Excerpted from Clay's Quilt by Silas House. Copyright © 2002 by Silas House. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Silas House
Marianne Worthington has been a friend and neighbor of Silas House's for several years. She is the reviews editor for Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine.
Marianne Worthington: How did Clay's Quilt originate and evolve into a novel?
Silas House: The seed for Clay's Quilt was planted when I was very young. When I was eleven years old, my uncle was murdered in a shoot-out, much like Anneth was in the novel. Even as a child, I was very conscious of how this changed our family dynamic, because his death was hardly ever mentioned. I was raised in a family of talkers and storytellers, but it was just too painful for them to talk about. I had a lot of questions about it that went unanswered. This episode in my own family also gave me a sense of injustice. My uncle's killer walked. So that's how the novel started, with a story from my own family. Turning this family story into a novel provided a way to cleanse myself of this dark spot in my family history. Then, while in college I wrote a short story about an eastern Kentucky couple who leave the mountains to go to Myrtle Beach and are miserable there. I was fascinated by those characters and wanted to find out why they had ended up there, so eventually I started writing the novel to discover what had made them leave their homeplace. I actually wrote the novel backwards.
MW: This is your first novel, but have you always written stories set in the Kentucky mountains?
SH: Yes. When I was in high school I read Lee Smith's novel, Black Mountain Breakdown. That book made me realize that I could write about my own place and my own family. Until then, I was trying to write stories outside of my own experiences, but Black Mountain Breakdown gave me permission to explore my own Appalachian heritage and identity.
MW: How does Clay's Quilt mirror your own experiences as a young man growing up and now living in contemporary Appalachia?
SH: Like most first novels, it is quite autobiographical, although it took me a long time to admit that to myself. Like Clay, I was raised Pentecostal, only to end up rebelling and going to honky-tonks and running the roads. And I have a very close-knit family; almost all of us live within one mile of each other. My childhood and Clay's were very similar. Although the book is fiction, a big chunk of my soul is in all of the characters. And much of my larger family's personality --their quirks and traits --is in this book, too. I think that's what makes the characters ring true.
MW: Many of your characters have unique names--Anneth, Easter, Dreama, Cake. How did you choose these names?
SH: I have always been disgusted by Southern novels that use stereotypical names like Jim-Bob, or Homer, so I decided I would only use names that I knew were true of the region. Every name used in this book is one that I am certain people in contemporary times use. Appalachian names are often very specific, poetic, or musical. Often they are biblical names, and sometimes quite symbolic. For instance, Dreama's name completely suits the personality of the dreamer. And Alma, of course, means soul. I chose the name Clay because Anneth was such an earthy person, and this seemed like something she would name her child. I have an aunt named Easter. And Cake is an inside joke. It's what I called my brother when I was little because he would founder on Little Debbie Cakes.
MW: What was the inspiration for some of the place names you use in the novel? Some of your readers may know that a few of the place names are real places. Why did you choose to combine actual places with created places?
SH: Where I'm from, county names are more important than town names. Rural people often identify themselves by what county they are from. So I mapped out my own little place in the novel by using my home county name with the place names that were symbolic for me. Free Creek is this wonderful childhood place where Clay could walk the hills and hide out in the woods. But it was also an ironic name, since he felt burdened by ghosts of the pasts. But eventually, he realizes it is the only place he can be truly free. And Black Banks refers to the abundance of coal. I wanted this image of a land so rich in coal that even the banks of the river were lined with chunks of it. In my second novel, which takes place on the other side of the mountain from Free Creek, I've actually created a map of the place.
MW: The religious practices of the Pentecostals appear throughout your novel. How do those religious beliefs guide some of the characters in your novel? Do these same religious beliefs ever misguide any of the characters?
SH: The Pentecostal religion is fascinating, and I think it's at the heart of this novel. The Pentecostal religion is also often misunderstood and stereotyped. Pentecostalism was born in Appalachia, but many people wrongly believe that all Pentecostals are serpent handlers and ignorant holy-rollers. Although I really didn't have an agenda about Pentecostals when I started the book, I knew I had to portray the religion in such a way that readers understand how it works in the lives of the characters. Clay, for instance, has learned how to be a good person by going to the Pentecostal church, but he knows that he can't be true to himself and keep attending the church because of some of the very strict doctrines of the church. He loves the world too much to be a practicing Pentecostal. Easter is the most devout, faith-filled character in the book, but she is also willing to lay aside her religion when it interferes with her family. For example, she fights the police when they come to take Clay in for questioning. And she threatens to slit Glenn's throat if he so much as touches any of the mayonnaise she has brought for Clay. Most of the characters in the novel are suffering from some kind of guilt, and this has a lot to do with the Pentecostal religion. Alma knows that she has to divorce Denzel, but her upbringing makes this incredibly difficult for her because divorce is forbidden in the Pentecostal church. Like all religions, Pentecostalism can over-take our lives, so the characters are often in conflict with living in the church and living in the world.
MW: Readers and critics of your novel have talked about how you juxtaposed the Pentecostal practices with the honkytonk lifestyle of your characters. Are these two themes related or antithetical to one another?
SH: I believe they are very related. I know from my own experience that going to the Pentecostal church is a lot like going to the honkytonks. Both are all about celebration. In church, there is all this pumping, grinding music, and shouting and dancing. And in the honkytonks, there is also the music, the shouting, the dancing. In fact, the same musical instruments are used in both places--electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, drums. Granted, the church and the honkytonk are celebrating different things, but it seems to me that they are very similar in that both lifestyles are all about celebration. While the church is passionate in its celebration of God, the honkytonkers are passionate in celebrating life.
MW: Music plays an important part of this novel. Why did you decide to use music the way you did throughout your story?
SH: A major theme in this book is passion. And naturally, music is the ultimate expression of passion. I have always been surrounded by music: my mother was a gospel singer; my aunt loved rock and roll. Some of my most vivid memories are of being with my daddy while we tolled around the backroads listening to country music on his truck radio. I think of music as an integral part of our culture. In this novel, the music helps establish a time frame and a sense of place. And I think it's enjoyable for the readers as well. It allows them to connect instantly. For example, in the prologue, when the people are singing Me and Bobby McGee, it's an immediate connection. Just about everyone can at least hum that song, so it helps to put the reader into the story. I also wanted to show that people in the mountains do not just sit around on the porch and listen to the banjo theme from the movie Deliverance. They love all types of music, whether it be gospel or country, rock and roll or classical.
MW: Do you believe that referencing very specific song titles by specific contemporary musicians will eventually date your novel?
SH: No, because I used musicians that I thought would stand the test of time, like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. By the way, for me, one wonderful benefit of using Lucinda Williams and her music in the novel, was that I actually ended up getting to meet her. I was fortunate enough to interview her for a feature in a national magazine. But I believe the singers and songwriters I mention in the novel will be remembered forever, thus readers will be able to identify with the music no matter when they read the book.
MW: Dancing is also used throughout the novel. Clay comes home from the honkytonk and dances around his living room; after riding the Ferris wheel with Alma, he clogs; Clay and Alma first connect while dancing. Are you a dancer?
SH: I love to dance. I don't go more than two days without dancing, even if it's just in the kitchen at my house. My sister taught me to dance when I was very young. My little girls and I are always dancing. Dancing is a celebration --It makes you feel alive. And I wanted to show that these characters were full of life -- especially Clay. I do clog, and I believe it's the most fun a person can have legally.
MW: Your characters have distinctive speaking styles. How does a writer go about capturing the oral qualities and idiosyncrasies of a dialect on the page?
SH: In my early drafts of the novel, I tried to spell words the way they sounded, and I was dropping the "g" in words like "drinkin' " or "singin' ". Then I realized that the book looked like a script for Hee-Haw. I was condescending to my characters. So in re-writing, I tried to use word placement, syntax, and sentence structure to secure the sounds of the dialect on the page. I relied on colorful metaphor and simile like "she'll die stonehammer dead," or "that's tighter than Dick's hatband," which are expressions you hear daily in my community. I believe that this diction also helps the reader understand that a character would pronounce the word "fire" as "far" without having to write it that way on the page.
MW: How do you think this dialect affects readers--particularly readers who are unfamiliar with, or have preconceived notions about Appalachian speech patterns?
SH: The one good thing that a dialect can do for readers is introduce them to new phrases or unfamiliar words. I hope that my readers will understand that unique words and phrases can be understood within the context of a sentence, and that everyone from Maine to California speaks in a dialect. I hope that readers will come to know my characters better by exposing them to the particular rules and habits of one Appalachian speech community.
MW: How would you describe the major themes of this novel?
SH: That's always a hard question for me, but I believe the main theme is about family --how we rely on family, and how we even create families outside of our family of origin. Clay has his immediate family, but he also has Cake, whom he sees as a brother, even though they are not a drop of kin to each other. Then later, he brings Alma into his family. His friends at the honkytonk are family, too. I also look at the novel as an indictment of violence. I'm sick of Southern or Appalachian novels that show characters carrying out acts of violence without remorse. The way I see it, Clay had no choice but to commit his act of violence. However, he is redeemed because he feels so guilty about it. I wanted to show that Appalachian people are not these blood-thirsty, venge- ful people who will kill you at the drop of a hat without any sense of consciousness or remorse. Another theme of this book is consistent with most other Appalachian literature: the theme of homesickness. I think Jim Wayne Miller said that homesickness is the most common Appalachian malady. Clay only moves eight miles away from his Aunt Easter and Uncle Gabe, but they all become homesick for one another. As I said earlier, the novel is also about passion and where passion can lead the characters. Passion can lead us to a heap of trouble, or make us get the fullness of life. The major theme of this novel is finding yourself and celebrating what you have found. It's about coming to terms with our pasts so we can move on with our futures.
MW: What do you think readers might find surprising about your book?
SH: This is probably the hardest question for me to answer. I think that readers outside the Appalachian region may be surprised by the drug use in the novel, because they may think life is safer in rural America. But it's no safer where that's concerned. People anywhere and everywhere can find a way to get high if they want to. I also think that the literature at the turn of the 20th century presented Appalachia as a simplistic, romantic place where there are only fields of wildflowers and barns and lazy hound dogs sleeping on the porch. There were also a lot of stereotypes in that early literature, like feuding and moonshining, and one-dimensional characters much like the cartoon character Daisy Mae, or the later television depiction of the transplanted hillbilly, like Jethro Bodine. Actually, I hope readers will be surprised to learn that those places and those characters do not exist, and that they won't be found in Clay's Quilt.
MW: In what ways have these characters remained in your life? Do you believe you might ever write a sequel to Clay's Quilt, or at least use some of the same characters in later novels?
SH: They are with me all the time. It sounds crazy, but sometimes I miss them. When I finished the book and took it to mail to my agent, the postmaster had to nearly rip it from my hands. I felt as if I was sending my firstborn out through the mail. And I had a bad case of postpartum depression once I finished the novel. I feel as if Clay and Alma's story is finished and I want them to remain happy, just the way they are. But I am interested in writing about some of the other characters. I hope someday to write more about Evangeline, one of my favorite characters, or maybe do a prequel based around the relationship between Anneth and Easter. I particularly want to explore what happens to Anneth and Easter's parents and why the sisters are raised by their grandmother. That question is not answered in Clay's Quilt. In my second novel, the Sizemore family is referenced, even though the novel is set eighty years before Clay's Quilt. And as I said earlier, I use the same geographical setting in my second novel, too.
MW: Did you always aspire to write? As a child did you imagine yourself a writer?
SH: For as long as I can remember, I have imagined myself as a writer. When I was a kid, I'd staple index cards together to make a little book. I created a newspaper in my elementary school. I was in the seventh grade when my very fine teacher, Sandra Stidham, gave me a copy of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and that changed my life forever. After reading that, I knew that I wanted to attempt to write something that would affect and change a reader the way that book had affected and changed me. I was filled with a desire to hold my own book in my hands, to walk into a library or a bookstore and see it on the shelf. It still amazes me that this dream has come true.
MW: How do ideas come to you for stories? Are you an eavesdropper? A daydreamer? Do you keep notebooks for story ideas? Do you outline or map out stories before writing them?
SH: Yes, I'm an eavesdropper. I'm nosey. And I'm a people-watcher. I like to watch body language especially. I am definitely a daydreamer. I make it a practice to be still as much as I can. Writer James Still told me that a good writer discovers something new everyday, and that's the best advice I ever received. I observe everything. My mind is always writing. Often stories come to me by way of an image. For Clay's Quilt, one major image was of the three crosses that Alma sees on her way out of Crow County. I don't keep notebooks. I'm much too disorganized for that --I'd just lose the notebook. If I hear or create an especially good line, sometimes I'll jot it down on a napkin or something, but usually I end up losing the napkin. I never pre-write; I carry the whole story around with me until I'm ready to tell it. I don't do any creating at the computer. For me, the computer is just a way to transcribe the story that is already there. And I never revise while I'm writing. Otherwise, I would get bogged down and never get the story finished. I have to get the whole thing out on paper before me, then I go back and rewrite and revise.
MW: What does the process of writing do you for personally?
SH: Writing has always been my catharsis. When I am unable to write, I become depressed. It is like an addiction. I have a strong desire to tell my stories for other people. I pour myself out on the page, and I hope the reader can feel that. I want readers to be as intrigued by the characters as I am.
MW: How important is criticism to you? Do you read reviews?
SH: I read all of my reviews. However, I have a close network of friends whom I listen to very closely. They are all brutally honest and intelligent, and I trust them to steer me the right way. I think writers should trust their instinct more than they do. That's what has sustained me as a writer. I listen to all the criticism people offer me, but ultimately I make up my own mind about what to keep and what to change. I think writers should take criticism as nudging instead of the final word.
MW: What is the hardest thing for you to do as a writer?
SH: To let go of my characters. I get too attached to them and they feel like family. On a more technical level, I worry a lot about the plot of a story. I never want the reader to get bored; rather, I want the reader to be in on the action. So plot is something I work very hard on. I think the ultimate insult would be for someone to pay $23 for a novel and be bored by what's happening to the characters.
MW: Do you envision a particular audience when you write? Who is your ideal reader?
SH: No, I don't really envision a particular audience, but I do trust that my readers are both intelligent and story-hungry. I want my readers to be satisfied by hearing a good story, and I want my readers to appreciate both the literary craft and the entertainment value of a story. I don't try to please or appease certain readers. I think my ideal reader would also be open-minded. Open-minded to a book set in Appalachia, which may appear to be exotic or unfamiliar to some readers, and who would read this novel as authentic in setting, characterization, and voice.
MW: What projects are you currently working on? What are your long-term plans as a writer?
SH: I have finished my second novel, The Parchment of Leaves, and I'm at work on my third novel. I also hope to write a memoir of my extended family someday. I want to write as many books as I can. It is my belief that when readers give money for books, they ought to get something out of the deal. They ought to be moved or changed in some way. That's why I became a writer. I want to make people feel something, to change them in some small way. Hopefully Clay's Quilt changed some people's minds about Pentecostals, or Appalachians, or Southerners, maybe even about so-called rednecks or hillbillies. And maybe they got a lump in their throat, or even shed a tear. When someone tells me my writing has made them feel some kind of emotion, that is the best compliment of all.
1. When Clay told his Aunt Easter he was moving out of her house, she cried until her eyes were red and swollen. She tells Clay that a family should live right together. Does Clay's tight-knit, extended family enable or hinder his search for his mother, Anneth, and his quest for meaning in his life? Discuss how your own experiences within an extended family relate to Clay's.
2. How does the Pentecostal religion affect Clay Sizemore's life? What influences have the Free Creek Pentecostal Church had on Clay? Give examples of how Clay both abides by and rebels against the church's teachings. How does the Pentecostal faith compare to your own religious experiences?
3. Discuss the author's use of dialect in this story. What words or phrases spoken by the characters were unfamiliar to you? How do the characters' speaking styles affect your interpretation of the story? What do you learn about the characters by the way they talk?
4. Discuss how music is used throughout the novel. Are you able to identify with the musicians and/or songs that are referenced? What do the various musical choices say about the characters in the novel?
5. What does Alma's fiddle and her style of music signify for you? Does the fiddle serve as a larger metaphor in the story?
6. What role does nature and the Appalachian landscape play in Clay's Quilt?
7. Clay's Uncle Paul, the quilter in this story, feels geography and history beneath his fingertips while searching for fabric to use in a quilt. What does this mean? How does the quilt work as a symbol in this story? What are your own experiences with family quilts?
8. What is your reaction to Easter's second sight, or her ability to foresee the future? Is it a blessing or a curse? Have you ever known anyone who had visions such as Easter? Do Easter's visions allow the reader to have a second sight as well?
9. Explain the relationship between Clay and Cake. Are they just drinking buddies?
10. What purpose does Anneth's letter to Clay serve in the novel?
11. What does the title of the second part of the novel, Flying Bird, mean to you?
12. If home is a dominant theme in this story, what happens to the plot, the characters, and the tone of the story when Alma and Clay leave the mountains of eastern Kentucky and travel to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina?
13. Compare and contrast the rituals of Appalachian weddings and funerals in Clay's Quilt to your own experiences.
14. Does it seem incongruent or troubling to you that many of the characters, so deeply rooted in family tradition and religion, also participate in a lifestyle of drinking, drug use, and domestic violence? Why or why not? What does the author achieve by juxtaposing sacred and secular behaviors throughout the story?
15. With which character(s) do you most closely identify? Why?
16. Discuss the perceptions your reading group has about Appalachian people in general. Does this novel alter your no-tions about contemporary life in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky? In what ways?
17. Has your group read other novels set in Appalachia or about Appalachian characters? If so, compare and contrast those novels to Clay's Quilt.