A Conversation with Silas House
Bev Marshall and Silas House met at a book signing in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2002, and instantly became friends and fans of each others’ novels. Since that time they’ve corresponded and occasionally had the opportunity to read and sign together across the South. Just after The Coal Tattoo was published, Bev completed the manuscript for Hot Fudge Sundae Blues. Now with three published novels each, Silas and Bev met again in Jackson at a favorite local watering hole to talk about their latest books. Here is a part of the lively conversation that ensued.
BM: Silas, you know how much I admired Clay’s Quilt and A Parchment of Leaves, so I could hardly wait to read The Coal Tattoo, and now that I have, I must tell you that I absolutely loved it. I actually cried at the end when Easter asked Anneth what she named the baby, and Anneth said, “Clay.”We readers had come full circle, and I marveled at how you wove the stories of these strong women through the passage of time. Did you have this grand plan of what you were going to accomplish, when you first began writing the trilogy?
SH: No, not at all. I didn’t know that my first three books were even connected until I started writing Tattoo. I knew that my third novel was going to be about two sisters, mostly because I grew up in awe of the relationship my mother and her sister had and also because I’ve always been fascinated by sibling relationships. So I started out writing about these two sisters and about thirty pages in I realized this was Easter and Anneth, whom I had written about earlier in Clay’s Quilt. And then I understood that they were the granddaughters of Vine and Serena, whom I had written about in A Parchment of Leaves. So you don’t have to read all three books to understand what’s going on, but I do think it makes for a richer experience if you’re familiar with all three books.
BM: I loved all four of those female characters. For a guy, you seem to have a nearly uncanny wisdom about the hearts of women. I especially loved the idea that, although Easter and Anneth are as different as Kentucky is from New York, they possess an unconditional love for and understanding of each other. Can you tell me more about how you perceived their relationship and what caused you to be interested in the bond between them? Were you influenced by the relationship between your mother and her sister, which you mentioned?
SH: Well, my mother was orphaned when she was nine years old and her sister, Sis, was ten years older. So in many ways Sis was a mother-figure to her. They were always incredibly close, even closer than sisters normally are. They had this unconditional love for each other. Yet they were really different: one devout and calm, the other wild and restless. I loved that these two hugely different women could always put their differences aside because of their love for eachother. It’s a great metaphor, I think, for the way we should all be. It’d be a much better world if people could love one another despite their differences instead of hating one another because of their differences. The kernel of truth about these two sisters comes from my own mother and aunt, but it’s heavily fictionalized. These characters just did their own thing and I let them, and I think that’s the main reason they come off as being real. They’re in charge when I’m writing.
BM: Speaking of metaphors, before you wrote this novel, you told me about the literal “coal tattoo” that sometimes occurs on the skin of the miners in Appalachia, but it seemed to me that the coal tattoo was symbolic of much more than the hardscrabble lives of miners. Am I right?
SH: Oh yeah, definitely. I just love the title of this book because it stands for so much. Besides being about these two sisters and their struggles and joys, this book—to me—is very much about the love for a place. So I think the coal tattoo is just a perfect symbol for how the land gets beneath our skin and becomes a part of us. Throughout this book Easter never leaves Free Creek, and when Anneth does, she keeps getting pulled back there. The land is a part of them and eventually, when they’re threatened with losing that place, they fight hard for it. I love that. I didn’t know that was going to happen at all.
BM: Well, one of our own things is music.We both included the lyrics of songs in our novels, but in The Coal Tattoo, the range is incredible. There are fiddles and rock and roll, country and gospel. Easter sings in church and then later she’s onstage in a honky-tonk. What role does music play in your life and in the lives of your characters?
SH: Well, I think that’s a reflection of how I grew up. My mother was (and still is) a great gospel singer, so I was exposed to that all the time.Went to church with her all the time, even sang with her in churches and nursing homes and revivals. And I still love gospel music. But at the same time, my aunt Sis and various cousins were taking me to see rock concerts, and we used to spend hours playing 45s by people like Bob Seger and AC/DC and all the great rock bands of that time. Aunt Sis introduced me to the blues and jazz. My sister took me to the drive-in to see Grease seventeen times.
BM: No way!
SH: I’m serious, seventeen times. We were obsessed. Olivia Newton-John was my first love. Meanwhile, a neighbor next door was always playing classical music for us. My father always had his truck radio tuned to a country-music station, so I grew up hearing people like Loretta Lynn and Don Williams. People in the family were expert banjo and guitar players. So I was exposed to just every kind of music growing up and it was very much a part of my life. Still is. I never go a day without listening to music. And I will tell you this: When I know what kind of music my character really loves, then I know my character completely. If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Because can’t you tell a whole lot about a person when you find out what their favorite song is?
BM: I agree with that. So what is your favorite song?
SH: Well, there are so many. But if I had to narrow it down to just one, it’d be “Keep on the Sunny Side” by the Carter Family.What I love most about it is that the title is a bit misleading. The song isn’t saying if you do right and be positive everything will go your way. If you listen to the song closely you’ll see that it’s saying that life is hard and full of obstacles, but if you try your best to do right, that’ll at least make things easier. That’s such a great, unsentimental message. Now that I think about it, that’s really what I’m trying to say with my books, too. And I love that almost everyone I know can sing at least the chorus to that song. It’s a great communal song.
BM: Trying your best to do right. If only everyone followed the advice in that song! Now, let’s go back to that honky-tonk. I could nearly smell the spilled beer, hear the music, see the smoke curling above the characters’ heads. I suspect you’ve been in a few honkytonks yourself. Doing research, Silas?
SH:Well, Bev, you’ve been right there with me a couple times, now (laughter). I guess I have done a lot of research. I mean, before we had kids, I used to love to go out to bars every Saturday night.We would go and dance for three or four hours straight. Still do every once in a while, but now it’s usually at friends’ houses. I’ve seen my fair share of spilled beer and smoky clothes, that’s for sure. And I love trying to capture that on the page. I always put a lot of singing and dancing in my books. It’s hard to write about people dancing, or describing someone singing on the page, and that’s one reason I love to do it. I love a good challenge. But at the same time, I’ve spent some time observing in those bars. I went purely for my art (laughter).
BM: (Laughing) Right! All for art! We writers are just forced into those places for our craft. But, Silas, besides our mutual love of dancing and singing, we share commonalities in that we both grew up in rural areas. And while we share a love for our land and our people, your Appalachian heritage is very different from mine. Your description of Easter and Anneth’s mountain is so vivid, I thought of it as a character with human qualities. Is a passion for one’s land an essential element in your work?
SH: It’s just something I can’t help but use. It’s a part of me, the same way the music is, I guess. I don’t actually think very much about that when I’m writing. I do want the place to be a character in my work, and in this book in particular I thought it very important that you feel as if you had actually been to the places that are mentioned. I wanted you to smell it and see it and feel the quality of the air in these places. So I hope I pulled that off.
BM: You certainly did. I moved those mountains down to Louisiana and walked on them while I was reading Tattoo. How did you accomplish that?
SH: Basically, I guess if you have a real passion for the place you’re writing about, that passion is bound to bubble up on the page. I think a lot about what a thin line exists between the reader and the writer.Most of the time when the reader is reading they can somehow feel what the writer was feeling when he or she wrote the words. That’s one of my favorite things about writing.
BM: One of my favorite things was the scene in Tattoo where Anneth, Easter, and Sophie take their stand against the stripmining company. I was simultaneously terrified and thrilled. I nearly cheered aloud for them. Did you know what would happen before you wrote that scene?
SH: No, once I realized they were going to stand up to the bulldozers I just wrote that first line of that chapter, where they’re gathering there on the mountain, and then it all just came very quickly. That’s one of those times when I went into a weird sort of trance-like state while writing because I just saw it all like a movie in my head and somehow enabled my fingers to type out the words. That’s when writing is so much fun—and often, I think, when writing turns out the best—when the story and the characters just take over and do their own thing. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the book. I’ve read that in public only once because it’s a very emotional scene for me, that sense of unity and love for the land. I love that they actually fight for their land, literally, hitting and kicking and spitting. I was drained when I wrote that scene, which is a great feeling in this context.
BM: I experience that, too. I know exactly what you mean and how you felt, and I also sympathized with both Easter’s and Anneth’s struggles to reconcile their Pentecostal faith with their desires. How do you perceive the role spirituality plays in our lives?
SH: One of the main reasons I write is to try to understand that very thing. I think it’s evident in my writing that I’m very interested in spiritual and religious ideas. It’s a major theme that runs through my work. I have a pretty good handle on my own spirituality, but I’m still trying to figure out religion. It’s a complicated thing, which makes it such great fodder for literature. And it also makes writing more interesting for me, since it helps me to work all that out for myself. I think the best writing comes out of something that is very personal, when you’re absolutely putting yourself out on the page, completely revealing yourself. I think I reveal that search for understanding, and it’s something that writing has really helped me to understand better.
BM: Your quest for truth in your work is another thing I admire about you.Writing really is an act of discovery, isn’t it?
SH: Definitely. Writing is actually a very selfish thing, in many ways, because the writer gains so much from writing, don’t you think? When I write, I’m writing to figure something out for myself. Every novel I write helps me to understand myself and the world better. And it’s interesting that you say that—about truth—because I never thought of it that way. But I am desperate to find out the truth about things, and that’s usually what compels me to write.
BM: You know what I love most about your novels? It’s that when I’ve read the last word, closed the back cover, I just feel good. Hopeful, happy, satisfied. There’s not a hint of cynicism in your books. Is this what you wish for your readers to feel and how do you accomplish this without succumbing to sentimentality?
SH: First of all, thank you for saying that. I think if you’re investing your time in a book, you sure ought to leave it feeling satisfied.When I’m writing a novel, I’m always trying to arrive at a moment of hope, I think. When I read, I don’t want to necessarily read about happy people, but I do want to see someone getting happy, or end on a note of hope that these characters I’ve lived with for three hundred pages will find their place in the world.And to be honest, I think there’s too much cynicism in modern literature. Most literary novels are so much gloom and doom. To me, it’s much more challenging to pull off an optimistic novel without becoming sappy. I try very hard to walk that tightrope. Throughout this book people say “I love you” to one another. And I think a lot of literary writers cringe away from that; they’re afraid to put that into writing or into their characters’ mouths.But we’re supposed to be writing about real life, and in reality, people say that to one another (and mean it) all the time. So, I think I’m able to avoid sappiness because I’m just writing about real life and not avoiding those things.
BM: Real life! Yes, but our childhoods weren’t always rooted in reality. I grew up in a family of storytellers, who embellished every tale they told; and I know that you did, too. What effect do you think families like ours have on writers?
SH: There’s no doubt my family shaped me into a writer. I don’t know how one can avoid being a writer when they live in a family of such vivid storytellers like mine. In my family, when someone comes home from work and is asked how their day was, they never just say “Fine.” They tell you an epic about their workday. I think growing up like that I learned from an early age how to exaggerate and make a story better than it actually was. Writing is like that, too. Situations have to be somewhat exaggerated to drive home the essential truth, you know? But I think the main thing is that growing up around all those stories instilled a love of language in me. I just love the way words can be strung together and turned into something powerful and lasting. I love the power of words, and I learned that by listening to stories.
BM: Okay, now I understand the genesis of your stories, but how do you set those stories down? My readers always want to know something of my writing life: my habits, my schedule, do I do my own laundry? What’s your writing day like?
SH: I have a time set aside to write every day, but I rarely write during that time. I always tell people that I write every minute of the day. Instead of having to go into a room and sit down in front of a computer and turn the “writing thing” on, I’m constantly having to turn it off so that I can live as a normal person. So I write during every waking minute. That’s what I love about writing—everything is usable. Nothing is wasted. If I’m having a bad day, then writing is a catharsis for that. And if I’m having a good day, I’m able to sit down and use that in some way, too. I’m the most disorganized writer I know. I don’t have any kind of outline or any idea of where my story is going. But that works for me. I also spend as much time as I can outside. Some of my best writing happens when I’m taking out the garbage or mowing the yard or plowing my garden or doing things where I’m in motion. I get much more done during those times than when I’m sitting at my computer.
BM: I know what you mean. I’m often working out a character’s dilemma when I’m folding laundry, doing the dishes, or driving to the Piggy Wiggly. But, Silas, a plow and a garden? Do you really do that?
SH: Well, it’s not like I have a mule pulling the plow, Bev! (Laughing.) Although really we ought to do that instead of wasting so much gas. I plow my garden every spring with the tractor my father and I share. I’ve always raised a little vegetable garden.When I was writing A Parchment of Leaves, I raised a huge garden because my main character, Vine, was a great gardener. I felt like I’d be able to know her better if I worked out in that garden every day, and I did. That’s where Vine was created, while I was pulling corn and hoeing my beans, things like that. So ever since then I’ve raised a pretty big garden. Some people say it’s therapeutic and all that, but mostly it’s just hard work, which is good for you, plain and simple.
BM: Knowing you as I do, I’ll bet you’re most likely doing some more hard work right now. You’ve already begun working on another fabulous story set in Appalachia. True?
SH: Well, sort of. In my new book, the location is never named. The town is, but I never tell you what state or what part of the country it is. I make it very clear that it’s a rural place—because a rural place is what I know best—but because of the nature of the book, I think it’s important that it could be set in any little rural place in America. The new book is set during the Bicentennial Summer—1976—and is from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy. It’s about a house divided, about a family at war. I think we live in a very divided country right now, one that’s going to be divided for a very long time, so it’s timely in that way, even though I’ve had the book in my head for ages. In many ways it’s my most autobiographical work, since my father is a Vietnam vet. But it’s a very complex thing and is emotionally devastating, but in a good way, if that makes sense.
BM: Perfect sense! And I can’t wait to read it.Will you send me a copy when you’re done?
SH: Since you asked so nicely, I will. You know I’d do anything for you, sister.
1. Did you know what a coal tattoo was before reading this novel? In what ways does the occurrence of a coal tattoo stand as metaphor or as symbol for the characters in this story? What different meanings does it have?
2. The character traits of Easter and Anneth are often juxtaposed in the novel. Easter realizes early in the story that there “was no name she could put to the difference between them.” How do the sisters’ differences keep them in conflict? Bring them together? How are Easter and Anneth alike?
3. Is Easter jealous or resentful of Anneth’s wild and carefree approach to life? Is Anneth jealous or resentful of Easter’s more grounded and careful approach to living?
4. How have the sisters’ grandmothers, Vine and Serena, affected the sisters’ development as women, as sisters, as mothers?
5. How does Easter’s devout religious faith both enrich and hinder her life?
6. Consider the scene where Easter is returning home after singing secular music on a popular television show (after she has left the church). She recalls the childhood memory of her grandmothers bringing her to a camp meeting where she had two first experiences: An anointing by the Holy Ghost and helping her grandmothers minister to striking coal-mining families. Does Easter view both of these experiences as religious?
7. Easter seems to possess mystical abilities, while Anneth seems obsessed with looking “for magic anywhere she could find it.” Easter wants to reject these mystical abilities, preferring instead “the peace of a life well lived, a good man, and the knowledge that her family was safe,” while Anneth continues to look for magic every day. Do the women ever reconcile themselves to their different quests? How?
8. Why does Anneth keep marrying men she doesn’t love?
9. What are the narrator’s attitudes toward the coal-mining industry in the early part of the novel? What are Anneth’s attitudes toward coal mining in the first half of the novel? What are the major factors that cause Anneth to view coal mining differently later on?
10. Discuss your own experiences with, and dispositions about, coal mining. Did you know what a broad form deed was before reading this novel? How does coal mining affect Black Banks? The environment at large? The economic and political infrastructure of Crow County?
11. How does the author explore class differences in this novel? Consider coal miners vs. Altamont Mining Company, churchgoers vs. nonbelievers, rural people vs. city people, Kentuckians vs. others? Does Silas House set up an “us vs. them” outlook in this story? Why or why not?
12. How does the author animate or enliven abstract concepts like faith, love, depression, and grief?
13. Water is a recurring motif in this story. Anneth is said to know water “on intimate terms.” What do you think this means? What are the different connotations for water that are explored in this novel? In what ways do the characters consider water as a personal emblem?
14. Redbirds also have a recurring role in this story. How do redbirds (and other elements of the natural world) help direct Easter
15. Do you agree or disagree with Vine’s suggestion to Easter that “stillness is a habit easily gained”? Why?
16. What accounts for the fierce loyalty Easter and Anneth hold for their small place on Free Creek? Do you think this allegiance to land is unique to eastern Kentuckians?
17. With which character(s) do you most closely identify? Why?
18. How do the chapter titles and the epigraphs from the book’s four sections contribute to your knowledge of the characters, plot, settings, or themes of the story?
19. The Coal Tattoo can be considered a companion book to Silas House’s first two novels. If you have read Clay’s Quilt and A Parchment of Leaves, how are these stories threaded together?