Q&A: Marilyn Sue Shank (Child of the Mountains)
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THE APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS FOR THE SETTING?
I was born in West Virginia, close to the towns that are featured in the book. My father lived in Confidence and Paradise when he was a boy. People on Paradise Hill, including my father, liked to say, “You have to go through Confidence to get to Paradise.” That metaphor worked perfectly for my novel. Lydia was born in Paradise but forced to live in Confidence as she struggled to learn some important truths about herself and the people around her.
I love West Virginia—the beauty of the surroundings and the people. If you are not from this state, you might not realize the rich heritage I have as a West Virginian, especially in the arts and sciences. A New York editor who critiqued the first few pages of Child of the Mountains at a conference asked me, “Why does Lydia speak that way?” I told her, “These are the voices of my childhood.” I remember many of my relatives speaking this dialect in the 1950’s and 60’s. The dialect isn’t spoken as heavily or as widely as it used to be. I hope to help preserve it through this story.
CHILD OF THE MOUNTAINS IS ABOUT A YOUNG GIRL FROM THE APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS WHO IS FORCED TO LIVE WITH HER AUNT AND UNCLE AFTER THE DEATH OF HER BROTHER AND GRANDMOTHER AND THE INCARCERATION OF HER MOTHER. WHERE DID YOU GET THE INSPIRATION FOR THIS NOVEL?
My mother died in 1992, and a few months later, I had a dream that I thought would make a wonderful children’s story. After attending some conferences and reading a few books on writing for children and teens, I realized the story I had written was awful. What the effort did for me, though, was to ignite a spark that writing for young people was something God wanted me to do with my life. I continued to practice and research the craft. Several years later, I was working at my computer on some handouts for my college students when I heard a girl’s voice whisper inside my head, “My mama’s in jail. It ain’t right.” I thought, That was strange, and continued typing. I heard the voice louder, “My mama’s in jail. It ain’t right.” I continued typing. When I heard it a third time, “MY MAMA’S IN JAIL! IT AIN’T RIGHT!” I knew this was something that had been given to me. I opened up a new file and started writing. I had no idea what the story would be about when I wrote those first few words.
CAN YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOUR MAIN CHARACTER, LYDIA?
Lydia is an intelligent, thoughtful child who carefully observes and reflects on the world around her. While many novels for this age group focus on one type of tragedy, as is unfortunately true for many young people in Appalachia, Lydia deals with multiple tragedies, leaving her feeling isolated and frightened. She tends to keep her feelings private and withdraws when others hurt her. Like many West Virginians though past generations, she is distrustful of those outside her family. However, she has an abiding faith that is much more than a brief acknowledgement of God at church on Sundays. Ultimately, her faith is what gives her courage to overcome the tragedies in her life.
WITH A BACKGROUND IN PSYCHOLOGY AND EDUCATION, WHAT INSIGHT DID THIS GIVE YOU WHILE WRITING CHILD OF THE MOUNTAINS?
This question made me smile. Although Child of the Mountains has been favorably reviewed, a critique the story has received is that it is too didactic in some places. Well, teaching is in my blood, and it’s going to come through sometimes in my writing. There are two compassionate teachers in Child of the Mountains. I like to think I would have been that type of teacher for Lydia. When you write fiction, your characters become real to you, which has to happen or they won’t become real to your readers. There were times I wished I could wrap my arms around that little girl.
Along with giving me insight into the grief process and what Lydia would need to heal, my background in psychology helped me understand Lydia’s developmental stage. Children on the cusp of puberty feel things that happen to them more deeply than they will at any other time in their life. They also haven’t had the life experiences to let them know how to get through difficult events and that eventually, things will get better. That’s why bullying can be so damaging to ‘tween children. Most of us can remember pain we experienced at that stage when life seemed to cave in around us and adults told us just to ignore it. That’s the last thing we need to tell young people. We need to hear and respect their pain.
WHAT CAN FANS EXPECT FROM YOU IN THE FUTURE?
I’m working on a picture book, a book that I haven’t decided whether should be middle grade or young adult novel, and a sequel to Child of the Mountains. I envision the latter as a trilogy, but that will depend on the success of this book. In the sequel, Lydia is in high school, and she allows something that she promised her mom she would never let happen to occur with life-threatening results. In the third book, Lydia has graduated from college and returns to the mountains of West Virginia to teach. Her fiancé is in Vietnam, and she has an interesting mix of students in her first classroom: children of hippies, local politicians, coal miners, and the unemployed.
WHAT WAS YOUR INITIAL REACTION TO THE CHRISTY AWARD NOMINATION?
I was excited and blessed to be nominated. Because my publisher is secular, Child of the Mountains is the first novel they ever submitted for a Christy Award. I’m thankful because I had prayed the Christian market might also discover this little novel.