Ann Pancake is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, and essayist hailing from West Virginia. Her short works have appeared in The Georgia Review, Poets & Writers, Narrative, and New Stories from the South. Strange as this Weather Has Been, her novel published by Counterpoint Press, won the 2007 Weatherford Award. Counterpoint Press published her new short story collection, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, in 2016. She currently teaches at Pacific Lutheran University.
As an activist, Ann has made waves with her political fiction. Strange as this Weather Has Been, set in a West Virginia town, tackles the topic of mountaintop removal mining. The story is based on real events and interviews and discusses the devastation caused by the industry from the viewpoint of a family who lives there.
Writer L. N. Holmes had the recent privilege of interviewing Ann.
Hi, Ann. Let’s talk politics first. Can you tell us a little bit about why the topic of mountaintop removal mining is so important to you? How did working on the film, Black Diamonds, with your sister Catherine, influence your writing?
It’s important to me because I love the land and culture of West Virginia. My family’s been there for about seven generations. So to see the devastation of the land in that way has always been very traumatic to me. I started seeing that when I was really little before I went to school—not mountaintop removal mining, but contour strip-mining when I lived in Nicholas County. So I was sensitized to it pretty early.
When I was older, in my thirties, I started hearing about mountaintop removal, which is an even more destructive form of strip-mining than contour mining. I felt very compelled to try and fight against it.
So I told Catherine about it and she suggested we go down to southern West Virginia and do some interviewing of people who were affected by it. When we did that, I didn’t really plan to write a novel, but helping Catherine do interviews and listening to people talk about their lives, and the kind of suffering they’re undergoing with the mining, led me to start hearing the voices that make up my novel.
A recent Duke University study found that nearly 40 percent of Central Appalachia has changed in elevation due to mountaintop removal. Has anything improved for the people affected by this since your novel was published?
I don’t think it’s improved that much. There’s been somewhat of a decrease in mountaintop removal mining recently, but a lot of it has to do with the fall in the coal market. That’s partly because of the rise of hydrofracking and natural gas. So there’s still a lot of ecological destruction going on in West Virginia in the form of mountaintop removal or hydrofracking.
Some lawsuits have succeeded in making companies follow regulations, and I know that some towns have been given better drinking water. To be honest, in general, I don’t think those people’s lives are much better than they were ten years ago.
In Strange as this Weather Has Been, Bant describes the woods on the mountain as “animal live.” You wrote in an interview with storySouth that being in the woods makes you happy. Why is nature so important to you and your characters?
Well, I think that nature is what’s real. We’re completely constructed from nature and completely dependent on nature—although I think we spend a lot of time thinking that we’re not because our culture is so focused on technology. All of life comes out of nature. Also, all spirituality comes out of nature. I think that’s why it is so important to my characters and me.
Explain your techniques for balancing the real and the fictional—the politics and the story.
For Strange as this Weather Has Been, I did a whole lot of on-the-ground research and a lot of that had to do with just talking to people. I also drew on recordings Catherine and I made with people dealing with mining. On top of that, because I needed a more scientific understanding of mountaintop removal, I read newspaper articles and journal articles. However, when I was actually writing, I kept all that research in the back of my mind, not in the forefront.
What I would try to do then, with the information that I had, after being sort of immersed in people’s stories and in the information: I would just go in and write the way that I always write, which is intuitively and out of listening in my head for people telling stories, listening to characters’ voices or narrators’ voices. So I would always prioritize writing intuitively and being true to the story, honoring the story as opposed to the information. Usually, if I worked out of my unconscious that way, it’s like the information and the real stories were already composted down in my unconscious and so they would come out into the story and in their own form.
I could go back after I drafted and double-check to make sure that I had my facts right. Sometimes I’d have to figure out ways to weave in information that didn’t come out intuitively—later on I’d kind of have to integrate that. For the most part, I’d always try to privilege the story over the information and the story over the research.
You chose to follow one family throughout your novel and wrote about the impact of the mining on their everyday lives. As a reader, following Corey through the creek near the back of his house was haunting and heartbreaking. Why did you choose a more intimate viewpoint than, say, following select members of the entire town?
One of the things that fiction does that nonfiction can’t do is give a really close intimate look at the emotional interiors of people. I think I was more committed to depth over breadth as I developed my characters.
Through journalism and nonfiction, there already exists a lot of material that offers a broad look at how people are affected by mountaintop removal. I wanted my readers to get to know a few people really, really closely as opposed to a lot of people in a more shallow way, so that my readers had a greater emotional reaction to what the people were going through. Also, writing about one family let me show the kids’ points of view, and I thought this was very important, in part because readers can often easily identify with children and also because children don’t have explicit political positions.
You switch between the first- and third-person perspectives seamlessly. What gave you the idea to focus so closely on Lace and Bant and distance us a bit from the other characters?
I think that I could use first person with Lace and Bant more easily than with Dane and Corey because using first person has certain limitations. With first person, you are pretty constrained by what your character is thinking, constrained to a certain extent by the character’s vocabulary and knowledge and capacity for perspective. If you’re writing a character who is not very self-aware, first person doesn’t give you a lot of range.
But Lace and Bant, they are very self-aware characters and they’re a little more mature than the boys, so they have a broader perspective on things. I could do a lot with their first-person point of view because of the kind of people they are.
When working with characters like Dane and Corey, who are younger and less self-aware, third person permitted me to use a wider lens. It permitted me to step beyond their eyes and minds. Corey in particular sees in a pretty myopic way, so if I’d written him in first person, the chapters would have been really narrow.
What advice would you give to writers tackling political issues in their fiction?
Choose a political issue that you feel very passionate about because that’ll come across in what you’re writing.
The second suggestion is, as you actually construct the story or construct the poem, prioritize the art over the politics. Don’t leave out the politics—I’m completely advocating for people to write literature about political issues—but when you’re in the midst of writing, if there is a decision to be made, prioritize the art of the piece over the politics of the piece.
I think if you get the art right, the politics will come along naturally after it. But if you try to make politics the most important part of the piece, then the piece may come off as preachy or didactic and is probably going to have a weaker political effect, ironically, than if you try to deliberately put the politics in there.
So the way that I tried to work it was, if I made the characters’ experiences vivid enough, if I made it clear enough to the reader what they were suffering, without even really mentioning the politics, the reader would come to her or his own political decision about what needed to be done about mountaintop removal. I always try to make the characters first and make the story first.
Regarding the difficulty of writing Strange as this Weather Has Been and Ann’s models for writing political fiction:
The most difficult part was trying to educate the reader about what mountaintop removal mining was in a way that was organic to the book. Lace, for example, worked as a device in that as a character, she starts naïve about mountaintop removal; then—through the course of the book—she becomes educated about it. So as she gets educated, the reader gets educated too, and I could teach the reader about the subject in a way that didn’t feel contrived or didactic.
Then I needed to get into some history and so that’s part of the purpose of that Avery chapter, because the Avery chapter was the way I could organically bring in the history of the region. So yeah, it was tricky.
A few years before I wrote my novel, I read political novels for my dissertation and a number of them failed because they were so didactic. So I had some idea of how to write a successful political novel and how to avoid writing a poor one. Grapes of Wrath was a great model for me, as was Tillie Olsen’s work Yonnondi. Harriet Arnow’s The Dollmaker and Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven helped as well.
LeeAnn Adams writes under the pen name L. N. Holmes. Her work has been featured in F(r)iction, Germ Magazine, Good Morning, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Salt Magazine, and other publications. Currently, she is learning from Mary Helen Stefaniak, Brent Spencer, David Mullins, and Susan Aizenberg while earning her MFA at Creighton University. Learn more.