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It’s summertime. We go swimming, we travel, we see our friends, and many of us also love to read.
Recently, NPR published a list of 50 books for 50 states to celebrate summer reading. The one they identified for West Virginia was “Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry From West Virginia” edited by Doug Van Gundy and Laura Long.
Twenty years ago, West Virginia poet laureate Irene McKinney edited an anthology of West Virginia fiction writers and poets called “Backcountry.” A few years ago, Van Gundy and Long — working with WVU Press — began a project to compile an anthology of West Virginia writing since Backcountry’s publication — that’s how “Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia” was born.
This anthology features a collection of 63 fiction writers and poets talking about the unique sense of place they find in the Mountain State.
News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Van Gundy and Long about the process for creating the book. But before we get into that conversation, we asked to hear from you.
What are your favorite West Virginia books that you would recommend? The type of book that makes you think of the Mountain State.
We asked you on Facebook, and here’s what you told us:
Over a two-and-half-day period, we received 34 responses, ages 30 to 84. Most of you were from West Virginia: 85.71 percent from the Mountain State, and 14.29 percent of you from out-of-state.
Most of you recommended “Rocket Boys” by Homer Hickam, while “The West Virginia Encyclopedia” took second place.
All together, we received 19 book recommendations. You described these books as reminding you of your childhood, “beautifully written,” “chock full of information” about West Virginia, “inspirational,” “more than stereotypes,” “complicated,” “authentic,” “empathetic,” “historical,” and as one of you proclaimed, “it’s a great story!”
Here’s a list of all your book recommendations, in no particular order:
- Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam
- West Virginia Hollow Tales by John E. Jordan Jr.
- When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant
- In the Country Dark by Mike Mallow
- Gauley Mountain by Louise McNeill
- Shrapnel by Marie Manilla
- Far Appalachia by Noah Adams
- The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
- The Dark and Bloody River by Allan W. Eckert
- The West Virginia Encyclopedia
- The Miner’s Daughter by Gretchen Moran Laskas
- Dismal Mountain by John W. Billheimer
- So Much to Be Angry About by Shaun Slifer
- Foote: A Mystery Novel by Tom Bredehoft
- Another Appalachia: Growing Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place by Neema Avashia
- Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina
- The Unquiet Earth by Denise Giardina
- At home in the heart of Appalachia by John O’Brien
- The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant
This interview with Van Gundy and Long has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Which one of you came up with this idea? Or was this one of those projects that started over a couple beers during a conference somewhere.
Van Gundy: Abby Freeland, who was then the Acquisitions Editor at WVU Press, approached me. She was visiting the West Virginia Wesleyan low residency MFA program. And she said, “What do you think of this anthology, “Backcountry,” which was edited by Irene McKinney about 20 years ago?” And I said, “Oh, it’s essential.” And she said, “What do you think about updating it?” I said, “Oh, that would be great. You guys should do that.” She said, “What do you think about you doing it?” And [I said], “Oh, okay. Sure.”
We thought that Laura would be a great collaborator on this. And as Laura writes poetry and fiction, I’m primarily a poet, we thought it’d be great to have a couple of perspectives. And Laura and I are old friends and have worked together off and on for a long time. And we thought we could probably get along well enough to pull together an anthology. And it ended up being just a joy.
But the bones of the thing came together at an Appalachian studies conference in Huntington, where we all ducked out to have dinner together. And we sort of hammered out what we wanted for the book. And Laura brought her ideas, and I brought my ideas, and Abby brought her ideas. And by the end of dinner, we sort of had a mandate and direction.
Douglas: How did you solicit the writers? How did you edit down the content – that sort of thing?
Van Gundy: We each came up with suggestions for the list. We wanted authors that had books out from national presses, generally. And then we each brought lists. And when we went around and asked some of the people who were on our lists if they would like to be included, we always asked them, “Who do you think should be in this book?” So that way we were able to find writers that I didn’t know of, that I’ve since become a fan of. But just through the web of connectivity of West Virginia writers, we just kept getting more and more suggestions as we went on.
Long: We also divided the work up so that I did the fiction and Doug did the poetry. When we wrote to people, we asked them to send work that they felt connected to a sense of place, of West Virginia. So the authors themselves chose work that gave them a strong sense of place. And I think that’s a real strength of the book, that self-selection by the writers, of the things that they felt were very much West Virginia-centered or had that feeling for them in whatever way. So they each sent us more than one work. And then we chose among the pieces that each writer sent to us, so the book would balance out well. And what we felt was the strongest.
Van Gundy: I remember going back and forth for quite a while on how to sequence this thing, because the work is so various and so broad, such a broad reach and such a chorus of voices and perspectives. We finally settled on alphabetical. It just seemed the most egalitarian.
Douglas: Any big discoveries? Anybody that you didn’t know about or anybody that surprised you?
Long: There were a number of poets that I didn’t know their work. So I was surprised by many of the poets. I was just rereading it this morning and remember being surprised again, actually, because the poet’s are just amazing. And not many of them are that well known because people don’t read poetry that much. I can’t name just one.
Douglas: You said in your introduction to the book, and you both alluded to it, that you were looking for stories with a connection to West Virginia, or that sense of place of West Virginia.
Van Gundy: I remember a conversation that Laura and I had, where we said we wanted the book to represent the state of the state of fiction and poetry in West Virginia. And we wanted to be sure that it was not monolithic. We wanted to be sure that it represented as many various voices that are present in our literature as possible. One of the things that I love so much about my West Virginia, is that there’s room for everyone. I think there is, at its core, a kind of inclusivity that if you’re willing to put something into the community, if you’re willing to belong, then you’re welcome. And I think that this book reflects that.
Douglas: Laura, do you want to add anything?
Long: Speaking of poets that I didn’t really know before, Norman Jordan, who was associated with the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and 70s, was a writer that I didn’t know, even though he wrote five books of poetry. And his poem is about the Hawks Nest tunnel. And so the writers that are not at all stereotypical are deeply embedded and entwined with a sense of place.
So, the place does connect people who, in other scenarios, might not seem connected. Rajia Hasib, who’s an amazing writer in Charleston, whose work connects with others in these surprising ways. That’s another person that I didn’t know before [who] I’ve gotten to know because of the book. And, with people like Rajia Hasib, who was so happy to be part of the book, you realize how connected people feel, even when she came to West Virginia from Egypt. And we realize how many people are happy to make a home in West Virginia, as well as people who are born and raised here. People feel connections because they’re born here, but they also feel connections because they make a life here with their family. So I feel that the book does connect people in ways that West Virginia itself connects people.
Van Gundy: As you’re saying that, Laura, it makes me think that whether or not we’re born here, we have family histories here. Every one of us, and every one of the voices in this book, is a West Virginian and by choice, you know, we choose again and again to stay where we choose. We choose to write about the place, and so we are all West Virginians by choice.
And that’s something that unites us.