Hurt and Beauty in W.Va.—Author Ann Pancake Tells All

Dec 1, 2015

Ann Pancake always wanted to write about far away lands. However, once she traveled there she realized the best stories she had were about her home in West Virginia. Her first novel Strange Has This Weather Has Been portrays a family living near a strip mine, and it’s one of the most popular Appalachian novels of the past decade. Her new collection of stories Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley also takes place in West Virginia.

A Paradoxical Sense of Place

Writer Ann Pancake now lives in Washington State, but her heart and mind are still in West Virginia. Growing up in Romney, Pancake wrote stories about fantasy trips she dreamed of taking outside of West Virginia. Today, however, her focus is much closer to home. Her new book Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley continues to focus on the same themes as her earlier work Given Ground and Strange as This Weather Has Been. She examines closely want it means to be from West Virginia, while juggling issues such as generational conflict, drug abuse, and environmental concerns. However, she didn’t always think she would write about West Virginia.

After Pancake graduated from West Virginia University, she left to teach English overseas and to search for material to write about.

“Then when I got there I was homesick for West Virginia and I was writing a lot of pieces about West Virginia and I realized that the pieces about West Virginia were real stories,” she said. “So being really far away from here gave me the perspective to see what we had back here.”

Pancake’s 2007 novel Strange As This Weather Has Been tells the story of family living near a mountain top removal site in southern West Virginia. One of the main characters, Lace, moves away from her family in southern West Virginia and attempts to adjust to life at college only to return and raise her own family there. For Lace leaving home is just as hard as staying.

Pancake sees this in a lot of West Virginians.

“You see it in the younger people who are feeling the pull to leave,” she said. “There’s a lot of hurt in West Virginia and there’s a lot of beauty in West Virginia. So to grow up holding both that beauty and loss and hurt develops a paradoxical relationship to identify and to land that a lot of us have.”

The Priority of the Character’s Experience

As Ann approached the controversial topic of mountaintop removal in Strange As This Weather Has Been, she looked to the failure of political novels of the 1930s to discover the best way to address the issue. While she wants the book to educate people and sees it as a call to action, she knew that couldn’t be the focus of the novel.

“If I wrote it with those as my priorities it would fail as a novel. It would fail as a piece of art,” she said. “What I did was to always put the priority on the character’s experience. I figured if I could show what is was like to be a person living under a mountain top removal mine, especially a child. That the politics would come through organically.”