Writer's Notes - James Tate Hill

Writer's Notes is a series that invites writers to detail their projects at any stage in their process. Debut author James Tate Hill explores his West Virginia roots and how place has influenced his past writing as well as his current novel.

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Growing up in the hills of Charleston, West Virginia, we didn't have common amenities like city water, cable television, or street names. For this reason, or maybe in spite of it, I spent my earliest years as a writer trying to convince myself place doesn't matter. One shameful memory from a writing workshop finds me arguing that a peer has overdone it with descriptions of a town’s landscape, one of those wrongheaded comments born of insecurity rather than insight. There is certainly fiction, particularly shorter fiction, in which place is less central than language, plot, or character, but my motivation for diminishing the importance of place was my own ambivalence about the place I knew best.

Lost (2001) by Tetsuya IshidaLost (2001) by Tetsuya Ishida

I was the kid whose cousin had to bait his hook whenever we went fishing. My mom grew up in the country, but my dad had been a city boy from Charleston’s West Side, and prior to moving to the house where my mom grew up, we lived for seven years within walking distance of Comic World, Chris’s Hot Dogs, K-Mart, and the brand-new Charleston Town Center, the largest downtown-based shopping mall east of the Mississippi at the time of its 1983 opening. In my final year as a child of the city, I got my first taste of Nickelodeon and MTV, and one special evening, peeking around the stairs at just the right moment, HBO provided a glimpse of my first boob. Subsequent years with only three channels felt limited. The five miles between the mall and my new home might as well have been five states.

Around this time, my interest in other worlds—namely those inside my snowy television—began to grow. West Virginia counts TV icons like Don Knotts, Bob Denver, and Soupy Sales among its native sons, and although a student in my own high school would become the actress Jennifer Garner, celebrities seemed as exotic to me as extra-terrestrials, their lives infinitely more interesting than my own. Years later, when introduced to West Virginia writers like Jayne Anne Phillips, Pinckney Benedict, and Breece Pancake, I was amazed to find West Virginia at the center of great literature whose books readers stretched far beyond state borders. At the same time, reading stories set in the place I knew so well made me a little uncomfortable. Was this me? If I were to become a writer, was this the world I had to write about?

I could have traveled, spent time in the places I found so fascinating. Instead, I just set stories wherever I wanted. Let’s just say this one takes place in Albuquerque. The next is set in Denver. Los Angeles? Why not? If most of the action takes place in a restaurant or living room, what difference does it make if I’ve never actually been to these cities, let alone lived there? Never mind myriad flaws of a young writer’s stories set entirely in restaurants and living rooms; what took me even longer to realize was how poorly drawn these characters were with no palpable connection to where they were from or where they lived.

Graduate school took me to the far-flung states of Virginia and North Carolina, and for the first time, possibly homesick, I began to set stories in West Virginia. Unfortunately, these stories had no reason to be set there and the West Virginia in these pieces was about as distinctive as a Ruby Tuesday’s or Hampton Inn. The first novel I completed was set in Charleston, but it could have taken place anywhere. I was no longer running away from home, but setting everything I wrote there, whether it needed to be or not. Place, it gradually occurred to me, was more than a street name or an indigenous wildflower. The longer I lived outside West Virginia, the better I understood—and identified with—the state’s character. As much as its wildlife and geography—likely because of it—West Virginia is defined by an individualism, self-reliance, and suspicion of outsiders.

Which is to say I’ve found a character and story inseparable from their setting of the Mountain State. Yes, we’re the official Mountain State, not Colorado. Small as the Appalachians might be when compared to the Rockies, the mountains aren’t responsible for the inferiority complex that often accompanies the aforementioned traits of many West Virginians. Long before MTV’s Buck Wild, the network’s rural answer to Jersey Shore, my earliest memories of West Virginians on TV were Bob and June Wheeler, a pair of rubes who regularly ended up in front of Judge Harry Stone on the sitcom Night Court. Many think Deliverance is set in West Virginia—it’s Georgia—and many wrongly assume it was West Virginia from where the Clampetts loaded up the truck before their cross-country move to Beverly Hills.

Place Signs (1926) by Paul Klee; watercolor on paper"Place Signs" (1926) by Paul Klee; watercolor on paper

The novel I’m currently working on is hardly a response to media stereotypes of rural America, but the celebrity-obsessed, 15-year-old girl at the center of it struggles to define herself before others can define her. Her dreams of becoming famous come true when a stranger arrives in the small town she is plotting to leave. But being well-known, she soon realizes, isn’t the same as being well-liked.

Years ago, during a Q&A, someone asked Tobias Wolff if he had liked living in the small town in Washington he wrote about in This Boy’s Life. He said he had, but clarified that liking a place probably says less about it than the people we were with at the time. This seems as applicable to fiction as it does to life. The years I believed I couldn’t write about West Virginia, all the stories I set in cities I thought much more glamorous, more interesting than West Virginia, I simply hadn’t found the right characters with whom to return home. The relationship of the teenage girl in my upcoming novel to her home could generously be described as ambivalent, but its influence is deep.

Most relationships to places, like relationships to people, are complicated. You don’t have to love your setting any more than your characters do, but if you love your characters, you’ll ask them where they come from and how it makes them feel.

James Tate Hill is the author of Academy Gothic, winner of the 2014 Nilsen Prize for a First Novel, which will be published in 2015. A graduate of the writing programs at Hollins University and UNC Greensboro, his fiction has appeared in Story QuarterlySonora ReviewThe South Carolina ReviewThe Texas Review, and elsewhere. He has been a finalist for the Hudson Prize and the St. Lawrence Book Award. He serves as Reviews Editor for Monkeybicycle.