In Conversation: Karen Salyer McElmurray & Elaine Neil Orr

In Conversation: Karen Salyer McElmurray & Elaine Neil Orr

Karen Salyer McElmurray grew up in both Eastern and Central Kentucky and her work in fiction and nonfiction is haunted by that between world of mountains and flatlands. Wanting Radiance, McElmurray’s third novel, addresses this space between as its protagonist seeks history and love and an authentic self.

McElmurray’s debut novel, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, focuses on Andrew Wallen, a young man from the town of Inez, as he struggles to claim his sexual identity amid the complexities of family and faith. Strange Birds was followed by the novel The Motel of the Stars, whose protagonist, Sam Sanderson, journeys to a festival celebrating the 26,000-year cycle of the Harmonic Convergence of December 24, 2012 to resolve his grief following the loss of his son. McElmurray’s memoir, Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, is about her relinquishment of a child to state-supported adoption when she was fifteen. Of this memoir Nashville Scene said that “it’s a testament to McElmurray’s talent that she can send her reader’s minds wandering across cultures and musing paradoxes while keeping her story firmly planted in the bitter ground of Kentucky coal country.”

Karen and I met briefly at a conference years ago. We weren’t friends yet; we were friends of friends. I recall that we said “we need to get to know one another.” It didn’t happen. And then I picked up Karen’s latest book, Wanting Radiance, and I saw that while we grew up in very different places (she in Kentucky, I in Nigeria and the American South) and our lives had been quite different, we shared the “betweenness,” belonging to two places but not quite any place, always searching.


Elaine Neil Orr: Wanting Radiance is at its core a novel about people who don’t belong, wayfarers, people adrift. Does this choice reflect your own journey, your ancestors’ journeys, your experience of U.S. America?

Karen Salyer McElmurray: I have always been a lover of outsider art. When I lived in Georgia, I visited Paradise Gardens, what Reverend Howard Finster called The Plant Farm Museum. He built it with broken glass, concrete, painted objects and rust, calling it a celebration of the “intentions of mankind.” These days I live in Catonsville, Maryland, and have often been to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, a place that celebrates visions, be they the ones of schizophrenics, of eco-scientists, or of labor organizers. Some words link all these places of the spirit, so the textbooks say. Outsider art is self-trained. Self-taught. Created in isolation. I relate to all of those realities.

My Eastern Kentucky grandparents took me to Pentecostal churches when I was little and I heard speaking tongues. The people I loved on when I was small had weathered faced, hands that knew the hard work of hoeing and mining and living. I can still see the gold front tooth in my Granny’s smile. The places I call home had artists like my other Granny, who made quilts resplendent with cloth from the Mountain Mission store, artists like Hugo Sperger, who painted the rooms of his house with the fire and angels of the Book of Revelations. The people who raised me, and the ones at the core of my art, are not easy for me to define. They migrated north for factory work when the mines played out. They were wayfarers of the soul who saw the world through eyes at the backs of their heads maybe. They were poor, hard believers, close-mouthed, judgmental. I guess I would call them outsiders.

I guess I would call myself that. An outsider. Like Miracelle Loving in Wanting Radiance, I’ve moved again and again. Thirty-seven times, if I count right. I’ve done jobs of work, as my Granddaddy called them, as everything from maid to landscaper to waitress. That life has left me antsy when I come to the ladder-climbing of academia, or even the far reaches of publication. My novel is made of roadies, freaks, risk-takers, and misfits. I was raised by people who embraced everything from magic to deprivation, from visions to hunger, and I paint with those colors.

ENO: Music plays a large role in the novel, music from West Virginia, country music, but the novel itself might be compared with a ballad: love gone wrong, a woman dead. All the repeating of full names contributes to this feeling for me: Miracelle Loving, Russell Wallen, Cody Black. As the novelist, you are the singer. Does it resonate with you to think of the novel as a ballad?

KSM: I was lucky to go Berea College, in Southcentral Kentucky, and was even luckier, while I was there, to get to take Appalachian Studies classes. I will never forget a woman named Rus Dowda, who wrote her senior thesis project on Appalachian ballads and titled it, “He Took Her by Her Golden Curls and Swung Her Round and Round.”  The title is from a murder ballad called “Knoxville Girl,” and I just looked up the lyrics:

I took her by her golden curls and I drug her round and around
Throwing her into the river that flows through Knoxville town
Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl with the dark and rolling eyes
Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl, you can never be my bride.

Wanting Radiance can be read as a murder ballad, but I wanted to make it a revisionist one. What would happen if a woman set out to solve the story of a murder, but made sense of her own life along the way? This direction for the work made even more sense a couple of years into the writing when a friend saw a draft. Readers will wonder, he said, why Miracelle Loving is almost middle aged, and has never married.A woman wronged. A woman who chose not to marry. My revisionist ballad became about a woman who has been lost (in ways emotional, familial, spiritual even), and along the journey to solve her mother’s murder, reclaims herself.

ENO: You mention studying at Berea College. Is that where you began to write?

KSM: It was where I began to write in earnest, but then I wrote mostly narrative poetry. I began to write years before that, when I was nine and spent summers at my grandmother’s house in Eastern Kentucky. I became good friends with a girl named Vicky who lived across the road. She played a twelve-string guitar and I fell in love with her songs and lyrics. We are still friends, and both writing novels now.

ENO: The novel begins as a mother/daughter plot but segues into a daughter/father plot. When you began writing, did you already have the story arc in your mind? Or did it evolve?

KSM: The novel first began as a short story called “The Black Cat Diner,” written years ago when I was a student in the MFA Program at University of Virginia. That story was about a young woman named Waydean who works in a roadside diner with a garage attached, run by a woman named Della. She works there one long winter and becomes part of the unwinding of Della’s relationship with her husband, Russell.

Years later, I was living near Asheville, North Carolina, and had just experienced the end of a nine-year relationship. I was teetering on the edge of devastation, and I’d have done anything to conjure my lover back again. On the advice of an old woman herbalist down the road, I buried an egg with my lover’s name on it in the yard under a full moon. I went to a bed-ridden fortune-teller who read shadows in photographs. That time became an essay. Those two young women from both pieces, Waydean and I, became Wanting Radiance’s Miracelle Loving. I knew she was a loner, a lost soul. I knew she had long ago left behind family and that she wanted love badly, though she found it in self-destructive ways. Originally Miracelle was the caretaker for her fortune-teller mother, who had been shot by the man she loved. The more I wrote, that mother developed her own history, and I took her back in time to a love affair she couldn’t leave behind, to that man who became Miracelle’s father. Draft after draft, the book became about origins, times that hurt us, and how we either do, or don’t, find ourselves capable of leaving the past behind in order to embrace who we just might become.

ENO: Why is it important for the novel to be set in the 1990s?

KSM: Partly the novel is about the nineties because it’s about music—and one of the most powerful musical moments occurs on April 25, 1994. I was in Athens, Georgia with a young man named David and we were at one of the Athens bars, listening to the band Pavement. All of a sudden it was announced that Kurt Cobain had died. David held his cigarette lighter up, as did most everyone who had a lighter, and we were all silent for about ten minutes, realizing there’d been a cultural shift. One of the characters in Wanting Radiance, Cody Black, originates with David and those nights in Athens when we’d go out to hear grunge bands. Once I knew that the narrative present of the novel was the 1990s, I spent lots of time figuring out times related to the that present: when Ruby Loving was born; how old Russell Wallen had to be, if he was in Korea for a while; when clear-cutting was at its height in Eastern Kentucky; how old Miracelle was in the present if she was fifteen, almost sixteen, on the night Ruby was shot.

I did make time charts on long pieces of newsprint, taped to my hall walls. I’d walk up and down the hall, looking at dates with my phone in hand, so I could check Google and see if I was right on my details—when a song came out, when a car was made, when personal computers were used and how. Creating a convincing timeline, past and present, was one of the most challenging things for me in writing this novel.

ENO: Ruby Loving, the woman whose death sets the novel in motion, is a true spiritualist. She has a gift for knowing people that she advertises as fortune-telling. Her daughter, Miracelle, the protagonist, isn’t a real spiritualist. She knows she’s not. What caused you to make this decision and how is it essential to Miracelle’s journey?

KSM: I grew up with praying hands on the coffee table, framed Jesus pictures in most every living room I knew. I also grew up with the schism between the implements of faith and the deeper question of compassion and openness to the ways and means of the spirit. My first novel, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, was based on a memory of mine of such a schism. My grandmother, Fannie Ellen, was one of the truest souls I know, yet she called a young man I went to school with an abomination in the eyes of the Lord because he was gay, not an easy thing to be in the eighties in Eastern Kentucky.

That contradiction hurts me on a cellular level and fascinates me in terms of writing characters. It is inherent in this novel, with both Ruby and Miracelle. Ruby, as you say, has a gift. She really does read futures, tell lives, but she is incapable of charting her own course in the world. She pursues a destructive love, at a high cost—her sense of self, and her relationship to her only child. Miracelle, on the other hand, grows up knowing what the cost of fortune telling can be—nights her mother drinks herself to sleep out of loneliness, pursues men who hurt her, moves from town to town to town, even as she clearly sees the future. Miracelle’s journey is also a contradiction. She grows up seeing the world for what it can do and be, and she rides the roads making a living off of that knowledge, with no illusions about what it means to sucker someone out of twenty bucks for a false card reading. Nevertheless, it is Miracelle who sets out on a journey to discover her past—her father’s identity, the identity of her mother’s killer, and who she is. The last phrase of the book resonated with me over and over, long before I wrote it: “…a soul stepping outside its own skin.” Miracelle’s cynicism blossoms into possibility.

ENO: Family and home are an ever-vanishing horizon in Wanting Radiance. Can you talk about that theme and the title of the novel?

KSM: Ruby Loving and Miracelle moved east to west, and Miracelle, later on, lived everywhere from Alaska to Florida to Maine, working from a salmon factory to a casino. And yet there are homages everywhere in the novel to claiming space. Miracelle has postcards and photos she puts up on the walls of a place she lands. Ruby Loving puts blue bottles in a windowsill to catch light, and drapes scarves over lampshades. Other characters also have curious relationships to home. Leroy Loving keeps a trailer full of his whole past on land that was once his, now mostly gone. Even Russell Wallen is about laying claim, even if it is to timber rights and coal. All these characters, I think, have place in their blood, places abandoned, lost, longed for.

I am them, of course. My dearest family member was Fannie Ellen, my paternal grandmother, who I lived with when I was in my twenties, and always came back to. Her house was taken by a public highway years ago. Other family homes in Kentucky are gone—in Lynch, Cumberland, Allen, Dwale, Lancer, Frankfort—and my family mostly lives in the realm of ghosts.  I write those places and those people, with the hope of bringing them back again in pages of fiction and nonfiction.  I often dream of Fannie Ellen’s house—its attic and fireplaces and the warm house where she kept potatoes and canned goods. Miracelle has those dreams too. She dreams of a woman’s hands. A road. Rooms in a house she can’t quite remember. A house, as Jung tells us, is our psyche. Miracelle and I are after who we are in our deepest selves.

ENO: In addition to music lyrics, other “texts” play key roles in the novel: Tarot cards, Ruby’s journal, a father’s letter, tattoos. While these texts help build the world of the novel, they also make the novel about writing and conjure. Does your writing process include the presence of a variety of texts? For example, do you keep journals, notebooks, copy poems or lyrics, or even jot down recipes and potions your might want to bring into your writing?

KSM: As I think about this question, I am sitting in my study, which abounds with all of the things you are asking about. There are books, of course—shelves of poetry books, books by Appalachian authors, books on mystery and magic. Frazier’s Golden Bough. Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane. And a wide variety of fortune telling books. The Motherpeace Tarot. The I-Ching. And that’s only the books. On the side of my file cabinet there are other “texts.” A poem from Adrienne Rich’s A Dream of a Common Language. A favorite paragraph from Annie Dillard. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. A recipe for tuna noodle casserole in my grandmother’s handwriting. A quote from Frida Kahlo. I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality. And journals of various sorts. I keep a dream journal, as often as I can make myself write the dreams down before I forget them. Another journal is full of phrases I don’t want to lose that may belong in this essay or that fiction. As I write this, I realize that my study is a lot like that trailer that Leroy Loving takes Miracelle to see. It is full of, well, everything. No potions, though. I need a good de-cluttering potion.

ENO: Two major plot twists steer the novel, one about mid-way through and another at the very end. And there are numerous smaller rises and falls within the plot. In all of these, we are following the journey of the female protagonist. To get to her story, a man often has to be pushed aside. Why is it necessary to clear space for the woman at the center of the tale?

KSM: My first answer to this question is another question. Why do women often have to clear space at the center? The center of their lives to create room for making art. The center of the house to create room for time alone. The center of a conversation in order to be heard. In writing the story of a woman who sets out on a journey to discover her identity, I am writing as a woman who has also lived her life trying to find her identity with some of the same obstacles, both interior and exterior. My narrative was not the usual inverted checkmark with its opening, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. There have been more digressions than I can count, an abundance of climaxes disguised to myself as something else, a million supposed resolutions.

How can I shape a narrative that isn’t in some way reflective of the way I’ve lived my life as a woman? And if this narrative asks the man to step aside so the central character can see, think, act clearly, that, too, is a reflection both of this woman’s life and of how, in my view, women shape narrative. Miracelle has to push Cody Black aside, at least for a time, in order to make her particular journey in the way her life has thus far dictated.

ENO: Having begun by saying the novel is a ballad and that family and home are always just down the road, you don’t leave us desolate at the end of Wanting Radiance. This seems really important at this moment in our cultural history. I don’t want readers imagining that the novel is only sad. Did you know the ending from the beginning of your writing?

KSM: I didn’t specifically know the ending of the novel, and by that, I mean that I didn’t know the final image that would close the last paragraph on the last page. What I did know, what I was certain of, is that I wanted to make a work that opened to the possibility of joy. Over the years, reviewers and readers have described my work in a variety of ways. Beautiful pain. Lyric writing with loss at its heart. And I knew my own self that I was writing an event again and again. When I was not quite sixteen, I surrendered a child to adoption. That event, and its repercussions in my life, have haunted my writing ever since—making the aesthetics of my work very much like those of a visual artist I met some years ago. In every canvas, large or small, she somewhere painted the image of a black bear. When I asked her what that image was about, she said that was her father, whose loss had haunted her paintings for over twenty years.

My work has also been haunted—by loss, by surrender, by grief. I think joy might be too strong a word for where I am on the page right now. Let’s call it joy resplendent with sorrow. Shadowy light. And most of all, I think of this book as one that has a deep hunger for radiance. Its characters have that hunger, its author certainly has that hunger. And I must say that my greatest hunger, during this time of enormous change and enormous loss—as I write this, there are some 2,179,000 cases of COVID 19—is to offer up a work about love. I don’t mean a love story, really. I mean a work that is at its essence about the importance of love and a deeply felt peace in our personal journeys. I think that’s the road Miracelle Loving has been on. What choice do we have, really, but to love? As Margaret Atwood says so beautifully in a poem called “Variation on the Word Love,” you can/ hold on or let go.

ENO: What possibilities do you see for new writing ahead?

KSM: Let’s just say that I have predictions for new writing. I see a memoir about varieties of faith in my future. And I imagine a new novel that takes place in Chincoteague, Virginia, one of my favorite ocean places.

Elaine Neil Orr is professor of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where she teaches world literature and creative writing. She also serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Writing program at Spalding University in Louisville. Author of A Different Sun, two scholarly books, and the memoir Gods of Noonday: A White Girl's African Life, she has been a featured speaker and writer-in-residence at numerous universities and conferences and is a frequent fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She grew up in Nigeria.

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