Karen Salyer McElmurray writes both fiction and creative nonfiction. Her memoir, Surrendered Child, won the AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction and was listed as a “notable book” by the National Book Critics Circle. She is also the author of The Motel of the Stars, Editor’s Pick from Oxford American, and a Lit Life Book of the Year; Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven (University of Georgia Press), a novel that won the Lillie Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing; the anthology Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean, co-edited with Adrian Blevins, from Ohio University Press, and the novel Wanting Radiance published in 2020 by South Limestone/University of Kentucky Press. Her essays have won the Annie Dillard Prize, the New Southerner Prize, the Orison Magazine Anthology Award and have several times been Notable in Best American Essays.
Karen Salyer McElmurray’s sixth book and first essay collection, Voice Lessons, was published by Iris Press on May 14. It’s a collection about, as she says, voice: that wicked and terrible bloom of ourselves. McElmurray tells me that this book was similar to the birthing process. The lesson of this book, she says, is that she has become ready to open up to other things. She was ready to publish the collection and the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Then, both of her parents died. All of these waves of pain make it into the collection, which explores the concept of home as not a place, but a feeling. An understanding.
I was honored to sit down with McElmurray and discuss her essay collection, home, and searching for the unknowable “it.”
The Rumpus: Appalachia, home, the body, memory, ghosts. These themes of your new essay collection, Voice Lessons, hit that tender spot in my belly, over and over again.
Karen Salyer McElmurray: There’s a line in the collection that you quoted on social media the other day: “To unlearn the languages of my childhood, I have traveled worlds.” I think about that a whole lot; I’m just sick of being full of darkness. I’m sick of grief. Do you feel like these essays weighed you down?
Rumpus: No. In fact, you refer in the collection to writing as your creation of a “map of scars that will eventually lead you towards wholeness.” That’s what I feel these essays do, they almost relieve you of your past and your sense of loss. To me they feel cleansing, as if you’ve reconciled something.
McElmurray: I think so. It’s sort of like this breakup I had years ago. I had been in the relationship for nine years and when it ended I was flat-out devastated. My friends said the things that friends are supposed to say, you must move on, you must move on. But I couldn’t move on. The grief felt like giving birth, these waves of pain and then receiving. Now that this book is finally birthed, I feel strongly that I am done with grief. I’m ready to become light. I really want to be light, to adventure, to play.
Rumpus: What does that look like moving forward? Do you have any adventures planned?
McElmurray: In spring 2022, I’ll be a visiting writer for the semester in Vermillion, South Dakota. And in that time I will certainly visit the Badlands again. It’s just the most powerful place. I love it with all of my heart.
Rumpus: Your collection was timely for me because in a few weeks I’ll be returning home to some family that I have not seen in many years. My intent is to reconnect with them and some of my roots, and I feel like there is a lot of that in Voice Lessons. The idea of going home after it’s not really home anymore. That’s my next adventure.
McElmurray: Going home really is an adventure. So many years I spent getting away from home as quickly and completely as I could. Then I spent all the time I was away from it trying to get back. When I’m back (in Kentucky), I feel that I’m seen as an alien dropped from some dark planet. That’s definitely part of this book. I go home and I’m an alien; I go back to where I was, which had a lot to do with higher education, and I’m an alien there, too.
Rumpus: In your essay “Dirt,” you explore the boundaries between Appalachia and academia in such a thoughtful way. In it, the working-class world of the body meets the academic world of the mind and you discover that you are trying to meld the two together to create a new space, a space for the heart.
McElmurray: While I was a student at University of Virginia, I had a job at a greenhouse. This troop of women and I would make soil, shoveling all day long, packing it into bags and pots to sell. Then, at night, I would go to class all dirty in my thrift store clothes and it was like I didn’t belong there.
Rumpus: It was a marriage of two worlds that feel so different—but in embodying both of them, you create a new world or a new space.
McElmurray: I wish for that with my whole heart in academia. Wherever I’ve taught I have done my damnedest to be an authentic human being and to avoid political machinations. I bring to the classroom and to my interactions with my colleagues some of the feeling that I have when I’m standing with those ladies in the greenhouse potting plants all day long. Something real. In the classroom I want to say, “This is what we’re doing here, we’re making something real.”
Rumpus: Yet, you’ve encountered many colleagues, especially men, who have argued that writing from this place of heart—especially confessional writing—is missing the point, or isn’t as valid. Why are they wrong?
McElmurray: When the book I wrote about being a birth mother came out, I got sort of reamed by Kirkus Reviews because they called the book “labored womb-gazing.” And it’s very specifically about women’s writing; how could it not be? The womb is a source, it’s a holy thing. It’s a sacred space, not something to snivel at. Memoir—writing about birth, love, sex, the body—is a sacred activity. It is pulling from work at our source. Not something less-than. It is more. When I wrote my memoir, I was almost apologetic about my experience. Now, I refuse to apologize for my experience. Now, I feel that my true home is in nonfiction. After my memoir, I struggled and struggled to give birth to the novel Wanting Radiance. Part of what this essay collection means for me is, Come back to the voice, come back to yourself.
Rumpus: How is the essay collection different in process from writing a memoir or a novel? Or is it similar?
McElmurray: There are similarities in all genres in terms of the deepest part of the work, which I call the heartwood, of anything you’re working on, whether writing, making a painting or music, there’s the heartwood. In terms of structure and the process, the novel has an arc, be it an image or character or plot. Whereas making an essay collection is like I’m making a tapestry or quilt. I’m taking the parts and laying them all out and deciding how the parts will go together to make a pattern, after the fact, whereas with the novel it had to be before the fact. You can see my granny’s quilts laying back here on my couch; she was a quiltmaker and I have about a dozen of her quilts in my possession. I can still see her bed covered with these pieces and her moving the pieces around for effect, for color, for shape. There’s an essay on Lit Hub, “What Quilting and Embroidery Can Teach Us about Narrative Form,” by Sarah Minor, about women’s narratives. I absolutely love that piece.
Rumpus: I love to explore different metaphors for how to structure a book. The idea of the quilt is very helpful. It reminds of the writer Steven Dunn. He will read architecture books and study ikebana as inspiration for how to arrange the pieces of his novel.
McElmurray: Oh, that’s interesting!
Rumpus: Speaking of your granny’s quilts, you write a lot about various objects as talismans that might be clues to your past and provide a way forward toward healing. For example, in your essay “Hand Me Down,” you share the story of going through your granny’s attic in your mid-twenties and finding her brown dress. You write:
I wished the pockets would hold a lost treasure, a buffalo-headed nickel, a love letter. I wished I’d find the garnet ring Fannie Ellen lost out in the garden when it slipped off her thin-fingered hand that time when she was hoeing. I wanted to find that ring so I could wear it like a talisman. What I needed most about then was magic. I was a lost soul, lost as any post-hippy, wannabe flower child.
Can you speak a bit to that? Why did you wish for that?
McElmurray: Her attic was just full of piles of stuff. Like I said, she was a quiltmaker, so there were tons of boxes of material. Just wanting to find “it,” it’s almost like you’re on this quest, if I could just find “it,” but not really knowing what “it” is. If I could find this thing that would tell me what brought my parents together, what made my mother. What happened? What happened to set this wounding in motion? You want to find a clue; you want to find a talisman. You want to dig and dig and dig into the past until you find this thing that is bright and beautiful and you can hold it in your hand and rub it and it’ll protect you forever.
Rumpus: It feels like that’s exactly what your book is doing, finding “it.”
McElmurray: Wow. That brings me to silence. Thank you.
Photograph of Karen Salyer McElmurray by Cindra Halm.