Appalachian author Amy Greene gave listeners a first glance at her next book, The Nature of Fire, at the 2017 Wilma Dykeman Stokely Memorial Lecture on Thursday night.
The event was sponsored by Friends of the Knox County Public Library, UT Library Society, Knox County Public Library and Union Avenue Books.
Greene is a Hamblen County native and a graduate of Morristown-Hamblen High School East. She is the author of two award-winning novels, Bloodroot and Long Man, that tell fictional stories of contemporary Appalachia.
Greene told the crowd that her career as an Appalachian chronicler began when she started jotting down memories of her own childhood in Bulls Gap, Tenn.
Greene realized that she never saw modern Appalachia portrayed in media. In her eyes, Appalachia was only given pictures from the past, and Appalachians ended up portrayed as “barefoot hillbillies chomping on hayseeds.” She began to write Appalachia’s story herself.
Her newest novel, set to be published in 2018, is a coming of age story that Greene calls “autobiographical.” It tells the story of a young woman from fictional Harmon, Tenn., who loses her family to a gas leak from a local fertilizer factory.
Greene said the story was inspired by a time when a coal gasification plant was set to be built in Morristown, Tenn. The plant never transpired, but while there was talk of it, Greene said it was all talk about the jobs it would bring and no talk about the potentially dangerous environmental impact it would have.
“It’s hard to think ahead about the pollution in the future when you’re trying to feed your family in the present,” Greene said.
Greene lived through what she calls “ache of poverty,” and she wanted to write about it.
Greene is familiar with the impact factories can have on farming communities in the mountain south. Of the industrialization in Morristown, she said, “you can smell it.”
Greene’s father was a factory worker, and she is familiar with the perceived need for good factory jobs in that community.
“I feel like the factories there take advantage of that desperation,” Greene said. “They know we won’t say no, because we need the jobs.”
Though her novel does speak to the idea that industrialization has taken advantage of Appalachia, Greene didn’t want it to be too political.
“If it becomes too political, you lose that story,” Greene said. “The story has to come first.”
The first few pages of the new novel, read aloud, drew visible emotion from the crowd gathered at the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville.
Claire Serrell, president of the Friends of the Knox County Public Library, called Greene a fitting person to speak in memorial of Wilma Dykeman Stokely.
Stokely was a writer who told stories of the mountainous South, good and bad. Serrell called her “the founder of Appalachian studies.”
“Her vision of social and environmental justice is as timely as ever,” she said.
Like Stokely, Greene has won awards for her efforts to tell the story of the place she’s from. She called her success living proof that even if you grow up in “the hollers of Bulls Gap,” you can still learn and do what you want with your life.
Edited by Kaitlin Flippo
Featured Image by Sophie Grosserode