Interview: Jesse Donaldson

I’m drawn to Kentucky not because it’s some Shangri-La but because it is a complicated place,” says Jesse Donaldson, author of the recent novel The More They Disappear and a native of the Commonwealth who left to attend college in Texas. Now living with his wife and daughter across the country in Oregon, he has found himself drawn back to Kentucky but reluctant to uproot his family.

This internal crisis was the impetus for his acclaimed memoir On Homesickness: A Plea, conceived as a letter to his wife begging to go home. Published in 2017 by Vandalia Press, the book examines the difficulty of change for a young family while offering a glimpse into Kentucky’s complex geographic and social history. Themes of homesickness, religion, and leaving versus staying permeate the memoir, providing readers with a deeply felt portrait of Donaldson’s plight. Following a recent book tour that brought him to every one of Kentucky’s 120 counties, Donaldson spoke to Appalachian Heritage about how his struggles with homesickness have influenced his writing, his research and writing processes, and the complexities of Kentucky history and his relationship to his home state.

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EMILY MASTERS: Your memoir takes the form of snapshots of your life and of Kentucky history organized by the first Kentucky county created to the most recent. When did you first know that this was the shape your writing wanted to take? What served as your inspiration for this visual construction?

JESSE DONALDSON: I’d been writing these micro-essays that linked Kentucky myth to my current life. Oftentimes these were tied to Kentucky geography, but I didn’t envision them as a book. I was just writing where my whims took me. When I started to realize I had material worthy of a book, I started to imagine that book’s shape. The counties structure gave the book a defined scope (120 entries) and fit thematically. Identifying so strongly with one’s county is unique to Kentucky, and the idea of carving out a space and giving it a name is a long established manner of defining “home.” And at its core this book is about searching for home.

EM: How much time did you spend researching each county?

JD:It depended. I was not a proper historian. I would read widely and shallowly about each county, looking for bits of story I’d never heard or found interesting or something that fit thematically with the book. Sometimes I knew exactly what I wanted to write (oftentimes these were the personal Kentucky stories). Other times, I found a bit of history I loved but couldn’t work into the manuscript. I’d say the average was two to three days of reading about the county until I found the historical nugget that fit.

EM: In the memoir, you blend Kentucky history, the good and the bad, with your own memories of growing up here. How did you balance your powerful emotional connection with the painful parts of Kentucky’s past and present?

JD:I’m drawn to Kentucky not because it’s some Shangri-La but because it is a complicated place. It’s always been that way for me. As a kid I wanted to leave Kentucky as soon as possible and see the wider world, but I also identified as (and was proud to be) a Kentuckian. At times I can’t stand the politics of the state and what I view as backwards policies that hurt Kentuckians. To wit Kentucky has a complicated and at times ignoble history regarding Native Americans, people of color, and the LGBTQ community (thanks, Kim Davis). I think wrestling with that problematic past in the present-day is important. Appalachian writers and artists have been doing this for centuries at this point. We can only properly and honestly express our pride in a place when we acknowledge and explore its imperfections.

EM: In your writing, you work to reveal the complexities of both the historical figures you write about and yourself. How did you choose which historical figures to write about? Did you see facets of yourself in those figures?

JD:I use Jesse James as a foil in the book. In writing a plea for my wife to move to Kentucky, I am romanticizing Kentucky. And Jesse James is, perhaps, one of the more romanticized figures we have in popular culture. For years people held him up as some sort of hero—more Robin Hood than Benedict Arnold. But the truth is he was a racist, violent, all-around terrible human being, who displayed a shocking lack of empathy to his fellow men. On Homesicknesspeels back the layers of the myth of Jesse James to reveal the rotten core. In the same way, it sheds the rose-tinted glass through which I view Kentucky to reveal a more complicated land.

EM: There is a beauty in the generations of time spanned throughout the memoir. How were you able to write about the past without devolving into sentimentality and nostalgia? Did these issues come up in early drafts?

JD: Let’s be honest, the book might devolve into sentimentality at times. As a writer, I think you have to do hard work up front to earn a sentimental or (dare I say) cliché moment. Certainly, you are always trying to catch your worst impulses or moments that don’t ring true during the editing and rewriting of a book. That’s my process, at least. As far as the book’s relationship to time, I think there’s something wonderful about how just one sentence can collapse time between the present and the long-ago past. I think about the book in the same way I think about geology. In the fossil record, we can quite literally see how time collapses and make a better sense of our world and how it e- or de-volves.

EM: The theme of displacement so common in Appalachian writing carries throughout your stories. How has displacement influenced you as a writer?

JD:People and their relationship to their homeland has long been interesting and complicated material to me. You have Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Odysseus searching for home. You have the darker tale of Europeans displacing Native Americans. There’s war. Slavery. The politics surrounding present-day Jerusalem. Appalachian families traveling up Route 23 to find work. I could go on and on.

Displacement is increasingly the norm in twenty-first century America. We leave our homelands for school or work. Families become scattered across the globe, return to meet one another on holidays or at funerals and weddings. I’ve been nomadic as an adult, moving every few years to a new town. I think that constant movement has made me yearn for terra firma. In some ways you have to question the value of the life you’re building if you can just uproot it every few years and start again. On the other hand, you have to recognize that land (and its ownership) is not as simple as a deed and a boundary line. In some ways, I think we are all just renting our fenced borders from some divine entity.

EM: You claim, “Perhaps we Kentuckians have reason to hold onto home more than most.” Why do you think that is?

JD: There’s a perception within Kentucky that the state and its people are much-maligned outside its borders. Perhaps this makes us defensive and a bit more full-throated in our pride of all things bluegrass. Though I must say—in my experience—non-Kentuckians are intrigued by the state. It has a large cultural presence through its art and music, a long and complicated history as a border state that was the birthplace of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, and a natural beauty that is nothing short of miraculous—from the mountains in the east to the to the Jackson Purchase in the west. I guess I’m saying the word “Kentucky” conjures something for a listener— whether they are from there or not. It creates an image. I don’t know that the same can be said of, say, Indiana.

EM: In your writing, you refer to environmental destruction in Kentucky. Do you see yourself as an activist through your writing?

JD: No. An activist would be more active. The book states some truths about the environmental destruction of Kentucky and its amorality, but others have delved much deeper and with a sharper knife than I do. I would suggest Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of Americaor Erik Reece’s Lost Mountainor Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe.

EM: Your writing contains lots of references to Greek mythology. When did you find yourself drawn to these stories? What about them was compelling to you?

JD: I’m drawn to the idea that we are just rewriting the same stories over and over again. I like to believe there are simple verities about human endeavor that are fundamentally unchanged from the time of Homer and Sappho to today.

EM: You write about unfulfilled desires, how you wish to squelch them but never can. Do you think it is possible to find contentment or relief if your desires remain unfulfilled for too long?

JD: Desire doesn’t seem to have an endgame. Human beings are like carburetors, balancing desire with fulfillment in the same way a carburetor balances air and gas. If I am hungry and eat a sandwich, I have fulfilled a simple desire. But that desire will return, perhaps it will even morph and shift. I don’t think this reductive example is fundamentally different from some of the larger desires we hold (including those that involve love, career, family, or religious experience). Let a man talk to God and he’ll be wowed for a few days. But then he’ll wonder why he doesn’t have a direct line to God, and why, when he’s hungry, he has to go to the deli rather than just have a divine sandwich placed in his hands. Though perhaps if I knew a bit more about Buddhism and mindfulness, I would have a more nuanced and helpful view on human desire and its effects on the world.

EM: Your writing is steeped in Biblical allusions, but it sounds as if you are not personally religious. How do you align your faith (or lack thereof ) with your writing?

JD: I’m curious about the Bible and religious belief and as a writer I follow my curiosities. I want to believe in the divine. I want to believe in God in the same way I want to believe in ghosts, aliens, and the soul. All of these would make the world a more glorious, magical place. But I’m naturally a skeptic. And this creates conflict. And a truth I learned early on remains true: points of conflict are touchstones for good writing.

EM: You mention that this memoir starts to feel like a eulogy to you. Do you see it as an elegy for your life in Kentucky?

JD: I think I mentioned that loaded word—elegy. (One should read the Appalachian variety (Appalachian Elegyby bell hooks) before the Hillbilly variety (J.D. Vance). I think [On Homesickness is] less an elegy for my life in Kentucky than for my childhood and for dreams that don’t have consequences.

EM: Do you still dream of moving back to Kentucky? Do you plan to someday move back?

JD: A recent reading tour through Kentucky reignited my nostalgia for the state. I brought my daughter to spend time with her cousin. I imagined a life lived in proximity to my parents, my sister, and old friends. So yes, I still dream of Kentucky. I believe I always will. Even if I manage to move back some day, I will escape to the Kentucky of my dreams.

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