An Interview With Mystery Author Sharyn McCrumb

New York Times best-selling author Sharyn McCrumb says she “grew up in a swirl of tales.” She has put that training to good use, publishing essays, short stories and 16 novels based on the stories she grew up with. Nearly all of her work is set in the Southern Appalachians, the place she still calls home.

McCrumb’s family came to the new world before the American Revolution, settling in what was then the western-most frontier – Southern Appalachia. Her latest novel,
“The Songcatcher,” chronicles the history of her five-times great grandfather, Malcolm McCourry and a song he brought to present-day North Carolina from Scotland, a song that became his legacy.

Much of McCrumb’s work highlights the environmental problems plaguing the hills of her homeland. She recently discussed the environmental aspects of her novels with Tonia Moxley.

Q: Most of the Ballad Novels contain some reference to environmental problems in Southern Appalachia. Do you think your work moves your readers to action on these issues? Is that your intention?

A: I think that the present is best understood by studying the past. Why do locust trees have thorns that extend 20 feet up the trunk of the tree? Thorns are a protection against bark-eating animals, but today bark-eaters like deer can only reach half that high.

The thorns grow so high because when locust trees evolved here in these mountains thousands of years ago, the predators they had to worry about were woolly mammoths who could indeed reach bark that grew 20 feet off the ground. My knowing about the region’s past helps me understand the locust tree that grows in my pasture today.

I think that reminding people about past problems in the region is a good way to ensure that Appalachian residents will be vigilant in the future. A favorite saying of mine is one by the English dramatist Pinero: “I believe that the future is simply the past entered through another door.”

That often seems to be true environmentally. In “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter,” I wrote about the chestnut blight that wiped out the American chestnut tree in the early part of the 20th century. On my desk right now is the front page of USA Today for April 9, 2002, and the headline is: ‘Mystery Oak Disease May Threaten Nation’s Forests.’ [It’s] the chestnut blight all over again.

I hope that reminding people about past devastations will help to increase their concerns over similar situations as they arise.

Q: What kind of responses have your more strongly environmentalist novels — “Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” and “The Rosewood Casket,” for example — received?

A: I often receive supportive letters from people in other parts of the country, many from the Pacific Northwest saying that their region has similar concerns. I was told that Arizona is passing the same mountaintop preservation laws for its Superstition Mountains that we found necessary here in Appalachia.
Readers were distraught about the polluted river in “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and wanted to know what legislation to support in letters to their [representatives] on the subject of water quality.

Q: Other than writing about environmental problems, are you an active environmentalist? Do you belong to any environmental groups?

A: We own land along the Appalachian Trail, and we try to be good stewards of it. Like most educated people today we are concerned about the environment, and we do what we can to express that concern.

Q: Has your husband’s work as an environmental engineer had any influence on your work?

A: He was the most help directly on “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter,” in which an old man learns that he is dying of cancer from living by a river polluted with the waste products of paper manufacture. My husband brought home the EPA guidelines on water quality and stacks of reference books showing the chemicals involved in manufacturing and what effect such chemicals dumped into a water source would have on the local populace.
I finished the book and insisted that we buy a water filter.

Q: Can you tell me how you plan your novels and develop your characters? Do you plan on tackling certain environmental problems from the start, or do they arise naturally as you write?

A: The Ballad novels are built around themes, not environmental ones, but an overall idea, like “journeys” which was the connecting thread among the narratives in “She Walks These Hills,” [and] losing the land in “Rosewood Casket.”

I like to take one idea, like journeys, and to write variations on that theme reflected in a number of characters or situations throughout the book, so that the resulting novel is a unified whole made up of contrasting topics — a verbal quilt, if you will. In “She Walks These Hills” the environmental factor was the geological fact that the first journey was the one made by the mountains themselves.

The mountains of Appalachia and the mountains of Great Britain were once joined together. The Appalachians start in Birmingham, more or less at Red Mountain right there in the city itself, and the mountain chain runs up through Georgia, up through South and North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. I realize that the stereotypes stop about Pittsburgh, but the mountain chain itself, not the culture, extends through New York and New England and finally ends in Nova Scotia.

There the Appalachians stop. If you did soil samples in the Atlantic, you wouldn’t find that vein of serpentine, which is the genetic DNA of the Appalachian mountains, this green mineral that rises in Georgia, follows the chain to Nova Scotia, and quits… until it reappears in the west of Ireland.

I thought that was a wonderful reinforcement of what I had felt about the migration patterns of the early settlers. Here are people who left a land they loved, often because they were forced to resettle. They keep going West until they hit the mountains, and then they follow the valleys south-southwest down through Pennsylvania, and finally get to a place where the ridges rise, where you can see the mountains and the trees in the distance, and it looks right, and it feels right. Like home. Like the place they left.

And they were right back in the same mountains they had left behind in Britain. Because the mountain people have such an affection for the land, environmental issues seem to be a natupart of the tapestry.

Q: You have illustrated water pollution, acid rain and commercial land development, among other problems, in your novels. What do you think are the most pressing environmental problems in Southern Appalachia right now?

A: The Pacific Northwest’s oak tree disease reminds me that the biggest danger may be the one you don’t know about yet, but if I had to name environmental concerns that we are aware of, the two I would list as greatest concerns are air pollution and mine seepage.

Air pollution and acid rain stress the trees, change the pH of streams and rivers, thus killing fish and adversely affecting wildlife and vegetation. Abandoned coal mines pose a threat to the environment because they leak harmful chemicals.

Sulfur, occurring naturally in coal, reacts with oxygen to produce sulfur dioxide. This then reacts with the water in the ground or atmosphere to produce sulfuric acid. NOT good.

The sulfuric acid itself is a pollutant to the ground and surface water. Sulfuric acid also dissolves the metals in the ground and transports them to the surface water where they are toxic to life.

Q: What do you think are the solutions to these problems?

A: You are probably asking the wrong McCrumb. My husband is the environmental engineer. I asked him, “So how would you stop acid rain?” And he smiled malevolently and said, “Switch to nuclear power.”

It’s true that burning coal is a huge part of the air pollution problem, but you can’t stop it overnight. Any legislation on coal use would have a huge economic impact on some of the very places most affected [by the pollution]. There are lives and jobs to be considered. If there were an easy and painless solution, we would have solved the problem by now.

Q: Your novels always illustrate connections between the past and the present. What influence, if any, do you think Southern Appalachia’s past has on its present environmental problems?

A: A hundred and twenty years ago, America seemed like such a vast and abundant wilderness that our ancestors could not conceive of a limit to this bounty. It seemed inexhaustible. This misguided notion led to many tragedies. Hunters blasted the passenger pigeon into extinction — once the most abundant species of bird on the planet. The furniture industry devastated the old growth forests of the eastern mountains with clearcutting, and the mining companies wreaked havoc with strip mining and other unsafe practices which adversely affected the environment.

American chestnut trees succumbed to a fungal disease that could have been prevented by import quarantines. The land seemed so healthy, they thought it was invulnerable. We are about to learn the error of our ways a second time with the world’s oceans.

Anyhow, it took several generations for the people of the mountains to realize that their world was indeed fragile and that care was required to keep it healthy.

Q: Are there things about Appalachian culture that must change if environmental problems are to be solved in the region?

A: Your question immediately made me think of a huge tire fire that is currently raging on rural land in Roanoke County. The landowner had a scheme to recycle used automobile tires, but he never got around to (or could not afford to) build the plant to do the recycling, so millions of tires piled up on his land.

After years of threats and warnings from county officials, nothing was done, and the inevitable happened: the tires caught fire. Now it will take enormous manpower and millions of dollars to clean up the mess. This makes me think that we as citizens will have to give up our cherished freedom to do as we like with our own property, and that we’ll have to swallow our resentment of authority figures and submit to stricter land use guidelines.

New England has done this with considerable success, and I suppose we will have to adopt similar practices. I’m not happy about saying this, because I’m as contrary as anybody, but I think it must happen.

Q: You are currently working on a new novel. Will it address any environmental concerns?

A: I can’t see any environmental issues in the new novel, but then I haven’t finished it yet. I am more concerned with psychological issues this time, with our misperceptions of the past and the politics of war.


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