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).
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?
JK: Was he pleased with the surprise that he got in this book?
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?
JK: Where did you write this book, and does that make a difference?
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?
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?
JK: Who do you think is the audience for this book?
JK: 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?
JK: Both of those are important to me as well.
JK: What are you working on next?
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.
Read Julia Kastner's Review of Appalachia North: A Memoir
City Books' Shelf Life, Episode 17 with Matthew FerrencePCTV21, Pittsburgh Community Television, January, 2019