Writing Isn’t Always Lonely

With Sonny Schumann at the Beckley Coal Mine

With Sonny Schumann at the Beckley Coal Mine

It’s said that writing is a lonely business, and that is often true, but in my case at least, it’s not always done without help.

I couldn’t have written—or written convincingly—any of my four novels or my four hundred articles without the knowledge of the experts upon whom I called for assistance. For WHISPER HOLLOW, which takes place in a fictional coal mining town called Verra, West Virginia and spans more than sixty years, I had to do a great deal of research about emigration, coal mining, WWII, and the Catholic clergy. One of the first of my guides was the wonderful writer Homer Hickam, author of Rocket Boys, who called me “a brave soul to write about a WV coal town without having lived there and then” and then shared some of his own memories so that I could try; there was the Carmelite Prioress who helped me imagine an interaction between a mother superior and a desperate but misguided would-be novitiate (and said it was the most fun she’d had in years); Christa Miller, organist at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston, who gave me a lesson and then patiently answered many questions via email; Brother Luke of the Assumption Church in Keyser, WV, who instructed me on matters of the Catholic faith from the perspective of the clergy; and many others along the way. But two experts stand out, not only for their competency and generosity, but for their friendship that developed during the writing of the book.

cemetery near Logan, WV

cemetery near Logan, WV

Bill Richardson, producer of the History Channel series “Hatfields and McCoys: White Lightning” and associate professor at West Virginia University, drove me around the state’s southern counties, giving me an incredibly detailed history lesson replete with colorful anecdotes and personal memories. He helped me decide on the setting of Verra (it’s somewhere in Raleigh County) and told me, well, nearly everything I needed to know about life in a coal camp between the 1890s and the 1960s. I give him all the credit for the things I got right when I incorporated our many interviews into WHISPER HOLLOW and none of the blame for the mistakes I surely made.

Sonny supervising while I swung the pickaxe

Sonny supervising while I swung the pickaxe

The other is Sonny Schumann, a retired coal miner in his late 70s. He was the tour operator of the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine the day I was there, and how lucky for me. He drove a mantrip-load of visitors underground through the wet, dark passages of a vintage mine and back in time to when miners had to work eight hours or more cramped into spaces not more than 48” high, chipping out the earth with a pickaxe and being paid by the load in company scrip. After the tour was finished, Sonny sat with me and answered my many questions, drew a hypothetical underground map and, in a continued exchange via email over the course of several months, helped me plan a fatal explosion that could be attributed to two separate acts of vandalism and that would figure prominently in the book. I was so grateful for his assistance that I named a character after him.

I’ve stayed in touch with both Bill and Sonny, and it was an exquisite day recently when I was able to call them both and let them know that the wonderful literary publisher Other Press had bought WHISPER HOLLOW, and that it would be their lead release in March 2015. And now there will be other experts who will help guide the book along the process, editors and designers, marketers and publicists, who will contribute to it in important ways.

It’s this kind of collaboration that palliates the loneliness of writing a book. Yes, it is I who sits by myself at my desk, assembling information into sentences and paragraphs until a story emerges. But it’s because of those people I can turn to when a question or crisis arises that even when I’m isolated, I never feel completely alone.