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A Novel Approach

Episode #106 | First Aired: February 24, 2008

“I just like the canvas of a novel. I like being able to just go anywhere that the character takes me. In a short story, you have to be so contained and rein things in. In a novel you can let the character completely take over,” says Silas House. Three Kentucky authors whose diverse works have gained national attention in the early 2000s—House, Sheila Williams, and Kirby Gann—offer perspectives and insights into writing novels in the one-hour Kentucky Muse documentary “A Novel Approach.”

The documentary takes you into each writer’s realm. For House, that’s Eastern Kentucky, the setting for his novels “Clay’s Quilt” (2001), “A Parchment of Leaves” (2002), and “The Coal Tattoo” (2004). House is interviewed at his home in Lily and reads from his works.

Kentucky Muse visits Sheila Williams in Newport, in Northern Kentucky, now home to this Ohio-born author of “Dancing on the Edge of the Roof” (2002), “The Shade of My Own Tree” (2003), “On the Right Side of a Dream” (2005), and “Girls Most Likely” (2006). Williams and her husband walk through the historic neighborhood, and she visits a local café, where she meets with fellow writers Jack Kerley and Ron Ellis.

“A Novel Approach” travels to Louisville to spend time with Kirby Gann, author of “The Barbarian Parade: Or, Pursuit of the Un-American Dream” (2003) and “Our Napoleon in Rags” (2005). Gann is shown at Sarabande Books, the nonprofit literary press where he is managing editor, and drives past a local restaurant where he once worked as a bartender.

All three authors discuss autobiographical and other influences on their work, explain how they approach the writing process, and read selections from their novels. They also explain what appeals to them about the form of the novel.

How do real writers live and work? Find out in triplicate in this fascinating and personal literary tour while getting acquainted with three Kentuckians whose voices are helping to shape the contemporary novel.

Kirby Gann

Kirby Gann website

Kirby Gann

On the streets of the Highlands neighborhood and the soccer fields of Central High School in Louisville, Kirby Gann began gathering the early experiences that would later inspire his imaginative, compelling, and hyper-realistic fiction. Though he considers the enjoyment he found writing in school a fundamental element of his youth, it was his success as an athlete that eventually brought him to Transylvania University in Lexington at the age of 18. During his junior year, with the soccer season coming to an end, he enrolled in a creative writing course and suddenly encountered a new fascination with the world of South African and Eastern European literature.

After periods living in New York, working as a bike messenger in Washington, DC, and traveling in France, Gann found himself back in Louisville, sharing a downtown apartment, working at a local bar, and continuing his attempts to complete and publish his first novel. While working on what he considers his first novel, a still-unpublished manuscript about living abroad called “Out in the World,” he took the suggestion of a fellow writer to explore more autobiographical approaches to developing his fiction. He began examining two major events in his childhood—the tornado that hit Louisville on April 3, 1974 and an accident in which his father was hit by a train—and subsequently shaped those experiences and his memories into his first published novel, “The Barbarian Parade.” His second novel, “Our Napoleon in Rags,” draws heavily on his experiences as a bartender. Set in a fictional version of Old Louisville, it features the exploits of Haycraft Keebler, an amalgamation of several personalities commonly encountered at the bar.

Editor and Writer

For the last 10 years, Gann has also worked as managing editor for Sarabande Books, a nonprofit publishing company that focuses on collections of poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction. He teaches for the MFA program at Spalding University, working with three to five students per semester. Gann is also writing a new novel about two brothers, loosely based on his own brother’s battle with leukemia, the disillusionment that comes with losing a loved one, and the ways in which such a loss impacts our perceptions of reality.

Gann follows a strict schedule and work method for his writing. He wakes up at 6:00 am, makes coffee, writes from 6:30 to 9:30, and then works at the publishing company until the evening. “To write a novel you have to touch it every day. And keep it going in your conscience. Another way I work—I never have a clear vision. It’s what I do along the way.”

The ideal writer’s life, Gann says, would be that of a hermit or monk, and so he and his wife tend to maintain a quiet domestic life in their Louisville home. But his mind is constantly active, absorbing new information, observing new conversations and potential plots and characters, and re-examining the past experiences that give his fiction its rich sense of realism. Drawn to the conflicts and troubles of everyday life, Gann often peers into the shadowy parts of our world while casting characters that consistently look up to the emergent starlight for hope and guidance.

Sheila Williams

Sheila Williams website

Sheila Williams

Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Sheila Williams recalls often getting caught writing stories about her daydreams when she was just a schoolgirl. This memory, as well as the literary and artistic passions of her parents—her father was a musician and avid storyteller—and stories told around the family dinner table were her first inklings of her interest in the writing life.

From these seeds planted in her childhood, Williams further developed her talent in high school, writing poetry, plays, essays, and articles for the school newspaper, and on into college at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. There she followed a pre-law trajectory, majoring in political science with a minor in English under the notion that, though literature and English were her true passions, they would not offer a prosperous and secure career track. Nonetheless, her subsequent corporate career as a paralegal and her role as a wife and mother of two did nothing to curtail the deeper resonance of her love of writing.

Finding Her Voice

Poring over how-to-write-a-novel books, writing in the spare time she could find between her work and home life, constantly crafting and editing draft after draft of early book attempts, and using the numerous rejection letters from publishing houses not as discouraging indications of failure but as encouraging reminders to try harder, she eventually reached a breakthrough: “I found my own voice!”

When her first book, “Dancing on the Edge of the Roof,” was accepted for publication, Williams took the opportunity to transform herself into the artist that had been developing since her girlhood in Columbus. Interestingly enough, the book is about a woman who, after reaching a certain point in her life, decides that a complete transformation is necessary and moves to a different town in pursuit of a new beginning. “I realize that this was my opportunity to make a change and do exactly as Juanita had done in the book and dance a little on the edge of the roof—in other words, take some chances and see if I could get this writing thing going,” Williams says. “And with my family’s encouragement, I did that, and it really surprised me because it turned out better than I had expected.”

Life as a Writer

In time, she began to organize her life around mornings spent crafting new work and afternoons taking care of financial, promotional, and other clerical tasks associated with her books. Maintaining a strong work ethic toward her creative output has resulted in four books, a fast-growing group of avid readers, and new opportunities such as teaching. “Dancing on the Edge of the Roof” has been optioned for film, and Williams is involved in writing the screenplay. “In an adaptation for screen, one of the first things you have to do as a writer is get out of the way, because you really have to blow up the book in order to write the screenplay. What works in a novel does not work on screen. You have to be sure that you give enough information in the screenplay to tell the story but not infringe on the art of the director and actor or actress who will interpret the words. Basically what you are doing is putting the bones together so that you have a skeleton and then you back off.”

Williams describes the characters in her books as “ordinary people who have situations they must deal with, get over, or get away from.” Though they are stories about women, Williams finds that many fans do not think of her work as “women’s books.”

Williams first came to Kentucky to attend her last year of college at the University of Louisville. Her husband, Bruce Smith, was at the time stationed at Fort Knox, and the couple was married in Louisville. They lived in a variety of locations before returning to Kentucky in 1999. The couple lives in a Victorian house in Newport, in a “very interesting neighborhood filled with folks who do all kinds of things; lots of artists live here, lots of dogs and cats; our neighborhood has a good feel to it.” With their children grown, the couple has taken on two Shih Tzu dogs, Pancho and Cisco, and Williams jokingly notes that her husband wants her to write a book called “The Adventures of Pancho and Cisco.”

Silas House

Silas House website

Silas House

Growing up in a trailer on the banks of Robinson Creek near the Laurel River in Lily, KY, a town of about 500 at the time, Silas House saw nothing degrading about what would be stereotyped as a “hillbilly childhood.” In fact, he disdains the mark of “trailer trash,” speaking of his early years as full of dignified richness and joyful magic. Surrounded by storytellers—his father’s friends as they gathered around a busted truck engine, his mother’s gossiping gospel groups, and the visitors to his Aunt Dot’s store—he also developed a profound appreciation for the ways in which life is woven from the fabric of people’s stories and their communication. As a member of the Holiness Church fellowship in Lily and a precocious student at Lily Elementary, House was surrounded by an intricate and energized social network of family and friends that intensified his love of the tightly knit community and its connection to its place—the mountain ranges, coal fields, towns, and woods of Eastern Kentucky.

A Student of Life

As a young man, House commuted to and from Sue Bennett College in London, KY, a two-year college with about 500 students, and then Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond and its Manchester satellite campus. He excelled as a student, pursuing interests in story craft and earning a B.A. in English with a concentration on American literature. He went on to receive his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Spalding University in Louisville. He is quick to mention, though, that he probably learned more from the countless odd jobs he has taken over the years to survive, including stints working at Wal-Mart and “every restaurant in Lily,” pouring concrete, and delivering Lily’s mail.

Works and Awards

House published his first book, “Clay’s Quilt,” in 2001 at the age of 29. The book tells the haunting story of Clay Sizemore and his struggle to find peace after a lifetime spent carrying the pain of a traumatic past event—the death of his mother. After its publication, House entered the writing life, taking on the promotional and business end professionally while continuing to plumb the depths of his storytelling voice. In 2002, he published “A Parchment of Leaves,” the story of a troubled love triangle gone murderously wrong in the dark days of World War I. 2004’s The Coal Tattoo examines the lives of two sisters in the 1960s as they face the sweeping changes brought to their community as a result of the expanding coal mining industry. His play “The Hurting Part,” a mountain Christmas story that reveals the painful elements of separation and love during the holiday season, debuted in 2005 to wide acclaim.
His work has won two Kentucky Novel of the Year awards, the Award for Special Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Appalachian Book of the Year, the Chaffin Award, and many other honors. He serves as writer-in-resident at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN, where he also directs the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival.
House is also a contributing editor for “No Depression” magazine; remains one of Nashville’s most in-demand press kit writers; and performs regularly with his band, the Doolittles, playing guitar and singing. He was recently chosen to edit the posthumous manuscript of Appalachian writer James Still and is also co-editing “Something’s Rising,” a collection of oral histories on the subject of mountaintop removal mining. He is a member of Public Outcry, a group of writers and activists who visit universities to educate people about mountaintop removal mining, a practice he actively opposes through those and other projects. He is currently working on two novels and was recently commissioned to write a new play, which will premiere in 2008.

Letting the Story Unfold

House claims that the majority of his work could be considered autobiographical, given its deep roots in the places and people encompassing his youth and adulthood in the mountains. Preservation of the past—the dialects, customs, and close relationship patterns of his home—also remains a constant thread in his books, as do the stillness of the woods and the preeminence of the mountain environment. He says he is drawn to the format of a novel simply because it allows each of his characters to develop fully as they drive the story and, though usually troubled in the dim light of the first few pages, find some form of peace by the end. Of his method, he says that he has usually written a book in his head long before putting pen to paper. He prefers to let the story unfold after long periods, often spanning a year or more, of deep reflection and observation.