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.

Still:    Could we start by asking you to talk about your early life in Morgantown and what influences there brought you to writing?

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. 

I’m an only child, so I also spent a lot of time reading, making up stories, and talking to invisible friends, which probably also brought me to writing. (Unless it was the other way around.) I read whatever I could get my hands on as a kid. The book that made me fall in love with books was Matilda by Roald Dahl; I would finish it and immediately start over, and I still have that copy. But it’s hard to say what brought me to writing because I’ve done it as long as I can remember. I used to make little construction paper books and write poems. Once, there was a family gathering at my grandmother’s house, and a storm knocked the power out. I decided it was the perfect condition for a mystery story and announced we were all going to write one. (I don’t think I had any takers.)

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.

Then, a couple years later, New York foodies discovered (or re-discovered) ramps. That’s what really set me down the path of Appalachian food culture writing: trying to square the people who could joke that I probably didn’t own shoes with the ones who would pay $17 a pound for something we dug up for free. (I have to admit my lack of ramp cred, though: I have no good spots.) It was the beginning of the high-low food trends that became so ubiquitous: drinking tall boys of PBR, pickling everything, putting tater tots on your menu. Some of these things are benevolent and nostalgic, but many struck me as classist fetishes. The privilege to take something that others are mocked or shamed for and make it “cool” (and expensive) on your terms. From there I started exploring the relationship between food and place more explicitly and interrogating what being Appalachian—something I’d never thought about or identified with—meant for me. A lot of that came back to my grandmother’s kitchen, as it does for so many of us.

What I’m most fascinated by as a writer is the intersection of place and identity, and food is a natural overlap because it’s such a huge aspect of both. Especially in a place like Appalachia, where eating from the land is central to the heritage and the cuisine. Food stories are stories about emotions, relationships, labor, economics, memory, joy, grief. It’s all there. I think that’s what drew me to it as a translator for this place. Even when I didn’t “feel Appalachian”—because my father wasn’t a coal miner or I’d never had shuck beans or I couldn’t trace my family land back 12 generations, all these classic marks of the “typical” Appalachian story—I could get there through food. That probably culminates in my writing on pepperoni rolls because they’re such a wonderful metaphor for my home, my relationship to it, and the complications of both. 

Of course, through most of this I was also a full-time freelance writer, so I was hustling every idea I had. Thankfully, I got to write a lot of them.

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. 

I wonder sometimes if, because Appalachians are so primed for the judgment we receive, we can clamp down a little too tightly on what being Appalachian is. Being Appalachian is a spacious thing. There are many claims to it. But it’s taken me a long time to realize that; at first, I thought I just didn’t fit in. Then I realized I was just buying into that same narrative flattening that’s imposed upon us. 

Writing, like any artform, requires this belief that you have something worth saying and worth hearing. That’s especially powerful when you’re from a place like Appalachia, where we already have to stand up taller and yell louder that we deserve to take up space. The stories I started writing are the ones that resonated with me and my experience but that I wasn’t necessarily seeing. Seeing other Appalachian stories that haven’t been told (or told enough) makes me so excited about the region and more eager to tell mine. It’s really a tremendous time for Appalachian writers. 

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!) 

I take notes while I read, then I research the guest and jot down a few more notes to guide the conversation, but mostly we just talk. I don’t want the episodes to feel like interviews. After we get off the phone, I write and record an introduction and send everything to a fantastic audio editor, who edits it all into the final episode. 

              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:    One of the newer features on the WMFA podcast are your “Minisodes,” short meditations on the psychology of writing. We really like the episode titled “Writing Without Writing,” where, among other things, you provide a list of ways we can write without notebooks and laptops: “napping, reading, talking with other artists, walking in the woods, running, teaching, listening to music, looking at art, staring out the window at the birds.” How do you generate ideas for the “Minisodes”?

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. 

Part of what’s so fantastic about a residency is that you’re off the hook for everything but your creative work, so I saw more clearly how all these other activities, especially reading, feed into my process. Largely, that minisode was to remind myself that I don’t need to feel ashamed or lazy or guilty that this is what I want to do with my life. 

That’s how a lot of minisodes get written, honestly. What advice do I need to hear? What emotions around my work do I need to get curious about? It’s uncanny how often the previous week’s guest will say something I needed to hear right then in my own process, so sometimes I’ll riff on that. For better or worse, I rarely filter myself. And I love when listeners request something. 

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. 

I’m still learning how I work best, after a lot of judging my process when it didn’t look like someone else’s. (That’s another thing the show has been great for: Every writer has a different method, and it probably sounds insane to you, and that’s fine.) I write best in the mornings, after a cup of coffee and some time spent staring out the window or reading a little, so that’s the time I dedicate to the novel. (I’m always trying and failing to wake up earlier. 7 a.m. is my goal, but often it’s 7:30 or 8.)

I’m working on my creative endurance; right now, around two hours of generative writing is about all I can handle in a day. Late morning, I transition to client work, maybe keep writing or revising the novel on the rare occasion I don’t have any. (Revisions are easier for me to dip in and out of throughout the day.) I have a productivity dead zone in the mid-afternoon, so I like to schedule WMFA calls then or read (the one task that never feels like work). Then I might go for a run or go to yoga. I can fall back into that morning creative headspace in the 5-7 p.m. zone, so sometimes I do that too. In residency, I played with going back to work after dinner, and I did like it: It was like that inner editor was finally exhausted from a day’s commentary and I could just write in peace. Maybe I should incorporate that into my everyday life.

Because I’m easily distracted, I’m a huge proponent of setting timers for focus. I read somewhere that our brains can do 90 minutes of deep work and then need a 20-minute break, so I keep that in mind. I’m also trying to be more mindful of time spent with technology; I’ve started not letting my phone in the bedroom and wearing a watch to cut down on mindless check-ins. That’s freed up a disturbing amount of time, which I try not to give right back to Instagram.

I read kind of all the time, and I have a whole taxonomy: bedside books (nonfiction, memoirs and biographies, pop psychology), office books (podcast guests’ books, craft books), and living room books (mostly novels for pleasure and nonfiction books I can’t read before bed for whatever reason—right now that’s Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe’s exceptional book about the Irish Troubles, which is too disturbing for bedtime). I can’t read fiction before bed; I get too emotionally invested. 

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. 

I lived in Detroit for five years, and I was struck by the similarities it shared with Appalachia. Detroit and Appalachia are both places that get told about themselves. Both live in the shadows of their mono-economies and have nurtured rich labor cultures, have fought to be properly educated and to receive proper healthcare. Both have even fought for clean water and access to it. The novel grew out of my interest in this connection and how these elements manifest in rural and urban settings. 

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?

CB:  Crafting fiction with a journalism background has been challenging psychologically; I can feel woefully inadequate. The podcast helps a lot with that, reminding me there are a million paths to a debut novel and that good writing is good writing. So too does remembering that, in a strange way, my journalism has led to this. This novel is a synthesis of years of thinking, researching, and writing. There are elements inspired by real people I’ve interviewed. 

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.

I’ve also started drafting a second novel that I’m really excited about, but I don’t want to talk about that one yet!

Visit Courtney Balestier's WMFA podcast page
Listen to her "minisode" on patience in our Still Life feature


Home     Archives     Fiction     Poetry     Creative  Nonfiction     Interview      Still Life     

Featured Artist   Reviews     Multimedia    Contest     Masthead     Submit     Feedback