Book People Talk to Book People: Savannah Sipple Interviews Silas House

photo by Tasha Thomas

I first met Silas House almost twenty years ago when I was a shy undergraduate creative writing student at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky. House was one of the first writers whose work captured an Appalachia I had experienced. I was so nervous to meet him, I barely said more than a few sentences. House has authored plays, creative nonfiction, and several novels—his most recent being Southernmost. He serves on the fiction faculty at the Spalding School of Creative Writing and as the NEH Chair at Berea College. His first three novels, Clay’s Quilt, A Parchment of Leaves, and The Coal Tattoo, are being re-released this summer, and since those are the novels that helped me believe a writer from the hollers of eastern Kentucky deserved to tell their story, I asked House if we could have a chat about his writing process, his activism, and the representation of the rural working class.

Sipple: Your novel Southernmost has been out for almost two years now, and Blair Publishing is re-releasing your first three novels (Clay’s Quilt, A Parchment of Leaves, and The Coal Tattoo). Can you take a few minutes to reflect on your evolution as a writer from those first three to Southernmost? How has your writing or writing process grown or changed?

House: The biggest thing is that my worldview has broadened so much since those first books were published. I had barely been out of Kentucky when Clay’s Quilt premiered. My family just did not travel. We were solidly working class and my family didn’t want to get too far away from home. When we went on vacation, it had to still be where they could all see mountains or hills, so we either went to the lake or to the Smokies. That’s about it. So on that first book tour I was country come to town. Since then my books have unexpectedly taken me all over the world. So, on one hand I think it’s sharpened my ideas about where I’m from but it has also allowed me to see that I can write about other places, too. Southernmost is mostly set in Key West, for instance, and I would have never gone there had I not been invited to the Key West Literary Seminar years ago. But no matter where my characters go, they have a rural, working class sensibility, so that certainly hasn’t changed. I’m really excited that my first three are being reissued. They’re doing a beautiful job on them, with new covers and supplemental material. The thing I’m most excited about is that there will be a family tree for my characters in the front of all three books. That may sound like a small thing but it’s something I dreamt of having when I was growing up as a voracious reader and saw those in the fronts of books. 

Sipple: It’s interesting you mention your characters having a rural, working class sensibility because that’s one thing that drew me into Southernmost. I was drawn to Asher because he was the kind of preacher I grew up around, and I really loved watching his perspective shift and change.  As a rural queer, I longed to see that shift in some of the folks who were part of my upbringing. But even with characters who were more challenging, like Lydia, I had a connection to her because I felt like I knew her or women like her. But I’m from a rural, working class family, so of course there was some familiarity. You have quite a wide readership, some of whom likely have no understanding of rural life. Do you think about that? What challenges do you face as you write characters that are rural and working class?

House: I think most readers come to a book hungry to learn about a particular culture or place. I think if someone is a real reader, they are more curious and open-minded. I wish the same was true of the literary world, though. I’ve found that the powers-that-be–whoever they are–who seem to choose who is considered part of the American literary elite hardly ever include writers who are of the working class and/or write about the working class in a complex way. Instead those writers get regulated to being called “regional writers.” To some degree it’s always been that way.  One review of My Antonia went something like “Who cares about people in Nebraska, anyway?” but Willa Cather eventually got the recognition she deserved. Still, I believe she had to fight harder for it than the writers born and raised in Manhattan or educated at Yale did. And of course we could talk about this same thing about writers of color or LGBTQ writers but I’m simply sticking with our topic of class here. With all of that said I’m often surprised by some of the questions that people ask me about class when I’m out on the road. They’re not malicious questions–I’m just always surprised by how differently we see the world if we are raised with money versus if we are raised without it. Sometimes people say things that are just downright insulting although they mostly don’t mean them to be. Once a man told me he was very surprised by “how intelligent” my characters are since “they are rural working class people”. He said it in a way that suggested I was inaccurate and while none of these characters are based on real people all of my characters are always hugely informed by the culture where the book is set; even if they’re not real, I know these people, you know? So that idea that people are not as intelligent because they work blue collar jobs frustrates me to no end. There are different kinds of intelligence.

Sipple: The ways we equate class with intelligence has always bothered me. Comments like the one you mentioned highlight the ways people tend to think they know about the working class when they really don’t. I know you’re an author and activist who has worked hard to speak out against the stereotypes placed on rural folks. In the documentary Hillbilly you said you were “told your whole life that everybody’s against us,” and you’ve worked tirelessly for the region, but that kind of advocacy can come at a price. What’s the most challenging aspect of advocating for Appalachia, or of advocacy in general?

House: I think it’s such a double-edged sword because when you are an Appalachian who gets any kind of public voice you automatically have this responsibility on your shoulders. Because so few rural, working class people get to have a public voice. People are constantly asking you to speak out on this issue or that.  But then when you do speak out, people will also say “We don’t need you to defend us” or “Shut up and write.” It’s all these mixed messages about how you can best serve your people and your place in the world. Ultimately you just have to go with your gut and choose your battles. The issues I’ve been most outspoken about have been LGBT issues and the environment and speaking on both of these have made me suspect in my hometown. It really bothered me when the library back home didn’t invite me to give a reading when my last novel came out. That novel dealt a lot with gay issues. After I began to speak out about the environment my books were removed from my high school library. There’s a sign in Lily that says “Hometown of Silas House, Writer” and occasionally someone spray-paints FAG over it. On one hand I’m honored that my little town would be proud enough of me to put up that sign but I’m also very aware that someone there hates me because I’m gay and haven’t been quiet about that. Those are just a couple of examples, but I have many more.  So there is definitely a price to pay. But I feel like it’s a patriotic duty to speak out against things I know to be wrong, like mindlessly destroying our waterways or taking away people’s rights because of who they love. I never think to myself “I’m going to speak out on this because I’m a novelist and my opinion matters more than anyone else’s.” I only ever think “I’m going to speak out on this because I’m a person with an opinion.” However, I do sometimes find myself in situations where I’m forced to speak out on something because I’m a writer from the region or a writer from a working class background. Hillbilly Elegy, for instance. I don’t want to talk about that book, ever, but at the same time I’m honored anyone would want my opinion. 

Sipple: I tend to think writing itself is a form of activism, particularly for anyone who is othered because it’s a way of taking up space and saying, “I exist, and I deserve to tell my truth.” When I think of your books, so many of your characters as activists in some way or another. Do you view writing as a form of activism, and is that something you purposefully write into your characters? Or is it something that happens more organically?

House: I think you’re exactly right because the people that we’re writing about–rural, working class, queer, whichever–are so often erased and negated. If you look at the vast majority of literature that has been deemed part of the contemporary canon those people are usually left out. So yes, just to give those characters a voice is activism. I am someone who identifies strongly as rural, gay, working-class, a father, and a believer. People do not expect those things to go together so I think that by going out there and talking about those things together and showing that people are more multifaceted than the stereotypes, we’re changing things. One thing that really burns me up is when I see these writers who are so vocal about being rural who try to prove that by going to readings looking like they just rolled out of bed. Wearing ratty tee-shirts and dirty jeans and work boots. Now there is nothing wrong with any of those things in everyday life. But when I see that I can’t help but be a little suspicious of them and feel that they’re trying too hard. My experience as a working-class person who was not raised with money is that when I go in front of an audience, I am representing my people and so I want to look as if I care about the audience. I want to have dressed as if I respect them enough to put on my best clothes and to have taken the time to comb my hair. When I’m away from the region I always dress up even more. I think it is kowtowing or fitting into a persona to go to a reading looking like you just came out of the fields or the woods. Those writers tend to think they’re being edgy, but I find it kind of laughable. No working class person I ever knew went to an event in the same clothes they’d wear to work in the garden or go hunting. So I think even that–the way I dress when I go do a public event–is a kind of activism because I’m showing that my place isn’t costumed in one way. And I often see those writers who want to prove how “country” they are as costumed. I may have gotten a bit off topic, but I think it’s all part of one whole. Representation matters. But in my books characters are always being socially active in one way or another, whether it’s subtle like Vine and Serena taking food to striking miners in The Coal Tattoo or more blatantly social justice like the women laying down in front of bulldozers to protect the land in the same book. In Southernmost my main character defies his homophobic congregation and loses his job and even his child because of it. That’s a pretty blatant act of social justice, but there are also little acts of kindness throughout the book (like his son wanting to feed a homeless man) that are just as important to my way of thinking. One thing I really want to shine a light on is that real change is most often fostered by the people you never hear about, not celebrities or politicians who get remembered for it. In Same Sun Here a group of rural children really make a difference in the way the whole nation thinks about mountaintop removal, for example. I think too often we think of social justice as something that one only does occasionally–like the Women’s March or the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, both momentous events–but it’s something that we must do every day to really fight back properly. 

Sipple: Representation does matter, and that’s a huge reason why I don’t want to correct my accent. It’s been a struggle because I’ve been made fun of and told by people at all levels that I’ll never truly be successful unless I change the way I speak. I know that’s something you’ve dealt with a lot, too, and it’s frustrating the way folks almost expect us to perform for them. It’s also disappointing when it feels like fellow artists are giving in to that pressure to perform. When I think about representation and Southernmost, I have to ask, have you received a lot of criticism for the transformation Asher undergoes? We’ve seen various branches of the church reconsider their treatment of the LGBTQ community and their stance on homosexuality, but I don’t know if it’s something that’s happening as much in Appalachia. How important was it that Asher be a rural preacher who makes that decision?

House: I’ve had people say to me that I shouldn’t have allowed the person of privilege (straight, white, Christian, male) to be the main character of the book and I think that’s a narrow-minded criticism. As a novelist I believe that my main character should be the character who is in the most trouble. In Southernmost it was important that the main character also be the one who evolves or changes the most because that’s the whole theme of the book; we all have the ability to change if we will just listen and open ourselves up to the possibilities. Most people I know are more like Asher than they want to admit: they are changing on LGBTQ issues but they’re not all the way there, they’re still struggling against what they’ve been taught their entire lives. At least Asher can admit that he needs to do self-examination. The gay character, Luke, is content. So he’d be a pretty boring main character. To not tell this novel from Asher’s point of view wouldn’t be this novel. I don’t like this whole idea of something not being gay enough. That’s awfully close to the mentality of something being “too gay”. There are many different kinds of gay stories. I also wanted to write a book that would challenge people. I wanted readers of all kinds–not just LGBT readers–and the biggest reward for me has been the many people who have written to me or come to my readings to tell me that the book changed them, that it allowed them to come out or that it showed them how backwards they had been in their thinking on the issue. Yet because it’s not from the gay character’s point of view people sometimes accuse me of not being gay enough as a writer. That really miffs me and I think it reveals a real privilege on the part of those critics because they think their stories or their ways of being gay in the world are the only ones that matter. Someone said to me “I didn’t like that the gay character becomes a priest.” That statement negates so many LGBT people of faith in the world. It troubles me deeply that we have this idea that a gay person or an LGBT book can only be one way. It goes right back to that notion that all country people must be the same or that all people of one race are just alike. I think that’s a very dangerous way of thinking. These absolutes that we think in, these generalizations, have done so much damage to us as thinking people. 

Sipple: There’s a definite pressure to be enough: gay enough, Appalachian enough, universal enough. But we all hold multiple identities and each one informs our writing in different ways. What piece of advice do you have for the writer who’s trying to find a balance, who’s trying to make space for all of the components of themselves?

House: I think the most freeing thing I ever learned as a writer is that there is just no way I can please everyone, so I might as well not try. Not everyone is going to love your work; nor will everyone hate it. You just have to do your best to write the essential truth that is burning in you. You have to do the best you can to represent the place and the people and the emotions you know the best. And most of all you just have to hope that your writing will reach one person who needs it. People write to me all the time and ask me to read their work. “I just know it will sell a lot of copies if I can get it out there.” That kind of thinking is death to an artist. Life for the artist, on the other hand, is the satisfaction of knowing you’ve told your particular truth that no one else can ever possess or articulate as clearly as you can.

The Coal Tattoo
ISBN: 9781949467260
Clay’s Quilt
ISBN: 9781949467246
A Parchment of Leaves
ISBN: 9781949467253

Blair will release three Silas House novels as beautiful new paperback editions this July. The Coal Tattoo, Clay’s Quilt, and A Parchment of Leaves, which share a common setting and some characters, are companion novels. They may be read individually, in any order, but collectively, they form a rich tableau of life in rural mountain Kentucky in the last century. Preorder now.

Silas House is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels, one book of creative nonfiction, and three plays. His writing has appeared frequently in the New York Times and has been published in Time, Newsday, Garden and Gun, Oxford American, and many other places. House is the winner of an E.B. White Award, the Nautilus Award, the Intellectual Freedom Prize from the National Council of Teachers of English, the Storylines Prize from the New York Public Library/NAV Foundation, and many other honors, as well as being longlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. He teaches at Berea College and in the Spalding University School of Writing.

Savannah Sipple is a writer from east Kentucky, her writing has recently been published in Southern Cultures, Split This Rock, Salon, Appalachian Heritage, Waxwing, and other places. She is also the recipient of grants from the Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Savannah is the author of WWJD and Other Poems.