Growing Up In Appalachia Is 'The Great Riddle Of My Life,' Says 'Marilou' Author | WYPR

Growing Up In Appalachia Is 'The Great Riddle Of My Life,' Says 'Marilou' Author

Aug 3, 2019
Originally published on August 3, 2019 12:49 pm

Sarah Elaine Smith's first novel finds poetry in dispiriting surroundings.

Here's how Cindy, the central character in Marilou Is Everywhere, describes her life in rural Pennsylvania at the age of 14:

I used to think my troubles got legs the summer Jude Vanderjohn disappeared, but now I see how they started much earlier.

Before that summer, the things that happened to me were air and water and just as see-thru. They were real but I didn't care for them much. I did not care for the real. It didn't seem so special to me, whatever communion I could take with the dust spangles, or the snakes that spun in an oiled way along the rotting tractor tires stacked up by the shed, or the stony light that fell in those hills and made the vines and mosses this vivid nightmare green. None of it had a purpose to me. Everything I saw seemed to have been emptied out and left there humming. I watched the cars. I read catalogs, which I collected and which my family called Cindy's magazines. My life was an empty place. From where I stood, it seared on with a blank and merciless light. All dust and no song.

Things do change for Cindy that summer. The disappearance of the teenage Jude leads her to Jude's bereft and unwell mother, Bernadette — and thusly to a maternal figure missing from her own life.

Smith was born and raised in Appalachia — in Greene County, Penn., the far southwest corner of the state. She now lives about 60-odd miles north in Pittsburgh, where she spoke to NPR about her book.


Interview Highlights

On the character Bernadette

Bernadette is a cogent character at times, and at other times, she is very palpably suffering from a kind of dementia. And Cindy takes advantage of that in order to gain information about Jude's life, and how to fit into that world — learning what kind of daughter Bernadette expects. And Bernadette, for her part: To me, it seems possible that she is aware at times that Cindy is not her daughter. But they're both lonely in a way that makes them willing to overlook pretty obvious truths.

On growing up in Greene County

Growing up there has been the great riddle of my life. And I think, in a lot of ways, I wanted to write this book to tease out some of the contradictions and expose some of the things that are both beautiful and really troubling about the place. ...

I feel very aware of how easy it is to objectify Appalachian places — even for me, as someone who grew up in one. And in Marilou Is Everywhere, Cindy's family experience[s] poverty in a way that might be a more familiar view of Appalachia. But Jude and Bernadette, their family also represents a presence in those places, of people who move back to the land out of the pursuit of the idea that they might live in nature. And all of those people are in Appalachia, and their interactions with each other are much more complicated than they're often given to be.

On Janice Hatfield, the teacher to whom the book is dedicated

She was the first teacher who told me about writing. You know, "You could do this." "If you want to do this, you can do this." ... That was at West Greene High School. And she supervised the literary magazine and the newspaper. I worked on both of those, and I took every class of hers I could.

And one thing I remember in particular: She used to give me huge boxes of books — huge boxes. And whenever I would try to give them back to her later, she'd say, "Oh no, I have extras of all of those." And I just thought: There's no way you have extras of all of these books. But that's just a little bit of her generosity.

On how stress and suffering can lead to happiness

One of the crucial turns in the book occurs when Cindy begins to realize that even though she has been in tremendous pain and also caused tremendous pain, she still has the choice of deciding how she's going to react from then on — what she's going to do with that knowledge. And it turns out for her that realizing that that decision matters is actually, in a way, the beginning of unexpected happiness for her.

And that's something that I actually really resisted when I was writing earlier drafts of this book. I thought: "Oh no, a happy ending!" ... "How gauche!" But I've experienced that pain can be the source of tremendous changes, and the things that we learn that way can really make our lives beautiful.

Ian Stewart and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sarah Elaine Smith's first novel finds poetry in dispiriting surroundings. Cindy, the central character in her first novel, "Marilou Is Everywhere," describes her life in rural Pennsylvania at the age of 14.

SARAH ELAINE SMITH: (Reading) My life was an empty place. From where I stood, it's seared on with a blank and merciless light. All dust and no song. Rainbows in oil puddles. Bug bites hatched with a curved X from my fingernails. Donald Duck orange juice in the can. Red mottles on my brother Clinton's puffy hands, otherwise so white they were actually yellow, like hard cheese. The mole on my belly button. You get to know things this way by looking at yourself. You know the world by the shape of what comes back when you yell. I had only ever been myself and found it lacking.

SIMON: That's the author, Sarah Elaine Smith, who joins us from member station WESA in Pittsburgh. Thank you so much for being with us.

SMITH: Thank you so much, Scott.

SIMON: Cindy's life, though, begins to brighten with the disappearance of another young woman in their town, Jude. What happens?

SMITH: So Jude goes missing after a camping trip. And she happens to be the girlfriend of Cindy's older brother Virgil. And Virgil takes it upon himself to look in on Jude's mother after the disappearance because he realizes that she might be at loose ends. And while he's in the house, Cindy sees an opportunity to leave her own home life and spend time someplace a little bit more, possibly nurturing because her mother has been gone for a number of months and she is in the care of her teenage brothers.

SIMON: And so Cindy envies Jude even as she's missing - almost because of it, doesn't she?

SMITH: She does. And Cindy, in some ways, I think, wants to disappear herself.

SIMON: Jude's mother, Bernadette, becomes confused - or is she?

SMITH: That's a really interesting question. And Bernadette is a cogent character at times. And at other times, she is very palpably suffering from a kind of dementia. And Cindy takes advantage of that in order to gain information about Jude's life and how to fit into that world, learning what kind of daughter Bernadette expects. And Bernadette, for her part - to me, it seems possible that she is aware at times that Cindy is not her daughter. But they're both lonely in a way that makes them willing to overlook pretty obvious truths.

SIMON: You were, I gather, born and raised in Green County, Pa.

SMITH: Yes.

SIMON: What does that contribute to this book?

SMITH: Oh, gosh, just everything, really. Growing up there has been the great riddle of my life. And I think in a lot of ways I wanted to write this book to tease out some of the contradictions and expose some of the things that are both beautiful and really troubling about the place.

SIMON: What do you want us to know? What do you want to stand out for people?

SMITH: Well, I feel very aware of how easy it is to objectify Appalachia in places even for me as someone who grew up in one. In "Marilou Is Everywhere," Cindy's family experience poverty in a way that might be a more familiar view of Appalachia. But Jude and Bernadette - their family also represents a presence in those places of people who move back to the land out of this sort of pursuit of the idea that they might live in nature. And all of those people are in Appalachia, and their interactions with each other are much more complicated than they're often given to be.

SIMON: A theme in your book seems to be that, although there are great moments of suffering and stress, you are left with the impression that, sometimes, unfathomable events can still restore happiness.

SMITH: Absolutely. I think one of the crucial turns in the book occurs when Cindy begins to realize that even though she has been in tremendous pain and also caused tremendous pain, she still has the choice of deciding how she's going to react from then on, what she's going to do with that knowledge.

And it turns out for her that realizing that decision matters is actually in a way the beginning of sort of unexpected happiness for her. And that's something that I actually really resisted when I was writing earlier drafts of this book. I thought, oh, no, a happy ending, you know, how gauche. But I've experienced that pain can be the source of tremendous changes and the things that we learn that way can really make our lives beautiful.

SIMON: Sarah Elaine Smith - her novel "Marilou Is Everywhere." Thank you so much for being with us.

SMITH: Thank you so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.