In writing classes, we are told to write what we know. In writing what we know, we can create vivid more universal prose. I’ve always kept to this way of thinking with my writing in one way or another. I write what I’m passionate about. I’m finding it important to tell the story of my people. Fellow Appalachians and my peers.
So, I set out to write my first novel with characters I had visited before. Ones I had grown to care about. The main male character, Glenville, will be going underground to mine for the first time in his life in this novel. I will be going with Glenville there, but the only difference is that I physically won’t be going. I have never in my life visited an underground coal mine.
I am a coal miner’s daughter of generations back. My great great grandfather was part of the Harlan fights as was my great grandfather. (When miners looking for their workplace rights in Harlan, Kentucky literally had to fight gun thugs hired by the coal company.) My great grandmother was raised in a coal camp (housing provided to the coal miners’ families by the coal company). My grandfather was an electrician in the mines. My dad has worked both underground and in strip mining. Currently, he works in reclamation and environmental compliance of strip jobs as an environmental engineer. I was raised knowing that coal money fed us. I was raised knowing those men with the uncanny dark faces and respected them like you would a soldier returning from war. I also knew what they were putting on the line to provide for their family as they were taught men should do (and now women). It was as much a part of my life to see these working men and their black rimmed eyes as it was to wake every morning and see the mountains. But, in writing Glenville’s character I have realized one thing. I haven’t a clue as to where they have been or from where they are coming. It is something east Kentuckians live with everyday, but underground mining isn’t something we can say we know much about because many of us have never been down there.
I am relying on pictures I’ve seen on the internet and those I remember seeing of my dad underground. I am also reading Nathan Hall’s coal journal which documents his experience as an underground miner. I am taking what I have lived, looking at it from an opposite perspective, and writing the unknown. It takes imagination. A lot of imagination. It is also very strange to think that something that is so much a part of the Appalachian unconscious and conscious is really an unknown to so many of us.
I’m going with Glenville into that mine. We are going together. Right now he’s nervous and has no clue what he is up against, what will be expected of him, and neither do I. One thing I can guarantee, the next time I see that dust covered face at the grocery, I will see it a bit differently.