At the Virginia Festival of the Book, author Mesha Maren joined Tim Poland and Robert Gipe for a panel on “Appalachia in Contemporary Fiction“. We got a few questions in with Mesha Maren on her first novel, Sugar Run (Algonquin, 2018).
Much of the action in Sugar Run is fueled by pills, alcohol and a search for home. The effect is a bit dizzying—a lot like life when everything is upended and only half-understood.
Recently released from prison, Jodi McCarty honors past obligations and attempts to build a future in her home mountains of West Virginia. In backstory and current action, an asphalt landscape of strip malls, sprawling Southern towns, interstates, roadside motels, bars and a casino give way to the home place. The family she returns to and builds there makes do as they know how. Security comes in the form of a tarp on the shack roof and the deed to land threatened by fracking. There are guns and family, fear and survival. And in the center of the storm, the reader is left with Jodi’s quiet hope and stumbling commitment to those she loves.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Sugar Run is a terrific title, immediately summoning images of a mountain creek, moonshining, heroin, and an imperative to flee. And all apply here. At what point did the title emerge?
Mesha Maren: The title actually emerged very early on, before I even knew that I was writing a novel. I can still remember exactly where I was when the title occurred to me, I was walking across a parking lot on the lower end of Broadway in Asheville, NC in the spring of 2012. I had been writing some of the 1988-89 chapters, those were the first sections of the book that came to me, and I was writing poker scenes with Paula. In poker a run is a series of good hands and so it occurred to me that Paula would have her own private term for a particularly great streak of luck at the card table and that was “sugar run.” The other meanings of it came into focus later and I realized that it really worked for the book as a whole. I did have to fight for it though, at one point my publisher wanted to explore potential other options for titles and I said that I thought it was simply the best possible title for this book and convinced them to stick with it.
BCR: Good fight! I’m sure holding to important elements of your vision is tricky with a first book. In Sugar Run, you slightly fictionalize places within a real geography. Readers familiar with the areas think they know where they are, but not quite. Why was that important to the work?
MM: I think anyone familiar with southern West Virginia who reads the book will see that the towns and landscapes are only marginally fictionalized. It really is based off of Greenbrier County and the town of Alderson and the community on Muddy Creek Mountain. The fictionalizing I did do was kind of impromptu and also maybe a little bit to avoid people nit-picking and saying, oh, such and such doesn’t actually exist in this town or some other unimportant detail like that. Mostly I fictionalized because I love the way certain words sound in my mouth and I wanted to use them: Render, Bethlehem, Malonga, etc.
BCR: Did the fictional settings free you up in any way in your writing?
MM: Sure, yes, when you are setting fictional writing in a real place it is a fine line between being true to the place and also allowing your imagination to run. All the important stuff is real though.
BCR: You smoothly slide into Miranda’s perspective at a few points in the novel, though the book is clearly Jodi’s story. Why did you think it was important to give the reader access to Miranda’s thoughts?
MM: I think Miranda is a joy to spend time with and I wanted to make sure that readers got a deep sense of her interior world. I think as a culture we look at women like Miranda—young, with a reliance on substances, beautiful but without a lot of formal education, pregnant at an early age, etc.—and we think, as a society, that she wouldn’t have a whole lot going on inside, when really she is an incredibly complex person.
BCR: You use telling physical detail to describe a broad range of places. Collectively, they are grim landscapes short on strong and caring human connections outside of the temporary and ramshackle family Jodi tries to piece together. There’s an emptiness to the places. How do you perceive the interworking of sense of place and sense of community?
MM: This is really interesting to hear because, besides the prison, I don’t think of any of the places in the novel as grim or empty at all! I see West Virginia and rural Georgia and the small towns and motels and bars in those states as incredibly dynamic and full of life and dripping with beauty. I also think these places are full of community and strong caring human connections, though perhaps not in a way that is readily recognizable to middle or upper class people. When I say this I’m thinking about instances like Allister, the bartender who saw Miranda struggling with her sons and gave her a job and protected her, like when Jodi first walked in that bar Allister looked up to make sure that it wasn’t Lee walking in to beat on Miranda. Allister cares deeply about Miranda even though he barely knows her. That’s community. Likewise, Jodi’s family takes Miranda and her sons and Ricky in without batting an eye, they welcome them and throw a party. Farren too watches over Jodi and Miranda and Ricky and the kids and makes sure that they have what they need and he does that because his sense of community stretches across generations, back to Jodi’s grandmother. Even Jodi’s brothers have this sense of taking care of their own, although that ends up with some pretty twisted results. I actually see the novel as being mostly about intense human connections and love of place.
BCR: Yeah, caring here often results in some real endangerment. But it’s a dangerous world here. Which part of the novel was the most fun to write?
MM: The casino scenes! I had fun researching stuff like what slot machine brands existed in 1988.
BCR: What authors or works inspire your writing?
MM: Josephine Rowe, Scott McClanahan, Anne Carson, Denis Johnson, Laura Kasischke, James Baldwin, Flaubert, Yusef Kumenyaaka, Mary Gaitskill, Toni Morrison, Dorothy Allison, Jeanette Winterson, John Steinbeck, Larry Brown, Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, Randal O’Wain, Ann Pancake, Juliet Escoria, Barbara Loden’s film “Wanda” and novels like Our Lady of the Flowers and Wuthering Heights.
BCR: What else gets your creative engines running?
MM: Trees! I love to look at and think about and write about trees!
BCR: You can’t argue with that! Enjoy the trees of central Virginia and throughout your book tour travels. And thanks.
Mesha Maren’s short stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, Oxford American, Crazyhorse, Southern Cultures, Hobart, Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, and elsewhere. She is the 2018-2019 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and serves as a National Endowment of the Arts Writing Fellow at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution. ★