Friday, June 9, 2023

Q&A with Isabel Reddy




Isabel Reddy is the author of the new novel That You Remember. She lives in North Carolina.


Q: What inspired you to write That You Remember?


A: The inspiration for the book began in 1999, when, as a teacher in the Durham, North Carolina, public schools, as part of the ninth grade English curriculum, we read Kai Erikson’s Everything in its Path about the Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, disaster, in 1972. The book had large, two-page photos depicting the horrible devastation.


I didn’t just read it, as you might while looking at a magazine in a doctor’s office, I taught it. I had students write reports, build dioramas and three-dimensional representations of the disaster, and give presentations on it.


In Erikson’s report, I read that Buffalo Mining was owned by the Pittston Coal Corporation. According to Erikson, Buffalo Mining built the first impoundment in 1960. In 1966 the second one was built. In 1968 the third one was built. In 1970 Pittston acquired Buffalo Creek Mining. As a daughter of a former president of Pittston, it weighed more heavily and had more relevance for me than for someone with no personal connection to the coal industry.


But that merely set the stage. Another key element in writing the novel was the arrival of all my father’s desk diaries, sometime in 2011. In them I have a written record of every lunch, every meeting, every travel expense, covering forty years of my father’s life as a coal broker. I began writing the novel after receiving the diaries.


From these diaries, I learned that on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 1967, at 3:45pm (almost five years to the day before the Buffalo Creek disaster and three years before Pittston even acquired Buffalo Mining Company), my father submitted his letter of resignation from Pittston Coal Company.


I began by writing about what it was like to live in the home and be the daughter of a coal company executive. Very soon, as the story progressed, I traveled to the bituminous coal regions of Appalachia, speaking with people, interviewing people, even going to their church services with them. The story moved outward, from my experience to those of these incredible people and took me with it.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I was inspired by the poem by Gail Amburgey, a survivor of the Buffalo Creek disaster. Her words were the guiding light for my writing. In an interview she said, to paraphrase, that remembering – that’s the sanity. I’d heard my father say countless times that history repeats itself. Her poem about the disaster is all about remembering and forgetting. Some things are so painful we want to forget them. But in forgetting, we may run the risk of repeating them.


Finally, I heard the song by Kieran Goss, “All That You Ask Me,” and it was clear to me what the title should be. The first line of the song is, “All that you ask me, is that I remember, that I remember what we’ve been through.”

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: The character Aleena is modeled somewhat from my own experience. She has inherited her father’s desk diaries and goes to a coal hollow. I went to the coal region, and, like Aleena, did not know a tipple from a pickle! What was so surprising to me in all my travels, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky, was the people I met. I encountered people who were so open, helpful, and kind. People offered to go out of their way to meet with me, help me with directions; some invited me into their homes.


I was surprised at the bond that people have to their community. I found that regions and counties are distinct. I asked a woman about Man, West Virginia, and she was from West Virginia, yet she said, “Oh, I’m not from that county.” That’s how region-specific her community was to her. That’s what reminds me not to generalize or assume about the people across a whole state or a whole industry.


At first I felt reluctant to share that I was the daughter of a coal operator. However, when I did tell people, it was not a big deal, as it might have been in the time period portrayed in my novel, the 1970s.


And with regard to the Buffalo Creek disaster, the pain is still, 50 years later, very palpable. I went to the fortieth anniversary event in Man, West Virginia, and met a survivor, and spoke with them. I learned that it was the first memorial event this person had attended, the only one they’d ever attended in the 40 years since the disaster. The pain is very, very palpable.


My main contact lost her husband to walking pneumonia that he contracted as a result of helping with the rescue and clean up. He was a coal miner diagnosed with black lung disease.


Q: The journalist and author Peter Kilborn said of the book, “That You Remember is a universally worthy, socioeconomic tour-de-force. It is fiction resonating as fact.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m very flattered. That was what I was hoping for. He’s a first rate reporter, having worked at Businessweek, Newsweek, and The New York Times. In 1976, Kilborn went to Aberfan, Wales, and wrote a 10th anniversary article on the coal tip that smothered the elementary school on October 21, 1966. He researched and wrote about the coal slag pile, situated on springs, an obvious geological hazard.


So I knew he had an interest in this topic and his opinion and reaction to my book is very meaningful. His words confirm that I’ve brought to life how people made lives for themselves in a specific time and place.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a novel, quite different from That You Remember. A more personal novel. In addition, I’m getting an MFA at Goddard, which is a wonderful place to meet other writers, to get feedback from faculty and participate in workshops, and to hear guest authors discuss their work.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you for your interest. Writing this book has been a labor of love. In addition to my on-the-ground research, photography books of the region, and the people of Appalachia helped me find my characters. I hope readers will recognize and resonate with the lives of the characters in That You Remember.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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