this trouble you? Does it have an impact on your own faith?
DG: The word has indeed been hijacked, but that is nothing new. It’s been going on at least since the early days of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority in the 1970s. Before that, being a Christian meant walking with Martin Luther King and speaking out against the Vietnam War like the Berrigans and William Sloane Coffin. Then liberal Christians grew quiet and the media looked elsewhere. Unfortunately now, both the media and liberal secularists seem to equate Christians and fundamentalists. They don’t see a distinction. And that’s partly our fault. We need to be more outspoken about who we are. For example, when the media talks about Christians who believe same-sex marriage is an attack on their faith, we need to say, “But wait. I’m a Christian, and I support same-sex marriage.” Those voices aren’t being heard in the media right now.