Memoir Looks at Appalachia Through a Photojournalist's Eyes

May 25, 2018

Nancy Abrams covers an event in Salt Lick in the 1970s for the Preston County News.
Credit Photo Courtesy of Nancy Abrams

Nancy Abrams is the author of a new memoir The climb from Salt Lick published by WVU press. The book is about her experience as a young photojournalist from the Midwest moving to Preston County to live and work. Abrams documents how she came to love West Virginia and the people who live here. Kara Lofton spoke with Abrams about the new book and what it means to write honestly about one's own life. 

LOFTON: You begin the book in the early 1970s when you came to West Virginia as an intern at a small-town newspaper in Preston County, at which point you fell in love with West Virginia and ended up returning after you graduated from college. What was the draw for you?

ABRAMS: Well, I saw the opportunity to do work that was meaningful and still have time to have a family - to combine work and a private life was really always my ultimate goal.

LOFTON: Throughout your book you infer and talk directly about being a feminist, and that a work-life balance was really important to you, and how you didn't want to work for a big newspaper in Miami. How did working for a small-town newspaper afford you that potential? Do you feel like you achieved that goal?

ABRAMS: Well yes, I do think I achieved that goal. But what's important is, I'm a control freak. And when you're put in a box as a photographer or a writer or an editor or the designer - especially in print - the package is really important. So to me, to come to Preston County and be able to take the pictures and write the story and lay out the finished product - to see it - was really important to me.

In most big newspapers you have to fit into a small compartment. At a weekly newspaper, you have to do every job and at the Preston County News it included inserting Murphy Mart flyers and folding them up and stamping addresses on them, then dragging the newspapers to the post office. That's not so glamorous. And that first summer, you know, I even pasted up ads. But that combination of skills to make that whole package - the words and pictures and the design - was really important to me and the Preston County News gave me the opportunity to do that.

LOFTON: Part of working for a small town newspaper is being deeply embedded in the community. Was it difficult for you to break into the community? Did being an outsider who was committed to the community made your work more difficult or easier?

ABRAMS: I think there's a process of becoming part of the community. For newcomers to West Virginia, I usually tell them that it will take two years for you to find your circle, to find your tribe. And you have to prove over and over again that you're here for the long haul - you're not here to take the riches and run, which is the history of this state.

I volunteered at the local high school teaching journalism. I took kayaking classes, and activities with people in the community. I do think my softball team had a whole lot to do with welcoming [me] to the community because when you're a part of a team, you put on a uniform. But it wouldn't have worked if I hadn't been honest, if I hadn't had good intentions.

Be nice, be kind, be generous, be honest. And those are those are instructions for anywhere you're going to live.

LOFTON: Throughout the book you are rather honest and open about a number of things including various sexual exploits and use of pot. As a young woman, why did you decide to include those elements in your book.

ABRAMS: I'm crazy. It's part of my commitment to honesty. One of my fears with this book was that people would read it and not be my friend anymore. You know, I have different circles of friends and I thought some of them would be shocked.

But it didn't make sense without that. It is putting myself out there and it's embarrassing and I've had a couple of instances where people have stood up in a room when I walked in and said ‘I can't believe you wrote about your husband's penis!’ And I'm blushing right now to even talk about that. But a good friend of mine said ‘Don't leave out the naughty bits.’ And I think that's good advice. Again, Honesty. Honesty. Honesty. Honesty. It's really important, especially in this these times.