An Interview with Author Jeff Biggers

Posted: May 22, 2007 in Author Interview

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The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment to American (Shoemaker and Hoard) has just been released in paper; In the Sierra Madre (University of Illinois) will be released in paper in August.

LG: How did a Midwestern and transplanted Southwestern writer like you end up championing Appalachia?

JB: I shared most of the misperceptions about Appalachia—this strange world of Lil Abner and Snuffy Smith, feuding Hatfields, Deliverance, coal miners and poor folks needing to be saved by the War on Poverty—until I stumbled into the region in the 1980s, a college drop-out from UC Berkeley. Spending the summer on a farm and folk school in West Virginia, piled down with history books and novels, and lectured by miners, poets and blues musicians, I found a different Appalachia. Or Appalachias, rather. Far from being some landlocked hollow, with a singular culture, where nothing had ever changed in 200 years, the Southern Mountains emerged in our discussions as an international theater of war, a crossroads of cultures, and a real burning ground of innovations and groundbreaking movements. These buried histories—buried under so many ridiculous stereotypes—fascinated me.

It took me 20 years to return, but this vision of Appalachia remained in a lot of my conversations, as I worked as an educator, writer and journalist across the States and abroad. Funny enough, every time someone cracked a hillbilly joke or casually made a reference to inbreeding in Appalachia—which happened in the New Yorker magazine last month—I found myself saying…but, did you know? That line—Did you know, as in, Did you know that the first American newspaper dedicated solely to the abolitionist cause was not William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator but a radical newspaper that came out of the Southern Mountains in 1819, and in fact, Garrison was inspired and trained by a publisher and minister from the anti-slavery movement in Appalachia?—led to this book.

LG: As you note in your book, Appalachia has an unusually long list of caricatures and stereotypes, dating back to Sut Lovingood in the mid-19th century. Your Appalachia is full of innovators, writers, and social activists, such as early American revolutionaries and abolitionists, Nina Simone and Bessie Smith, Rebecca Harding Davis, Cormac McCarthy, Pearl S. Buck and Henry Louis Gates. Have you found your readers and critics have trouble making the leap between the two extremes?

JB: It’s definitely been a challenge to get people or critics outside the region to take a second look at Appalachia. No other region has been so trivialized or maligned; while I was on tour, Neil Young did a Saturday Night Live skit called “Appalachian ER,” New York governor Eliot Spitzer lamented that upstate New York looked “like Appalachia”
(part of upstate New York is in Appalachia, by the way) and the JT Leroy “hillbilly naïf” literary hoax took place.

But this is the whole challenge of my book: It’s time for those of us outside the region to get over these stereotypes and recognize that we can’t fully understand American history—from the Revolutionary era through the abolitionist, labor, and civil rights movements, and various leaps in music and literature—until we understand Appalachian history. I’ve toured in 25 states this past year, and I’ve been dogged about touring outside the region, and the response has generally been one of surprise. In the Midwest, for example, I’ll never forget a woman rising from her seat, holding up the book in shock. She shouted: Detroit auto leader Walter Reuther came from a radical labor family from West Virginia, out of the same iron mills that produced the first important social realism fiction and literary naturalism in American literature in 1861?

LG: In some interviews, you’ve mentioned your concern in getting “regionally downsized.”

JB: A funny thing has happened: I’ve been introduced so many times as an Appalachian writer who wrote a book about Appalachia, as if only someone from the region would write or be interested in this book, when in fact, I’m an outside journalist and writer, and I approached this project as a broader work on American social history. You know, it’s hard out there for a Southern writer, in many respects, outside of the South, because they somehow remain “Southern writers” even when they have a national audience. This fascinates me: this need to pigeonhole or regionalize writers, as if their work is somehow outside the quintessential American experience.

In Chicago, for example, a literary venue asked me change my speaking gig in February to another month because it was Black History Month. They assumed Appalachia had no African American experience, or, as the sponsor told me, I had written a book “about those people down there.” Without burning a bridge, I had to quietly remind her that Black History Month was actually launched by a Black Appalachian coal miner, renowned historian Carter Woodson; that Booker T. Washington had been shaped by his experience in West Virginia, just like pioneering Black nationalist Martin Delany and contemporary African American scholar Henry Louis Gates. I spoke about the role of Nikki Giovanni in the Black Arts Movement, Bessie Smith in blues, Nina Simone in jazz, and black guitarists like Lesley Riddle in shaping country music. Where did John Henry pound those rails? And then I spoke about Rosa Park’s visit to a radical folk school in the backwoods of Tennessee, a few months before launching her historic boycott in Montgomery, and the role of Appalachians in training the shock troops of the Civil Rights Movement.

I still didn’t get invited to Chicago for Black History Month. Maybe next year!

LG: Do you think your title might have kept critical readers from picking up the book or taking it seriously?

JB: The original title was Rank Strangers: The Other Appalachians, but the marketing folks wanted something sexier. The United States of Appalachia refers to a comment by Washington Irving, who suggested we changed the name of our country in 1838 to its most notable natural landmark. One marketing person told me that readers only want to read about themselves, that no one outside of Appalachia would pick up this book. But I don’t buy that level of cynicism. When Studs Terkel, my
hero, offered a blurb for the book, I was reminded of how his monumental work had taught us that stories transcend borders and the great ethnic and regional divides.

LG: You’ve actually had two books come out in the last year—the other, a travel memoir and history of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, In the Sierra Madre. How difficult has it been to juggle the two?

JB: It’s actually been a great experience, comparing the two mountain regions, exploring the incredible treasury of literature in both areas. And in the process, I think it has also helped me break out of a potentially narrow market. I’m at work on a book on India, so the ship moves on.

LG: What advice would you give to aspiring writers of travel and culture related nonfiction writing? What have you learned that you’d like to pass along to others?

JB: If Appalachia and the Sierra Madre have taught me anything it’s that there are lot of astonishing stories still waiting for us to discover, or in truth, recover. In whatever genre, the writer needs to cross borders—be they real or imaginary—to get the full story. As a historian, I’ve been deeply influenced by the work of versatile creative writers like Bernard DeVoto and Wallace Stegner, who reminded us that the American West was a process as much as a place.

LG: Do you keep a strict writing schedule? What “habits” or “rituals”
help keep you on track?

JB: I’m raising two little boys, so my writing habits have become quite strict: I go to the office when I can, research and write like mad until the bell rings, daydream about the next chapter as I’m cooking or changing diapers or pulling weeds in the garden, and then try to write a few hours in the evening before I crash.

LG: Finally, as a public library employee I must ask, how have libraries influenced your lifelong interest in books and writing? Do you have any special memories regarding libraries playing a role in your life?

JB: It’s no exaggeration to say that a librarian in my high school is largely responsible for keeping me on track. In one of those dark and drama-filled adolescent movements, I found myself hiding out in the library, plotting my escape. I’ll never forget a librarian ambling over, dropping a book in my lap. The book—Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. I laughed my head off. Within the week, she had drawn up a reading list of novels and poetry collections and magazines that served as my real education. I’ll never forget her; she became my mentor and confidant. In terms of public libraries, I still define a town’s worth on the quality of its library.

Thanks very much to Jeff Biggers for so generously granting me his time for this interview.

Jeff Biggers’ website: www.jeffbiggers.com

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