DM: In the Acknowledgements you mention a Jackson Herald article covered the last public execution in the state. How was that article helpful in writing the first chapter? What details of that hanging are incorporated into your fiction?
GT: I would say that article was immeasurably helpful, in that I had started the book and gotten fairly deep into it, but something wasn’t right. For one thing, its beginning was just bland, with Abe coming home on the train after seven years gone. I was looking around on the website for the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, and I came upon that article. I loved its flamboyant style, its long form ways that seemed to verge on embellishment. Details I incorporated include the souvenirs being sold at the actual hanging, the riding upon coffins, you name it.
DM: Where did you happen upon “Sodom and Gomorrah of Today or The History of Keystone West Virginia,” a book written by an anonymous person known as A Virginia Lad?
GT: I can’t remember who first told me about it. It was long ago, as that crazy old 1911 pamphlet has quite a reputation. At some point, it became available online, again from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, and I printed it out and read it and marked it up. I know Denise Giardina had consulted it in her own research long before me. We spoke about it recently when I had the privilege of visiting with her at Berea.
DM: Did Jewish people run the whorehouse in Keystone?
GT: Which one? I wanted to leave my answer at that, but alas, I can’t be rude. Good answer though, isn’t it, for it holds truth. There were many houses of ill fame, of many varieties. The only thing that was higher in number were saloons, and I do know that Jewish people ran at least one of those, because my parents’ neighbor and good friend Tom Pressman descends from the Totzes of Keystone, and Mr. Totz owned a saloon. I’ve seen a picture of him in front of it, and in the picture he wore a black kippah in the style of the Northern African variety, which became the fashion of hat worn by Al Baach in my book.
DM: Did you visit McDowell County during the writing of the novel?
GT: Yes. My dad and I drove down 52 to Matewan to visit some old friends of his, and then we kept going to McDowell, and Keystone. There isn’t much left of what was once there. Still, I got to meet Jean Battlo in Kimball, and I’ve since met and performed with Alan Cathead Johnston from Premiere, near Welch. There are many good people who have not left, but the infrastructure is so far gone that it’s hard to know what to think. But my dad and I were trying to figure out where precisely Cinder Bottom would have been, and so he asked a woman who was getting out of her car, “Can you tell us where Cinder Bottom would have been?” She answered, “Honey, you’re standin’ in it.” Turns out she’d grown up there, and Dad knew her uncle, who’d lived in Matewan. I wish I could remember her name.
DM: Have you had any reaction to the novel from residents of McDowell County? If so, please share.
GT: I was contacted by an Andrea Moore, from the McDowell Library in Welch, for some copies of the book. I sent some and am anxiously awaiting word on what any readers from down there may have thought. I hope it passes the local test. That is important.
DM: What is your educational background?
GT: Graduated from Huntington High School in 1993, back before it consolidated with Huntington East. Then Ohio University in 1997, then again with an MA in 1999. Then Texas State University (MFA) in 2002. Got to live in Austin, Texas, for three years, right after my wife Margaret and I were married, before kids.
DM: What careers did your parents have?
GT: My parents met at WVU, in Morgantown, where I now live and teach. They married while my mom was still in school and my dad in law school. My mom was pregnant with my oldest sister fairly quickly and stayed home with us three kids for many years while my dad practiced law, did some clerking, and then was later appointed U.S. Magistrate for the southern district. My mom worked in many roles after I was in school, acting in local commercials before becoming a volunteer coordinator at The Huntington Museum of Art and later Health South Rehabilitation. They are both retired. They are great people, I must say.
DM: How does a fellow from Huntington, home of Marshall, end up at WVU? (I’m half kidding!)
GT: See above. Though I love the Herd, I was raised a true Mountaineer fan. It developed character, wearing the old Gold and Blue in all that green. But it seemed right. My mom grew up in Fairmont and we’d visit my grandparents and go to WVU games.
DM: What writer from a previous generation would young writers today be best served by reading?
GT: Studs Terkel, if for nothing else than to remind us to see and, most importantly, to listen.