Interview with Matthew Ferrence
by guest interviewer Julia Kastner

After an upbringing in southwestern Pennsylvania, Matthew Ferrence wandered off to the high desert of southern Arizona, then to the urban cultural center of Paris, France. He and his wife were drawn back to the "shared geographies of their home Appalachians," settling in the Laurel Highlands and then in northwestern Pennsylvania where the Rust Belt meets Northern Appalachia. Ferrence teaches writing and literature at Allegheny College, and serves as visiting faculty at West Virginia Wesleyan College's low-residency MFA program. He and his wife and children divide their time between northwestern Pennsylvania and Prince Edward Island, Canada. 

Ferrence’s writing has appeared far and wide, most recently in The Fiddlehead, Gettysburg Review, and Best American Travel Writing 2018. He is the author of All-American Redneck: Variations on an Icon, from James Fenimore Cooper to the Dixie Chicks (University of Tennessee Press, 2014) and Appalachia North: A Memoir (West Virginia University Press, 2019). 

Julia Kastner:  You write about Sean Prentiss's book, Finding Abbey: "He also journeys into himself, something I doubt he understood at the beginning of his project, even if it lies at the center of his book." Did you understand, at the beginning of your project, what journey you were on? 

Matthew Ferrence:  The short answer is no. 

The longer answer has to do with the process of publication itself. This book began by me being rejected by the press for a different book. My dad was an environmental biology professor, and I took the lab manuals that he had written, and I used those as the structure for personal essays. I published several of them individually, and I thought they worked out interestingly. You follow the procedures for doing a census of grasshoppers, but you're actually writing about growing up on the farm. They have nothing to do with the lab, but they apply that kind of experimental method to yourself. I had submitted that book to WVU Press, and they did not take it. But, the editor said, would you be interested in editing a collection on Northern Appalachia? And I said no, but would you be interested in a single author book on Northern Appalachia? He asked for a proposal, so I wrote one that was for still a memoir, but really more of the research memoir that sought to define Northern Appalachia geographically and personally. This was in the wake of my brain surgery. I wrote up this proposal, and it was about what Appalachia is, what Northern Appalachia is, and involved thinking about how the geology of the Appalachian Mountain range continues northward into Canada, way beyond what we think of when we hear the term: "Appalachia." The range goes all the way to Newfoundland, and the people who live upon those rocks seemed to me to share certain things in common, socially and economically. One example would be fiddle music, the old timey sound of bluegrass quite similar to Cape Breton fiddle and even French Acadian tunes. All of that existed in the proposal, but there was nothing about the health memoir. The personal would just be, here's what it's like growing up in Pennsylvania.

Then I was working on the book but I was hating the writing. It felt too scholarly, on one hand, and also there was this other memoir I was waiting to write, because I knew that I was ready to write about the brain tumor. I had written an essay that's contained in the memoir, called "The Foxes of Prince Edward Island," and I knew that that essay was the kernel of the memoir I wanted to write. I had a contract for a book I didn't want to write. I struggled for a while and then said, I've got to write the book that I want. I'm going to start trying to fold in this brain stuff. So I started fiddling with the structure to see if I could make it work—and then the book opened up for me. In trying to cram those two projects together, I think that each project got better. The brain tumor narrative is unfortunately familiar for readers, but in putting together this new stuff I was able to see, getting back to Sean Prentiss, that I would not have thought about the metaphor of erosion as both regional and personal if I hadn't tried to glom these two lines together. The exploration of what Northern Appalachia is helped me figure out what I am, even as a medical body. 

JK:  This feels fairly research-heavy, for a memoir. How much of your bibliography already lived as voices in your head; how much was research for this book? 

MF:  I would say at least half of the books in the bibliography were living in my head already. I do remember, after the first proposal I sent to the press, the editor said, it seems like you've been thinking about this book for a really long time. And I realized that I kinda had. I'd been thinking of Appalachia for years, partly related to the other book I wrote, that was a scholarly book. But I did do a lot of reading to bone up on some of the history. And I found it very valuable, because I kept finding fascinating resources that connected to a kind of figurative read of the region, and that's one of the parts of the research process that I enjoyed the most. One was going on the ground to places that were the corners of Northern Appalachia; the other is reading research to try and figure out how to get to a metaphorical understanding. Which is a different impulse than scholarship: it's not about the content as much as it is about how the content can help you make sense of the world. 

I give a lot of credit to the editor. I think he was both patient, when I delivered a manuscript that was not what he thought he was getting, and also wise in pushing me, from that manuscript, to include some more of the baseline research. A lot of the stuff like the history of strip mining and strip mining laws, that was from his suggestion. He said, I think that any time you're referencing something like strip mining you need to think about a reader that doesn't know what that is, and explain it. That added another layer. I don't want to say that was a dissatisfying portion. It was the least interesting part of the research to me, but I think it added a heft to the book that I do like and I wouldn't have done it without editorial help. Editors are awesome. 

JK:  Was he pleased with the surprise that he got in this book?

MF:  He seemed to be! His name is Andrew Berzanskis, now senior acquisitions editor at the University of Washington. When I sent it to him I said, you know, it went in some directions we might not have anticipated. And he called me and said it was a surprise, but he liked what he saw. He was willing to work with it. He wanted to emphasize in the revisions that I needed to make sure that the book wouldn't lean too heavily on itself as a medical memoir, because that's too familiar. I think he always envisioned the Appalachian side of the book as the primary focus, and I envisioned the brain tumor as the primary focus. And in the negotiation, we found the productive third space that it became. 

I think every book, or every good book, of course changes dramatically from idea to execution, because you figure it out as you're doing it. Which is what makes it exciting. 

JK:  One chapter bears latitude/longitude coordinates. Do you expect readers to look them up? 

MF:  No. Most wouldn't. I think they function as a different version of section headings. But it does offer the possibility, if someone wanted to look them up, of tracing on a map that motion northward. You're looking for the geocache and so you keep correcting course until you get to the coordinate that you're looking for. The structure of that chapter is me correcting course, and these are the way-stops along that journey, to get to that final declaration of coordinates at the end, which is a very specific place. 

              This is the act of the essayist. What makes essays exciting is that their narrative drive really comes from the residue of the author grappling with something and the reader getting to grapple with them along the way. 

Julia Kastner:  Do you feel different having completed this project; has it changed, fixed, solved anything for you? 

Matthew Ferrence:  I definitely feel different, definitely changed. Fixed and solved are of course difficult. For me the writing of it was definitely a working through, and this might be part of why I see the memoir side as so fundamental, as really reckoning what it means to be on the other side of something that, at least to me, seems really quite profound. 

This is the act of the essayist. What makes essays exciting is that their narrative drive really comes from the residue of the author grappling with something and the reader getting to grapple with them along the way. And for me it was really trying to figure out who am I and where am I, which is both literal and metaphorical. I think I sort of diagnosed myself in the writing of the book. The diagnosis might be that I need different stories than have always been told, and I mean that both medically and regionally. 

JK:  Where did you write this book, and does that make a difference? 

MF:  I think it does. I wrote the majority of it on Prince Edward Island (PEI) in Canada, at Samuel's Coffeeshop in Summerside. I would go in there in the mornings and put on my headphones and just write. That was where a tremendous amount of the material was produced. A lot of the revision and expansion work was written here in Meadville (Pennsylvania), in my office on campus, which is maybe significant too. I was writing from the endpoint, if that makes sense, because as the journey narrative works in the book, PEI is the end of the journey physically. It seems to be the right place. That location, in and of itself; but also what it means to me is an endpoint of recognition, so it was a fitting geographical location to write from. 

JK:  What responses have you received to this book, specifically to some of your challenges about definitions of Appalachia? How unprecedented is your claim to PEI as Appalachia? 

MF:  So far I haven't heard from any of the haters, but they could be out there. I was just reading in West Virginia, and I was explaining the difference between reading north of the Mason-Dixon line and south of it in Appalachia. When you read north of the Mason-Dixon, you actually have to define Appalachia, to start, and then you have to convince people that they're part of it. And in those locations the response has largely been, huh, that makes sense. So that's been a nice response to that end of it. 

I had a great discussion as I was working on the book, over email, with the essayist Desirae Matherly, who teaches at Tusculum College. Her point of recognition is one I really valued. She saw how Northern Appalachians have been left out of the story, and appreciated an intervention that makes a claim for both membership and unique identity, which is maybe even different from unique regional identity. That's the kind of response I've gotten from people in Appalachia.

I'm going to be reading in Halifax, Nova Scotia this summer (2019) at their central library. The librarian that I've been communicating with said it's a really interesting alignment of thinking about Appalachia and the Maritime. I can see it, is basically what she said. I do know there was one conference presentation at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference when it was in Pennsylvania one year. It considered similarities between Newfoundland literature and Appalachian literature. It wasn't exactly making a claim for Newfoundland as part of the region, but talking about commonalities in these fictional characters. So it's not completely unprecedented to think about that connection, but it could be potentially quite fresh to argue that we want to think about it as part of the region. 

JK:  I know every nonfiction writer has a unique answer to this question: how did you navigate the sharing of personal details, not only for yourself but for your family? 

MF:  I tend to be for the most part blithely unaware that I should worry about it, which is not always the healthiest perspective. My take on it primarily is that when you're writing about personal experience, you're writing about your personal experience, and therefore have the right to do it even if other people are involved. But at the same time, and I teach this to my students, I try to be as sensitive as I can, anytime I would include another person, of what that might mean to them. And am I putting a personal relationship at risk in some way? Because there are sometimes high stakes for including other people in your work. I try to come on the side of preserving personal relationships over some precious claim to artistic freedom. Because the people we spend our time with matter. 

I don't think anyone really comes across poorly in this book. But even for my wife, the reading of this book can be troubling, in that things are said on the page when you're a writer that aren't said out loud. And that can feel--not exactly isolating, but unsettling? That you haven't heard some of these ideas directly from the person but you're reading about it in print, whether in draft or final published form. I think that's the risk a memoirist is always going to take. I think we live and think on the page because those ideas come out when we're writing. We're not necessarily transcribing something we already thought of. The act of writing is the act of making the meaning. 

Mark Doty's essay "Return to Sender" is a great essay about the personal fallout of his memoir, Firebird. He wound up wrecking, at least at that moment, his relationship with his father through the publication of the memoir. And that's more deeply sad because in the memoir he writes toward a reconciliation with his father, and then the memoir damages that. He writes in the essay, it's never the thing you think the person's going to be upset about that they're upset about. He says, to represent is to maim. Sometimes the thing that makes them angry is that you described the color of their shirt as yellow instead of green, or whatever, and they're not upset when you talk about them robbing the bank. 

JK:  Who do you think is the audience for this book? 

MF:  I think the two primary audiences are Appalachian readers, or people interested in what this region means; and the other would be anybody who has faced a significant, life-changing medical event. At the end of the day, I think we are the markets for the book that we write, and we just hope that someone else finds a connection to it. It's the surprising readers who connect with it that are maybe most gratifying, who see in it some aspect of recovery or erosion that they hadn't intended.

The reader we're writing for is that completely undefinable literary reader. From a marketing aspect we think of stuff like Appalachia, or we think about the medical recovery. But it could be a person who is driving across the country in a van and facing a secondary transformation of their life, or whatever, is actually the ideal reader. Because the meaning of the traumas and recoveries are not literal. You don't learn how to recover from a brain tumor in this book. You see in it your own kind of erosions.  

You have commented, "I wonder if marginalia is the first blush of the book we imagine within ourselves, drawing out of the seed-bed of the words we've just read." What books served as seed-beds for this one? 

MF:  There are two most obvious to me. Scott Russell Sanders's Staying Put, in which he writes about the whole notion that we need to be grounded to a place, but it doesn't necessarily have to be the place where we were born. Essentially you can be transplanted and regrow, but a hard linkage to a location is fundamental. That book and he as a writer are definitely alive in the aesthetic I have built as a writer. 

The other is Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. First of all, to spin language in inventive ways is just a joy. But to link observation to mystic-universe kinds of research and reflection is a model for what I'm doing and that's the book that helped me suddenly realize what I was as a human being, which was a writer. Those would be the two fundamental ur-texts that are the seed-bed that I draw out of. 

JK:  Both of those are important to me as well.

MF:  Maybe that's the way to answer the earlier question: the ideal reader is other people who like those two books. 

JK:  What are you working on next? 

MF:  I'm working on a couple of things. I'm running for the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives in the 2020 election. This is a caricatured Trump area, voted about 70% for him, and has kind of always been that way. We've had a state representative who is exactly what you would think. And that's also what everybody thinks about Appalachia. And I'm tired of that, as someone who grew up in the region. And so I'm trying to write a different story there. 

I might also be working on a book about it, a memoir of the attempt to be elected as a progressive writer here, in an area that maybe wouldn't be thought to be predisposed to that. Then there's this idea of an ecofabulist novel, set in Appalachia, that is oriented in the personal and ecological implications of light pollution. It's a future, or alternate now, where we've illuminated most spaces twenty-four hours a day. It's always light, except in this area where it is a sanctuary, a darkness sanctuary. What I've been thinking about as a writer and artist is finding a way to move to an aesthetic of non-simplistic beauty and joy. Which is hard in the social political context that we're writing in these days, but seems really necessary to me. I published my first short story this year. I describe it as a deer hunting #metoo story. (Not for the deer.) The protagonist is a sixteen-year-old girl who is out deer hunting and has an encounter with a neighbor. And there's something that feels like the beginning of this novel in that. 

The other project is another memoir, but it would be a literary-biography-slash-memoir, the biography of the French classical saxophonist Marcel Mule. He's a really important figure in classical saxophoning; he has done the most of anyone to make a claim for that instrument as mattering in the classical repertoire. Yet at the same time, when he became popular in France as a performer, he was rising by playing on Nazi-controlled radio in occupied France. There's a biography with a Q-and-A with him, and they ask him about this. He says it was an act of patriotism, that the French people could then hear French music on the radio. But it seems timely: what does it mean to be an artist in dark times? Can you be an artist that's not an activist? There's some stuff there that I think would be interesting to trace. And then of course the memoir would be writing about my relationship with the saxophone when I was growing up through high school and college, and then I would be seeking to get my chops back as a player and perhaps do a Marcel-Mule-infused concert. 

That's the other project. You see, they're all very closely related. 

Julia Kastner
 is a book reviewer, bartender, dog lover, beer drinker, mountain biker, and native Texan. Her creative nonfiction has been published at Slag Glass City, Word Riot, and You Are Here Stories, and she holds an MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She currently lives as a nomad out of a van named Foxy. 

Read Julia Kastner's Review of Appalachia North: A Memoir

City Books' Shelf Life, Episode 17 with Matthew Ferrence
PCTV21, Pittsburgh Community Television, January, 2019


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