SOMETHING GOT A HOLD OF ME:
The Passions of Author Silas House
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an interview originally published by Southern Hum in 2006.
With fingers that were at one time more practiced with Marlboro cigarettes than guitar strings, Silas House adjusts a capo on the neck of his Martin and gives the instrument a tentative strum. His audience, a group of fellow authors and student writers, is squeezed alongside him and other musicians on a porch at the Hindman Settlement School campus in eastern Kentucky. Cicadas provide the backup for all the songs of this party: classic country music, bluegrass tunes, bawdy jokes and low, soulful conversations. The smell of cigarette smoke and a citronella candle hangs in the humidity of the hot August night.
“Play ‘Orphan Girl,’” a female voice pleads from the darkness beyond the candlelight, referring to a Gillian Welch tune popular among this group. But House has a different song in mind—one of his own.
Just as the capo will change the key of the chords that he’s about to play, Silas House has transposed his former obsession for smoking to a passion for playing music. This is a relatively new pursuit for the thirty-something writer from Lily, Kentucky, but it falls into tight harmony with his lifelong dedication to celebrating, preserving and protecting Appalachia through the power of words.
“Writers almost need an obsession,” he says when I ask him how quitting cigarettes affected his writing habits. “The thing is, writers see the world differently than other people. I don’t mean for that to sound superior, but we’re different than other people. I think we take note of the beauty in the world more often than others, but I think it’s also fair to say that we’re more aware of the sadness, too, so we need something to be immersed in.”
“I believe that being passionate about something helps us to focus our writing, too,” House continues. “Whether we’re passionate about music or exercising or even something as crazy as smoking, that obsession or passion teaches us how to focus intently on something, and focus is the one thing that any writer—especially a novelist—will tell you is essential for good writing.”
House’s love of music has been evident in each of his novels: Clay’s Quilt, A Parchment of Leaves, and The Coal Tattoo. But he hasn’t limited that love to only writing about music. In the five or so years that he scaled the publishing hierarchy from “emerging” to “established” author, House also learned to play guitar, formed a musical duo, and recorded a CD. Pine to Pine by The Doolittles—named in honor of Loretta Lynn’s husband—features House on guitar and lead vocals on most of the tracks; Jason Howard plays autoharp and provides harmony vocals. (Although The Doolittles have gone on hiatus since House first granted this interview, he, Howard and Kate Larken now perform old-time hillybilly blues in a trio called Pickled Baloney.)
The tracks on Pine to Pine, a mix of public domain songs with new arrangements as well as original songs by House, Howard and other artists from the region, tell stories past and present and reflect many of the issues and values that are most important to House. The CD was recorded to raise money for the Hindman Settlement School, which hosts a popular annual workshop for writers of Appalachian influence. House has attended the workshop for over a decade—first as a student, then as a faculty member.
“We made the CD for the same reason that I write: to preserve,” he says. “Every song on there is either about preservation or is an act of preservation because so many of them—like ‘Foreign Lander’ and ‘Fall on My Knees’ —are so old. These are songs we either wrote or grew up singing or feel a particular attachment to. These are the songs of country people, of mountain people, the songs of our people. We made a conscious effort for the album to not be too polished. We wanted it to sound like we were sitting out on the front porch singing. Sometimes it was a supernatural experience. When I sang ‘Something Got a Hold Of Me,’ for instance, I felt like my ancestors were speaking through me.”
The sixth track of the CD is a remake of the well-known protest song “Which Side Are You On?” originally written by Harlan County (Kentucky) resident Florence Reece during a 1931 coal mine strike. “Which Side Are You On Now?” features updated lyrics that speak to House’s passion for fighting mountaintop removal. House’s voice—in print and speeches—is one of a growing chorus of authors from Appalachia who are lending their words to this cause. But just in case you miss talking to him or reading his articles and editorials, House wears a t-shirt bearing the message, “Stop mountaintop removal. We all live downstream.”
“Mountaintop removal is the single worst environmental disaster happening in America today,” House says, “yet nobody knows about it outside the region. Entire mountains are being hauled off in coal trucks, polluting streams, burying streams, damaging roads, causing the people here to live in filth. It’s just unbelievable and more people need to know about it.”
“I’m not against coal mining,” he continues. “I know that our economy here depends on it. But mountaintop removal is the most wasteful, irresponsible way to mine coal that has ever existed. And it takes jobs out of the region because manpower isn’t needed as much as machine-power. It’s sickening to see. If something like this was happening in Malibu, you can bet your boots that everybody in the world would know about it. But government-sanctioned environmental devastation like this only occurs where poor people live, because they don’t have the proper resources to fight back.”
Mountaintop removal and misconceptions of Appalachians as “ignorant hillbillies” are different notes on the same scale of disrespect for the region that House is tired of hearing. He turns the plastic-sleeved pages of a three-ring notebook filled with music. “Let’s do ‘A Ton on My Shoulder,’” he says as Howard once again hefts his autoharp from its case. This new composition by House and Howard (track 8 on the CD) addresses a problem many Appalachians and good writers are sensitive to – stereotypes. House’s frustration crescendos as he and Howard sing.
You say I’ve
got a chip on my shoulder
but buddy you’re wrong
cause it’s a ton
It’s a song with plenty of attitude, and in these men, that attitude resonates with action. House and Howard have co-authored Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, a collection of oral histories that will be available from University Press of Kentucky in March 2009.
“I wanted to capture the stories of the people suffering from mountaintop removal, and fighting it,” House says. “I knew I could do the storytelling part of it, but the issue is so complex and deals so much in politics, culture, and legalese. Jason is a real expert in those things, as well as being a great writer himself, so we joined forces to do the book. We traveled everywhere between New York City and Nashville to do the interviews.”
Something’s Rising profiles twelve people, among them well-known names like Jean Ritchie, Denise Giardina, and Kathy Mattea, but mostly people who, according to House, “haven’t gotten enough recognition, like Bev May, who has organized her entire holler to rise up and fight back against the coal company that is trying to destroy them, and Larry Bush, who faces daily intimidation because he has spoken up, and Carl Shoupe, a Vietnam vet and former deep miner who is on the front lines of the battle not because his own land is in danger but because he cares about his neighbors, and Pat Hudson, co-founder of LEAF, which is an organization that is doing amazing work for the movement in Tennessee.” Hudson and LEAF’s other co-founder, Dawn Coppock, are Knoxville-area writers who first learned about mountaintop removal from House and others at Hindman’s writing workshop and were inspired to build a coalition that approaches the issue as one which requires both environmental stewardship—especially by Tennessee’s strong Christian community—and a legislative solution.
House tells the story that struck him most, of a West Virginia lawyer who has drawn up a “Depopulation Plan” to drive private citizens out of Appalachia so that the region can be completely overtaken for strip mining. “He’s actually taken this around and shown it to coal companies,” says House. “I could not believe it, although I was looking at the actual document. In that moment I realized for sure that as Appalachians we are a disposable people to the coal industry.”
Stories like that keep House motivated as a writer and a speaker. In 2008, he delivered a rousing speech at the Appalachian Studies Association conference that addressed mountaintop removal as a cultural issue. (View the video at http://www.appalachianstudies.org/conference/2008/SilasHouse.php or read the text on House’s blog at http://silashouseblog.blogspot.com/2008/05/conscious-heart.html.) “There was riotous applause and a standing ovation, and I didn’t feel it was about me at all,” he says. “I felt that people were agreeing, that they were saying, ‘Yes, mountaintop removal is wrong.’ But they were also saying, ‘Yes, every time we allow someone to make fun of us for being Appalachian, we allow another mountain to be destroyed. Because it’s all connected.’”
“I think the reason the speech was successful is because I chose to be completely honest, to not worry about being politically correct or self-censoring,” House continues. “There was even a little bit of cussing in it, which I never, ever like to do as a public speaker. I think that can just be rude, most of the time, but in this case I went ahead and said what I’d say privately to a friend.”
For all his success at it, House has been doing much more than delivering speeches of late. He has a new novel, Eli the Good, due out in fall 2009. As with his previous novels, Eli functions as a mute to the cacophony of urban culture in the media.
“This book is about a rural family in 1976 dealing with the effects of the Vietnam war on the father. But that’s only the surface story. Actually it’s about patriotism and our different definitions of that, and about being weird as a child—that’s the autobiographical part—and accepting that weirdness, embracing it.”
Eli has already been chosen for a city-wide reading program in New York City Public Library’s English as Second Language classes. “I’m really excited about the fact that people who are improving their English skills will be using the book as a tool,” says House.
Writers will be interested in yet another recent House book that’s also being used for educational purposes. The Hurting Part: Evolution of an American Play (Motes Books, 2008) includes the script for House’s play The Hurting Part, which premiered in 2005; the short story upon which the play is based; a long essay about the process of storytelling and using family stories as creative inspiration; and House’s longest published interview, which delves “pretty deep into the writing process.” The book is being used in schools to teach both drama and short story writing.
No matter the genre, “I’ll always write about rural people,” House says, “mostly because they’re the only people I know and understand. But also because I’m troubled by how rural people are discounted in today’s society. There are a whole lot of us country people in the United States, but you’d never know that based on the media.”
“When I was little we had shows like ‘Little House’ and ‘The Waltons.’ Loretta Lynn was a spokesperson for Crisco and was on all those commercials, showing people beautifully fried chicken and pies. We actually had people on TV we could identify with. But rural children today are taught that they should be more sophisticated, more urbane. And really that’s just teaching them that where they’re from has no value and no merit. I think a lot of rural children today are taught to be ashamed of where they come from—mostly because the media shames them. It burns me up.”
No gathering on the porch at Hindman would be complete without a turn at some gospel songs, and this night is no exception. “I was raised Pentecostal,” House says, a fact that he often mentions when he talks about his influences. “I’d go to church three or four nights a week and entertain myself by observing. But also, being in the church, I was privy to so much beautiful language. People would stand up to give testimonies and poetry would just fall out of their mouths without them even realizing it.”
Now poetry falls from the mouths of House and Howard as they sing, “Something Got a Hold of Me.” The song is about God taking hold of the singer, but it’s a God-given passion that has a hold on Silas House—a passion for his people and his land.
“I’m lucky to have been raised with a sense of responsibility about my place in the world. Even though me and my friends were encouraged to go off to college, we were expected to come back to this rural place and make a difference, to bring back something good and make this a better place. And most of us have,” House concludes, “but I’m not sure the next generation will do that.”
They will if they listen to Silas House. Through words, music, and action, he’s helping people both in and out of Appalachia learn its ancient song—and write its next melodious verse.
Learn more about Silas House at www.silashouse.com and hear The Doolittles at http://www.myspace.com/thedoolittles. House recommends the site www.ilovemountains.org to learn more about the fight against mountaintop removal.
Kory Wells has poetry forthcoming in New Southerner and Now & Then. Her essay “Really Good for a Girl,” labeled “standout” by Ladies Home Journal, leads the book She’s Such a Geek. As a supporter of LEAF (www.tnleaf.org), she conducts presentations in the Middle Tennessee area about mountaintop removal and environmental stewardship. Read more about Kory.