I’ve Got Questions for Valerie Nieman

Editor’s Note: This exchange is part of a series of brief interviews with emerging writers of recent or forthcoming books. If you enjoyed it, please visit other interviews in the I’ve Got Questions feature.

To the Bones by Valerie Nieman
  • What’s the title of your book? Fiction? Nonfiction? Poetry? Who is the publisher and what’s the publication date?

To the Bones, Fiction, West Virginia University Press, 2019

  • In a couple of sentences, what’s the book about?

A man left for dead rises from his grave only to find the Appalachian town he’s stumbled into is ruled by the lethal Kavanaugh clan — and that he has gained new and terrible powers. He joins forces with a woman searching for her missing daughter, a disgraced deputy, and a reporter crusading against environmental devastation to take on the coal barons who drain the life from the place and its people.

  • What’s the book’s genre (for fiction and nonfiction) or primary style (for poetry)?

Appalachian folk horror/mystery, a working-class thriller with zombies, an eco-justice quest tale —  you can pick your point of view, but I’d just say it’s a good tale well told.

  • What’s the nicest thing anyone has said about the book so far?

Cemetery Dance commented “It’s one of my favorite books of the past year,” and that’s hard to top, but these words in Small Press Picks were just as wonderful: “In Valerie Nieman’s thrilling, genre-bending novel To the Bones, the richly rendered setting is inseparable from characters’ fears, strengths, and weaknesses and from nearly every tragedy and triumph in the story….like Stephen King’s masterpiece The Dead Zone, Nieman’s novel insightfully portrays the complications of possessing unexpected powers, which rarely are unmitigated blessings.”

  • What book or books is yours comparable to or a cross between? [Is your book like Moby Dick or maybe it’s more like Frankenstein meets Peter Pan?]

Storming Heaven meetsStephen Kingwith a side of mixed myths including Demeter/Persephone.

  • Why this book? Why now?

I was coming off a difficult series of revisions for another novel, Backwater, which while finished much earlier will not be out until 2022. Anyway, I wanted to have fun, to just let go and let a story unwind. At some point I mentioned to a friend that back when I lived in West Virginia, if I were ever going to kill someone then I’d just throw the body down a mine crack. He challenged me to do exactly that.

  • Other than writing this book, what’s the best job you’ve ever had?

My first paid writing job was as a reporter and then summer editor for The Daily Athenaeum, WVU’s student newspaper. That involved everything from covering a mine strike to reporting on the volleyball team. It was the real-life lab where I earned my stripes as a journalist. I learned to write clearly, concisely, and on deadline. I interviewed my first governor (Jay Rockefeller) and reviewed my first concert and many other firsts. We worked in a ratty old wood-frame building, long gone, with offset typesetters on the second floor and the newsroom directly under those heavy machines. It led to a certain fatalism. I will always remember the fresh peach milkshakes whirled up at the Dairy Queen around the corner on High Street.

  • What do you want readers to take away from the book?

While the stories of Appalachia and of coal may be deeply intertwined, both are far more complicated than the depictions in commercial movies or “prescriptive” memoirs that focus on pathologies from a safe distance.

  • What food and/or music do you associate with the book?

Pepperoni rolls! Created in West Virginia as a lunch bucket staple for miners, they are now found in many forms, from twice-baked entrees loaded with mozzarella and Italian peppers to dainty cocktail-party snacks. Music that I listened to during this time included Kathy Mattea’s Coal album, and as always a good bit of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen.

  • What book(s) are you reading currently?

I just moved into a new home and am still sorting things out, but I have at least three shelves of books bought and yet unread. Next up are Stephen Dobyns’ The Church of Dead Girls, Joyce Carol Oates’ new collection Beautiful Days, and There There by Tommy Orange.

Valerie Nieman

Learn more about Val at her website.

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