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Spring 2002

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A writer’s journey to the heart of Appalachia

By Belinda Anderson

John O’Brien expected some readers might take exception to At Home in the Heart of Appalachia, his frank examination of Appalachian culture, West Virginia history, his adopted town of Franklin and his own painful family history.

But he never expected a stranger to walk up to him in an IGA grocery and hug him. Or that he would be approached at Tamarack by a Pennsylvania resident who shared that all his dreams take place in West Virginia.

By making his best attempt to write the truth, O’Brien produced a book that has so connected with readers that it’s in its second printing less than a year after its initial publication. The book has also garnered nominations for several awards, including the Pulitzer and the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction.

John O'Brien

O’Brien, who lives in Pendelton County, conducted 300 interviews and sorted through scores of books and articles to discover the heart of Appalachia. While he was struggling to define Appalachia, his father died. “I became aware of myself as a figure in history, realizing how my father had been affected by that idea of being a hillbilly, of being second-rate, and then realized I had spent most of my life trying to escape, not him, but his sense of despair,” O’Brien said in a two-hour interview he gave before speaking at the Greenbrier Community College Center of Bluefield State College recently. The following profile includes passages from O’Brien’s book and excerpts from that interview, which focused on the process and marketing of writing.

From The Heart of Appalachia: “Some of the editors and especially the agent wanted a book about strange hillbillies in an exotic location. I never mentioned my confusion over the phone. It hardly seemed strategic to tell people that I really did not know the place they wanted me to write about.” Later, after a phone call from his agent: “As always, the talk meandered to ‘How’s the writing going by the by?’ I had been sliding artfully around the truth for some time but worried about losing an opportunity, I lied outright. ‘Going great! I’ve got eight or a hundred pages of terrific stuff.’ . . . I paced around awhile wondering about the mess I had created for myself and then about where the agent imagined I had moved. . . . He wanted a compassionate book about the Appalachia he had in mind. But what place was that?”

Q: I’d like to talk to you about the artistic dilemma of being unable to produce what you’ve been asked for. What was that like, finding your way to this book?

O’Brien: It became more a moral dilemma than an artistic dilemma. The agent, who was a very good man, very sensitive, wanted a compassionate book about these poor unfortunates in Appalachia. I could have been clever enough to do that, and I would have had an easier time rather than floundering around the way I did. But I was really stuck in a moral dilemma. It wasn’t the Appalachia I knew. Trying to come up with larger vision of what it was bothered me ethically. I struggled and truggled. I’ve spent my life trying to reject, to counter, the clichés about people I care so much about. Then when I sat down to write, I would bump into people who resembled the stereotypes. The difficulty in my mind goes on about what I owe the people I write about.

The opening lines of The Heart of Appalachia: “It is the hottest day of summer and I have started for my father’s birthplace in Piedmont, West Virginia. Sometime today they will bury him in southwest Philadelphia and I will not be there. The flurry of phone calls two days ago made it clear that my presence would only add to family stress. My father, at long last, is beyond caring about anything I might or might not do, and so I see no point.”

Q: You’re choosing what to reveal, which brings me to another aspect of your writing, which is what you chose to reveal about yourself. There’s a lot of exposure on many levels. How did you choose to do that?

O’Brien: I don’t think it was a choice. It just seemed the right thing to do. There was just some conviction in me that this was central to my story. But it wasn’t a logical decision at all. All my best work — whether it was poetry or fiction — has always been closely autobiographical. So, writing this book, I lapsed back into that. I don’t think I would call it confessional. It wasn’t a logical decision as much as it was following an instinct that kept insisting this was the way to do this thing. It felt right to me.

Q: Obviously, doing what felt right to you has resonated with readers.

O’Brien: It’s amazing. That truly, truly is amazing. If I had had any idea that the book would have the effect that it has on so many West Virginians and Appalachians, I think I would have choked up. I think I would have been too frightened to write the book. I was trying to write a book that was true for me, and that was as directly honest as I could make it. And I assumed there would be some crossover, that some people would say “Well, I feel that way,” but I was more worried that people would be offended by the honesty in it.

From The Heart of Appalachia: “By the 1930s, 75 percent of West Virginia’s landmass and between 85 and 95 percent of the state’s natural resources ‘legally’ belonged to outside interests. This led to political corruption and to economic stasis that West Virginia would never escape. Coal and timber companies own most of the state’s politicians, who pass tax and environmental laws to benefit their sponsors.”

Q: Has there been fallout?

O’Brien: I think the politicians are standing back out of the fray, measuring the wind. If they’re smart, the best thing to do is ignore it. To stand up and say something simply calls attention to themselves and the book. I think this must be less than a mosquito on their radarscopes.

I have not had a single person give me a bad reaction to the book. Now, West Virginians being West Virginians, the people that really don’t like it might be hesitant to say anything. But the reaction has been frankly overwhelming. The last time I was in Lewisburg at The Open Book, there was a man in a wheelchair. We sat and held hands, it must have been 20 minutes. Last week a woman at the IGA market hugged me. She was not a person who had much money, that was clear. And that’s what amazes me, that people like that read this book. She came up and said, “I just need to hug you.” And that’s very gratifying, as you might imagine, but it also throws me.

The deference I’m being shown is very confusing to me. I don’t know what to make of it. I want to get back to my writing and be my own neurotic, depressed self again. If this thing had happened when I was 30, it might well have changed the way I see myself. But at my age, I don’t think it can have any other effect other than confuse me.

From The Heart of Appalachia: “The various missionaries have differing agendas but the assumption about the people here remains the same. These colorful Appalachians, hillbillies, Montaineers, Highlanders, or Celts can be appalling or beguiling by turns, but essentially they are children who need the assistance of adult missionaries . . . . Missionaries were, and still are, decent people with noble intentions, and many of them sacrificed lives of relative comfort to work long and hard in the southern Appalachians. But they were people as blind to their own cultural assumptions as most of us.”

Q: One of the hallmarks of your book is that ability to take a 360-degree perspective around something.

O’Brien: Yeah, and that’s something that drove my editor crazy. Throughout the manuscript, every time I would say something, I would find myself adding caveats or backing up from the impossibility of pinning human nature. My editor would write these notes in the margins saying, “John, you’ve got to quit telling readers you don’t know anything or that there’s nothing you can be sure of, because in time they’re going to agree with you and stop reading.”

We’re all human. I don’t see myself on the moral high ground at all. Sometimes I would read things about missionaries; I would find myself getting angry and then I would think through it and realize they’re no more flawed than I am. The real story of our region isn’t so much of villains — and we’ve had our share of villains — but of an awful lot of good people operating on the best of assumptions, trying to do something good. And that’s all I’m doing.

The number of things I’m sure of or that I know become fewer and fewer all the time. Except kindness. I’m pretty sure that it’s better to be kind to people.

Q: We’ve talked about how in West Virginia the fallout wasn’t perhaps what one would have thought, but what about family?

O’Brien: I’ve really heard almost nothing from my family. For awhile, I thought about not telling them about the book. I’m not angry. At times I’ve been angry with my parents, more my mother than anything else. But her life was difficult. She is the person she is because she had to be, I suppose. I thought about not sending the book, because I didn’t want to upset them. And then my wife said, ‘You really owe it to your family to tell them that this book is coming out. Whether they want to read it or don’t want to read it, you don’t want them to have been blindsided.” My daughter still communicates with the family through letters and we advised the family that the book was coming out and we would send a copy if they wanted a copy. They never got back in touch with me, but they got the book. My mother wrote one letter to my daughter and all she said was, “I think that your dad’s father was proud of him.” My mother is a mystery to me. There are so many admirable things about her, but so many other things I’ll never understand. I’m still troubled by the break, I still feel guilt. At the same time, the break was a two-way thing. I wish I had made it more clear to readers that it wasn’t just me.

Q: I think that comes across in your last paragraph: It comes down to fathers and sons. Who owes what to whom? Where does trouble begin and end? Sometimes I think my grandfather, my father, my son, and I are variations on a single personality meant to carry some dark message. the picture of my grandfather fills my mind. He is staring out beyond the frame. I mumble, “Tell me what you see.”

O’Brien: I worried about putting it in there, to tell you the truth. Well, I worried about every damn line. You’re a writer, you know all about that. It’s just so difficult. Why do it? There’s so little reward. I have no delusions that this book has changed something or is going to change something. There must be easier things in the world to do.

Q: So why do we do it?

O’Brien: I was a very, very religious kid. I was an altar boy. I was so religious that I would tremble, almost faint at the altar when the priest raised the Host. It was so profound, so moving for me. But then within a couple of years I had become such a smart-assed atheist. But I always needed something There was this huge hole that the Catholic religion left in my life. I needed to devote myself to something that was just bigger than me. Writing became that thing. And it is a big thing, isn’t it? It filled that hole. That’s why I do it, I think.

Q: Every writer wants to know how to get an agent, but it sounds like it’s been a very circuitous route for you.

O’Brien: I get the idea when I talk to people [that] they think, ‘give me the fix,’ and it’s all a matter of connections. I’m almost 60 years old and this is my first book. If I had some kind of quick fix, why in the hell didn’t I use it years ago?

I started the project because I’m a writer. Writers write, and this was an opportunity that came my way. I started writing articles in the ’80s. I was publishing fiction right along, and getting nominated for awards, and so on, but it just seemed to hit an impasse. And so I decided to write nonfiction as a way of making some money. I was such a fool. I had no idea how hard it was. I began to write articles and to publish them in Harrowsmith, Country Journal, Gray’s Sporting Journal. I was writing about what I knew. Among the things I knew was West Virginia, family reunions, ramp suppers, fishing in the mountains. The articles attracted some attention. I got a couple of letters from agents and editors saying if you want to write a book, get in touch.

Q: Do you realize most writers would fall over if an agent or editor said, “If you want to write a book get in touch?”

O’Brien: I don’t know what to say about that. From the time I started writing seriously at the age of 26 in Morgantown at WVU, my fiction really caught people’s attention. I started getting fellowships and awards. At the University of Iowa and Stanford I was treated with a great deal of deference with those fellowships. Some of my friends, Tracy Kidder, Ray Carver, people that I knew very well, I was right in league with them. I saw them start from somebody like me, going nowhere apparently and suddenly become a literary darling. So what’s happened for me with this book doesn’t seem that overwhelming. It’s enjoying a certain amount of success, but it doesn’t seem to me that big a deal. So the agent getting in touch, that was a good thing. But compared to the success I was seeing around me, it really didn’t seem like that big a deal to me.

Q: What advice would you have to writers about getting an agent?

O’Brien: It’s damned hard. Again, it’s supply and demand. There are how many thousands of people brandishing manuscripts? One place you can start is Writers Market. You can send letters of inquiry. I would recommend shot gunning letters. Don’t ever pay anything.

Q: Do you really write seven days a week?

O’Brien: Yes, I do. Wait, there are exceptions. I didn’t get a chance to write this morning at all because I had to get up and get on the road. My life is, I go to bed between eight and nine at night, I usually get up around five and I write. I make coffee and I write. Seven days a week. That’s my life. If I have a good day, I’ll treat myself to a late afternoon hunting wild mushrooms in the woods or bass fishing on the river in the early evenings.

Q: Do you have another occupation? So many writers do.

O’Brien: I’ve been a househusband. I do all the cooking, toilet cleaning, floor mopping.

Q: You seem to be successful at marketing — you’re all over the place. Where do these opportunities come from?

O’Brien: It just sort of happened. I wish I could say I’m a genius. I did have a publicist at Knopf and she did get me on The Diane Rehm Show [broadcast from public radio station WAMU in Washington, D.C.]. That show opened a lot of doors. Other people began to review the book because I was on that show. One thing seems to lead to another. Knopf does have a hefty reputation; how much that helps, I don’t know. If there was anything like a master plan, why at my age am I so poor? I own nothing.

Q: How do you balance your time? There’s so much time involved in going to signings, doing presentations.

O’Brien: Not well. I’ve been on the road for a long time. I’ve gotten almost no writing done since June. I’m looking forward to getting this part of my life over with, and getting back to writing again.

Q: Do writers need a Web page?

O’Brien: As far as I can see, no. It was originally my son’s idea. He designed the page and did all the work. He got this deal where it cost us $700, or something like that. So far it hasn’t amounted to anything. [The address is]

Q: What would you like to share with West Virginia writers?

O’Brien: There are a lot of wonderful American voices in West Virginia. The idea that New York is the big time, that this is second rate, is a joke. If you’re lucky enough to do what you want to do, you don’t realize how blessed you are. If you get a chance to pursue something that you really believe in, that you can really pour yourself into, I’m convinced that’s worthwhile.

Belinda Anderson, a regular contributor to ArtWorks, is the author of The Well Ain’t Dry Yet, a collection of short stories published last year by Mountain State Press.

To purchase an autographed copy of At Home in the Heart of Appalachia, communicate with John via e-mail, read excerpts from the book or post thoughts on the book and Appalachia in general, go to Orders for the book also may be sent, with $26.50, to John O’Brien, P.O. Box 148, Franklin, WV 26807.

O’Brien also will deliver a presentation 2 p.m. March 21 at the Virginia Festival of Books in Charlottesville, VA.