by Joe Schuster
In Monsters in Appalachia (Vandalia Press, 2016), Sheryl Monks explores a range of monsters. In the title story, a man collects Biblical demons, at first slaughtering and eating them, then putting them on display in a carnival. In “Burning Slag,” a woman kills her abusive husband, goes mad, loses her children to foster care, then become a threat to the foster family. In “Robbing Pillars,” a coal miner expects disaster and gets it when a young miner gets electrocuted; the mine itself seems to wait like a monster in the dark. In “Clinch,” an avaricious shopkeeper takes advantage of an impoverished family, while in “Barry Gibb is the Cutest Bee Gee” the monsters are more ordinary: an adolescent girl has to deal with her mother’s lessons on feminine attractiveness and then a young man makes an inappropriate gesture toward her.
Monks was born in Chicago in 1967 but moved to West Virginia when she was a small girl, where her father was, for a time, a coal miner. When mining jobs started to dry up, her family moved to North Carolina after she finished the fourth grade. Although she lived only a few early years in West Virginia, many of her stories are set during her time there (the late 60’s and early ’70’s). She says, “I loved West Virginia. The mountains were lush and beautiful. There were creeks to swim in. The earth was ever present. We ate green apples and grapes and wild honeysuckles. Things grew wild in the yard that could be eaten. We had ponies and rabbits and pigs. We had to watch for snakes. It was wonderful.”
Beyond her affection for the state, Monks is also drawn to it for material because it played such a pivotal part in her development. As she got older, however, she realized she knew little about it or that period and became curious. “Writing for me is about trying to figure out who I am and what I think about the world and so much I don’t know or understand,” she says. “So I think a lot of my stories are centered around my childhood period because you grow in so many ways when you are young and then later there is a lot of stuff to tease apart in that period. I once asked my mother about that time and she said, ‘I don’t know. We were just kids then, driving all over the place.’ So I started looking into it and found so many interesting things.”
After high school, Monks joined the Army as a legal clerk to earn money for college, though family obligations kept her from matriculating until some years after her discharge. She eventually graduated from North Carolina’s Salem College in 2000 before earning an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte in 2003. Her first fiction appeared in literary journals not long after. From 2005-2008, she was publisher and editor of Press 53. Currently she is editor and publisher of Change Seven Magazine and is working on a novel about the 1960’s War on Poverty. Monsters in Appalachia was a finalist for the 2017 Weatherford Prize for the best book set in the region.
Joe Schuster: How did you first come to writing?
Sheryl Monks: I think it comes out of the oral tradition that is part of my Appalachian heritage. West Virginia, at that time, had very limited exposure to television as the mountains obstructed reception of our antenna, and so people sat around telling stories, mostly fabrications. My grandmother used to tell these ridiculous stories about, for example, my aunt who was so small when she was a baby she could fit inside a mayonnaise jar. My dad used to tell stories like, “We were so poor if we got a piece of candy, we had to share it by spitting it into each other’s mouths.” My paternal grandmother told stories that felt like acid dreams. She also had a book about dreams that I couldn’t get enough of. I’ve always had vivid dreams, even as a young kid, and I would consult Granny’s book to interpret what it meant to be surrounded by storks poking me into a coal stove or to be chased by a giant and for the back of the car to open up and make me fall in his path. I listened to stories about childbirth and car wrecks and misadventures of every kind. I begged to hear “love ballads” where young girls were often drowned or pushed over the sides of mountains. I couldn’t get enough ghost stories, road stories, love stories, murder stories, hard-luck stories. My mother read those “True Confessions” tabloids sometimes, too, and while she never let me read them, I imagined how wonderful they must’ve been.
JS: I’m curious about what you might have been reading that also led you to want to write.
SM: When we moved to North Carolina, I was introduced to RIF, Reading is Fundamental. I discovered the library and checked out books on magic and about witches. I read all the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. I got into Judy Blume.
But I don’t think it ever occurred to me that writing was something I could do myself until I started college and read “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” and “The Death of Ivan Illych” and The Catcher in the Rye. That’s when I began to wonder whether I could do something with all the stories I’d loved growing up. I didn’t think exactly in terms of becoming a writer, though. I approached it more like a family historian, until I found Salem College and the Center for Women Writers.
JS: Your collection contains so many different kinds of stories, from coming-of-age, to some really dark stories, to some that are quite surreal. I’m curious how you came to such a range.
SM: It was an evolution. When I started out, I was interested in capturing the oral tradition that comes out of my family’s stories. I wanted to get at the truth of the stories, but I couldn’t nail that down because I was trying to write it as nonfiction. You know, “This really happened to my father.” But my uncle would say, “No, that didn’t happen.” Everybody contradicted each other. Since there was no way to get to the truth, I learned I had to start writing fiction, and in fiction, the truth is somewhere in there.
When I decided I wasn’t going to write about my crazy family because it was too hard to get at the truth, I just decided to make up stuff. So I started working on a book called All the Girls in France. For some reason it was based on a kind of a bawdy song one of my aunts taught me: “All the girls in France do the hoochie-coochie dance.” I just thought that would be a great title for a collection. I thought, I can tell all of these stories about these colorful women and felt like I had a plan. “Barry Gibb is the Cutest Bee Gee” came out of that period. The story “All the Girls in France” never materialized, but over the course of time I was writing what I called “the girl stories.”
Then my reading changed. Early on I was reading writers like Jill McCorkle and Ellen Gilchrist and Lorrie Moore and Faye Weldon—you know, stories that sort of lined up with my “girl stories.” Then I came across Robert Morgan and started reading about poor people in Appalachia. I thought, wow, I didn’t know you could do that. So I started digging into more of these Appalachian writers, and I came across Ron Rash and Fred Chappell and John Ehle. Somewhere along the way, someone suggested Breece D’J Pancake, a West Virginia writer, and as I dug into his work, I was like, how did I not know about this person? Then Ann Pancake and Pinckney Benedict, and when I found Pinkney, I said, “I want to write like that guy. I want to know everything he knows.” And so I started graduate school at Queens so I could work with him. He was generous and mentored me, even after I graduated. Around then, his work was undergoing this kind of seismic shift where he was moving away from realistic, gritty Appalachian stuff to all of this weird stuff where all of a sudden you have an alien on a dairy farm or you have a golem. I was like, “Why are you writing all of this weird stuff? I like the gritty stuff.” Slowly I started to see where he was moving, and I fell madly in love with all of his surreal stuff.
JS: With such a range of stories, how did you settle on your title?
SM: I had these three different kinds of stories—the “girl” stories, the gritty Appalachia stories and these weird stories—and I thought, “This is what I have. I am just going to throw it out there and see if it’s a book.” I submitted it as Burning Slag. I didn’t feel as if it were the perfect title because I didn’t think every story was thematically in line with it, but I submitted it, and West Virginia University press liked it but they didn’t like the title. They suggested Monsters in Appalachia. I thought, “Okay, maybe this could work.” And going back through the stories, I started asking, Are there monsters in these stories? And, what is a monster? So that is how the title came about.
JS: I think the title does a good job of tying the collection together since it made me look at each story and say, “Okay, is there a monster here?” Once I asked that question, I found there were monsters of some kind in every story. Once you had the title, did it lead you to think differently about organizing it?
SM: Yes. I had to ask, how am I going to lead people through this? I felt like “Monsters” should be the final story, partly because, throughout the book, there’s a lot of despair. It’s small but it’s pretty dark. I guess it’s a good thing it’s small because people say, “I couldn’t stand one more page of despair.” I like that it’s confrontational but people can only take so much. But the story “Monsters in Appalachia” seems kind of to lift at the end; it makes me feel as if there is a glimmer of hope, but not what you would call a happy ending. But I wanted the book to have a hard quality so whatever the opening story was had to fit that. I thought it would be misleading to start with something light and then work into the darker things. One of the darkest stories is “Burning Slag.” I mean you’re kind of looking into hell.
There are a lot of light stories, but you couldn’t put them directly next to something like “Burning Slag.” You had to slowly move toward those other kinds of stories. So I thought “Robbing Pillars” was a good second story because it kind of kept with the same tone but sort of lightened up a little. Then with the next story, “The Immortal Jesse James,” you have these kids driving across country to Jesse James‘ cavern. It seemed pretty neutral. Not too dark, but it lets you transition into some of the lighter stories and then into the surreal stuff with “Black Shuck,” and then “Rasputin’s Remarkable Sleight of Hand” [in which a magician either has a sword trick go horribly wrong or a woman watching him imagines it does]. I tried to put things together in a way that felt right.
JS: What you say about “The Immortal Jesse James” harkens back to something you said about your mother’s description of herself and your father as two kids just driving around the country. Is there a connection?
SM: Yes. That story is an homage to what I call “the road stories” my mother told as I was growing up. My father told heartbreaking stories, but my mother’s stories were always about adventures, out on the open highway, setting up home in some new city, striking out again and again and again for some new horizon, often but not always at my father’s urging. The truth is I think they both, for a time at least, felt the need to wander. I think my mother loved it as much as my dad, but the conflict in all her stories was bearing the responsibilities of their new family. And so, I tried to capture some of that in the Jesse James story.
JS: Coming back to monsters: what draws you to them?
SM: The short answer is that monsters create tension and conflict, and that leads to change, and that is what you need for a story. As a longer answer: I wrote “Barry Gibbs is the Cutest Bee Gee” for a workshop with Pinckney at the Tinker Mountain Writer’s Conference after I graduated from Queens. My peers liked it, someone referred to it as the “tanning and manning” story, which I thought was useful. But Pinckney didn’t love it. Since I was such a fan of his, I was really heartbroken, but also really grateful because I knew he would help me figure out where the story was. Basically he thought it was a vignette, which was a way of saying it wasn’t really a story. Pinckney’s definition of a story is very close to Flannery O’Connor‘s and most other fine writers who know what they’re doing. But it was a eureka moment when I finally understood that a story differs from an anecdote, because in a story an old world is forever lost and a new world takes its place; there is, if a character is capable, change, some revelation in the way the character understands the world. If the character is incapable of changing, there still must exist a new world and a new way of seeing, which the reader, at least, understands in some way.
JS: Moving on to talk about your writing process: You work full time (for a scientific publisher), so I wonder, what kind of writing schedule are you able to construct?
SM: That is the problem for me. I have a friend who says, “Sheryl has to learn to speak Mandarin and discover a cure for cancer before she can have time to write.” I will do anything to distract myself from writing. As much as I love it, it’s something that is so hard and so important that I postpone it until the urge is so that I can’t sleep and I have to go write something and I know that if I don’t I am going to hate myself forever. I wait until it is too painful not to do it, and then I get into these mad spells where I write like a maniac, where I am not doing anything else and don’t want to do anything else and I am totally exhausted and then I look at what I have written and it’s awful so then I have to fix it.
JS: You talk about what a struggle it is to write, so I have to wonder, what makes it worthwhile?
SM: I just don’t find anything else gratifying like this. Even if it’s difficult and frustrating, it helps me figure out how to live. How do I process stuff? Until I can sit down and write, I can’t figure it out, but when I sit down and put it down on a piece of paper it comes together. It’s not therapy but there is something about going through something difficult in life and then having this thing that you have made: you have transformed this ugly and awful thing into art.
Joe Schuster is the author of The Might Have Been (Ballantine, 2012). His short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review and The New Virginia Review, among other journals. He has also written two books for Gemma Open Door’s adult literacy series, including One Season in the Sun and the forthcoming Jackie Robinson. He lives outside St. Louis, Missouri, and is at work on a new novel.