INTERVIEW with Ann Pancake

Chasia Eidson

Appalachian writer Ann Pancake, author of the novel Strange As This Weather Has Beenand the collection of short stories Given Ground, visited Lincoln Memorial University on April 1, 2009. She presented a reading from her novel Strange As This Weather Has Been. She was very impressed with the campus.

“You're going to think I'm making this up to be nice, but I'm serious: my visit to LMU was one of the best I've ever had for a reading. First of all, my drive over from Abingdon was absolutely gorgeous, especially because it reminded me of my home in West Virginia, and, living in Seattle, I get so homesick for spring in the mountains. I also hadn't realized how spectacular the Cumberland Gap was--this was my first time to see the area--and I took a little hike there and thoroughly enjoyed that. Then the hospitality and care and generosity of my sponsors at LMU were far beyond the call of duty; that really moved me,” she said. Not only was she impressed with the scenery and the hospitality, but her readers touched her.

“The audience was very engaged and enthusiastic and grateful. I got the sense that many people there really ‘got’ my writing, and there is nothing more satisfying to a writer than that. When I read outside the region, readers are interested and all, but I don't think people not from Appalachia can really grasp everything that is going on in Strange As This Weather Has Been.”

Pancake travels all over the country for readings. Many people are allowed the chance to enjoy her speaking, and it’s a part of the job that she enjoys. “The best part about traveling to do readings is that I get to meet fascinating people and hear their stories about themselves and about the places they live, usually places I don't know very well,” she said.

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A part of the job of being a writer is actually writing. She got her start at a young age, she tells. “I started telling myself stories when I was three or four, and I started writing as soon as I was capable of writing--at around age eight. So it wasn't really that I ‘got into writing.’ I was more born into it, I guess.”

She started off writing short stories before embarking on the adventure of writing the novel Strange As This Weather Has Been. “I thought the hardest part of the transition would be figuring out how to sustain a plot for hundreds of pages and adjusting to the different pacing of a novel. However, what turned out to be hardest was the ‘psychology’ of writing a novel, for lack of a better word. It was teaching myself how to return to the same manuscript morning after morning for about seven years without losing interest and inspiration and faith that I would get the thing done. And faith that I would eventually find a publisher.”

Strange As This Weather Has Beencovers the effects of mountaintop removal within the lives of the characters. Both the immediate effects and the long term effects are demonstrated in the novel. Issues such as mountaintop removal are becoming more known the masses due to the printed word and the digital word. Journals and newspapers can provide facts about the issues, but it takes people like Pancake to show a deeper side to issues like mountaintop removal.

“Good fiction and nonfiction that is more artistic can also bring the reader into the world of the people who are struggling with mountaintop removal in their daily lives and enable the reader to deeply experience the lives of those people. When the reader gets this kind of deep emotional experience via the characters, I think the reader is left with a more profound impression of mountaintop removal and the way it is destructive not just to the land, but also to people and to culture.”

The audience at the reading had questions about mountaintop removal, but they also had many questions about the characters present in the novel. Her characters are true-to-life and memorable. They even are a part of her life. “Bant and Dane have probably stayed the most steadily in my heart,” she said. “Corey is always lurking out there wanting to get revenge on me.”

She presented such a strong case about mountaintop removal in her novel and deep insight about the people from the region that many fans may wonder what she will cover next. “I try not to establish specific topics I want to write about and instead just see what comes to me. That said, I imagine I’ll continue to write about social issues, especially issues involving the environment and class inequalities.”

Several of her fans are also writers and writers-to-be. The biggest issue writers face is writer’s block. Each person has a different way of dealing with it, and Pancake’s advice for overcoming it should be considered.

“I always fall back on the writer William Stafford's advice: ‘Lower your standards.’ Often we get writer's block because we are setting the bar too high for ourselves, being overly perfectionist. In addition to that, I would encourage people to be patient. It takes a really long time to produce a good piece of writing, and we live in a culture that values speed, efficiency, productivity--all these things are not necessarily conducive to making art. When I get writer's block, I take a break. I put away the piece I'm working on for a week or more so I can gain perspective on it, and fresh energy. And I recognize that writing is cyclical for most people. Some days, months, and weeks, I have a lot of good writing energy moving in me. Other days and weeks I feel empty, spent. And I think these cycles are natural. So be patient until that cycle turns around and the writing comes back to you.” -e-