Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Mesha Maren is a writer and professor of creative writing at Duke University, originally from Alderson, West Virginia. In different ways, both of her critically acclaimed novels, Sugar Run and Perpetual Westare concerned with the central drama of our Path Finders newsletter: leaving home and coming back.

Enjoy our conversation about growing up in a prison town, the soundscape of the desert, and finding a different conversation about masculinity in wrestling – Maren’s childhood fascination – below.

The house in West Virginia where Mesha Maren was born while neighbors made hay in the field outside. (Photo provided)

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Tell me about where you grew up and how you got from there to where you are now.

Mesha Maren: I grew up in southern West Virginia, on Muddy Creek Mountain, which is five miles outside of the town of Alderson. I was born and raised there, like literally born at home on the land and raised in a house that my dad built, and was there until I was 17. And then I’ve spent a lot of my adult life between North Carolina and West Virginia. I spent a lot of time in western North Carolina and my family kind of settled there. And now I teach creative writing. That has taken a bunch of different forms. But in my early years of teaching, I was primarily teaching in state and federal prisons, and that started as a volunteer job and then grew into a paid job that was funded by the National Endowment of the Arts. They have an artist-in-residence program in federal prisons. And so I spent some time teaching in Alderson, the town I grew up in, because it’s actually the site of one of the first federal women’s prisons. And it’s now a minimum security prison. I taught there and in a medium security prison in Beckley, West Virginia. And I now have a job also teaching creative writing at Duke University.

DY: So, obviously, there’s a strong connection between your work in those different carceral settings and your first novel Sugar Run. What came first? And how did the idea for the book develop?

MM: I think that what came first was kind of my experiences growing up in a town that is home to a federal women’s prison. So that kind of thread of my life has always been present because my dad actually moved to Alderson, he thought at first temporarily, because of the women’s prison. At that point, this would have been 1976 or 77. The federal prison in Alderson was a maximum security prison and there were several notable inmates there including Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore. And separately, both of them had escaped during a relatively short period of time from that prison and gone to what’s called the Alderson Hospitality House, which is a nonprofit Bed and Breakfast for family members of women in prison. It still exists in an incredible organization. They provide pay-what-you-can room and board for folks coming to visit the women in that federal prison. So in 1977 it had just opened when Squeaky Fromme was caught. The authorities found out that she had gone to the Hospitality House. And even though no one at Hospitality House knew who she was when she came there and asked for help, they brought everyone who was working at the Hospitality House at that time in for questioning. So they were involved in this kind of long drawn out trial and needed someone to come and run the house temporarily. That person ended up being my father.

DY: That’s a wild story.

MM: Yeah, so, my dad was working at the Hospitality House and my mom was living in an apartment building across the street. My dad would practice his saxophone on the balcony and my mom heard him playing and that’s how they met. And then, long story short, my dad stayed and raised me and my siblings. And he continued to be involved in different ways with the prison there.

Young Maren and her father. (Photo provided)

When I was a small child, I would sometimes go with him there because he was a volunteer visitor for people who wanted to have visits but hadn’t received one from family or friends for over a year. Of course, as a kid, my big memory of it is that I got to have junk food and candy from the vending machines. But obviously those experiences influenced me in other ways. And it’s a town of less than 1,000 people, so the presence of the prison kind of looms large in a lot of ways. So I think that came first. My mom also taught yoga in the prison sometimes, that involvement was in the air and an awareness of what it means to be imprisoned and what it does to families and to individuals came with it. I didn’t ever think, “Oh, I’m gonna write a novel about someone getting out of prison.” It just sort of happened. And I think part of the reason is because that is really woven into the town and the community that I grew up in.

DY: Do you have any other reflections, aside from the direct exposure you had from your family, on what it was like growing up in a town where that was so woven-in?

MM: Yeah, it provided a lot of the better-paying and sort of semi-professional or professional jobs. And then it came up in strange ways that didn’t seem strange to me when I was a kid. Like in elementary school, I have this memory of a group of women from the prison who came in and did dance classes for us. I remember these incarcerated women came and taught us to dance the Macarena in our elementary school cafeteria. There’s also a volunteer fire department in Alderson that has incarcerated people from the prison who can join, so on the Fourth of July there was always a group of women from the prison who were riding on top of the firetruck. So there were these ways in which I think it was sort of normalized.

I remember, too, having an adult realization like “Wow, not all towns have a prison that is really central to the economy.” And in certain ways, I think I’m a product of the kind of culture of the town, too. And so my memories didn’t seem strange to me at the time. But now when I look back, I’m like, “Oh, that’s not everyone’s elementary school experience.”

DY: How did it feel to go back and teach as an adult in that place that was such a part of your childhood?

MM: It felt really good. I think it was cool to feel like I had found my own way into this work that my parents modeled for me, work that could in some way alleviate some of the pain of that carceral process. And I sort of found my own way into that by using my skills as a writer, but bringing them into that arena, creating access for the women who are there. It was also interesting because I hadn’t been since I was quite small. It’s interesting because it is now a prison camp, which is like the lowest security. So I was struck by many things, like, there are no fences so the rural setting is used as the barrier. There’s no big wall. It kind of bleeds into the community around it. But it is so isolated. And I think historically, this was part of the reason that it was built there because of the rurality it was fairly inaccessible. And that’s still somewhat true, as in, if the inmates walked away, where would they go? That was something that I didn’t really think about as a kid. Like, there’s, in a visual sense, no separation between the prison and the community around it.

DY: You traverse a lot of ground in Perpetual West, like from very familiar West Virginia settings to rural deserts in northern Mexico. I’m curious about how it feels to write those different settings and how your approach to understanding the people who might inhabit them differs, going from this very familiar landscape to one that’s quite foreign to you. 

MM: The familiarity I have with the parts of Mexico I wrote about is definitely not the same as with southern West Virginia. So part of the structure of Perpetual West mirrors my own life in certain ways. Shortly after my 21st birthday, I took a Greyhound bus from Asheville, North Carolina to El Paso and spent about nine months out there. And it was a pretty pivotal time in my life that I always knew I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about that experience of going from having spent my whole life in an Appalachian environment and then moving to the desert, and to that border area. So the experience was quite different.

When I was writing the early drafts of Sugar Run, I was living in Iowa City and really missing West Virginia and writing it as a sort of love letter to my hometown, and a way to go back to West Virginia in my mind. When I was writing Perpetual West, I was in West Virginia trying to reconnect with a place that I hadn’t been to – El Paso and northern Mexico – in quite a long time. So in certain ways, it was a matter of re-familiarizing myself. I did a research trip out there and what I found myself doing was making recordings of audio street sounds or the way that the wind in the palm trees sounded. Something that really struck me was how, in open spaces like that — a desert or an environment like in West Virginia where everything’s pulled so tightly together — the audio landscape out there was so different, and it wasn’t something that I remembered until I went back. And then it called something up in me that was like, “Oh, I remember this, that when I was 21, this was also something that I was quite aware of.” And so I took a lot of audio recordings and a lot of photographs and then went back to West Virginia where I was living, and would try to get myself into a state of mind that was more closely connected to that landscape. I mean, I think that in certain ways landscape is the most important thing to me in my writing, or it’s what calls to me first. Before I even really begin to imagine what characters are going to populate my book, or definitely long before I know what the plot is going to be like at all, I get a sense of the setting and the landscape. It’s really important to me to evoke that in a way that the reader can be immediately transported. So early drafts of Perpetual West had a lot of me listening to these recordings of pigeons and wind in the palm trees in El Paso and sitting in my cabin in West Virginia and trying to find the words to make that happen for the reader on the page.

Maren and her dad built her cabin-writing studio when she was 16 out of pine trees he had planted the year she was born. (Photo provided)

DY: One other thing that I think connects both of these places in your writing is your interest in wrestling. Can you tell me more about that?

MM: When I was a kid I went to some wrestling events in Alderson, some really small-time, local wrestling events that would happen in the gymnasium of the old high school, and I was pretty into it. And then I really hadn’t connected with wrestling or even really gone to any events in quite a few years until I was in El Paso and met someone who was in training to become a professional wrestler. And me and the group of friends that I had there would attend events that he was wrestling in, or that his friends were in, and so I got back into that. And when I started to think about writing about El Paso and northern Mexico, a lot of the images that came to mind for me were these memories of going to wrestling matches. So I explored that from a lot of different angles, including even going to a professional wrestling school for a little while myself, which I was not very good at. But it was good to connect physically with that. And culturally, there is a lot of overlap that is pretty interesting between small-town West Virginia, and giant cities in northern Mexico. On the surface, you might think the two places couldn’t be more unalike. But when you dig just a little bit deeper, there’s this enormous hometown pride that gets expressed sometimes through wrestling.

DY: I mean, this is a really complicated idea in your book but wrestling also becomes a strange opportunity for the expression of masculinity in places where its more traditional expressions can be difficult. 

MM: Yeah, I think so. I would say it’s sort of a subversive complication of what masculinity means in places where maybe outright talking about masculinity or complicating what masculinity looks like might be difficult in conversation. Wrestling is a different kind of conversation.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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