Jason Howard is the author of A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music, co-author of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, and editor of the forthcoming anthology The Women We Love. He is the editor of Appalachian Heritage Magazine and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Louisville Review, Sojourners, Paste and on NPR.
When did you become the new editor for Appalachian Heritage magazine?
I became editor in November 2013.
Why did you consider this position something you’d be interested in?
I’d been a reader of Appalachian Heritage for a long time. When I was growing up, my grandmother always had issues lying around, and when she died ten years ago, I came across those old editions, and still have them. So I knew and respected the magazine’s great history, but I also had a vision of where it could go—where I wanted to take it in terms of content, format and design.
I have a lot of experience in editing—I’ve worked for a national magazine, an online literary magazine, an indie publisher, a nonprofit and a small business. And of course I’ve edited and given feedback to writers in workshops and master classes and at conferences, and to friends in more informal settings. I love the editing process, especially working with writers and having a dialogue to improve the piece at hand. I also saw that this job would dovetail nicely with my own writing career—that it would feed, rather than subsume, my own creative writing.
What’s living in Berea like?
I’ve lived here for almost six years, and it’s a great place to be based. I usually tend towards a larger town or city, but Berea has won a big chunk of my heart. We have a thriving, active arts community—writers, musicians, visual artists, crafters, dancers—and there’s always something going on. I love how the college contributes to the intellectual and spiritual life of the town, and that there’s diversity on many different levels, including a good-sized LGBT population. My partner and I are pretty settled here at the moment. We bought our first home together four years ago, an old Craftsman-style house built in 1920, so we’ve had fun—and a bit of heartache, of course—working on it, painting, having ceilings redone and the like. It never ends. Anyone who owns an older home knows what I’m talking about.
Can you tell us a little bit about AH in terms of background?
Appalachian Heritage has a long history. Poet Albert Stewart founded the magazine in 1973, and it was published for years at Alice Lloyd College and then Hindman Settlement School. It’s been at Berea College since 1985, and from its earliest years the magazine published the luminaries of Appalachian and Southern literature like Harriette Arnow, James Still, Jim Wayne Miller, Nikki Giovanni. Appalachian Heritage has also a place where many writers have gotten their start. Silas House, for instance, was first published in Appalachian Heritage in 1995.
What/who does AH publish?
We look for high-quality, imaginative work from both established and emerging voices. Although we publish primarily fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry, we also include the occasional piece of drama and writing for young adults. Each issue also includes a craft essay, book reviews and visual art. Our submission guidelines say we look for good writing “from Appalachia and beyond,” because I see Appalachian literature as a living thing, one that is not constrained by geographic borders. It’s more about spirit than anything else, and so the writing we publish is either rooted in or captures the spirit of the region. With this approach I’m aiming to expand the notion of Appalachia—and what it means to be Appalachian—and to showcase the region in a more complex way.
Writers we have recently published include Maurice Manning, Sonja Livingston, Fenton Johnson, Karen Salyer McElmurray, Neela Vaswani, Michael Henson and Ron Houchin.
What can readers expect moving forward? Are you going to stay in print or expand?
When I came on as editor, my first decision was to revamp much of the magazine. I felt that it was in need of an update, especially in terms of format and design. For years the magazine had relied on a “featured author” format, in which the majority of each issue centered on a particular established author, and I decided to move away from that. I wanted to put new creative work front and center, to make the magazine a destination for readers—and writers—who craved the finest contemporary literature. As a creative nonfiction writer, it was important to see an emphasis on that genre, in addition to fiction and poetry. I also added an interview with a notable writer or artist to each issue, as well as a craft essay, in which an author writes on something specific about the writing process or the writing life. The craft essays in particular have become very popular with subscribers and readers. The look and feel of the magazine is also different. I spent a lot of time working with a designer to come up with a fresh cover design, a logo and word mark, as well as an entirely new interior layout.
As for the future, we will remain a print-based publication, but we’re working on an online component that I hope to unveil later this year. I’ve been collaborating with a web designer on a new website that will include material to entice casual browsers and new readers, as well as special features for subscribers. So stay tuned for that.
How do we submit our work?
We accept online submissions only via Submittable, and our submissions guidelines are listed on our website: www.appalachianheritage.net. Our submissions period runs from 1st August to the end of February, and our response time is generally three to five months.
How do we subscribe?
We offer one and two-year subscriptions for both individuals and institutions, starting at $30 a year. Readers can subscribe online via our website.
Tell us some about A Few Honest Words.
I love music, and I’ve always been fascinated by how a particular place or culture influences the music that people create. A Few Honest Words was really born out of that obsession. I wanted to explore how and why Kentucky has produced so many great musicians—and how they have taken the sounds and stories of Kentucky out into the wider world. It’s a collection of profiles of contemporary roots musicians, and I was lucky enough to get some great people on board— Dwight Yoakam, Naomi Judd, Nappy Roots, Jim James, Joan Osborne, Matraca Berg, Ben Sollee, Daniel Martin Moore, and others.
My watchword throughout the writing process was diversity—I wanted diversity in musical genre, race, gender and geographic location, as well as the kind of career the musician had. I wanted some famous musicians, of course, but I also wanted to include emerging talents, as well as a couple of unknowns, artists who had carried the tradition forward by making music in their local pubs, churches and on front porches.
When was the moment you knew this was a book you had to write?
I think I was preparing to write this book my whole life. I’m an only child, and I grew up spending a lot of time reading and also listening to records from my father’s collection. I discovered The Beatles, Ray Charles, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash and loads of other roots artists—and Kentucky artists in particular. I was born in 1981, and so many artists I heard on country radio were from Kentucky—The Judds, Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, Keith Whitley—and everyone around me felt a special connection to them because of that. When I moved to Washington, D.C. to go to university and work after graduating, I took those sounds with me—that was one of the ways I stayed in touch with Kentucky. After my first book came out—Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, which I co-wrote with Silas House—all of those musical voices just seemed to want to be heard. And it was also the perfect antidote after Something’s Rising and the heaviness of writing about mountaintop removal mining. Thinking about all this great music was very hopeful.
What was your favorite research-related discovery while writing?
I’ve interviewed a lot of people since I started writing seriously about eleven years ago—musicians, writers, politicians, activists, even Yoko Ono. I’m pretty experienced at the art of the interview. But I was amazed at something that happened in every single interview I conducted for this book. It didn’t matter where we were—and I interviewed people in Nashville, Brooklyn, Boston, LA, Louisville and at a greasy spoon truck stop off of I-75—or how long the people had been gone from Kentucky, but we immediately fell into a shorthand, like we had known each other for a long time. There was no small talk about the weather or traveling, but an instant, engaged conversation—and that all had to do with where we were from, with the fact that Kentuckians apparently have a common language and bond that allows the guard to come down. I wrote one of these scenes into the book—the opening of the chapter on Dwight Yoakam. We’re in his office, high above Sunset Boulevard, with a stunning panorama of LA and the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Observatory, and within minutes of meeting we were talking about Loretta Lynn and quoting lines from the film Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Which essay was the most difficult to pin down?
I really wanted Naomi Judd in the book, because in many ways I think she—along with Loretta, of course—is one of the matriarchs of Kentucky music. But there has been so much written about her over the years, and the challenge was to find and say something that was fresh. I tried to do that by anchoring it in what might be familiar to some readers—her backstory—while offering some new observations about her as a songwriter, creating her public image, and life offstage.
Where can we buy your book?
I always try to steer people to indie bookshops, especially The Morris Book Shop, The Wild Fig Bookstore and Carmichael’s Bookstore.
What does your writing process look like? Any rituals that ensure literary gold? Rewards system?
It’s slow—I’m typically a slow writer. A lot of times I will begin writing from a specific detail—rather than a moment or event—to enter the story and get my juices flowing. Sometimes what I start with ends up being the beginning of the piece, but just as often it’s doesn’t and might end up instead falling somewhere in the middle. If the piece at hand requires research, I allow myself a lot of time to immerse myself in the subject. A lot of what I write is based on memory and personal experience, so I spend some time pondering that and reentering those moments.
I do my best writing in the mornings—ironic, as I’m not a morning person by nature. I need quiet—no music or anything, because I’m a musician and am easily distracted by chord progressions and arrangements—and a good cup of tea. I’m also a ritual-oriented person, and one of my customs is to observe teatime each afternoon. I make myself a cuppa, eat a couple of biscuits, and allow myself time to be still. It’s very restoring. I also like having one of our two dachshunds at my feet or in my lap.
Do you have a system for arranging essays?
It all depends on the manuscript, but in general I would say that my system is based more on intuition and feeling than anything else. I pay close attention to subject matter and theme, as well as form and voice, asking myself if there is a flow, if the manuscript has movement. I tend to compare it to making a mixtape—one wouldn’t really want four fast songs and then four slow songs—so I try to aim for a bit of variety.
How do you choose who you want to write about?
I just pay attention to both my obsessions and my inner life. I often find that if I’m fixated on something at the moment that it can make for interesting writing material—not always, but usually. Our obsessions also provide a good window into the self, which is perfect for creative nonfiction writers. But more generally, I also think it’s important to move through the world with intention and awareness—to always pay attention to what’s around us.
Do you work towards a collection or does a collection manifest after you’ve written for a few years?
I’ve done both. A Few Honest Words started with a concept, and so everything I wrote was automatically geared toward serving that main theme of contemporary Kentucky roots music. But with the collection that I’m currently working on, it was the opposite—I began writing individual essays, and after a finishing a few I realized that there was a theme of exile running through them, and that I had been subconsciously working on a collection.
What is your favorite part of the publishing process? Least favorite?
I love revision for some reason. It’s often the most difficult part of the writing process, but it’s also the most rewarding. I enjoy the challenge of dissecting the essay, of evaluating what works and doesn’t, of throwing out shopworn language or metaphors and trying for something more fresh, more lyrical. I’m a perfectionist by nature, which can be a big issue for writers and has been for me. For years I’ve struggled with perfectionism on the first go—I’ve had to do a lot of work to embrace Anne Lamott’s concept of giving yourself permission to write “shitty first drafts.” But I’m getting better at turning off my inner editor as I’m writing the first draft. My least favorite part is opening Word and seeing that blank page. I’ve learned to start writing immediately or I run the risk of becoming intimidated. I have a quote from James Thurber on an index card over my writing desk that reads, “Don’t get it right, get it written,” and I’ve found a lot of freedom in that statement.
How do you get feedback on essays?
I have a few trusted readers that I can rely on to give me good, constructive feedback. Sometimes I need an overall opinion—a general what did you think?—but often times I have more specific questions in mind when I approach readers. Are the metaphors working? Does this section do everything it needs to? Is the opening compelling? It’s so important to have good readers in your life.
Favorite writing utensil?
Nothing really original—a trusty Moleskine notebook to take notes and jot down ideas and observations, a good pen—lately I’ve been fond of Stabilo art pens—and then my laptop. If I’m traveling, then it’s my iPad, which I’ve gotten comfortable writing on.
How hard is it these days to start and maintain a career as an essayist?
It’s a great time to be a creative nonfiction writer. The genre is booming—there are lots of good literary magazines out there that are completely focused on or emphasize quality CNF, and book publishers are looking for good CNF. But like any other artistic genre, it requires study and practice and diligence. I often teach master classes and workshops, and I’m always telling my students that in order to be a writer one must also be a voracious reader. I’m always surprised by how many so-called writers don’t read. Reading is as good a place to start as any.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished editing an anthology that will be out in spring 2015. It’s titled The Women We Love, and it explores the relationship between gay men and significant women in their lives. It includes new and collected work from the world’s finest gay authors—including Michael Cunningham, Mark Doty, Edmund White, and Hilton Als—on notable women like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Virginia Woolf, and Nina Simone, as well as mothers, grandmothers, sisters, friends, and even a childhood librarian. Talk about fun to put together—I got to spend a couple of years approaching and working with many of these authors on their new pieces, as well as researching and reading a lot of essays, poems, interviews and letters from these authors on their favorite women.
I’m also working on an essay collection centered on the theme of exile. I’m fascinated by what it means to be an exile—and how one becomes an exile—and so far the essays examine being separated from and haunted by place, family, religion and sexuality. For example, one of the essays is titled “Bastards and Ghosts”—after a passage in Vladimir Nabokov’s great memoir Speak, Memory—and focuses on the love-hate relationship we all have with where we’re from, how place can form and damage us. The essays are also inspired by my love of history, of England, of music, of female icons. I’m having a lot of fun playing with voice and form—in this collection I have memoir and personal essays, but also meditative and lyric essays, which rely on imagery and poetic language rather than necessarily action, all from varying points of view.