November 11, 2009

Silas the good

Author talks about new book, coal mining and Nina Simone

Silas House, a man born and raised in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, is the author of three novels, including the much-ballyhooed “Clay’s Quilt.” He has written a play, “The Hurting Part,” and is debuting another this year. His work in nonfiction has centered on eradicating the savage, crippling practice of mountaintop removal mining, which House has watched destroy much of his homeplace, most recently in the book “Something’s Rising.”

In short, he’s a busy man.

House’s new book is “Eli the Good,” a young-adult novel that sees a young man come of age in a rural America dominated by fallout from the Vietnam War. As part of this year’s Spalding Festival of Contemporary Writing, House will read Sunday, Nov. 15, at 5 p.m. in the 16th floor Gallery at the Brown Hotel, 335 W. Broadway.

He recently traded e-mails with LEO Weekly.

LEO: After all the success you’ve had writing “adult” novels, why young adult?

Silas House: I didn’t actually set out to write a YA novel, but once it was finished it became clear that it was a book for all ages, and not just the adult market, so it was published as a YA because it can actually reach more age groups that way. It’s not a book for children, but it’s certainly a book that any age group can read.

 

LEO: “Eli the Good” takes place in the post-Vietnam era, and several of the characters are working through the domestic fallout of that war. Why did you choose that period? Do you see parallels now in America?

SH: I picked that time period because that was my way of writing a “9/11 book” that wasn’t set in the present. Often the past is a better way of examining the present; it gives us more perspective. Since this book deals so much with the themes of misconstrued history and patriotism and things of that nature, it was more interesting to explore a time in the past that happens to be very much like today. Post-Vietnam America is so similar to Post-9/11 in many ways: the very different definitions of patriotism people have, the total division of the “left” and the “right,” the widening generation gap, etc.

 

LEO: One of your specialties is conveying the various experiences of rural America to people who might not know it. How is rural America changing? Would Eli recognize his homeplace now?

SH: I think one of the saddest things to ever happen to our country is the quite recent acceptance of many people to believe that Middle America doesn’t matter, that if you don’t live on the coasts then you might as well not exist. The media really really perpetuates this notion, and it’s troubling to me. People are always so eager to say somewhere like a small town in Kentucky or Kansas is “the middle of nowhere” when in fact that place is the center of the universe to someone. It’s so much harder to find an isolated place in America now. Even if a place is off the beaten path it is still connected to the wider world by cable television and the Internet. That’s good in many ways, but it is also eating away at the individuality of communities and of people themselves.

So I think that while we’ve gained much, we’re losing our identity to some degree, too. At the end of “Eli,” the narrator comments on how his place in the world has changed, and the thing he grieves the hardest over is that children are no longer playing in the woods, are no longer free to ride their bicycles wherever they want anymore. He notices a real lack of freedom that he had as a child. And I notice that for my own children. While their world has grown so much larger via television and the Internet, it’s gotten smaller in that they can’t explore their own community freely anymore. We don’t live in that kind of world anymore, and that pains me.

 

LEO: You’re a musician and a big listener. Do you listen to music when you write? What was the soundtrack to this book?

SH: One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Eli’s aunt tells him that the key to having good taste in music is by listening to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Carter Family, and Nina Simone. “That’s all you need, to know good music,” she says. So even though the listenable music of the summer of 1976 is pretty slim, the book is filled with music from all eras and genres. I had a soundtrack of about 75 songs I listened to while writing it, everything from Rick James’s horrible (but incredibly catchy) “Disco Duck” to “Ne Mi Quitte Pas” by Nina Simone (one of my favorite songs of all time, and a song to which one of the integral scenes in the book is set). Ben Sollee and I have been going around together doing some gigs, and I read that scene and Ben plays “Ne Mi Quitte Pass,” which audiences have really embraced. We’ve had a great time doing that.

 

LEO: What are your thoughts on the Obama administration’s approach to mountaintop removal mining so far?

SH: Well, I’m so thankful to this administration for actually listening to our pleas, which is something the Bush administration never, ever did. The Obama administration is actually looking at all of these permits instead of rubber stamping them the way Bush’s people had been instructed to do. So I think it’s very, very hopeful. With that said, however, I want him to hurry up and move on this. Too much damage is being done every day. But I understand Obama’s position that he wants to do it right, and lawfully, and so that’s time consuming. The bottom line is that the mountains are in much better hands with this administration than with Bush’s.

 

LEO: On your website you’ve been writing about “Daily Discoveries,” in which you try to find something new every day. What have you learned doing that?

SH: I believe that the only way you can be a good writer is to walk through every day with your eyes wide open to everything. It’s the writer’s responsibility to notice what others do not, and then to be able to articulate what others find very hard to articulate. But doing daily discoveries on my blog was harder than I thought. It takes a lot of work and time, but it certainly made me a better writer to do it. My whole philosophy as a writer is to “discover something new everyday.” It makes me a better writer and a happier person.