Uprooting and Re-rooting: Exploring Shifting Histories and Homelands with Jeremy B. Jones
North Carolina native, Jeremy B. Jones, brings the shifting landscape and community of Appalachia’s Henderson county to life in his most recent nonfiction book, Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland (John F. Blair, 2014). Winner of the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year in nonfiction and the gold award in the 2015 Independent Publisher Book (IPPY) Awards in memoir, Bearwallow is a cathartic unravelling of what it means to be from somewhere.
Jones’ writing drops readers right into his homeland and the intertwined nature of his family’s history with the land, land that is the setting of both much of his life and writing. In reading Bearwallow, I had trekked along with the narrator’s mountain bike rides up and down Bearwallow Mountain that gave literal momentum to the literary journey through Jones’ history, and I had felt the uprooting of a life from an Appalachian region of NC to Honduras and back again. As the forefront issues in Bearwallow directly involve place, it was not surprising that the craft talk Jones gave at Appalachian State University as part of the Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writer Series would be grounded in discussing strategies for intersecting memoir writing with a sense of place. With the exploration of identity pulsing through the locations in Bearwallow so much so that I view these locations as embodied characters, I knew there was more to be discovered about this place-identity relationship in Jones’ writing. So I asked him.
Samantha Hunter: I want to know more about your dogs that interweave throughout Bearwallow. If you could tell me their names?
Jeremy B. Jones: In the book there are two dogs. When my wife and I got married, she had a dog named Blue, a Great Dane puppy, and I had a dog named Banjer, a mutt—a very big one-hundred-and-twenty-pound mutt. So when Sarah and I got married, the dogs came together. When you’re a writer, you don’t necessarily know what metaphors are going to show up until you start writing. The writer Scott Russell Sanders talks about after writing a draft to look back through it for metaphorical properties, which is something I always think about. After I’d written about our dogs on this land that we were living on, I realized that my dog, Banjer, was a rambler. You could never keep him in one place, he was nervous all the time, and running around. And Blue was a homebody. I realized at some point that those were the two urges that I was navigating as a person moving back home. Part of me wanted to run away, part of me wanted to hunker down. So, the dogs show up in the book because they were there, but also for that metaphorical purpose, I think, too.
SH: That’s great how the dogs and their different personalities interweave with your own personal narrative about identity, so thank you for sharing that. You mentioned in your talk that you find yourself being drawn to poetry for your own writing inspiration, and I think an influence of poetic language shows in your prose. Which poets did you find yourself most drawn to during the writing of Bearwallow?
JJ: That’s a good question. The poet I go back to the most is Elizabeth Bishop. I think she has such a sense of perception about everyday things. She has a very bizarre poem called “In the Waiting Room,” in which a seven-year-old version of herself is in a waiting room with her aunt, and she looks at National Geographic for the first time and sees these naked women from somewhere in Africa. She then has this kind-of out-of-body experience about it and then snaps back into the dentist’s office waiting room, realizing how much has changed in her life. Bishop was a really important influence for language, but also perception. I think memoirists in particular should be making the ordinary extraordinary—I can’t remember whose quote that is—but finding what is extraordinary about ordinary moments, and I think she does that really well. Rodney Jones is a poet who has this great collection called Elegy for the Southern Drawl, which was really influential in my thinking about accent and how it functions both to identify us, and to propel us, in some ways. If you think about the ways our voices sound, they mark us, but also help us figure out who we are.
SH: What you were saying about Bishop’s work flows right into my next question on perspective. How do you define creative nonfiction? And where do you see your own work fitting into that definition?
JJ: Some of this stuff is really inside baseball, but I prefer the term literary nonfiction. I think creative nonfiction has a little bit of a bad rap for just being [breaks off]
SH: The assumption of almost fantasy over reality?
JJ: Yeah, I think the assumption that people make at this point, after this slew of fake memoirs we had in the early 2000s, is that ‘creative’ means ‘fiction.’ So you can ‘make stuff up,’ which is what I hear people say all the time, and, really, I think the term ‘nonfiction’ is useless. It’s not defining, it’s just a process of negation—“What is it?” “Well, it’s not fiction…” For me, ‘literary’ helps to identify the aims of the writing. It’s trying to be literary, it’s not journalistic or academic, which to me means that its first goal is to be art, it’s trying to make art. This also means creating an experience for the reader, rather than simply communicating an experience, which is what I think academic work might do, or journalism might do, or a memo might do. Those are all nonfiction, but their goal is to communicate something, and I don’t think literary work takes as its principle objective the communication of something. It’s trying to create an experience that is, at its best, artful. Which is a pretty lofty way to then set myself up to say ‘how do I fit into that?’ But I think that, for me, nonfiction comes out of the tradition of Montaigne, the 16th century Frenchman who took as his aim inquiry rather than a kind of thesis-driven essay. My book is really driven by questions; I don’t know that I had any thesis when setting out. I was really, at some point, trying to make something of an experience for the reader more than something just navel-gazing, or chronological in its autobiography. In those ways, I was trying to fit into my definition of literary nonfiction.
SH: In your craft talk, you shared that you tell your creative writing students at Western Carolina University to ‘read like a thief.’ Continuing from my question about influential poets, what are the most important lessons that you have “stolen”—I’m using air quotes here—from other artists and writers and then carried into Bearwallow?
JJ: The advice that I think we hear often in creative writing, which isn’t totally true, is to ‘show, don’t tell.’ This is archetypal advice at this point. The truth is that we have to do both. If ‘showing’ means creating scenes, and ‘telling’ means exposition, a good writer is going to do both things. I think in nonfiction, at least for me in my early drafts—and I find this to be true with a lot of students—there’s a tendency to lean very heavily on exposition, and to not build scenes. I was trying to be really cognizant of that, because I was writing about things that happened earlier in my life, yet using present tense in the book. Jo Ann Beard, an essayist whom I love, has this brilliant essay that I always go back to, “The Fourth State of Matter.” She’s really good at writing scene, and I heard her say one time that she doesn’t even think she could be reflective, because she’s so…it reads like fiction, really. I read her a lot and thought about her lessons, and how she characterizes the goal of a memoirist as reimagining memories onto the page—to essentially put yourself back into them. Here’s my Harry Potter reference: it’s like the pensieve that allows you to drop back into a memory and then see what’s happening. That’s essentially what a memoirist tries to do. There’s another brilliant essay by the poet Christian Wiman, who was the editor of Poetry Magazine for a long time, called “The Limit.” It’s about his family’s history with depression and gun violence in West Texas. It’s smartly organized, and doesn’t follow chronology, but mostly has a traditional narrative arc. There’s still a conflict, it rises to it, and then it’s resolved. I was reading writers like Wiman to try and see how I could do something that wasn’t purely chronological in its arrangement—even though my book does move through a year—and think about how to organize other ideas in a way that isn’t jumpy, but also isn’t heavy-handed. In some ways I think Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is an important book to me, does that well. It goes through four seasons of a year, but it’s all over the place chronologically.
SH: As a reader of your book, I resonate with how you’re speaking about memoir and the interweaving of past and present, so it makes sense, to me, that you’re pulling from these inspirations regarding arrangement. Your book was published in 2014. When was the last time you visited the town of Bearwallow, or have you been in contact with any of your young ESL students?
JJ: In the book, the top of Bearwallow was in the process of being cleared and prepared for this high-end, large-scale residential development. Earlier this year one of the residents in this new high-end, large-scale development wrote to me and invited me to come talk to their book club. It felt like a trick. It felt like they were going to tar and feather me or something. In the book, I’m not super positive about the development. But I went up there—I was curious to see what would happen—and there were about 30 or 40 people who all live up there who had me in, and we had a really interesting discussion. A couple of them were clearly…not annoyed exactly but kind of irked by the way that I talk about the development in the book, but most of them said ‘we get it, we understand how you’re feeling.’ So that visit was interesting because I got to be up there, go through their houses and hear their stories as they’re coming from all over the country to live part-time on top of the mountain. As far as my students, I haven’t seen many of them. I have a Mexican-American friend who shows up in the book along with his daughter, who was in kindergarten then. I just saw him, and she just turned sixteen, so it’s been a long time. But I don’t see a lot of those students. It’s to the point now where in the next couple of years they may start showing up in my college classrooms, which would be really eerie.
SH: And you teach at?
JJ: I teach at Western Carolina University, and in Henderson County where I’m from, the students tend to go to App State or to Western Carolina; those are the two regional universities that draw many of our students. I expect to see a handful of them in the next couple of years.
SH: In your talk today, you used the term ‘layers of soil’ in discussing the generational history of a landscape or place. With these layers of soil and the layering of languages that are at work in your book, does the term extinction resonate with you?
JJ: Yeah, I think in probably a lot of ways. One thing I think we sometimes would like to imagine is that cultural things go extinct, when they really don’t, and sometimes maybe we want them to. The novelist and short story writer, Ron Rash has this great book, The World Made Straight, set in Madison County, and one of the characters realizes that there was a massacre that occurred in Madison County during the Civil War and then he realizes his connection to it and starts thinking about all the history buried in that soil. Sometimes I think we think our history is gone, that it’s extinct, and it’s really not. It’s still buried down in people’s blood or in the soil somewhere. Someone else could write the same book as mine but about the environmental effects of large-scale developments instead, and I think that would be a really important book, especially in an agrarian community like mine, where people are pushing over apple trees to put in houses. The Poet Shelby Stephenson, the current Poet Laureate of North Carolina, has this great line in one of his poems about ‘farming houses,’ that people are farming houses these days. That’s what is growing up out of the soil. I think that the environmental effects of that are really worth investigating, but my interest took me into the cultural effects on people’s identities and communities from this change in landscape, these changes that we are creating. I worry about an extinction of community. When everything starts looking the same, and there are no clear lines between communities, or among communities. I don’t know, it’s fascinating to me to do research into the writing about Appalachia over the last one-hundred-and-twenty years, and to find a moment where people stopped talking about communities and counties, and even states, and it became this one cohesive region, and we sort of made these assumptions or judgements about a whole region, when, really, things were different from community to community. I think there’s some great things about, I mean I’m not exactly talking about globalism, but there are some really great things about the breaking down of walls between these sort of satellites—to mix my metaphors. But I think that something is lost, too, when you don’t have a specific community wherein you form your identity. I worry about that in terms of extinction as things change and we reassess the way we use our land. The question of water is really fascinating to me, because it was so crazy that people would build so many of these huge, million-dollar houses on the top of a mountain that is birthing the water for the rest of the valley—most of the streams start there and feed the wells of the communities below—that you couldn’t actually tap into the water table, and had to bring in water 15 miles from town. They planned to pack in so many houses on an empty mountain in a rural place, and there simply wasn’t enough water to support them all. Plus, the developers had promised “city amenities,” so they somehow managed to get the city and county to agree to pipe water out. I think when we start doing these kinds of things, the environmental effects seem a little more obvious—like, this is not smart. It doesn’t make sense. Why would you need to bring water 15 miles up a mountain? Especially when you could just live somewhere else. But the cultural effects, too, I think, could lead one to worry about what is going to disappear and what’s lost.
SH: With the tensions and intermingling of communities and political parties that you describe in the history of Western NC, and the regions of Appalachia that you talk about in chapter 3 of Bearwallow, how do you foresee the region’s reaction to our current political condition post-2016 presidential election? Do you expect a history of violence to repeat, or more of the “watch-and-wait attitude” you mention in the book? Basically, how do you think what you call the “happenstance” of Southern-ness will play out in today’s culture for Western NC?
JJ: That is a big question! [laughter] I don’t know that I have an answer, but I have some theories. In fact, I have a writer friend who just texted me this very morning because he is reading Hillary Clinton’s book, and in it she quotes J.D. Vance, who wrote Hillbilly Elegy, and she seems to believe that his thesis—which I think is flawed—that people in Appalachia have traded in their traditional values of being hard-working and having self-preservation for scapegoating and laziness—I mean, this is not far off from a direct quote of Vance—so that’s what he comes to, and then she says in her book that the region was angry for lots of reasons and this is why, that they’ve lost these traditional values. Which is, of course, absurd. It’s that same thing about applying one idea to a whole region that is disparate and diverse. It works in two ways. I think that the way people are looking at Appalachia right now is incredibly simplistic and reductive, and I think that view is having an effect on the way the people see themselves. To me, the most telling demographic information—once I was able to think about the election and hear everyone sorting out the why—was that the single most predictive demographic information had to do with whether or not people lived in racially isolated places. There was this fake-narrative about poor people, that it was mostly white, poor people that were behind the surge that elected Donald Trump.
SH: ‘They’re uneducated’ [using air quotes] and similar stereotypes that follow...
JJ: Yeah, and the truth was, now that they’ve pulled all the info together, the average Trump voter made more money than the average Clinton voter, so these are middle-class people. But the most telling detail was if people lived in racially isolated places. So, I think, they had these fears of the ‘Other,’ that they could no way confirm or deny other than through media. They didn’t know people, they didn’t see people from other places on a daily basis. I think that you could think about the future in two ways, one of those being pessimistic and the other optimistic. All of the development stuff that I was talking about earlier in a negative way, it has also brought in people from other places, who have different ideas. I was in my hometown, and there was an Anti-Trump rally in front of the old courthouse, and in walking through it I didn’t hear any accents that led me to believe that any of those people were from that place. They were all outsiders in a way. But just their being there complicates, nicely, the political landscape of my county, with their different voices. And so, in some ways, by bringing in other people, it could potentially lead to a less racially isolated place, where people have to deal with the ‘Other.’ On the other hand, I think you could consider that people are digging in, they’re going further and further inward. And this is why it’s complicated! I was just making this argument that we need to keep communities, but these communities have to be aware of one another and see their differences. It’s not easy. I don’t know how these things are going to shake out, but I think there are two trends to watch: one is about where people live and how we are dividing ourselves up politically and geographically; and the other is that, in NC at least, there’s been this constant rising move towards being unaffiliated, to not having a party, in terms of registered voters, so there are so many people without a party that I think things could shift fairly dramatically. It’s hard because we need to fight back against these easy narratives that are coming out of the media, even those that have good intentions, while also recognizing that there are screwed up things that we have to realize and deal with in our own communities. But it has to be nuanced, and I’m afraid that the national conversation is not often this way.
SH: While you were speaking, I noticed resonances from “The Flatness” by Michael Martone, which you mentioned earlier today in your talk regarding how he deals with regional stereotypes and these metaphors and exaggerations of communities that affect perspectives and how we all relate to each other, so I think you’re spot-on. You described in your talk the mode of interrogation surrounding the cyclical relationship between an individual’s effect on place, as well as the place’s effect on individuals. Is being physically engrossed in the setting of your writing an integral part of your writing process? Since your book is deeply rooted in Henderson county, I was surprised to hear in your talk that some of the writing for Bearwallow happened in other locations. Can you speak more on your writing’s relationship to place?
JJ: It’s true, the book is written in present tense, so the effect is that I’m moving through my days as the pages are turning. But, I was hardly there for any of the writing of it, so it meant in some ways that I was longing to be there, which propelled me to write and not be lazy about reimagining the spaces and the place. I couldn’t just walk outside and see it, so I had to really sit down in it instead of making assumptions. I think that a lot of time in writing about place, the writer assumes the reader will know what’s there or see what they want them to see without putting in the work of creating the scene. I didn’t have that luxury, not being there, so I had to recreate it for myself and for the reader. Now that I’ve moved back home, I’m having to fight against that. In terms of physical space, it’s really important to conceive of everything that’s there as much as for yourself as for the reader.
SH: This idea of longing flows into my next question. Since the book deals with multifaceted elements of identity and how they relate to place, was the writing process cathartic for you?
JJ: Yeah, I think so. I genuinely did not know, starting out, the answer to the question that I ask early on of ‘what does it mean to be a mountain person, and am I one of those?’ I didn’t have an answer—it wasn’t an artificial set up, but a real question that I was asking. I think it was both cathartic and enlightening because I was trying to get these answers as I was writing. It didn’t make for an efficient writing process, because I was having to constantly go back and rework as I learned new things. But, it did help me work through my own issues and connections with the place. As I said, I wasn’t there when I was writing the book. You know, I haven’t thought much about this, but I do think that the process of writing the book helped me come to terms with settling here long-term, back in this place that I’m from. When this job where I teach now, at Western Carolina, opened up, I think it’s probably true that writing Bearwallow helped me be in a place where I was like ‘Yes, I can do that, I can move back home.’ And I’m not sure that I could have done that without working through those questions and issues on the page, through the book.
SH: In some of your earlier chapters, you refer to your childhood relationship to history as stagnant, yet Bearwallow is very engaged with history. For me, as a reader, I felt that the text’s movements through time and space rely on each other. Can you speak more to this intermingling of time and place, and how the writing of this book affected your own relationship to both personal and national history?
JJ: One thing that’s always been strange to me is how young our country is in the scope of the world—like, you can go to these places in Europe that have buildings from 6oo- or 700 years ago—and so in some ways things that feel really far off to us would feel really close to other people. That was one perspective that I was trying to take into this, these things that were happening in the 1800s may feel ‘oh, so long-ago,’ but maybe someone in Europe wouldn’t think in those terms. I also grew up on land that had been in my family for 5 generations, and most of the houses were still standing. My great-great grandfather’s house is still there. There’s something about being in the presence of history in that way. Even though no one’s living in that house, I know that it’s there. The old barn is still there. So, there are all these tangible bits of history that I can go back to, and at some point, I realized that to answer ‘who am I; what does it mean to be a mountain person?’—that these questions had to be answered in history. It started with family history. When I was in college, I decided that I wanted to write something about the lives of both of my grandmothers, and then my one grandfather who’s still living. I went and did these interviews with them. I didn’t really have a specific purpose, but I got all these stories, and then noticed that they were all connected by livestock, so it ended up being an essay about livestock and the connections to my grandparents. When I started asking these questions, the first place I started was family history, and then to understand the family’s history I had to understand regional history and think in bigger terms. So, it really opened things up to me. I mean you can’t live in the South and see someone flying a confederate flag, or get angry about some discussion of the Civil War and not realize how present history still is for people. Even if they don’t completely understand it, or know why it’s present for them. In some way I was embracing that, even if I was trying to complicate it.
SH: In your craft talk, you mentioned that you feel that a writer’s style should be affected by their imagined expectations of the reader. How does working with both the past and the present in your book affect the stylistic choices you made in regard to pacing?
JJ: It’s hard to think about all of the many, many drafts the book went through. This isn’t exactly an answer to your question, but it does speak to audience and then leads into your question. About 4 or 5 drafts in, I had finished my M.F.A. program and was then writing this book, so I realized that I had an M.F.A. audience in my head and was imagining my colleagues around the workshop table. Which is a skewed sample of the actual reading public, because these are kind of artsy people who think about language all day. So, the early versions of the book wouldn’t have made any sense, in terms of the arrangement, to anyone not sitting in an M.F.A. program—they were organized thematically, and I had all these allusions to other works. It was too ‘smart’ to be any good. I started dismantling that and thinking about a reader who might come to this with an interest in history, or land use, or the region, who wouldn’t need to have read N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain to get the references I’m making. I had to rethink who I was writing to. Then I really tried not to make too many assumptions about the past and the present. I wanted to recreate those things for a reader who may not know much about the Civil War, or Central Americans living in NC. I hoped that the book would resonate with people in other parts of the world who are dealing with the same issues. Like, if you’re living in the Southwest, where there are lots of battles over water and where that water is going to go and who gets to own it, there would be similar issues that would connect with them. Essentially, I wanted to make sure the book wasn’t too regional or made too many assumptions about what people knew or thought about the region.
SH: As we’ve been talking about the tension between personal identity and physical place that comes up in Bearwallow, for me as a reader, I felt a continual sense of being uprooted and then re-rooted by the intermingling reflections of both the past and present. Does my reader response match up with the intent behind your stylistic choices in working with identity through history?
JJ: An easy first answer to the question the book asks of ‘what does it mean to be a mountain person?’, would be ‘a mountain person is this’ in a bold outline, period. Which makes this easy assumption that identity is fixed and not malleable and moving. For me, the process of both writing the book and living out the year that the book covers was one of being uprooted and re-rooted and figuring out ‘I don’t actually belong here. I can’t sit still in this place,’ and then realizing, ‘I only feel comfortable here,’ and this back and forth. I think at first, maybe unconsciously and then later a little more intentionally, I was trying to recreate that experience. Especially for a present tense movement, I wanted the experience that I was feeling to also lift up off the page for the reader, too. And it was jarring, just in thinking about identity, to have this process of ‘yes, no, yes, no,’ and then eventually realizing that I think the answer is ‘yes and no,’ it’s going to be changing. It can be that you feel comfortable and uncomfortable all at once. I’ve decided that’s what home means: being comfortable, but also uncomfortable. Because, if you’re too comfortable you might sit on the couch for the rest of your life, so I think there should be some tension, but still knowing that you’re safe there. My definition may change—these things are malleable—but that’s where home is for me now.
SH: I think the definition of home is a great place for us to end.
JJ: Thank you, thanks for your questions.