The Southern Literary community took notice when Silas House was named as one of the South’s “Ten Emerging Writers” by the Millennial Gathering of Writers at Vanderbilt University in 2000, but so many more than just Southern readers and writers have fallen for the poetic prose of his writing.
The Atlanta Daily Journal called Silas, “A writer of startling abilities,” and others heartily agree. Awards he has garnered include the Appalachian Writer of the Year, the Chaffin Prize for Literature, the Award for Special Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and many other honors including the Helen M. Lewis Community Service Award in 2008 from the Appalachian Studies Association for his environmental activism.
A writer of short stories, literary fiction, young adult fiction, and creative non-fiction, Silas discussed “Writing the South,” “Writing in Multiple Genres,” “Literary Journals,” and more at the 2010 JRW Conference. (Liz Humes of WRIR’s Wordy Birds talked to Silas at the conference.) He was interviewed by Kris Spisak, conference chair, in September 2010.
QUESTION 1: Do you have any advice on transporting readers into a story?
When I am composing a scene in my head, I’m seeing it like a movie, so I think that I use those same cinematic techniques to help the reader to see what I’m seeing. I like to use a lot of motion because that creates a visual in a reader’s mind in an easier way. If you begin a story or novel with a face being slapped, the hand being drawn back in the air, the palm hitting the cheek, the intake of air as the slapped person realizes the pain, the rage on the face of the person doing the slapping, etc. — a reader is able to see all of that, and feel it. The main thing is to use as many of the senses as possible, and to describe them in the more economical and powerful way.
QUESTION 2: The natural world has a presence in your novels. Whether it’s Vine’s native home in Redbud Camp or Eli’s favorite tree, the reader feels spirits soar when they’re surrounded by green leaves overhead and tree roots under their feet. Is this connection with nature a character trait of yours bleeding onto the pages?
I tend to find the most important lessons in nature, so that does show up often in my writing. I go to nature to think, to be still, to rest, even to worship. I don’t mean that I’m a tree worshipper, but being out in the woods is the best kind of church, to my mind.
That’s usually the most autobiographical element of my novels, that my characters and I both love trees. And I think it’s something that we need very much right now. We need literature to preserve the power of nature because it’s an idea that has so much less importance in our consumer-minded culture than it used to. I think often the most important thing literature can do is to preserve.
QUESTION 3: In your opinion, what are the differences between writing for adults and writing for young adults? Do you have a preference?
I don’t really think there is a difference. The key is to just write the story you want to tell and sometimes, for me, it turns out that that story is more suitable for an adult audience and sometimes it works better for a younger audience. Even my first three books, which are decidedly “adult” books in theme, are written in such a way that a YA audience can read them, too. The only time I’ve ever thought of an audience at all was with the novel I just finished, SAME SUN HERE, which I wrote with Neela Vaswani. We knew from the get-go that it was a YA book because we knew the themes in advance. And I think that’s what ultimately decides if a book is YA or not, the themes.
QUESTION 4: Writing about the South and Appalachia specifically, you avoid commonly used stereotypes to create characters that are vivid and alive. Are there any stereotypes that you feel you have to actively combat about the area, or is this something that you don’t think about?
I try very hard to not think about that. When I am writing, my first responsibility to my characters is to present them as human beings, so I always think they are people who happen to live in the South or Appalachia. If a character of mine likes to go barefoot, and I know that that is a defining characteristic of the character, I can’t cut it just because being barefoot is a stereotype of being Appalachian. For instance, in my second novel, the lead character is a Cherokee woman. Part of her essence is that she is very in touch with nature. That’s a huge stereotype about Native Americans, that they all have some magic connection with the natural world. So that was a real danger, to write her that way, but all of my lead characters are that way — I didn’t do it because she was Native American. I think readers are smart enough to know when a stereotype is being perpetuated and when a character is just being themselves.
QUESTION 5: There is so much to admire your imagery and poetic language. Who are your inspirations? What specifically did you take away from them?
Two of the most important things I ever learned about writing is that we must operate in images and rhythm. This is advice that is usually driven into the heads of poets but not taught to prose-writers. So I try to make all writers aware of the importance of imagery and rhythm. I draw a lot of inspiration from poetry, and from the beauty of any perfect sentence, and, as I said, images of nature. But my favorite writers are Willa Cather, Thomas Hardy, Louise Erdrich, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Oliver, D.H. Lawrence, Alice Walker, Lee Smith, Marilynne Robinson … I could go on and on.