Drema Hall Berkheimer is the author of the new memoir Running on Red Dog Road and Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood. She lives in Dallas.
Q: You write of the book, “Begun as a legacy to my progeny, Running on Red Dog Road ended as a tribute to their forebears…” Did you know exactly what you would write about when you first started the book, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: Yes, of course I knew exactly what I would write. After all, Running on Red Dog Road and Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood is memoir, and who better than I to know how to write my own story.
That is a big fat lie. I didn't have a clue where this was going when I began to write stories of my Appalachian childhood for my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I've heard it said that when you want something, all the universe conspires to help you get it. I found that to be profoundly true.
Although I dawdled and dragged my heels and whined to anyone who would listen, I was compelled to finish my book. It took me six years, the universe poking and prodding me all the way. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. And it was the best.
Q: You write, “I was unprepared for the emotional physical spiritual toll this writing could and did exact.” What was the writing process like as you relived your childhood memories?
A: It nearly killed me. I was someone who never cried, not even at funerals. Now I was a big bawl-baby. I couldn't figure out why. I'd had a happy childhood surrounded by quirky kith and kin, with gypsies, moonshiners, snake handlers, faith healers, and hobos dropping in to play character roles in the story of my life.
Then the reason for the tears came to me--sometimes you don't know what you have until you lose it. This, then, is a book of atonement. But it is also a book of joy. Readers tell me it made them laugh and cry. I hope so. It made me laugh and cry too.
Q: Did you keep a journal as a child, and did you conduct much research to write the book?
A: I didn't keep a journal as a child but I wrote poetry and essays, mostly nonfiction, many of which I still have.
I started my first and only journal while I was writing the book. I called it Outta My Head. It was a great journal, full of witty observations, to-die-for quotes, and lofty philosophical ideas. One day, I mused, someone will dig it out of a musty trunk and publish it, revealing my true genius to the world.
Meanwhile, my real writing, the book writing, had dried up, become bloodless as old roadkill. Then it occurred to me I was spending more time writing about writing than I was writing.
Could it be the journal I was so invested in was simply the self indulgent rambling of a writer who had discovered yet another way not to finish her book? I read it again. The answer was a sobering yes. I gave up journaling.
I believed the book would be best served if my memories as a child were left unaltered, so I made a conscious choice not to do much research. Still, I think I got most things right, and friends who grew up with me say I did.
Q: What do your family members think of the memoir?
A: This memoir was written for my family--dead or living or yet to be born. I wanted to pay tribute to the West Virginia kin I wrote about, all gone on before me, and I wanted the ones who came after them to know they came from coal.
I wanted them to feel the Appalachian DNA rushing through their veins. I wanted them to hear the twang of the voices and see the glory of the hills and hollers. And I wanted them to see it through my eyes. Of course, that wasn't possible, so I did my imperfect best with words.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A book that covers the same time and place and people, so it is a companion book rather than a sequel. The title is Still Running on Red Dog Road, More Appalachian Stories I Meant to Tell You.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I probably should define what red dog is, because it explains the title: When mining companies burned piles of trash coal, the heat turned it red and pink and lavender. Trucks dumped loads of that sharp-edged rock on our dirt road. We called it red dog. Grandma told me not to be running on that red dog road. But I do.
Deborah, thank you for providing this great opportunity to share my writing experience with your readers. And thanks to my wonderful writer friend Kathleen Rodgers for recommending my book.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb