By Claudia O'Keefe
I open the book to the right place and glance up at my workshop students. Jake, my seventh-grader looks like he's ready to start crawling from chair seat to chair seat under the library table again. Two of the girls whisper secrets to each other, giggling and totally ignoring me. I sigh.
"This is a really great book," I tell them. "It's by someone who lives right here in Greenbrier County, who grew up and has lived almost her whole life in this area."
Jake stops mid-crawl. "Someone here wrote a book?" he says, finally showing interest. The girls stop whispering. "Is she famous?" he asks.
"Why don't you tell me?" I suggest, and begin reading Junior, by West Virginia native Belinda Anderson.
Junior is just one of
seventeen short stories
from The Well Ain't Dry Yet, a recent debut
collection by Anderson,
who has Faulkner's gift for turning deceptive simplicity
on its ear.
She writes from and to the homeland in all of us, taking
the most basic
of human elements and making the reader reexamine
In Junior, a young boy is abandoned by his prostitute mother, dropped on his daddy's doorstep, who until that time is unaware that he has a son. The boy's father has just been left himself, by his girlfriend. In a few short pages, father and son not only come to grips with their relationship, but form the tentative beginnings of a family with the father's mother, who using a raked pile of autumn leaves shows them that life is good and capable of being renewed.
By the time I'm finished reading to the workshop, there isn't a fidget in the house. Spontaneously the kids begin discussing the story, debating back and forth as they analyze the characters. As far as I'm concerned, Anderson has worked magic.
"This is a culture that loves storytelling," says the author, who wrote her first personal journal at age 9, recording her thoughts on a visit to Organ Cave and other spots around Lewisburg. "There's a richness of soul, both in the people and the land that I want to convey."
Though she sold her first short story at 16, a classic tale of a student's moral struggle to cheat or not, her second story didn't sell. Anderson knew she had to be a writer and decided if fiction wasn't the best way to make a living, she would try journalism instead. A bachelors degree in news-editorial journalism earned her as spot as a reporter for the Roanoke Times in Virginia, where she moved for several years and also took a masters in liberal arts studies from Hollins University.
"But the mountains called me home," she says, "And I'm so glad to be back."
What Anderson never forgot about fiction writing, was the thrill of that first acceptance letter. She remembers being so tenuous about the contents of the envelope that she carried it the mile walk from the mailbox, where the bus dropped her after school. When she got home, she hurried to her room, and opened the letter in secret.
"And then I just let out a great big whoop!" she says.
Anderson began writing fiction again ten years ago, and has not only won numerous state and national awards for her short stories, but is a 2001 recipient of a professional development grant from the WV Division of Culture and History and the National endowment for the Arts. Mountain State Press published The Well Ain't Dry Yet, her first collection, as a Fall 2001 book.
"Being a book author is a brand-new experience for me," she says. "It's satisfying to have a bit of West Virginia culture preserved."
Anderson thrives on the desire to share what she's learned about mountain life, whether it's a fact or an epiphany. She asserts that one of the greatest advantages of being a writer from West Virginia is a tremendous sense of place, an almost tangible sense of roots connecting her to the mountains and its people.
"West Virginians have more resiliency than they often give themselves credit for," she claims, adding that, "Hope is a theme running through my stories. The stories don't necessarily end wrapped with a ribbon and bow, but they do usually conclude with possibility."
A perfect example of this is "The Bridge", another story from her collection, in which a character named Johnnie decides he's going to commit suicide on New Year's Eve. He then meets a girl standing at his chosen spot on a bridge, and despite themselves, they struggle their way back from the emotional brink.
Anderson's work isn't usually as somber as it sounds. Frequently, it's just the opposite. "Even when I contemplate writing a story with an ethereal or formal tone, once the characters stroll onto the page," she says, "they always speak with a down-to-earth, humorous frankness. It's the voice of my people."
Listen to the author read one of her stories aloud--for instance "Hauling Evelyn", in which a single mom with three kids, Rocky, Conan, and Leia, carts her too-perfect sister's ashes with her in a bucket in the trunk of her car--and you'll soon key into that awareness of self-fun as opposed to self-mockery that characterizes the classic West Virginia sense of humor. It's that bit of devil in her otherwise quiet gray-blue eyes which speak of a happy wisdom she's eager to share with readers and audiences alike.
"My editor, Carolyn Sturgeon, once introduced me as, `a country woman, a woman of the country.' I wasn't sure what I thought of that at first," Anderson says, "I mean, I've ridden an escalator, I can surf the World Wide Web. But that's my fictional voice?"
Even though she feels opportunities can sometimes be tough to come by for writers from the Mountain State, another of the advantages she sees to being a West Virginia author is that "there is so much material, both in fiction and nonfiction," to draw upon. She often points this out to her writing classes and workshops at Greenbrier Community College and the Greenbrier Valley Theatre in Lewisburg. When she teaches a new course, "Writing From the Homeland," at Carnegie Hall in Spring 2002, Anderson will encourage students to do as she strives to do and, "free what already lies within."
Future fame and fortune aside, Anderson's main motivator as she sits down to the write hasn't changed much from that of the industrious nine-year-old who jotted her impressions and thoughts in a notebook. "I write to entertain myself. If I can make myself laugh, it's been a good day."
Recently Anderson was going through some files and came across that very first journal of hers. While many authors squirm uncomfortably when they look back at writing they haven't seen in years, her response is refreshingly honest. "I guess I was struck by the zest of my writing as a kid, the unabashed eagerness--this is great and I want to tell you about it! And I suppose I'm still doing it--this is so interesting and I want to tell you about it!"