Sunday, February 1, 2009

Vicki Lane - Writing Appalachian

Vicki Lane is the author of the critically acclaimed Elizabeth Goodweather Appalachian Mysteries: Signs in the Blood, Art's Blood, Old Wounds, In a Dark Season (2008), as well as The Day of Small Things, a standalone coming in 2009.

A descendant of pioneer Floridians and Alabama farmers, Vicki was raised in Tampa, Florida. She married her high school sweetheart in 1963 and taught high school English at a prep school in Tampa. They should have been happy.

But in 1975, seduced by The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News, Vicki, her husband, two dogs, and their three year old son moved to a mountain farm in Madison County, North Carolina where they learned how to milk cows, butcher pigs, plow with mules, and raise tobacco. Twenty five years later and still on the same farm with the same husband, one more son, and many more dogs, Vicki remembered that she was an English major and decided to try her hand at a mystery novel.

Working from the premise ‘Write what you know’ she chose a middle-aged woman on a mountain farm as her protagonist and started writing. Five years later, Vicki’s first novel was published by Bantam Dell.

But wait! There's much, much more at and


Before I was published, a well known writer of Appalachian novels gave me a piece of advice – actually, it may have been more of a warning – don’t write about the mountain people in a patronizing manner. “We’ll come down on you if you do,” I think was what this writer said. Well, it scared me some and I tried very hard to make sure that the deep respect and admiration I had long felt for those tough, wise mountain folks who were my neighbors came through loud and clear in my writing.

Here’s the thing: a native Appalachian novelist can write as one whose family roots are deep in this region. I, on the other hand, since I’ve lived on our mountain farm for only 33 years, am a transplant -- one of those “damn Florida people.” I can’t pretend to know Appalachia as a native does but I can bring to my efforts at depicting mountain culture, the eyes and ears of one to whom Appalachia is utterly fascinating -- at times as familiar as the memory of my grandmother’s voice, at other times as indecipherable as a song in an unknown tongue, heard at a distance.

No, I can’t be a native, but even a transplant can put down roots that grow deep and take nourishment from an adopted home.

The Appalachian poet and essayist Thomas Rain Crow, in his lovely memoir Zoro’s Field, uses a term “the new natives.” This is his name for those who come to a place and “strive to work reciprocally and in balance and in harmony with the native people and the land.”

I like to think that that my protagonist, Elizabeth Goodweather, and I are new natives – we may be Florida people but at least we saw the error of our ways and moved to the mountains where we got to know our older neighbors and tried to learn from them, to work with them. Rather than sealing ourselves away in an
exclusive compound comprised of other newcomers, we tried to make a place for ourselves within the existing community.

And there was so much to learn from that community! Those folks who had lived on and with and by the land for generations had a wisdom that couldn’t be found in books. They were attuned to the weather, the seasons, the phases of the moon in a way that seemed almost uncanny to someone like me who’d grown up in suburbia where central heating and air conditioning made weather almost irrelevant and the moon was only occasionally glimpsed through a web of power lines and television antennas.

Like the song catchers who once roamed these mountains, writing down the old ballads and recording the old tunes, I listened and learned and remembered and often jotted down some of the wonderful things I’d observed. And when the day came that I began to write a novel, there was all this wonderful material just begging to be used– characters who became Miss Birdie and Aunt Omie, the landscape and life of the mountain farms and forests, the history of the region, and the language -- oh, the language like poetry!

“I wuz weedeatin’ in that ditch there and one a them big ol’ gorf rats like to run up my britchie-leg,” said my neighbor Mearl. Another lovely phrase rings in my memory from the time when, at the top of our mountain in October, we met a neighbor from down the other side. She and her grown son had been gathering apples from a volunteer tree there near the top. “We’re just walkin’ and feastin’,” she told us, smiling the sweetest smile and tossing away an apple core.

These mountains are full of stories. My first book, Signs in the Blood, opens with a scene described to me by a friend who was a home health aide – an old woman dying peacefully at home, surrounded by friends and family, a church choir is there singing, and two teenage grandchildren have just gotten saved in the kitchen. I wrote down the bare bones of this scene years before starting a novel. It was just too wonderful to take a chance of forgetting it.

Another story that I used in this same book is the tale of a young woman, who ran off with her boyfriend back in 1901, leaving her husband and infant behind. When I first heard this story, about thirty years ago, it was said that when the young woman came back for her baby, her husband locked her out and so she would climb up the logs of the cabin to look in the window and see her child. They said you could still see the scratch marks of her fingernails. This is the story that convinced the Big New York Editor who was looking at my manuscript to offer me a contract.

I tell people that my books are, in a way, a love song to the place I live. I’m trying very hard to write about a world that is fast slipping away. My husband and I were fortunate to have moved to our farm at a time when many people were still living as they had in the early years of the century, when there was no television, no internet, no cell phones. Instead, conversation, story-telling, and homemade music on the front porch were the entertainment. These people are the backbone of my stories and readers write from all over to say that they are reminded of their aunt, their granny, their great uncle, their childhood.

But I have to write about the changes too – the new people of all sorts who are moving to the area. Elizabeth’s world, like my own, is seeing an influx, for good or bad, of all sorts of pilgrims from all sorts of places – Florida people looking for cooler summers, Northerners looking for warmer winters, earnest organic farmers, telecommuters with jobs in far off cities, artists and artisans, New Age seekers, Latin American laborers, all adding spice and savor to what was once a dish with only one ingredient.

I remember back in ’76, being introduced to a young woman whose family had lived in the same community for seven generations. As I recall, she looked at me with a wary distrust, probably the same way the Cherokees looked at her folks when they first began to move in to the Cherokee’s hunting grounds. And it’s probably the same way, God forgive me, I look at some of the more recent newcomers to the area. And what changes are You going to make? the look says.

Not long ago I was talking with a lifelong resident of the area and the subject of her neighbor – another of those Florida people -- came up. “Him?” she said, “He ain’t showed me nothin’ yet.”

By their works shall ye know them, I think she was saying. And the fact is that many, many of these new people are enriching the mountains, bringing an energy and freshness of outlook to the on-going work. Those who do it best, listen to the long-time residents, respecting their wisdom and experience and hearing their concerns. Yes, Change is inevitable, but it can be done cautiously and respectfully so all that is good and lovely in the land isn’t lost forever.

Back when we first moved to the mountains, one of my neighbors invited me to go with her to Decoration Day at their family cemetery. A group had gathered there atop the gentle hill at the edge of our farm. It was a mild day, the first Sunday in June, under one of those crystalline blue skies that they say proves God is a Carolina fan. The invited preacher hadn’t been able to come, so some of those present took turns reading from the Bible or speaking a few words. And then Sylvie, another neighbor -- a short stout woman, known for her ability to outperform a man in cutting and barning tobacco -- Sylvie began to sing ‘Amazing Grace.’

Her voice was rough, with a heavy mountain twang, and she sang from her heart and her belly and her soul with the same strength she brought to the tobacco field. Her song was a shout, a statement of faith, a declaration of who she was and where she was – and an anthem for all who once were lost but now are found. It raised goose bumps on my arms and when the last fierce notes fell away, losing themselves in the trees and pastures around us, I was fighting back tears. I once was lost but now I’m found, I thought. Was blind but now I see. This is the place I’ve been looking for and here I am where I’m meant to be.

Amazing Grace – it’s here all around me in these mountains. And last year, when I was doing a talk at our local library, I got another taste of it. A woman, a native of many generations, brought up one of my books to be signed. She looked me in the eye and said, “We’re glad you moved here.”


Vicki Lane said...

Thanks for inviting me over to play, Kaye! I wanted to mention one thing -- should anyone go looking for Book 1 of the Elizabeth Goodweather Appalachian Mysteries -- it is temporarily out of stock (not out of print) in most locations. My editor assures me it will be back on shelves on February 13.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Welcome, Vicki! I'm over the moon about you being here. Its a lovely piece, and your photographs continue to just bring tears to my eyes.

Glad Book #1 will be back on the shelves just in time for Valentine's Day.

Anonymous said...

Vicki, I'm just popping in to say (before my eyelids slam shut) that I'm looking forward to seeing you this Saturday at Murder in the Magic City. I'll be back tomorrow to savor those photographs and read carefully what you posted (I just skimmed quickly).

Vicki Lane said...

Hey, Deborah! I'm excited about going to Birmingham -- have heard so many raves about Murder in the Magic City and Murder in the Menu!

I'll see you there!

Krill Press said...

Kayester, Kayester, Kayester. And to think just a few short months ago
you were the blushing, fledgling bride blogger, all a twitter about
guest blogging for your very first time anywhere! Now look at you.
Just look at you! Only moments ago I finished reading this outstanding
Vicki Lane guest blog and I swear to God, if that woman didn't already
have a publisher I would be after her like flies on a hog! Anyhow,
I've now signed up with M&M as an official "follower." You know
something? The chief is right. Both Clint Eastwood, and YOU, are HOT!

Vicki Lane said...

Thanks for the kind words, Krill Press! After me like flies on a hog? Oh, shoot, I'll bet you say that to all the girls, you smooth-talking devil, you.

And you're right, that Kaye is something else!

Earl Staggs said...

Vicki, I thoroughly enjoyed your piece and loved the pictures. I could easily live on your mountain, but my wife would want to know how far it is to the nearest mall.

Anonymous said...

Back this morning and what a treat. I knew last night that I loved the pictures, but now, I love what you've written even more. I'm a country girl moved to the city and, although the dialect isn't exactly the same, it's close enough to remind me of home. I have to admit that I don't like change - I want things to be the same when I go home, but I know that's not possible or fair. You've helped me see that it could be a good thing and I'll remember that when I get too nostalgic about what used to be. Thanks for a wonderful interlude in the day. I'll be sure to introduce myself this Saturday when I'm standing in line to buy your books.

Thanks, Kaye, for another treat!

Vicki Lane said...

Earl, our mountain is, for me, an earthly paradise and I'm happy to say the nearest mall is a good hour away. The last time I was there was maybe ten yeas ago -- and that was to take an elderly neighbor who insisted on shopping at Belk's. But I never was much of a shopper.

Deborah P. -- Yeah, I have that change thing myself -- but as I'm one of the new people, it's hard to say that no one else should move here. And there have been a lot of good changes.

See you Saturday!

Carol Murdock said...

Kaye........Vicki is my hero !
Thanks for the lovely interview!

Vicki Lane said...

Thanks for dropping by, Carol!

Anonymous said...

Vicki, I remember well that opening scene in Signs in the Blood. Your unique author voice beckoned to me from that scene, full of reverence for Appalachia, and I couldn't stop reading. I enjoyed your blog post, infused with that same magical voice, and look forward to reading more of Elizabeth's story in the mountains.

Kaye, thanks for hosting Vicki today.

Vicki Lane said...

Hey, Suzanne, Thanks for stopping by! Yes, that scene remains one of my favorites -- I wrote it down and eventually had to write a novel to go with it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Vicki, Hi Kaye!

What a wonderful blog! Being a hard bitten, crime fiction author I revel in the rare times I can immerse myself in the soulful renditions of others about life, and place and family. Kaye knows that if you tear away my badge and blue uniform shirt, you'll find the beating heart of a quasi girly-man...but so what! Man or woman, I envy the author who can put such words on paper or the computer screen as you have here. This is just a beautiful piece of writing.

PS: Sorry, but I HAVE to ask. Do you and Kaye get your hair done at the same place?

PPS: Please don't hate me. Kaye knows how hot I think that super short, girl buzz cut thing is. And Lord knows how many times I've chased my wife around the house, clippers in hand, trying to get a little of it for myself!

Vicki Lane said...

Why, thank you, Ken, for the kind words! Soulful? Aw, shucks.

Sorry to disappoint you re hair. It's not a buzz cut -- just pulled back. I'm as bad at beauty parlors as I am at shopping -- my husband cuts my hair -- brush back wet hair, cut off an inch and I'm good to go.

Hot? Not till summertime.

Anonymous said...'re right! I enlarged the teeny, tiny picture of you Vicki, and now I can see the rest of your hair! Looking at the teeny, tiny picture though it looks like you and Kaye have the same "Do." And you say your hubby pulls your wet hair back, and snips off an inch or two? So, if I can just get close enough to my wife while I'm chasing her...

caryn said...

Hi Vicki,
Well for one of those Florida transplants you do a great job of telling the story of your adopted home.

Vicki Lane said...

Thank you so much, Caryn! What luck to have found myself in a place with so much fascinating material!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh. I'm in my little office at Channel 7, surrounded by yakking colleagues and buzzing televisions and stacks of papers and lots and lots of tapes and pencils and to-do lists.

I stole a few moments to read your post. And gradually and sweetly, I was carried to someplace else.

thank you.

Vicki Lane said...

Thank you, Hank!
It's a different world here -- right now it's curtained with softly falling snow and the lovely sound of silence.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking us over, Vicki. As a native back too many generations to count, I want to say that there's "incomers" and there's "incomers". You fit in here lik a fieldstone in a dry wall--like you've been here for a long time. There's folks that are "flatlanders" but the most disparaging thing my people could say about someone was that he or she was an "outlander". The implication being that the person in question was foreign, as well as odd--not part of the land.

And you are certainly not that.

What a lovely blog, Kaye!

Vicki Lane said...

Byron! What a sweet thing to say! And as my younger son builds dry-laid stone walls, I really appreciate the simile. Thank you! Thank you!

This IS a cool blog, isn't it? As a bookseller you might be interested in Kaye's guest list.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Vicki - you are the Belle of the Ball! Its a bunch of fun seeing everyone here, and meeting some new people who are friends of yours and very obviously, love you to pieces.

I am so jealous of those of you who are going to be in Birmingham this weekend. This is an event that's been awfully well received in the past and is gaining a faithful following. Have fun!!! Send pictures, please!

Hugs, Everyone!!!!!!