By CRYSTAL WILKINSON
A native of Knott County, Kentucky, Chris Holbrook received the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian writing for Hell and Ohio: Stories of Southern Appalachia. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Holbrook is associate professor of English and heads the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Morehead State University.
Chris Holbrook and I sat down together on the balcony of Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington and spoke about the writing process, Appalachia and his new, highly anticipated collection of short stories, Upheaval.
Crystal Wilkinson: Let’s start with Upheaval and what people are saying about it. The University Press of Kentucky says, “At the intersection of the gritty Southern fiction of Cormac McCarthy and Larry Brown and the Appalachian literary tradition of James Still and Lee Smith, you will find Chris Holbrook.” And Ron Rash says, “I have long considered Chris Holbrook to be the most underrated writer in Appalachia. He is in the top tier of story writers in the United States.” And I agree. I among so many others have been eagerly anticipating this book. So congratulations, and how do you respond to these words of comparison and accolades?
Chris Holbrook: That’s a good intersection to be at: Cormac McCarthy and Larry Brown and Still and Smith. McCarthy and Brown have been writers that I have long admired. Still and Smith have actually been mentors to me. I don’t take my work to be nearly as serious as theirs, or in the same tier. McCarthy I have consciously tried to emulate in my work before and gotten no where close. He’s far, far different from what I do with language, the kind of ambitions he has with language that are distinctively his. Larry Brown is very straightforward with his narrative. I’ve been thinking more and more lately that he is somebody very close to the way I write—with the topic, with the subject, with the characters that he does and the narrative style that he has.
CW: What does it mean to you to be a part of this legacy of writers? You said Lee Smith and James Still were your mentors. Can you talk about that a bit more?
CH: I think all of us in Kentucky claim a bunch of people as our mentors. I don’t have any one person that I would say was my single mentor. James Still, I learned a lot from him; Lee Smith; Gurney Norman; James Baker Hall; Ed McClanahan. A whole list of people have been mentors to me through my writing life and my personal life.
The thing that I love about James Still’s writing is that I have learned so much from it in terms of craft. One of the great qualities that James Still has is restraint. We were talking about violence and my not treating violence overtly. If there is any violence in Still’s stories, it’s very restrained. It will be referred to but not presented in any way that sensationalizes it. And the language. I’ve taught James Still’s River of Earth in Appalachian literature classes. Those are opportunities for me to study his writing personally and look at the way in which he uses narrative language. He said to me one time that he never used language that wouldn’t be available to his characters. Now that is a paraphrase, but what he meant was that the narrative language that he uses would be narrative language that they themselves would speak. Then the language does more than just tell the story. It captures and enhances the character of the people. It enhances the character of the setting, the world itself.
CW: So it’s been 14 years—14 long years for those of us who were waiting, and, of course, 14 long years for you. Tell me about your process as a writer and how you as an artist go about writing a story.
CH: Clearly, I’m very slow with my writing. I’ll spend several months in a story. I’ve tried to speed the process up, but it doesn’t work. I just end up with bad writing. The work itself comes to me slowly, and the ideas for the stories come to me slowly. I don’t want to be repetitive, and I want to do a genuinely new story each time, but I’m sure I’ve repeated themes.
CW: It seems lots of writers repeat themes. Don’t you think that the pacing has something to do with where you are writing from, too? The characters that you embody and the sense of time—I don’t want to romanticize Appalachian life or anything—but don’t you think that just the nature of the stories you tell and the characters lend themselves to that kind of pacing?
CH: I think so, and I think the task I set for myself, that I accidentally fell into, is that I want to accurately reflect what is going on in the world of the people I am trying to represent. When I sit down to start a story, it is very difficult.… understanding what the theme is going to be, the direction that the story is going to head in. I have to write to the characters. I really have to understand the characters, and it is a process of discovery about the characters.
CW: How do you know when it’s time, when a story settles in you? Describe that feeling when you know you are on to something.
CH: It usually doesn’t come until I’ve gone through a tortuous process of writing and realizing that a lot of what I’ve written is not something that I’m going to keep. The process of writing itself is the process of me finding the story. I may get halfway through a story and know what the title is. Then I know what the story is about. The best feeling will be if I have an image that I am shooting for. Or a last comment from a character. I may not have it exactly figured out, but I have a direction. I know the characters are going to end up at such and such a place.
CW: Let’s talk about short stories—the genre. I’m an absolute fan of the short story. I think short stories transcend time, region, race and are even more capable than other literary art forms to get to the heart of the human condition. I know you value the short story, too. Can you speak to what a short story gives to readers and writers?
CH: The short story is much more compelling in a lot of ways than a longer piece of writing could be. There’s a tension you maintain from the beginning—you have to. Everything has to be much more condensed because you don’t have room to take a break, to relax. Every word has to earn its place. It may be the same thing poets go through. That is part of the way I write, too. It is almost impossible for me to skip around in a piece of writing. I have to get each line pretty much there before I can go on. And I actually revise as I’m writing. I will revise once I’ve gotten a draft and go back and fix some things, but an extensive revision never happens after I have something complete and its because I’m revising as I go.
The short story is going to capture a moment of intensity in a character’s life, and you are hoping to convey something significant about their lives through that very short span of time. My stories have been getting longer because I’ve been wanting to go beyond that moment. I’ve wanted to live with the same characters much longer.
CW: One thing that you are noted for and that I love is the pure authentic voice—your mastery of the region, the food, the language, the pacing, the way people walk, the way they fit into the world or don’t fit into the world. You do Appalachian men particularly well and the continuum of emotion—thorny, grittiness, their contradictions and such. I liken it to the way that visual artists get the shadows, the contrasts of light and dark just so in a painting. What enables you to capture the spirit of a region and its people?
CH: I think I dwell on the region as I’m writing. I dwell on the people and the setting itself and quite a bit comes out of my initial impulse to get the physical detail right. I’ve read a lot of stuff set within the region that is so bad and gets things so terribly wrong. I don’t want to ever be in that category. Good writers don’t want to write stereotypes so that also means that you define real characters. It’s just the basic tenants of get your detail right; get your language right; get your dialogue right.
CW: Both your new collection and Hell and Ohio give insight into some of the biggest social and environmental issues that affect Kentuckians, Appalachians—all of us, really, to some extent. How do you see writing as a tool for change?
CH: I think it is a tool for change, but I don’t think it ought to be primarily a tool for change. I believe you have to be faithful to the story or the poem or novel you are writing. You can’t have another agenda that comes before the art form or the craft itself. You can’t have a social agenda that comes before writing the story and being true to the characters. But if you are aware of social issues and how they affect people, you can write that and portray that to make a social commentary without betraying the story. Much of it to me is to show it actively—show the characters, the setting, the environment and not to betray them too romantically and not to betray them purposefully in a negative way.
CW: Some would say that your work is deeply political, but that the politics are the undertow of the characters themselves as people. Where does your interest in environmental and social activism come from?
CH: Having grown up in Eastern Kentucky, I think. Seeing strip mining but knowing people who worked in mines who are strip miners. I hate to see mountaintop removal. I hate to go onto a site that’s been stripped like that and see the attempt at reclamation. I just think it’s devastation, and I don’t think the plans for use of the land makes sense or will ever really work. So like a lot of people, I love the land. I love the mountains. I grew up in them and I grew up running around in the hills and playing out in the trees. That was my playground.
CW: Would you say that is much more personal. It sounds like you don’t need to necessarily have your banner up marching.
CH: It is entirely personal with me. And it’s a very complicated issue. I don’t think the issue of mountaintop removal is cut and dried. I do think it’s a terrible devastation on the land, but so is deep mining. Deep mining causes a lot of devastation that is maybe not seen as clearly as mountaintop removal, but what’s the alternative economically? What is the alternative for the people who live there? You can’t just go in and halt the industry cold.
I’m not out there marching, and I have mixed feelings as to whether I should be. Probably I should be, but there is something about that I draw back from. I was certainly very glad when the broad form deed was amended giving property owners more rights to keep their land from being strip-mined. I really want to see mountaintop removal come to an end. I don’t pretend or have any delusions that I understand Appalachia. It’s more complex than any one person really understands. I can present my vision of it and what I do understand about it. But it’s not a region that’s stayed static, which is a big stereotype about Appalachia.
CW: I’ve had friends who go in to march or to make a stand, and they are often surprised when it’s not the coal companies, but people who work for the coal companies or have families who do, who say, “Get out of the way. We need a job.”
CH: You just can’t take that away from people. It’s not that simple. You have to see both sides of the issue. I can feel that mountaintop removal is a very bad thing, but I can also appreciate the people who think that mountaintop removal is a good thing because I think their point of view is rational. I may not agree with what they are thinking or what they want, but I can see where it comes from.
CW: One of the things that writers are often looking for is some magic wand that will sustain them throughout their writing lives. This kind of magic is rare, but sometimes someone says something that sticks with us forever. What’s the best writerly advice you’ve ever been given and where did it come from?
CH: I think it’s more of an attitude than anything. Having observed extremely talented and extremely smart people who could have succeeded in other ways but have just devoted their lives to writing. The Kentucky writers I’ve mentioned are people I really, really respect, and their attitude is that writing is extremely important. Something to live for. That attitude is the one thing that has sustained me through a lot of years of failed writing—thinking I was going nowhere, wondering if I had made a horrible mistake by going down this path in the first place.
CW: No, of course not. Give us more, is what we are all saying. Writing is such an insular profession, a lonely profession. Imagine you are standing in the writing room of those fledgling or even successful fiction writers who haven’t quite gotten to that one-third mark with their work. They may be working on a project or even thinking about the next project. What would you tell them?
CH: Be patient. Learn to recognize what you instinctively know to be right. Keep at it. Try to live a long time (laughs). Understand that it’s not just one piece of writing that is going to be the most important in your life, but the whole body of what you do.
CW: What’s next on your literary horizon? What are you working on now?
CH: I’m trying to get a longer piece off the ground. I hope to get a story going that will develop into a longer piece. I’m trying to get a little distance between the new piece and the last few stories I wrote for Upheaval. I don’t want to repeat the themes. I’m writing details. I’m writing characters. I’m writing ideas down to try to get myself into something. One thing I’ve always wanted to work into a narrative is when Bill Clinton came to Hazard because I was there in the crowd. Not just Bill Clinton, but the crowd itself and how it was later portrayed on the news. That’s just something I’ve wanted to write about.