In a Southwest Virginia cabin, Josh Weil spent weeks alone, not speaking to another person, leaving only to hike a ridge with a warm potato in his pocket, mostly hunched over, writing the three novellas that appear in his award winning book The New Valley. Here is how it begins:
“It was the hay bales that did it. The men and women who knew Osby least, who nodded at him from passing trucks or said ‘Hey’ while scanning cans of soup in the Mic-or-Mac, they might not have seen the change come over him. But the few who knew him a little better would have noticed Osby’s usual quietness grow heavier, that he stuffed his hands in his sweatshirt a little more often. They would have chalked it up to him missing his father, figured it for nothing more than a rebalancing of the weight of a life that suddenly contained one instead of two people. They would have been wrong.”
“The truth was, it didn’t even make sense to Osby. How could rolls of old dead grass scare him so? What was the sense behind it being that–the sight of those wasted bales on that wasted government land–that finally dug from him his tears? But it was the bales. And afterwards, he had known only that it was going to get worse.”
This is from “Ridge Weather,” the first of three novellas in the book, which is set in the Blue Ridge. It is also the first novella that Josh wrote. In an interview this week, he explained that while he has not lost his father like Osby, the book started from his own heartbreak, from learning to live “a life built for one person instead of for two.”
TR: Josh, thanks for taking the time to talk. Let’s start with something that’s important to everyone. Where’s the best place to eat in the Appalachian south?
JW: In the shotgun seat of Russell’s pickup, parked at the top of a Jefferson State Forrest ridge at the very western edge of Virginia, the doors open to let in the breeze, and the old guy using his pen knife to cut slices of buttery cheddar from the Menonite farm across the state line.
JW: The first novella I ever wrote, and the first one in the collection, “Ridge Weather” came about because of three things, I think. The first had nothing to do with writing (or at least not on the surface): I had been through a divorce pretty recently and it hit me hard, knocked me about pretty badly, and I found myself down at the cabin in Virginia where I spend a lot of time, entirely on my own, and I was struck by the way that, though I didn’t think I was lonely, I felt quite alone in the world. I couldn’t shake the idea nothing I did had any affect on anyone else, that, living a life built for one person instead of for two, I was living a life that also only affected one person — me. And that was a deeply lonely feeling. I started thinking about how a person could sink into that feeling, and how life could start to pull him deeper into it. And Osby, the main character in “Ridge Weather”, was born.
TR: You wrote the book in a Blue Ridge cabin. How did the cabin enter your life? What sets it apart for you?
JW: My dad bought land in the Blue Ridge a long time ago, when he was younger than I am now, thought he’d farm it but then had to move away and, for a long time, we didn’t do much with it. It grew up in trees, got overrun with scrub, went wild. Then, when I was 19, we decided to clear a couple acres. We lived on it in a big tent — my brother and dad and I — and hacked away with chainsaws and machetes and a brush hog and then, with the help of a local farmer (who pretty much told us what to do, and we did it) we built a cabin in the clearing.
TR: The protagonists in The New Valley are flawed but incredibly sympathetic–a tractor stealing retiree, a mentally disabled young man in love with the wrong woman, and a farmer more comfortable with cattle than people. If you walked into a bar one night and saw all three of them, who would you approach first? What would you say?
JW: Oh, man, I’d probably turn and run, leave the door smacking behind me, get in the car and spit gravel. To face my characters in real life…I mean the things I do to them. Sometimes, when I’m writing, I find myself apologizing to my characters for having to hurt them.
But if I could hear anyone talk, I’d probably like to hear Geoffrey. I’d buy Geoffrey a whisky. Neat. I suspect it’d be his first. I wouldn’t watch him while he drank it.
JW: I suppose I’ve found myself in that position once or twice, but not very often. And that’s a good thing, because I’d feel awfully awkward being any sort of a diplomat for Appalachia. I was born on the edge of it, but I’m not of Appalachia; I didn’t grow up there. My family moved away when I was very young and then I didn’t really return until we built the cabin when I was 19. True, since then it’s been my most stable home, and has become something at the core of who I am now, but I wouldn’t feel that I could speak for the whole place, you know?
I don’t want to do that. That was never my intention. The New Valley is fiction, and it’s about a very specific imagined world, in a specific imagined mountain valley, and that is, of course, based on people I know and worlds I’ve witnessed while living down there, but it all that’s filtered through my imagination. My neighbors down there — like Russell in his truck, with his Mennonite cheese and the eggs from his chickens and his moonshine and morels and near 90 years of living there — they would have a right to speak for the place.
That said, I do love Appalachia, and I feel that it’s formed me as an adult, and I’ve seen it with an outsiders eye and with something of an insider’s one, too (I spent two years, when I was in college, doing a photo essay on the rural poor of Southeast Ohio, just driving dirt roads and stopping at houses and knocking on doors and getting to know people, eating suppers with them, walking around with them to feed the hogs, going back later to shoot some more) and so I feel comfortable talking to people about what it is about the place that made me fall in love with it.
JW: I’ve got to say, I’m still not comfortable talking too much about it. It is set in Russia, and it’s a novel, and it feels like a big shift in some ways — but, really, it’s not. Like I said, earlier, I’m not of Appalachia. That world is part of the world that made me. But another part is my family background (half Russian) and my childhood (I studied Russian language for six years and lived in Russia as an exchange student) and the affinity I feel for Eastern Europe.
In some ways, it’s not that different from the way that Appalachia feels familiar to me, part of my blood. They’re both places that (until recently) have been separated from the modern western world, have managed to hold on to their own cultures, their own way of life, in a way that’s more and more rare in this increasingly homogenized world. And there’s a poverty, too, that links them both, strong folk traditions…etc. So I suppose the connection is less strange that it might seem at first.
Still, writing a story that takes place in such a different culture (because it is, in so many ways), and in such a different setting, really forced me out of my comfort zone and forced me towards a freshness, I think (or at least hope), in my writing. I guess we’ll find out when the book’s done.
TR: When asked about your hidden talent, you told The Oxford American that you “kinda groove-out on the dance floor.” If I can coax Nikki Giovanni and Silas House into an Appalachian Writers Dance Off, are you game?
JW: Tell you what, you get the others to sign on, and you gets some some Funkadelic going, and I’m there.