UNC vis­it­ing writer dis­cusses de­but novel

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Arts & Living - BY BRIDGETTE A. LACY

Au­thor Me­sha Maren is deeply rooted by her na­tive West Vir­ginia and her fa­ther’s work with in­car­cer­ated women.

He vol­un­teered to visit women in the fed­eral prison in Alder­son, W.V., those who hadn’t had vis­i­tors in more than a year. Maren of­ten tagged along with him and heard the women speak of their hopes of free­dom and their fears of build­ing life on the out­side.

So it’s not sur­pris­ing that her de­but novel, “Sugar Run,” which will be pub­lished Jan. 8, ex­plores what it’s like for a woman to leave prison ready to start the next chap­ter of her life.

Maren has crafted the story of Jodi Mc­Carty, who at 17, was sen­tenced to life in prison for man­slaugh­ter. Af­ter serv­ing 18 years, she re­turns to the Ap­palachian Moun­tains search­ing for some­one from her past. She meets and falls in love with Mi­randa, and the two try to make their own fam­ily. But the cou­ple are try­ing to cre­ate a life to­gether in a small town, where ev­ery­one knows your busi­ness and doesn’t mind telling you so. Mc­Carty is so bent on recre­at­ing a re­la­tion­ship that she over­looks the warn­ing signs.

Maren, 34, is the 2018-19 Ke­nan Vis­it­ing Writer at UNCChapel Hill. She teaches a fic­tion class and is work­ing on her sec­ond novel. While Maren con­sid­ers West Vir­ginia her home, she com­pleted high school in Burnsville, N.C. She re­ceived a bach­e­lor’s in his­tory and lit­er­a­ture from UNC-Asheville and her mas­ter’s of fine arts from Queens Univer­sity in Char­lotte.

Her short sto­ries and es­says have ap­peared in Tin House, Ox­ford Amer­i­can, Ho­bart, The Barcelona Re­view, Forty Sto­ries: New Writ­ing from Harper Peren­nial and other lit­er­ary jour­nals. Hills­bor­ough au­thor Lee Smith se­lected her as the win­ner of the 2015 Thomas Wolfe Fic­tion Prize, and she is the re­cip­i­ent of a 2014 El­iz­a­beth Ge­orge Foun­da­tion Grant, an Ap­palachian Writ­ing Fel­low­ship from Lin­coln Me­mo­rial Univer­sity.

She re­turned to the fam­ily home for the hol­i­day and took a few min­utes to an­swer a few ques­tions about “Sugar Run.”

Q: Do we ever get to out­live our past sins?

A: The most straight­for­ward an­swer is no. But do we get to con­tinue to live be­yond them, yes. When I think of Jodi, I don’t think she gets to out­live what oc­curred in the past. One rea­son I wrote some chap­ters from the past in present tense and then

present chap­ters in the past tense was I was try­ing to em­u­late some­thing I feel strongly about. The past is never as sep­a­rate from our present as we would like to think it is. For all of us, the past is in ev­ery­thing we do.

Q: Is it harder to rein­vent your­self in ru­ral Amer­ica?

A: I’ve spent the ma­jor­ity of my life in ru­ral Amer­ica. I’ve only spent a very brief time in larger towns and cities. So from what I imag­ine, it might be harder be­cause of the small­ness of the com­mu­nity. It’s one of great ben­e­fits that ru­ral ar­eas have close-knit small com­mu­ni­ties. But the truth of that is ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­thing.

Per­haps in the cities you can move to a dif­fer­ent part of the city where peo­ple wouldn’t know about our past. In ru­ral Amer­ica, ev­ery­body knows your fam­ily. And peo­ple hold you to a more re­al­is­tic ver­sion of who you are.

Q: Could you talk about how grow­ing up in West Vir­ginia in­flu­enced “Sugar Run”?

A: The land Jodi re­turns to in the book is my par­ent’s land. I mod­eled it di­rectly from my fam­ily’s farm. The town is a slightly fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of the town I grew up in Alder­son. When I started writ­ing “Sugar Run,” I was in school in Asheville. Then I moved to Iowa City, Iowa, when I was dig­ging into nov­els. I was yearn­ing for West Vir­ginia. I was kind of recre­at­ing it for my­self on the page. I couldn’t have writ­ten the book with­out grow­ing up here.

Q: You wrote in an es­say about writ­ing this novel that you wanted to ex­plore this idea of leav­ing ver­sus stay­ing and whether you can ever re­ally be­long again in a place you once called home. Can you?

A: I’m still work­ing on an an­swer. I moved back to West Vir­ginia in early 2015 full time. I had been com­ing and go­ing dur­ing grad­u­ate school. I think yes, you can be­long again. But you will never be­long in the same way. The fact of leav­ing will al­ways make an im­pres­sion on you, even once you re­turn.

There’s no way to re­turn to live as if you never left. There are mul­ti­ple ways to be­long. It’s build­ing a new re­la­tion­ship to the place. You get a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on the place.

Q: Your char­ac­ters have a lot go­ing against them, rang­ing from small-town big­otry to sub­stance abuse along with se­crets. What do they have go­ing for them?

A: What they have go­ing for them is the de­sire for life. One of the things Jodi and Mi­randa have in com­mon and draws them to each other is a de­sire to en­joy life. They want to make some­thing good for them­selves. And Jodi has a huge love for West Vir­ginia. No one can take that away from her.

Q: Why is place so im­por­tant in South­ern fic­tion?

A: For me in my own writ­ing, place has a dis­tinc­tive way in South­ern fic­tion. Grow­ing up ru­rally a mile off the road, we had some neigh­bors but no oth­ers kids my age liv­ing around me. I have a younger brother and an older sis­ter. My main play­mate was the land.

Al­go­nquin Books

“Sugar Run” is the de­but novel by Me­sha Maren. It will be pub­lished Jan. 8, 2019.

Me­sha Maren

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