Thursday, October 24, 2019

Q&A with Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne

Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne, photo by Karen Kelly Photography
Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne is the author of the new novel Holding On To Nothing. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic Monthly and The Boston Globe. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Holding On To Nothing, and for your characters Jeptha and Lucy?

A: Lucy came to me with the line "Lucy had a smile that made people feel safe," which was the first line of the book for a long time. I pictured a really strong young woman, who experiences a lot of loss in her life and yet manages to maintain a scarred optimism.

Jeptha is inspired by some of the boys and men I saw around me growing up, who sometimes had rough reputations but good hearts. Jeptha deeply wants to be a good man, but doesn't really know how. I knew if Lucy and Jeptha were in the same room, there would be a story. 

Q: The writer Ron Rash said of the book, "Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne refuses to give the reader a simple, and stereotypical, tale of Appalachian dysfunction. Instead, we get a story of a seemingly star-crossed couple striving to create a better life..." What do you think of that assessment? 

A: I love Ron Rash, so if he had said "This book makes me want to eat cookies," I probably would have made a t-shirt out of it!! I was beyond grateful that he was willing to read my book and that he had such kind words for it. I think he nailed the story.

I wanted to situate the reader in a setting and with characters who may feel familiar, but let the reader know those characters so well that they are able to see past any of those familiar elements to the person, the emotions, and the story underneath. Certainly, Jeptha and Lucy are star-crossed, but they are trying so hard to make a better life for each other and for their child. 

Q: How important is setting to you in your writing? 

A: Setting is second only to character for me. Those two are what I most look for in any book, whether it's one I'm reading or one I'm writing.

Character is always tops on my list, but in order to know a person, you need to see the place in which they exist, so I think you can't do character well if you don't do setting well. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope they take away some hope for the characters and a better understanding of what it might be like to live in their corner of the world.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I'm working on my second novel, which is also set in East Tennessee,  featuring  a doctor who left Tennessee, but after experiencing a loss, comes back home, where a tuberculosis epidemic has just broken out. 

The setting will feel very familiar to readers of Holding On To Nothing, and a couple of the smaller side characters come back as well. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm so grateful to everyone who is reading my book and recommending it to friends. Books live or die by the hard work of booksellers, librarians and people like you, Deborah, who get books out in front of readers.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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