Bobi Conn is the author of the new memoir In the Shadow of the Valley, which focuses in part on her childhood in Appalachia.
Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how long did it take you to write it?
A: In the Shadow of the Valley began as my creative writing thesis for my master’s degree, when it was less than a third of the length it is now. At the time, I wanted to turn some of my painful childhood stories into something beautiful – I thought of it as being like alchemy.
It was also really important to me to tell my story well, because there are plenty of people who have suffered more than I have. I wanted to make it an enjoyable experience to read, even if the details of my story are sometimes unpleasant.
After graduate school, I added more of my young adult life to my manuscript and realized that I actually had a story that could help others. I grew certain that both my childhood and adult experiences were both full of moments and feelings that others can relate to, no matter our gender, our class, or our background.
It was approximately 13 years from the time of its inception as my thesis to publication, though I didn’t spend most of that time writing – I think the actual writing took approximately a year and a half.
I first queried agents just after attaining my master’s degree, and sent queries out sporadically over the next eight years or so, discouraged by the lack of interest. Finally, I met with an agent in person and was able to accomplish then what I had not done through a written query, which soon led to publication.
Q: You describe many difficult and painful events in your life--how hard was it to write about them?
A: Sometimes, writing about those events was very difficult, and I certainly cried at times while writing. It was easier to write about experiences from my childhood because they are more matter-of-fact in my mind – I am so familiar with the scenes and the people I describe, I still have to remind myself that my life was not “normal.”
It was often challenging to write about my adult life, since the hurt, guilt, and shame are still relatively fresh. I often thought about how people might judge me for things that I share, and I know I didn’t have to share them.
However, I felt I would be doing a real disservice to my readers by hiding some of the uglier truths about how I thought and behaved as an adult.
Most people don’t want to condone child abuse, but we don’t often talk about what happens to abused children, how such trauma can impact every aspect of their well-being – as well as their sense of morality and judgment – for the rest of their lives, until they get the kind of help that can mitigate serious harm.
That kind of help is rare and difficult to find. And before someone can begin the arduous task of finding it, they have to believe they are worth the trouble, which is an insurmountable obstacle for many.
In the end, I feel like the value of my memoir largely rests in its ability to help others, so I was able to overlook my discomfort and pain in writing it.
I also realized that as I wrote, I claimed ownership of my story and continually shifted my perspective away from victimhood and toward agency. It was often difficult, but I saw it as a necessary experience to further my own healing.
Q: Have any of your family members seen the book, and if so, what do they think about it?
A: My mother has read a portion of the book at this point – she has found it brings up a lot of painful memories and it is difficult for her to read. She is also learning a lot about my life that she didn’t know, which is, I’m sure, challenging as a mother. So far, she is proud of what I have done.
Several of my distant relatives on my Granny’s side have read my book and reached out to me during and afterwards.
They expressed regret that they didn’t try to help my brother and me when we were younger, even though they weren’t in our lives very frequently. They have also shared more information with me about my Granny’s life and their perceptions of my father from even a young age.
Everyone who has commented so far has been very supportive and loving, which has been an unexpected and welcome reaction.
I was concerned that a lot of my family would not approve of what I wrote or the fact that I shared so much about their personal lives. My mother and brother have both said recently that they want to write or have me write their story for them, which is incredibly rewarding to hear.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from your story?
A: I hope readers have a multifaceted experience. My story covers a lot of ground, from personal trauma to generational trauma, and from the beauty of Appalachia to the impact of extractive economies on a region and people.
I want anyone who reads my memoir to find something in it that speaks to them, whether it’s a formative experience I describe or the power of simple moments in childhood.
It’s also important to me that readers see Appalachia is a complex region, full of beauty and many kinds of stories that haven’t all been told. So many of us love this land not because we are in denial of its problems, but because our lives are enriched by the beauty of the land and people.
As I wrote this memoir, I chose to share my story and reflections as honestly and openly as possible because I realize that so many of us struggle with guilt and shame for things that have happened to us, as well as the choices we have made in our worst moments.
We need to be able to have honest conversations about our experiences and ourselves, if we are ever going to advance personally or collectively.
Ultimately, I wrote this memoir hoping to encourage greater empathy. Some will read my story and know that I can empathize with them; others will better understand the children and adults around them who have been traumatized.
Most importantly, I hope that anyone who reads it comes away feeling more empowered to be the author of their own story.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m currently working on a novel that will chronicle the story of the McKenzie family, beginning with farmers living in eastern Kentucky in the late 19th century.
One of the characters is loosely based on my great-grandmother on my father’s side. The more I have thought about her life, the more I want to write a story for her.
According to family lore, she had an affair while my great-grandfather was in prison during the Depression. My great-grandfather was a moonshiner and committed multiple murders, so he was often incarcerated.
I am fascinated with that aspect of our family history and want to explore generational trauma, as well as the moments of triumph that shapes family and individual narratives.
I’m excited to do this through an imagining of my own ancestors’ lives because writing my memoir helped me understand better the roles that women play in shaping a family’s trajectory.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One of my goals for In the Shadow of the Valley was to incorporate Appalachian oral storytelling traditions as I experienced them.
One of the key elements of this storytelling is that the story begins and ends in a cohesive timeline; however, the storyteller often meanders in between those points, pausing to remind you that so-and-so was Aunt Nellie’s cousin and you remember how she had arthritis so bad, and you know the best thing for arthritis is….
In early drafts of my memoir, I sometimes expected the reader to meander along with me too much. At that point, I didn’t realize what I was doing because I was just telling stories as they exist in my mind, and to me, all stories have backstories and of course a distant cousin’s arthritis is essential to understanding the entire point.
I’ve worked hard to find a compromise between the oral storytelling tradition I grew up with, and the reasonable expectations that a story will be chronological. I have made very conscious choices about the timeline and narrative cohesion, and I hope readers will embrace that aspect of my writing.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb