Elswick, a native of Grundy, Virginia, and the winner of the 2011 Writer’s Digest Award for her moving account of love, despair and forgiveness portrayed in “Mama’s Shoes,” spoke about the process of writing her book and becoming an award-winning debut novelist. The daughter and granddaughter of coal miners, she also shared her thoughts about other Appalachian writers and works.
Elswick began her remarks by answering a question she is frequently asked: “What are your favorite books?” She engaged the room full of students, faculty, staff and community friends as she took them on a journey through many Appalachian authors and stories from her favorite works. In tune with the theme of the event, she shared how Appalachian authors are often distinguished by their use of “the sense of place.”
“Whether or not you want to be identified as an Appalachian author is up to you,” said Elswick. “In many stories, setting is not important at all, but the sense of place that Appalachian writers have in their books is what defines their writings.”
Elswick’s “Mama’s Shoes” is a story about a 13-year-old girl named Sassy who is trying to determine the truth of who she really is, while coming to terms with her Mama’s harsh past. Sylvia’s dream of dancing in red heels through life to the melody of a Hank Snow record are dashed. Instead, she is raising her daughter, Sassy, alone in the coal mining town she vowed to leave behind. Elswick said the book is indeed about conflict, between mother and daughter, truth and lies, rich and poor, past and present. But, she added, it’s as much about “what it’s like to grow up in a little coal mining town.”
“If you want to know about what goes on in a small town,” said Elswick, “go get your hair done. That’s the way it was when I was a little girl, and that’s the way it is today. If you want to know what’s going on, ask the women.”
Elswick gave credit to her own mother for inspiring the book “Mama’s Shoes.” She also spoke about Appalachian traditions, including “a spotless home” and the region’s hospitality.
“We have traditions that are different from other people that characterize us as Appalachian,” said Elswick. “What’s the first thing an Appalachian woman does when you come into her house? You’ve got to feed them.”
Elswick’s fiction has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including the “Literary Journal of the Virginia Writing Project,” “Jimnson Weed,” and “A Cup of Comfort for Dog Lovers II.” In addition to her 2011 Writer’s Digest Award, she won first and third place in 2010 in the Appalachian Authors Guild short story contest. She is currently working on her second novel.
Elswick is the fourth of five speakers/presenters in an Appalachian lecture series at Bluefield College. The series is a part of an overall yearlong “Celebration of Appalachia” symposium featuring lectures, concerts, exhibits, discussions, movies, theatre, tours and other educational and entertaining activities designed to honor the Appalachian heritage.
Other events on the “Celebration of Appalachia” schedule this spring include:
— “Thinking Like a Mountain: Creative Expressions of Concern for the Appalachian Mountains,” an art exhibit by regional painters, poets and songwriters, now through April 2 in BC’s Art Gallery on the first floor of Lansdell Hall.
— “Appalachian Instruments,” a lecture/presentation on the instrumental music of Appalachia, offered by Charles Priest, assistant professor of music, Tuesday, March 27 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Shott Hall A&B
— “Problems in Appalachia: A Panel Discussion,” Tuesday, April 10 at 7 p.m. in Shott Hall, hosted by BC’s “Media in Appalachia” class and featuring local experts on Appalachian history and culture
— “Appalachian Festival,” Saturday, April 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., outside on the BC Quad (inside the Dome Gymnasium in the event of inclement weather), featuring vendors, demonstrators, Appalachian author book sales and signings, storytelling, clogging, square dancing, and Bluegrass music from Stacy Grubb and Clinton Collins and the Creek Boys
— “Mountain Jack,” a rollicking presentation of mountain folk tales and rousing mountain music, presented by BC Theatre, Thursday through Saturday, April 19-21 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 22 at 2 p.m., Harman Chapel
— “Eva Easley Quilt Dedication,” Friday, April 20 at noon in Easley Library, recognizing the significant contributions of the Easley family, particularly the late Eva Easley, to the success of Bluefield College through the placement and dedication of a locally-handmade quilt representing her service to BC
— “Spring Instrumental Music Concert,” featuring Appalachian music by BC’s Concert Band, Community Orchestra, and Jazz Ensemble, Tuesday, April 24 at 7:30 p.m., Harman Chapel