Conversations with Meredith Sue Willis
Photographed by Carla Witt Ford
As a child growing up in Shinnston, Meredith Sue Willis wanted to marry Roy Rogers and thought she might be a rancher one day. “Riding horses and fighting bad guys seemed infinitely clear and exciting and free,” she says. Meredith’s ultimate life choices proved to be both liberating and profound. She attended Bucknell University, worked as a VISTA volunteer for a year, became a student activist, graduated both magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College, earned an MFA from Columbia University, and flourished as a celebrated author of novels, short stories, and books on the art of writing. She now teaches creative writing at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and serves as a frequent visiting writer-in-the-schools in New York and New Jersey.
Meredith’s latest books include Re-Visions: Stories from Stories (Hamilton Stone Editions, 2010), Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel (Montemayor Press, 2010), Oradell at Sea (Vandalia Press, 2002), and a collection of literary Appalachian stories called Out of the Mountains (Ohio University Press, 2010). The latter was praised in Booklist as “worth reading twice to discover all its intricacies and connections."
WV LIVING – Did growing up in Shinnston prepare you for your future life in New York City?
Meredith Sue Willis – It gave me a belief that I have a relationship with everyone I meet. In a small town, you really do know most of the people. I have an essay called “My Father’s Stories” about my dad growing up with all kinds of boys in East Shinnston. I think Shinnston prepared me for the multiplicity of people in New York more than a homogeneous suburb would have.
WVL – What were some of your favorite haunts in Shinnston?
MSW – My favorite place was “up on the hill.” We lived in East Shinnston, and two houses away from us was a place with a barn, several acres of fields behind it, and woods and hills. It had a pond, some sheds, and an abandoned apple orchard. Usually with one friend, I’d go up there, and we’d explore and stir up the cow pies and look at the scummy pond and imagine things. We made up fantasies, blew milkweed, and generally enjoyed being out of doors and away from the house and the rules for girls.
When I got older, I would go up there alone, up on the hill, to look out over Shinnston and Enterprise and Owings (the nearest mine). I’d just look out and feel things: power, hope, the future, solitude, loneliness, specialness, smallness, bigness. Everything.
WVL – Tell me about your first year at Barnard and being in the MFA program at Columbia.
MSW – It was all life changing, for sure. It seems to me sometimes that during those seven years from when I was 18 to around 25, everything happened and everything changed. And since then I’ve been processing it.
The biggest shock was actually Bucknell University. I met people of vastly different world views from mine—people drank alcohol, and I met my first atheist. Then I fell in with people who had social consciences and wanted to make change in the world. These discussions led to the year in VISTA, which was the groundwork of everything I believe about the political economic system.
When I was in the MFA program at Columbia, I studied with Anthony Burgess, who wrote many more books than A Clockwork Orange. He was pretty lazy about reading student work. Another professor, Richard Ellman (not the Henry James biographer but the late novelist) apparently was sipping something stronger than tea in his paper cup. The women teachers were much more satisfactory: especially Lore Segal, a refugee from Austria, who wrote a couple of wonderful novels.
WVL – What did you love about New York?
MSW – What I love best about New York is never the culture, but the energy. I go there several times a week, usually to teach, and every time I come up out of the underground transportation system, my heart and lungs swell up, and I take delight in looking and smelling and seeing.I have a similar powerful physical reaction to West Virginia, a deep singing in my heart when I get there—but West Virginia deep-calms me, and New York energizes me. I don’t know who I’d be without each of them.
WVL – What did your VISTA experience teach you?
MSW – I wrote a trilogy about the 1960s that covers what I learned in high school, VISTA, and college activism. Only Great Changes is about the VISTA year, highly fictionalized. I’m good at combining people and imagining events, but not at inventing places. One of the most important things I learned as a VISTA volunteer was that the local power structure (politicians, large business owners) loved us young volunteers as long as we were creating photo ops with cute, poor brown children, but they got very disturbed when we responded to the parents of the children who wanted cheap groceries. We set up a grocery-buying cooperative to save people money. This was considered “communistic,” and we were forbidden to do it.
WVL – You wrote in the afterword to your short story collection Out of the Mountains, “The best Appalachian writers have always explored the wider Appalachia and beyond.” Why is the work of contemporary Appalachian writers often overlooked?
MSW – Good question, and if I knew the answer I might be making more money from my writing! I remember my first novel (eventually published by a major New Yorkpublisher) being rejected because it had a preacher in it, and the editor said they’d already had a preacher in a novel that year. The truth is, New York publishers follow fads: if a big-selling novel this year was about Hindu lesbians, then everyone goes looking for more Hindu lesbians—or, if they’re really creative, they might try a Muslim lesbian novel. But only Muslim lesbians from the Indian subcontinent. I’m exaggerating but not so much.I have hopes for the major technological revolution. I’m imagining a time when most books will be published first as e-books, then, as they gradually build their audience, as hard copies as well. Our audiences may be smaller, but we need to remind ourselves that the readership for Chaucer, say, was minuscule. The problem becomes weaning people from the kind of advertising that assumes we all need the same brand of everything we use.
WVL – How did it feel to be honored by your hometown and inducted into Shinnston High School’s Hall of Fame in 1996?
MSW – That is a favorite honor of mine. Some of my old teachers were there, and Iwas introduced by my oldest friend David Hardesty, a Rhodes Scholar, lawyer, and president of West Virginia University at the time. His mom was the nurse at my birth, and his dad and mine played together as boys. Another honor I enjoyed was when I was the Harrison County Italian Heritage Festival Non-Italian Woman of the Year. There was also an Irish priest who was the Non-Italian man and two people who were the Italian Man and Woman of the year. I got to ride in the parade in the back of a convertible!
WVL – Would life have been different if you had stayed in Shinnston? Would you have married a hometown boy? Become a writer?
MSW – My family was very close to the Hardestys, and when I was 4 years old, I assumed I’d marry David some day. He’s still my very dear friend, but I would never have been able to live the kind of public life he and his wife Susan and their kids have lived—enormous social events in their house, overseeing a staff. I think, if I’d remained in Shinnston, I’d have been a teacher, more like my friend Karen Morgan who invented an Appalachian Studies course at the high school. I expect I still would have written. I have a short story called “The Vulture” about a woman who spends her days going toall the funerals in town. She’s pretty crazy, and that was one of the alternative lives I imagined for myself.
WVL – Oradell at Sea was one of the most original novels I’ve read in a long time. It was fascinating to discover a quirky older woman living from port to port on a cruise ship.
MSW – I have always loved Oradell for living completely for herself, except maybe a little for her son, and yet discovering that you have to share the good things in life with others at least in a small way. I’ve always adored the kind of wry-mouthed, old-time dames who used to smoke ciggies, drink beer, and wise-crack at the world.
WVL – If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?
MSW – I often think of this, and it varies from day to day. Might I have stayed in West Virginia? Or gone back after going away? Should I have gone back to Bucknell after VISTA instead of to Barnard? Should I have started having kids a little sooner so I got to have two instead of one? The fact is, I have the great privilege, as a creative writer, of getting to change my life as often as I want. Of being other people, living in other worlds. What could be more fun?meredithsuewillis.com