Silas House: Chasing His Dream, Finding His Voice
Kentucky author and national bestselling novelist Silas House speaks of his love for Appalachia and how his writing gives working people a voice
“I feel like I’ve had three or four lives,” Silas House confided over lunch in Corbin. “I’m a person who’s always changing.”
Anyone familiar with Kentucky literature can attest that change has become one of Silas’ best friends. In a former life, this rugged, lanky 34-year-old Lily, Kentucky, native was a rural mail carrier by day and burgeoning writer by night. That life ended when Clay’s Quilt, his first novel, was published in 2001, allowing him to quit his postal job to write full time.
“The one thing I really wanted to do in Clay’s Quilt was talk about Old Appalachia meeting New Appalachia head-on,” Silas says. “My generation witnessed that in a big way—we remember outhouses, but we never had to use them.”
This fresh perspective garnered him critical acclaim and sparked much discussion in book clubs throughout Appalachia and beyond. Young and old alike found themselves relating to Clay, who Silas admits in retrospect contains a lot of himself. “The whole structure of that book is autobiographical,” he admits with a twinkle in his blue eyes. “It starts out with this boy who’s wild and partying, and he begins to realize, ‘I want more out of life than this.’ By the end of the book, he’s settled down and found his place in the world.”
Although the book cemented his place in the literary world, it would be awhile before Silas could settle down. He embarked on a whirlwind book tour, something he recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘What am I going to do? I can’t speak in front of people. They’re all going to laugh at me!’ ” They didn’t. The book went on to become a national bestseller.
“Once he realized his writings were being accepted on a level that he never dreamed, he became more of a voice for these hills,” says Mike Mullins, executive director of the Hindman Settlement School, who has known Silas for nearly a decade. “This confidence has led him to speak out boldly in his writings.”
His follow-up, A Parchment of Leaves, a historical prequel to Clay’s Quilt, was released in 2002 and became another bestseller. The Coal Tattoo, his unforgettable latest novel, was published in 2004 and is now in its third printing. Completing the series by linking his previous books, it has won the Appalachian Book of the Year Award and Kentucky Literary Award for Best Novel, and was one of three finalists for the Southern Book Critics’ Circle Prize for 2004. It was accorded a glowing starred review in Publishers Weekly, the most respected literary news magazine in the country.
Brushing off mention of the critical acclaim and numerous awards he’s won, Silas instead calls attention to being named Kentucky’s Favorite Writer in the 2003 and 2005 statewide polls. “That was the best award to me because the readers voted on it,” he says. “It wasn’t just a bunch of critics.”
He does, however, appreciate the creative freedom the acclaim has afforded. Besides being a bestselling novelist, Silas also serves as a monthly columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, contributing editor for the alternative-country magazine No Depression, and is a frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered. He lends his expertise to fellow writers as assistant professor of English and writer-in-residence at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, and professor of creative writing at Spalding University, building upon his experience as a teacher at the annual Appalachian Writers Workshop at the Hindman Settlement School.
In a world of people trying to lead purpose-driven lives, Silas is living many. Over the years, that purpose has remained the same—giving working people a voice. “It’s all I know,” he explains. “I come from working people. They were all born with plastic spoons in their mouths.
“The thing that drives my stories more than anything is the people. I love that everybody has a story, and that every person matters and can be a character. You’re giving a voice to all these people who don’t have a voice, and that’s the biggest responsibility and inspiration to me.”
That inspiration is reflected in The Coal Tattoo, released in paperback in August. “It’s about the relationship between two sisters who are very different people, but who only have each other,” says Silas.
“When I was a little boy, I would hear my mother and aunt have these great big arguments, but the next morning they would be sitting at the kitchen table having coffee. I asked about that once, and my mother said, ‘Sisters don’t make up; they just go back to the way things were.’
“One of my favorite lines in the book talks about that ambivalence and connects it to the land: ‘That loving the land was a given, not something one could choose, the same way you love your sister or brother even when you don’t want to.’ That ambivalence is something that’s very much about being an Appalachian. Sometimes you don’t want to love it as much as you do, but you do.”
This love of the land has inspired Silas to action. “Any good writer is an activist by way of words,” he says. Last April, he participated in the Authors’ Mountaintop Removal Tour at sites throughout eastern Kentucky, something he hopes will educate more people about the issue. “Deep mining didn’t do as much harm to the land, not like mountaintop removal,” he says. “You’re just making something disappear when you do that.”
Appalachia’s regional identity is also disappearing, he believes. “We’re not going to realize how badly we miss it until it’s gone,” says Silas. “In A Parchment of Leaves, the main character reminds herself throughout the book, ‘Remember this; don’t forget it.’
“People are so obsessed with movie stars and politicians,” he sighs. “If they spent half as much time learning about their own families as they spend learning about Julia Roberts’ twins, they would be much happier. I think it’s important that my children hear me talk about the Widow Combs and the Carter Family.”
Silas teaches about this heritage not just at home, but also in his college classes, where he is influencing the next generation of Appalachian writers, most only slightly younger than him. “The main piece of advice I give them is to be genuine,” he says. “If you’re not genuine, people know it in a heartbeat and they don’t respect you. To be a writer you also have to be incredibly determined. You can’t give up; my first book was rejected over and over. Yes, it’s a passion, but at some point you have to start looking at it as a job, too.”
It’s a job Silas has grown into. He has found a realm of quiet confidence that has even allowed him to relish his book tours. “I’ve encountered prejudice and condescension, but out of all the people, that’s maybe 5 percent,” he notes. “I’ve never lost my accent, so I always love that moment when people are listening to me and I can see on their face that they realize I’m intelligent because of what I’m saying.”
Judging from his work schedule, Silas has a lot to say. He is currently working hard on a collection of poetry about defiance, a quality he admires, and recently completed a full-length Christmas play commissioned by the University of Kentucky, which premiered in December. Called The Hurting Part, it portrays a homesick family who has moved to Dayton, Ohio, in search of work. “I had a blast writing this and discovering this new form of writing,” says Silas. “I grew up fairly obsessed with Tennessee Williams, so being able to dip into playwriting has been a complete pleasure.”
His next book, tentatively titled The Trees Remember You, is about a family coming to terms with the father’s experiences as a Vietnam veteran. Like his previous novels, it has special meaning for Silas, whose own father served in Vietnam. “It’s a really complex thing to be the child of a Vietnam vet,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve dealt with it, so it’s a really personal story.
“The book is set in 1976 during the bicentennial summer, and it’s all from the point of view of a 10-year-old boy,” Silas says. “His father has never dealt with Vietnam at all, but this patriotic summer happens and brings everything back. The veteran’s sister, who protested the war, moves in with the family. Her brother has never forgiven her, but she’s out on the street and he has to take her in—it’s what country people do. It’s about a divided house, which is what our country is right now, so it’s very timely.”
Although written from an Appalachian’s point of view with an obvious rural setting, it will not be blatantly Appalachian, something Silas feels is dictated by the story. “This family is standing in for the whole nation,” he explains. “It’s about what Vietnam did to us as a country, and what being a divided country says to us.”
A whirlwind by nature, Silas sometimes pauses to reflect upon his evolution. “I feel successful in that I’ve achieved my dream,” he says. “I’m not rich, and I’m not known in every corner of literature. As long as I can keep on writing, I’ll be fine. In a way, it’s my only sense of continuity.”
HINDMAN SETTLEMENT SCHOOL
The annual Appalachian Writers Workshop at the Hindman Settlement School holds a special place in Silas’ heart. Founded in 1902 and located at the Forks of Troublesome Creek, Hindman first served as both a boarding and day school. Through the years, it has been associated with such noted Kentucky authors as the late James Still and founder of the workshop Albert Stewart, and continues to build upon this rich literary tradition.
It’s been nearly a decade since Silas first attended as a student, ultimately finding his community of writers. “As a writer, you have to be constantly gaining information about where to submit,” he says, noting that Hindman fosters this information exchange in a noncompetitive environment.
Now a teacher at the workshop, Silas is an integral part of the community that he found as a student. “Silas is an example of what a talented writer can accomplish if they have the kind of nurturing environment that our workshop provides,” says director Mike Mullins. “He is a natural teacher and the students that have taken his sessions have been truly amazed at his knowledge of writing.”
More information on the Hindman Settlement School can be found on its Web site, www.hindmansettlement.org.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: SILAS' MUSIC PASSION
To read more about Silas and his passion for music, click here: Silas House