Denise Giardina is not one to mince words. For nearly…
Ask any fiction writer and they will likely tell you there are glimpses of themselves in nearly every character they create. Their obsessions, desires, and fears are often tucked away in the shadows and clefts of their characters, a small part of the fictional whole. Readers are left to wonder and guess about which details and characteristics might be autobiographical or pure fiction, and according to most novelists, they are usually wrong.
But let’s entertain this comparison between Denise Giardina and Carrie Bishop, one of the large cast of characters in Giardina’s 1987 bestselling novel Storming Heaven. “I have traveled outside the mountains, but never lived apart from them,” Bishop proclaims. “I always feared the mountains would be as jealous, as unforgiving, as any spurned lover. Leave them and they may never take you back. Besides, I never felt a need to go. There is enough to study in these hills to last a lifetime.”
Unlike Bishop, Denise Giardina did leave Appalachia. As a searching twenty-something in the 1970s, she set off for Washington, D.C., enrolling in the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. After receiving her Masters in Divinity in 1979, she felt the call to write and began working as a secretary to fund her true vocation. Her time in Washington made her a writer, she has said, and in 1984 her first novel, Good King Harry, was published to positive reviews.
But like Bishop, Giardina seemed to realize the jealousy of the mountains. Homesick, she returned to West Virginia in the mid-eighties. More acclaimed novels, set both inside and outside Appalachia, have followed over the years—Storming Heaven (1987), The Unquiet Earth (1992), Saints and Villains (1998), Fallam’s Secret (2003), and most recently, Emily’s Ghost (2010)—cementing her reputation as one of the country’s finest living authors.
But did the hills welcome her back? Or, perhaps more accurately, has she been content to be back? Those are complicated questions, Giardina would readily admit, as she has often found herself a stranger to her own culture as a political radical in what she views as an increasingly reactionary region and as one of the foremost critics of the coal industry when many are raging against a perceived “War on Coal.” And yet she loves Appalachia to the bone.
Such complex themes are at the center of the special section devoted to her as this year’s featured author. In “Candy,” a chapter from her memoir-in-progress, she writes of her grandparents’ struggle to finally leave their native Sicily and settle in West Virginia—a haunting parallel to her own struggle to find home. In her essay “A Mountaintop Experience,” Giardina merges her theology and activism to create an unflinching spiritual critique of mountaintop removal mining. In “Mourning in the Mountains,” a piece of commentary about the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, she decries the lack of regulatory enforcement and attention paid to Appalachia from the media and federal government. And in our interview, she muses about her struggle to find hope for the region today.
Giardina’s writing is complemented throughout the magazine by the powerful work of other writers. Robert Gipe, winner of the 2015 Weatherford Award in Fiction, contributes “Gone to Water,” an excerpt from his novel-in-progress; acclaimed short fiction writer Elaine Fowler Palencia offers the haunting story “Dark Stars”; and O. Henry Prize winner Elizabeth Genovise writes about “The Fullback.” With great candor, Darius Stewart chronicles confronting addiction in his essay “Seeing Pink Elephants.” Ron Houchin, winner of the 2013 Weatherford Award in Poetry, contributes a series of mesmerizing poems, alongside sterling contributions from poets including Ida Stewart, Katherine Smith, and Br. Paul Quenon. Finally, Charles Green ponders the origin of literary ideas in his fascinating craft essay “Made Out of Words.”
For Giardina, she has always found herself surrounded by ideas. To that end, she might agree with Carrie Bishop that there is indeed “enough to study in these hills to last a lifetime.”