In Conversation: Jayne Moore Waldrop

In Conversation: Jayne Moore Waldrop

In “For What It’s Worth,” one of the stories that populate Jayne Moore Waldrop’s tender, linked story collection Drowned Town, a character muses about “generational labor.” The notion is at the heart of this book, which considers how the federal government’s seizure of land in western Kentucky to create two lakes (Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley) and a recreation area (Land Between the Lakes) displaced and impacted a cast of characters across several generations. Each is deeply drawn: the real estate appraiser grappling with the true worth of a family’s homeplace, the inmate from the mountains coming to terms with his surroundings and landscape, and the woman—a teacher, wife, and mother—adrift and struggling with depression. But at the heart of the book lies a friendship between two women—Cam and Margaret—who, despite physical separations and the occasional periods of tension that emerge in lifelong relationships, remain tied to each other and to their place of origin. All the while, Waldrop shies away from offering easy, pat answers to the dilemma of whether the government’s action was correct or justified. Instead, she dives headlong into the complexities, showing both the sacrifices made by the families and communities displaced by the seizure, as well as the benefits brought to the region, including hydroelectric power, flood control, recreation, and economic advances.

In a telephone conversation, Waldrop discussed Drowned Town with Appalachian Review editor Jason Kyle Howard, musing upon the collection’s themes and her own history and relationship with the lakes, and her ancestral ties to the mountains. 

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JKH: When did the idea for Drowned Town begin to take shape for you? 

JMW: It began to take shape when I noticed that so much of what I was writing was based around the lakes [Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley in west Kentucky] and Land Between the Lakes. I was fairly well into it—I had written several stories—and I kept coming back to this theme of loss in this place. It continued to grow in my mind that this history has never been written from a more personal perspective. There are some excellent nonfiction books about the building of the lakes, the building of the dams, and the taking of Land Between the Lakes, but it had never been written about from a more personal viewpoint, and that’s what I wanted to show. And it just seemed like these stories—as I wrote—every time I tried to write a new story, it was always about the lakes, so eventually I caught on that they were linked and they were telling the same story but from different people’s perspectives, different characters.

JKH: Why do you think that the lakes have been such a source of imagination and inspiration for you? 

JMW: I guess because I grew up being on the lakes a lot. From childhood we would go to the public beach at Kentucky Dam Village State Park, so we were always connected to the lake, and then as a teenager I often had friends who had either a place on the lake—their families did—or a boat for skiing. My sister and I, particularly, spent a lot of time in LBL hiking, so I think I am just naturally drawn to water. I love being on the water, seeing the water. I think that’s a function of growing up in Paducah, where rivers are a major part of the landscape and also of life. Western Kentucky just has so many large, significant rivers that it’s hard not to be connected to water growing up there. So, I always thought of it as a source of recreation, a source of beauty, but since I didn’t have a personal connection to those places that were lost from the construction, I never really considered the sacrifices, and it was only well into adulthood that I started thinking about the scale of the environmental changes in western Kentucky. I’m not sure there is another area in Kentucky that has been as affected in such a concentrated dose with these enormous dams that are just two miles apart, and then the taking of the land to become a national recreation area. The scale of the changes is enormous, and not a lot of people know that about western Kentucky. 

JKH: No, I don’t think they do either. One of the many things I love about this collection is that it’s populated with ordinary people living out their lives—trying to get by, making good and bad choices, working and living against the backdrop of this place. It honors people whose lives are so often overlooked or forgotten or neglected. In thinking about the collection, I’m wondering why do you believe the stories of everyday people are worth telling? 

JMW: Because I grew up in a family that’s what you’d call “everyday people.” That’s my experience of life and the people I’m from. One of the reasons I love fiction so much is that it allows the reader to step into the shoes of a character—whether that is an everyday person or a “fancy” person—to learn what that character is going through and to feel what they’re going through, and I think that’s related to understanding what many people’s lives are about. It’s the small beauties and the small tragedies in everyday life that I’m really interested in because, as most of us know, living in the present is all about noticing these small beauties and small flaws, small tragedies in life. 

JKH: I love that—“the small beauties and small tragedies”—and these characters experience those. There are so many different characters present in these stories, and I’m wondering which ones do you feel closest to? This might be like trying to choose between favorites, which is always a hard question, at least for me. But I’m wondering which of these characters you feel closest to? Which were the most rewarding, or which were the hardest, to write? 

JMW: I feel close to several of the characters for different reasons, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about so many people who are connected to this place to not tell just one individual story or one family story or even one community story. The scale is so broad. I feel close to the two women characters—Cam and Margaret—because I think they represent long-term friendship. They represent women at middle age. They’re well into their forties by the time the current action is occurring in the story, and they’ve been through a lot together. They’ve had losses. They’ve had sadness. They’ve had great joy together in their friendship, and they’ve really grown through that relationship. I think they are opposites in many ways, but they contribute to each other’s lives in a yin-and-yang perspective. They don’t have to be exactly alike, but they grow through their relationship, and I think that’s true with any long-term friendship. A friendship that lasts will have an ebb and flow to it, but there’s an enrichment that comes from having a close friend to rely on. I think that I want to represent them—by the time they reach middle age—as still having a lot of life and a lot of decisions and a lot of choices about everything that is to come…I guess that’s writing what I know—that there are lots of important and good choices that can come with middle age and with aging…In that way I feel close to those two characters.

I also feel close to the other characters who are experiencing different kinds of loss—it’s all in the context of loss of place with the changes that have occurred in western Kentucky—but there are so many other forms of loss in the stories from loss of freedom through the prisoner in the Kentucky State Penitentiary. He, to me, is a really compelling character because his life sentence was not of his making. Someone else made that decision for him. He was an accessory to a heinous crime, but his imprisonment was pursuant to the law but not of his own making. I feel like he represents so many others in western Kentucky. Their homes, their communities, their places were taken in the name of the public interest, pursuant to the law, but there was no real effective way of fighting that or challenging it, so I just think of him being in this place, and it was very foreign to him. He is a character who came from eastern Kentucky. Actually, this crime that occurred took place where my dad’s family is from, so I’m connected to that place in the story. And he comes to this place that is so unfamiliar and unlike anything he’s used to—being imprisoned and transferred to the state penitentiary at the other end of the state. 

JKH: And Kentucky’s a long state! 

JMW: It’s a very long state, and he’s never seen a place like this. That’s one thing that’s true about Kentucky is the landscape changes east to west significantly. Also, there’s one character, Elmer, who is a land appraiser, and I feel particularly close to Elmer and also to Nate McCracken who is losing his family farm between the rivers—a farm that had been held for generations, a farm that had sustained his family since shortly after the Civil War—so the connection of those two characters is really important. The appraiser comes to see the value of place in a way he’s not seen before. It’s always been this very objective viewpoint of value always based on the numbers. 

JKH: I’m obsessed both as a writer and as a reader with structure, and I’m always intrigued by linked story collections. In Drowned Town those connections are sometimes obvious. Sometimes they’re more subtle. Could you talk about those points of connection and how and why you chose to structure the book that way? Did those links appear on the page organically, or did you craft them consciously? 

JMW: Those links occurred organically because I didn’t really set out to make these connections. They just continued to bubble up, but the linking of these stories is sort of organic [and is] based on the Cumberland River in many ways, because the stories seemed to meander across Kentucky like the Cumberland River does from [eastern Kentucky] through Nashville, where some of the stories are set, and then on up into western Kentucky as the river turns and heads north to the Ohio. So, there were a few points in making those connections that they had to be a little more intentional, but I didn’t really set out to write linked stories. I set out to write what I thought was going to be a novel, and I’m guessing it turned out to be a novel-in-stories in a way. I’m not sure the difference of linked stories or a novel in stories. It’s kind of a fine point, but the structure is kind of a different structure because I wanted to travel not only back and forth in time but also with all these different characters and all these different settings, so there is a meandering and a wandering with it. The reason I did that—this was very intentional—is I didn’t want to only talk about or have characters that existed at the time of the damming of the Cumberland or the taking of Land Between the Lakes. It was very important for me to show this ebb and flow of time so that the changes that occurred in western Kentucky didn’t end as soon as the lake rose. This is a multi-generational impact of loss of home, so I wanted to show what happened at the time with the people experiencing those changes at the time, but I also wanted to show the lingering impact.

JKH: And the reverberations. [That craft choice is] one of my favorite parts of the book, and I think it adds so many other layers. I’m a believer that the writing of books, when you sit down to write a book, that the book itself teaches you a lesson or a series of lessons. What do you think Drowned Town taught you? 

JMW: To look beneath the surface of any character, and I’m going to give you an example of Margaret [a hard-driven Louisville attorney]. When I first wrote her, she was a very disagreeable, unlikeable character, and it was only through working with her and as the stories were revised that we looked beyond her initial unlikeable-ness. She had her own backstory, and I think that’s what I like to show in any of the characters, that humans are multilayered. I think so often we think of particularly rural characters—there is a real strong rural-urban balance in this book and a tension as well as balance [and] I don’t want to have a one-dimensional, rural stereotype. The people I’m writing about, the people who inspired this, deserve more than a stereotypical portrayal. I’d like for people to see with this book that life and place can be very different than first impressions. When you visit western Kentucky and these places, you see this beautiful landscape and these amazing lakes, but there is a history there that is so much deeper than what you see. 

JKH: You’re a lawyer by training, and you practiced for many years before leaving the profession to focus on other areas of your life. As someone who nearly went to law school, I’m curious about how those years of training and practice might interact with your life now as a writer. How do you think that those two professions—these two iterations of your life—interact? 

JMW: I don’t think they’re as far apart as you might think, because I think the ability to write is critical in the legal practice. The ability to communicate ideas and advocate are also critical in the legal practice, so I don’t think it’s as a big a leap as it might seem. I think my legal training and my desire to get the facts correct on the historical side of this fiction is really important. The ability to research the history that provides the historical setting is very important, and that’s a skill that is learned in law school and in legal practice, and I think just the knowledge of the powers of eminent domain is also an important part of my research for this book. 

JKH: And you used the legal phrase earlier, “pursuant to the law.” I was thinking as you were saying that— 

JMW: It sounds very lawyerly, doesn’t it! 

JKH: It does, but [I’m also thinking about] having that language and that deep reservoir of knowledge with this book that is so centered on—at least a narrative thread—the law and how the law can interact with place and people and cause conflict. 

JMW: It’s an important part of the story that has to be recognized—that [this] is the way our system is set up, that there are to be projects in the public interest, and the government has that power. While it has created many opportunities in western Kentucky—these federal projects for flood control and hydroelectric power and navigation—all those are important public interests. I wanted to remain somewhat neutral on that, [not] saying “those decisions were wrong or bad.” My goal was to show that they occurred, and I also wanted to acknowledge the price that some people paid, and those were a lot of farmers and people who lived in small towns who bore the brunt of these decisions. I didn’t want to take sides, but I want to acknowledge both sides, that there are legitimate interests on both sides. 

JKH: And leave it up to the reader to piece some of that together. 

JMW: And for the reader to be aware that these types of projects and this type of progress doesn’t come without impact to the local community. 

JKH: It’s been a big year for you. In May, your poetry chapbook Pandemic Lent: A Season in Poems was released by Finishing Line Press. What was the inspiration for those poems? 

JMW: That book came up in an interesting and unexpected way because I had just reader Brother Paul Quenon’s book, In Praise of the Useless Life—his memoir. He is a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County, and I just read his book and loved it. He talked about writing haiku as a way of focusing on the moment, particularly in a spiritual sense. So, in February of 2020, I decided for Lent 2020 I would write a haiku a day as part of a Lenten practice rather than giving up alcohol or chocolate for Lent, I decided I would write a haiku to capture that moment.

JKH: And then the whole world went to hell!

JMW: It sure did! And about a week after the project was when we had our first case of Covid-19 in Kentucky, and things shut down, and life changed. It became a completely different project. Like many writers during those early stages of the pandemic, it was hard to focus on writing. It was hard to concentrate and come up with anything creative. It was such a heavy, dark time. So, what I had expected to be a fairly easy project of doing three lines a day, of five-seven-five syllables became the only writing that I was doing at the time because it was a distressing time. By the time I got to the end of Lent, I had lots and lots of haikus. Some days I wrote a lot more than others, and it turned into a book. 

JKH: Although you were raised in west Kentucky, your family has deep roots in the mountains in eastern Kentucky. How do you think that ancestry has informed your writing?

JMW: My ancestry is important to so much of what I do. My family had such a large impact on the way I see the world. I also know what the impact of dislocation is and outmigration because my parents left eastern Kentucky during a particularly significant downturn in that coal economy. They left in the early 1950s, so I was the only one of their children who was born in western Kentucky, so I had a different perspective. Growing up, I straddled being a western Kentuckian with this strong Appalachian influence from my parents, whether that was in the way they grew a garden, the way they had to have a little land around them, or the words they used, their choices of words. It’s very different than most of the people I grew up with, so I felt like I had a strong Appalachian influence in my life even though I never lived there. I think it informs my writing because—like in Drowned Town—dislocation and that yearning for home is a really important theme, and I saw that in my parents for as long as they were living. Home was always the mountains, although they lived in Paducah the rest of their lives after they moved. So sixty-plus years of living in Paducah, but you go up home to the mountains. That yearning for home and the memory of home is something that really influences all of my writing. 

JKH: The lakes have been drawing you back, and I know you have plans to eventually move to be on one of the them. How do you envision the perfect day spent there? 

JMW: A perfect day would be both in the woods in Land Between the Lakes on one of the magnificent hiking trails, and then the afternoon and evening until sunset spent out on the water. That would be an ideal day for me because it’s capturing both the woods and the lake, and the lake, for me, is really important because it connects all the things that I love. That would be my ideal day. One of the things I love about both places is that they are for the general public. There is no requirement that you have to pay admission or that you have to have a fancy boat to be out on the lake. They are available to everyone, and that makes it even more important to me. There are no memberships you have to have this recreation in your life, so I appreciate the fact that these areas provide recreation for that “every person.” 

JKH: They’re egalitarian. 

JMW: That’s important to me. There are some fancy boats, but you don’t have to have that. There are some excellent public beaches all up and down the lake. It’s available. It’s not exclusionary.

Jason Kyle Howard is the author of A Few Honest Words and co-author of Something's Rising, both works of literary journalism. His essays, features, and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Oxford American, Salon, The Millions, The Nation, Sojourners, and on C-SPAN's Book TV and NPR. Howard is editor of Appalachian Review, a literary quarterly based at Berea College, where he teaches and directs the creative writing program. He serves on the graduate faculty of the Spalding University School of Creative and Professional Writing, and holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and degrees from The George Washington University and the University of Kentucky.

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