INTERVIEW with Karen Salyer McElmurray

Sarah Gibson

Karen Salyer McElmurray was raised in Johnson County, Kentucky, in Southern Appalachia, a region which became the setting for many of her well-known works. Her debut novel was Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, which won the 2001 Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. McElmurray is also the author of Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, a striking memoir that received the 2003 AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction and was named a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book. She has held a variety of jobs, including landscaping, working in a casino, and teaching at several different universities. McElmurray is currently working as the Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Georgia College and State University and as the Creative Nonfiction Editor for Arts and Letters. Her newest novel is The Motel of the Stars, which tells the story of two people who must learn to overcome incredible loss, and her next project, she says, will be a new memoir about her travels in India and Nepal.

Emancipator: What are some of your favorite books and writers who have influenced your work?
McElmurray: I could name some favorite authors (James Agee; James Still; Virginia Woolf). But really it’s more whole picture of reading--my favorite activity since I was a child. Then, it was about losing myself in the pages of a book, in the scenes on those pages--the places and times and people who weren't me. Now that I'm teaching literature and writing, it’s harder for me to disappear into the air with words. Now I study the way the words fit together, the way scenes eventually make a long piece of writing. So good writing could be a matter of what emerges as I study, like a painter in a museum. In general, though, I like poetic prose-- writing that sings on the sentence level, writing that rises off the page and "takes the top of my head off," as Emily Dickinson said.

E: Do you have any writing rituals, such as always sitting in the same chair when you write or some other kind of ritual that might be of interest?
M: No same place every day. It’s more about time. Writing long enough to forget who and where I am. Then going for a long run or some hours swimming in the lake, to come back to the world.

E: Do you prefer to write fiction or nonfiction?
M: I like how one genre informs the other. For me, the writing of a memoir took me deeper into my psyche, into the material that was hardest of all to write. Then, when I came back to fiction, I felt more confident of telling a story that mattered.

E: Your biography on sarabandebooks.org states that you have been “a landscaper, a casino employee and a sporting-towel factory worker.” Can you talk about the way that has influenced your writing?
M: I was just imagining doing a panel at a writing conference called Honkey Tonks and Ivory Towers. I can't stay in the world of academia, not STAY there and write about the world that sings, moves, talks, feels. I have to be out there in the world. The jobs I've done to make a living over the years fed me and fed the writing. Working with my hands reminds me of who I really am, who my family is, where I came from.

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Photograph by Brittany Gambrel

E: What moved you to write Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother's Journey? What was the main thing that you wanted people to gain from the book?
M: What moved me was the ringing of the phone. For about five years prior to writing my memoir, I'd been doing some heavy duty work concerning myself as a birth mother—I'd been trying to understand the impact of relinquishing a child to adoption in a way that I had never done before. I'd mostly been silent about that part of my life, or told that story in bit and pieces, in lost moments, in dreams. Around that same time, the phone kept ringing and I'd pick it up and someone on the other end would listen for awhile, then hang up. I became convinced this was the son I'd relinquished, trying to speak with me. I had to write the story to pull up that complete story of loss from my consciousness, to hold in my hands and know it was real.

E: Your newest novel, The Motel of the Stars, is set in Kentucky and North Carolina. What about that region draws such a sharp interest from you?
M: I used to love this book called The Sacred and the Profane, by Mircea Eliade. He is a theologian and a philosopher and an anthropologist. He talks about the axis mundi--the sacred place on earth where a person or a culture feels most connected to the earth and the heavens. I feel that about Eastern Kentucky and about the mountains in general. They are in my blood, real and alive and necessary.

E: Where did you find inspiration for the characters Jason, Lory, and Sam in The Motel of the Stars? Do you ever base your fictional characters on people that you know really well or have met?
M: In the background of this new novel is my husband's son, Jeff. Jeff was killed in a Marine helicopter accident about twenty years ago. I wanted to write a novel that celebrated Jeff's spirit—a kind of elegy for his life and his death. The book also brought together my life with John. Both of us have lost sons. The book brought me to the place in between us, the territory of love and loss and forgiveness we share.

E: What do you hope that people will take away from your books?
M: Something about being human beings, about walking around on the earth and being alive. Something about knowing loss exists, and transcending it with the beauty of words.

E: What advice do you have for young writers?
M: I'd be lying if I said that writing isn't hard work. It takes discipline and commitment to page. It also takes belief and love of stories, your own or the ones you overhear, take into your heart and never forget. Practice the writing. Practice again. Go out and stand at the edge of the lake and watch the lightning in the distance. Translate that when you start the next writing day. -e-