My interview with Matthew Ferrence, author of APPALACHIA NORTH: A MEMOIR

For a blog focused on the idea of place in all the stories we tell, I can’t think of a better person to talk to today. I met author and professor, Matthew Ferrence, at a writers conference in the spring, where I picked up his memoir, Appalachia North — the first book-length treatment of the cultural position of Northern Appalachia.

Matthew and I are from similar places. But more than a book of essays exploring geology and place, Appalachia North is a very personal memoir that allows the reader to journey alongside the writer as he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. From the book jacket:

Appalachia North is an investigation of how the labels of Appalachia have been drawn and written, and also a reckoning with how a body always in recovery can, like a region viewed always as a site of extraction, find new territories of growth.

***

Matthew, how did you come to write this book?

I wrote through a somewhat circuitous path for Appalachia North. The project began with a rejection, for a collection of essays I’d been working on for some time. But that opened up a conversation with Andrew Berzanskis, who was then editor-at-large for WVU Press (he’s now a senior acquisitions editor at the University of Washington Press), and a contract to write a book about northern Appalachia. While we both knew this was to take the form of a memoir, what we didn’t know is that I was going to be banging on the keys and finding some dreadful resistance. I’d recently finished treatments for my brain tumor, and I wrote an essay called “The Foxes of Prince Edward Island,” which was all about that. And I knew that I really wanted to write about recovery and brains and foxes.

So, one day I just decided that I’d do both, and see what happened if I tried to simultaneously write the book I had a contract for, and the book that was gnawing at me, somehow as one book. With that, the writing started to open up, and I began to see the connections between geography and self, between recovered bodies and recovered regions, of how erosion could function as a reframing metaphor of beauty and hope. Then, draft done, I had to tell Andrew. Who, much to his credit, looked at this new book he hadn’t bargained for, saw what it could be, pushed me to revise toward directions I’d neglected, and Appalachia North came into form.

I love the idea of mapping — both of your native geography and (the native geography) of your body. Could you describe the process by which you came to “see” the terrain of your journey enough to write it?

Mapping as a literal act came with the earliest versions of the book, that I would seek out the corners of the official parts of Appalachia north of the Mason Dixon line, to sort of survey and consider the delineations. As I did that, I was surprised by the recurring mutability of the lines that seem so permanent on an actual map. Most of all, I was struck by how the three counties of northeastern Ohio included in the official Appalachian Regional Commission map were late entries, “becoming” Appalachia forty-some years after the ARC put out its first map. So I became preoccupied with thinking about ways that map lines just don’t work. That connected with my figurative sense of self as an Appalachian exiled by birth, simply by the fate of being from Pennsylvania instead of the parts that usually count as Appalachia. This has bugged me for a long time.

For the body, I experienced the way clinical treatment exiles a person from a sense of self, because your body becomes defined by blood test numbers, and MRI scans, and radiation beam coordinates. Your sense of self becomes a cartography of medical rationality, and that makes you feel, well, not yourself really. You get lost the more you’re mapped. Somewhere in that irony, you start to get a sense that you’re tired of letting other people draw the maps.

Get Matthew’s memoir here!

In your essay, “Conduits,” you discuss those who make geographical maps — generally, those people in power. By writing about place, you do feel you’re map-making? Do you see this as a way to wrest some control over your native place?

For sure. Like, just the other day, a colleague was saying they didn’t really agree with my “claims” that Pennsylvania is part of Appalachia, because they spent a lot of time in “real” Appalachia in the North Carolina mountains. I was sort of stunned, frankly, because even the official maps back me up on this one! But at the same time, this is the tyranny of cartography: that people can draw lines for whatever reason they want. Money. Politics. Taxes. On and on. And there was some weird power exercised here in this very moment, about who gets to actually lay claim to the definition of a region…and in this case, as is often the case, the person making the definitive claim was not from the region and “correcting” someone from the region. We don’t even get to draw maps of our own places.

Yet the terrain — I love that word! — just doesn’t care. Trees grow. Dirt erodes. Mountains emerge. When you’re walking in the woods on many borders so clear on a map, you really can’t tell where the line is, since terrain is fluid. Really, there is no line. So in looking around at places on the ground where the lines are supposed to be, I started thinking a lot about all the lines that people try to place on our lives: healthy and not, for one, or legit Appalachian or not. Maybe because I’m on the “wrong” side of both of those lines, I became determined to refuse the lines altogether.

You challenge the conventions of regional dialect in one of your essays. As in, we’re supposed to say “Appalachia” a certain way — to prove we’re an insider in the region. Why this struggle for Appalachian authenticity, do you think? Why does it remain a region so intent on staying true to its roots? What does it mean for you?

I get the hard and fast claims for rightness in saying App-uh-latch-a, because lots of people have been made to feel small and unimportant for being themselves. Authenticity — including accent — becomes a way to fight for your own sense of worth. So on one hand I totally root for that, and I kind of relish the way Appalachians can smack down the folks who don’t know anything about the region. But at the same time, well, I don’t want to be kicked out of where I’m from. That’s the trouble of the northern part, for sure. We can feel sort of absent. Another one of my pet peeves: all sorts of people (again, who are not from here) keep telling me this is the Midwest. And I’m always thinking, fuck off on your Midwest. They’ll make some claim about jello salads or politeness, but it all comes with this sense of diminishment. Because they usually mean this in the context of explaining either how they’re from more sophisticated spaces not the Midwest, or as a way to deepen their disdain for northern Appalachia by refusing to even acknowledge it as being a place with its own claim to regionality.

I want to be clear, I don’t mean this to disparage the Midwest, but very much to defend how places like it, and like Appalachia, have to stick up for themselves as legitimate locales, as distinctive and meaningful, because everyone basically says over and over, fly-over country. So, on pronunciations, I love the variance of Appalachia, which has a whole spectrum of pronunciations, which is another way of saying it’s a place of vibrancy and nuance. I’m not going to give away my corner of that, so I’ve become comfortable using both the soft and hard vowels, but will still totally make fun of someone from outside the region who pronounces it wrong. The nice thing is, I can make fun of them no matter what they say. Cruel, I suppose.

In your memoir’s preface, you say, “So many writers…seek to make a declaration: this is what a place is.” You, like a good essayist, seem to be happier delving into the ambiguities of place. You also seek to reclaim your native place for the next generation — your own kids among them. How do you do this without defining that place?

Yes! This is what we love, I think, ambiguity and gray edges and journeys. I say this a bit cheekily: essayists love to squirm away from anything declarative, relish the provisional, even as we love to make big claims…which we then overturn and twist and turn inside out. On the matter of place, the big thing to me is that it matters, but when a place seems to carry rigid definitions — Trump Country, Red States, Fly-Over, all that — such restrictions wind up wrecking a place. That’s when we become totemic monoliths or, really, tools. So, for me and for my kids, I long for a vibrant connection to terrain and geography, with a sense that what a place means can also evolve and contradict and carry the fluidity the essayist loves. I want my kids to love a place, but I want them to be able to live in it with a sense of reciprocal love. I’m frustrated and angry, these days, by how places redouble their restrictive sense of who counts, who looks or loves or behaves the “right” way. That’s the wreckage of definition, as it crushes back to stereotype and turfiness and xenophobia and trope. Ambiguity, I think, invites inclusion and expansiveness. Because we can’t say this instead of that.

The language of geography and of the body — especially around medicine — can get really technical; yet, you do a lovely job of softening both of these languages. Instead of unapproachable moments of medical jargon, you note the moments of “mercy” between you and our doctors. You call it: “The precise language of medicine facing off against my growing recognition of life.” Yet, as a writer, language is your tool. Did it ever feel useless? Did you ever think, I don’t know how to write about what’s happening to my body in my language?

The veer to the metaphorical helps, for me at least. The peripheral look, the askance view, the detailed description of some concrete object that suddenly emerges with a new dimension of meaning, well for me, that’s how language becomes the only way to make sense of the ineffable. The biggest example is my recognition of the geology of my home, that it’s a dissected plateau instead of a worn out mountain. My Dad filled me in on that, part way through the writing, and it was a literal geological process that changed everything for me, metaphorically. Suddenly, I could see the post-surgical me in a different way, not as something grand that is now worn out and wrecked, but something shaping into a new form that can carry its own beauty. The metaphor was everything. On the flip side, cliché strikes me as the enemy of health writing, because it’s almost all you get from people when you’re ill. Directness felt better, on the page, that this happened and that happened. Combining the direct with the cascading metaphors helped me use language very much as the tool for narrative recovery.

In your essay, “The Molt,” you compare your emotional state, traversing your medical condition, to molting, as an animal does. Through your sickness you waited for “the hardening,” for a new shell, as it were, to help you bear up. Yet, the best writing, I believe, comes from exploring those times before the hardening, don’t you think?

I agree. Totally! I guess the hardening is the lived desire, that you just want things to stop being difficult, to end, maybe to stop feeling, at least for a little bit. Because things are so difficult. But, no, the hardening is a false desire, because actually developing it would be catastrophic. Maybe the essayist’s stance is to write about the moments when hardening fails and, more so, to write as an act of resisting hardening. Writing softens us up, so we can actually find the substance.

What’s your favorite thing to teach students in your college courses — about nonfiction writing and about Appalachian Studies?

About Appalachia, it’s pretty much always a combo of you’re in it and you are it. Up here in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, there aren’t a lot of people who actively think about themselves as Appalachians, nor who have had any reason to think deeply about the region. Yet close to half of our students are from places that are literally in Appalachia. I love the immediate shake-up that provides, which I shared. First you think, that can’t be right. Then something like, but I’m not… And then, …but wait I am. So what we all think about Appalachia is…not accurate!

That moment of recognition and depth is what I love most about nonfiction itself, that we find new avenues constantly, so long as we cultivate a practice of curiosity and attention.

I love helping students unlock the potential in two disparate personal narratives, or figuring out how oblique research can deepen a complicated narrative line. Most of all, I love getting to spend time with a group of students all committed to the deep reflection of the world we walk around in. And language. Maybe this is really the best part: helping students understand the power of the lyric sentence, how the gestures of poetry and art, applied to real experience, yield the best nonfiction.

In thinking about your take on place, I learned that you’re taking a run at the PA House in 2020. In what ways did your writing get you to this decision?

Without a doubt, part of the motivation stems from writing books that have allowed me to dive deeply into how my home turf has been used and exploited by politics. That’s part of the framing of my candidacy, in fact, that there are stories that we tell ourselves over and over again that never turn out well for us. So let’s write new ones. The incumbent, as well, has not been, shall we say, a friend of the arts during his decade-and-a-half in office. My rallying cry, I suppose, came from his remarks suggesting that the state shouldn’t give student aid to people majoring in “poetry or other pre-Walmart majors.” Well now. Hmmm. That didn’t sit with me. Even if we want to stay in the spheres of practicality and economic policy, the arts sector is huge, and can have a tremendously positive impact on rural areas like ours. And at the same time, I long for a politics that doesn’t limit its vision to the spreadsheet. Politics is about people, in fact is the people. We talk about vision in politics, but we rarely see candidates who want to run on creativity and possibility.

I’d say the brain tumor factors in here, too: for one thing, I saw first hand what it means to get sick and suddenly see how expensive staying alive is. I was lucky, because of my insurance. Many other people would be bankrupt now, if they’d faced what I did. That’s not right. Then, existentially, I’m tired of living in a world attenuated by the small-minded nightmares of regressive politicians. Part of the after-effect of having a brain tumor is the relative ease at which I find myself saying, fuck it, and doing the thing that matters to me that’s the sort of thing we all have a tendency to be afraid to undertake. Running for office is that. I refuse to leave Appalachia to the troglodytes. The national narrative tells us that’s who we all are, and we most definitely are not. I want to stand up and write it differently.

What’s next for your writing? What should readers look out for?

I have two projects I’m wrestling with right now, each in very early stages. One is fiction, which is taking shape as either a novel or a collection of linked stories. Appalachian. Eco-futurist. Focusing on the possible presence of magical creatures in nighttimes threatened by a radical growth in light pollution. The other is an essay project, more or less the writing of a Catholic Mass, to address the ways I am simultaneously deeply lapsed from the Church yet unable to shake the feeling of mystical deep spirituality I find within it. In both projects, I’m trying to find a way to toggle toward radical beauty, to write of dark things but with gratitude and joy. I’m thinking of Ross Gay’s work in both poetry and nonfiction here, and how moving I find his devotion to that serious artistic stance. More and more, I find myself wanting to write toward hope and goodness, particularly as the world churning around us seems to only call us to critique, which is vital, but also wearying. Art helps us imagine new futures, and I long to imagine my way toward hopeful ones even when most of what we see suggests dystopia as our fate. Maybe we can write a better future into being.

***

Matthew Ferrence lives and writes at the confluence of Appalachia. He is the author of Appalachia North: a memoir and All-American Redneck, a well as numerous essays published in North American literary journals. He teaches creative writing at Allegheny College and in 2020 is vying for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, representing Crawford and Erie Counties.

Find him here:
www.matthewferrence.com
www.electferrence.com
@mjferrence on twitter
canappalachia on Instagram

Thanks

From my table to yours on this Thanksgiving Day, thanks for being here at the ol’ blog. Three years and more than 1,300 followers from 126 countries, we’re still reading and writing the American Rust Belt–and beyond–together.

Another WordPress Discover feature this year, My Interview with Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas, brought more of you here, and I’m so grateful. Who would I talk to–about the power of poetry, memoir, fiction, and place–without you? 761 comments this year, nearly every one an exchange, and we learn a little more about story–on and off the page–and about each other. Stay tuned for my next author interview on Monday!

In the meantime… On a personal note, a couple of my most recent posts have helped connect me with my late mom’s dearest childhood friend, a friend who kept photos and keepsakes and so many memories–and is kindly sharing them with me. The photo above isn’t a Thanksgiving table, but New Year’s 1966. That’s my grandma, Nana, in red, looking like she has a secret to share; Papa’s at the head.

Times and traditions pass us by, but this holiday remains one for joining together in gratitude. So, thanks so much for being at this table, friends.

If you’re celebrating, how are you celebrating?

Need a read? Head over to my FB page, where I’ve linked to a great Cleveland-inspired list of books, a few of which we’ve discussed here at the blog. Check out my Categories above for book reviews and more. And there’s always book talk at Twitter, where I’m @MoonRuark. Thanks!

Mythologizing Mom…and other stories we tell to remember the lost

Yearbook artwork by Cathy Doran, Class of 1963

In another month, I’ll celebrate my mom’s birthday–for the 12th time since her death. A dozen years, a milestone of remembering. With the day comes a sort of dread, that I will forget–that I’ve already forgotten how the back of her hand felt under my fingertips, how much she liked her hair brushed, how she looked while telling her favorite jokes (I can’t repeat in polite company).

Am I remembering all that right?

Since my last post on the myths–and reality–we make around boys, I’ve been thinking a lot about the myths we create to remember. And I realize I’ve done that with my mom, picked key memories to cobble together her story–one to tell myself, over and over–because we don’t forget a good story. And forgetting is the most frightening thing.

And so it was with relief that I got ahold of my mom’s high school yearbook, senior year, 1963–all skinny ties and strands of pearls–knowing the photographs and notes from my mom’s teenage friends would bolster the Mom-myth I’d written (providing supporting backstory, if no surprises).

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On myth, taboo, and the making of boys

One of my favorite shots of my boys (age 6) and me (not age 6)

When I was on bed-rest, hugely pregnant with my twin boys, I did what I do in any anxiety-producing situation, especially one that would have me lying on my side for three months: I read. In addition to the care-and-feeding-of-babies books, I read about the raising of boys into men, the emotional aspects and the pitfalls to avoid.

In my reading, I found prevalent boy-myths to steer clear of (in life, not in writing–myths are fun there, but more on that in a bit). Two common ones: boy as animal (he simply can’t be good); and boy as prince (he can do no wrong, no matter how he tries).

Once I delivered my boys into the world, I became uber-focused not on their boyhood but on their infant hood–a precarious time made more precarious by sleep deprivation (mine, not theirs). “Your job is to keep them alive,” the pediatrician said. (If that sounds dire or needlessly heartless, I’ve since learned this is something pediatricians regularly say to moms of twins.) For me, nursing day and night, there was no time or energy for thinking ahead to boyhood–or mythologizing or otherwise romanticizing it in any way.

Amid the mental and physical haze of exhaustion, I did fall prey to infant-mom advertising: you know, the stuff of soft lighting illuminating mother placidly cradling baby in her arms–that’s one baby, not two. And so much gazing–lovingly–into each other’s bright eyes. Kenny G might have been playing his muzak as soundtrack to the ad–trying its best to sell me bottles, bjorns, fancy diapers, or other stuff I wasn’t buying.

What I was buying, however, (and internalizing like the marketing writer I am by day) was that romantic image presented. I was buying that hook, line, and sinker. Yet, I remember a turn of phrase that left me feeling heartless and creeped out all at once: fall in love with your baby boy.

Of course, myths abound in culture and literature through the ages that feature a mother falling in love with her son: not Pampers-love, but romantic–even erotic–love.

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Don’t forget to stretch: A lit fest rundown…with not-pro tips

Nope. Not a churchy post. Hang tight, folks.*

It’s festival season around here. Whether that means discovering just the right pumpkin, a new lager, or a better, more flexible version of your writing self, don’t forget to stretch (more on that in a bit).

Earlier this month, I headed to Youngstown, Ohio, for the third annual Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival held on the YSU campus. Here’s a rundown, plus tips, and–of course–a list of the autographed books I lugged home! (First, shout-out to my cousin, Theresa and her husband, Steven, who kindly fed me homemade pizza and put me up for the night along my way through PA.)

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My interview with award-winning poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis

I’ve developed a love affair with poetry this year. So, I found Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ poetry collection, HAINT, at just the right time. I met the author at a recent literary conference and was delighted to discover that she too grew up in Northeast Ohio. Names and images of our home set the stage in her poems of childhood, such as “East 149th Street (Symphony for a Black Girl)” and “Akron at Night,” but many more of her poems present a powerful universal ode to girlhood, adolescence, and adulthood as a woman seeking love. Poet Ross Gay, another Northeast Ohio native, said of HAINT, “Although heartbreak is the origin of so many of these poems, it’s love that makes them go. Love to which they plead and aspire and pray.”

Teri was kind and generous enough to tell me more about what makes her poetry–and life–“go.”

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My interview with photographer and author Johnny Joo

I’m so thrilled to present this interview with Johnny Joo, a fellow Northeast Ohio native, whose photography* I’ve featured at the blog before. But this time, we get the stories behind the lens…

Johnny Joo is an internationally accredited artist, most notably recognized for his photography of abandoned architecture and surrealistic digital compositions. Growing up sandwiched between the urban cityscape of Cleveland and boundless fields of rural Northeast Ohio provided Johnny with a front row ticket to a specialized cycle of abandonment, destruction, and nature’s reclamation of countless structures. Since he started, his art has expanded, including the publication of four books, music, spoken word poetry, art installations, and videography.

Johnny, how did you first get into photography–and abandonment photography in particular?

I was an art student in high school, and photography was another art class I could take, so I took it to fill space with as much art stuff as I could–not thinking that I would like it as much as I did. I got super interested in the whole science behind it and being able to capture a moment in time that would not happen again. For one of the first projects, I photographed some empty rooms in the high school, and also photographed an old farm house. It reminded me of Silent Hill and other horror games and movies I enjoyed.

I thought it was a great subject for photos, and I loved the way nature wore it down to create something so dark and eerie, yet calm and beautiful. That’s the film photo of the empty class room [above]. I gave the rest of my film and binder to my photography teacher, so I don’t have anything else, but I did keep my favorite photo–and it’s the first photo I developed successfully.

I just kept photographing any abandoned or creepy historic place I could find (along with EVERYTHING else) and started sifting through papers in some of the old buildings and found so much history left behind.

I thought it was interesting to piece a life and history together–being able to know so much without ever having known any of the people beforehand.

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Rust Belt Girl Roundup, September ’19

Summer’s parades are over. Now what?

It might not feel like it today, when we’re supposed to top out at 95, but fall is closing in. And even though I’m more than 15 years from being in the classroom–first as a student, then as an instructor–the change of seasons still signals a renewed sense of dedication. And I’m ready.

Have I mentioned it’s submission season?

Yes, yes I have, here.

It’s also a good time to re-focus this blog. If you remember, I met a poet and a memoirist at the last writing conference I attended (click for conference tips)–both from Rust Belt places. I love nothing more than picking the brains of my fellow writers and presenting their thoughts to you, here. So, I’ll be keeping up the interviews–and the reading required to conduct thoughtful queries.

Funny interview story for you: a few years ago, I thought I’d parlay my interviewing skills for the blog–and managed to convince essayist, memoirist, and journalist, David Giffels, into talking to me here and again here.

For the first interview, I had read–and loved–every word of David’s book of essays. But, breaking one of my own rules of interviewing, I hadn’t read David widely (yet). A music journalist and Akron, Ohio, native, David also wrote the rock biography, We are Devo!, with Jade Dellinger. Akron is famous for a few things. Among them: tires, Chrissie Hynde, Lebron, and that safety cone-hatted band, Devo.

Disclaimer: I’m not from Akron. Still, I should have known but didn’t. And, so… when I had David fact-check our interview, which I’d recorded, among his local cultural spokes-heroes appeared Steve-O, the stunt performing comedian known for Jackass. Not, Devo (as it certainly reads now).

David didn’t ask that I pull the interview or even laugh at me for my mistake (at least not to me). I was mortified…but mortification can instruct (when it doesn’t kill).

Here we still are. Thanks for sticking with me.

For me, fall also means another season of literary festivals, my favorite of which–Lit Youngstown’s–will take me home to Northeast Ohio. Last year, that festival inspired my post: 3 Reasons to Connect with Your Writing Community… And I’ll be sure to cover the event again this year, when I’m not reading my own fiction, sitting on a panel of editors, and moderating a couple sessions. It’s two full days of literary conversation–and my idea of heaven.

Of course, as our fall weather turns a bit cooler and the evenings darken sooner, my twin guys start discussing Halloween costumes and plans. Last year they played a rather nondescript, skull-faced “death” and a soccer star, which sounds like a good title for a horror movie. Stay tuned.

With darker evenings comes darker reading, as my editor gig with Parhelion Literary Magazine has had me reading fiction for a themed October issue. And I’ve been so inspired! I hope you’ll stop by for your fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or photography fix. The summer issue is live now. You’ll also see what fun I’ve been having as features editor there.

Now, it’s your turn…What’s on tap for your fall? Pumpkin or literary festivals? Local wine or craft beer tent? Hike or bike? Write or read?

Whoops! 8 Query Lessons…that made me a better writer

Free image from geralt @ pixabay.com

It’s submission season again.

For those of you who don’t go in for such self-flagellation, I’m talking about submitting to literary agents, entreating them to represent me and my book.

If you’re not an aspiring author, don’t back-arrow just yet–these lessons learned can be applied to many facets of our writing lives. (And, bloggers are writers, I say over and over and over.)

First, because everybody loves query results in hard-and-fast numbers, here you go: cycle one of querying, I submitted a total of 20 queries. Of those, I had:

  • 1 request for a partial (first three chapters); and
  • 1 request for the full manuscript (after the agent read the partial).

Not bad, really: some action from 10 percent. I feel confident I’ll do better next query cycle, beginning this fall, knowing what I now know…