Mountain Magic: The Spells Of Sharyn
By Scott Nicholson
Sharyn McCrumb is the author of 17 books,
including The Ballad of
Frankie Silver and the recent story collection, Foggy
Mountain Breakdown. McCrumb started her career
making her mark with her series featuring Elizabeth
MacPherson, James Owens Mega, and Spencer Arrowood. She
crossed into wider appeal with the "Ballad"
books built around Appalachian lore and traditions, and
now she consistently appears on the bestseller lists.
Here, McCrumb shares her career path, her advocacy for
the Appalachian region, and even a little marriage advice
on the side.
SN: You've grown a lot as a writer. Did you
set out to write a certain type of book and then expand?
McCrumb: I started out not knowing anything about how to
get published. I didn't go to grad school and get the
MFA, I didn't get a Ph.D. and teach at a four-year
college, and I had a husband and child and grad school,
so I couldn't go to New York and hang out. And everybody
you can name who is thought of as a "literary
writer" has done one of those three things. Some of
them fit into two categories. But I didn't fit into any
If you don't fit into one of those three categories, then
you could turn in Moby Dick and they would re-title it
The Hunt for White October and throw it out there as a
thriller. So I was ghettoed into mystery fiction, and
have been saying, very politely at first and more
stridently ever since, "Hello, these are real books.
To Kill a Mockingbird was not a legal
It's taken a while. Until 1988, I had little children in
diapers, I had fifteen hours of graduate work every
quarter and term papers on Chaucer, and I had a full-time
job. Besides that, I was writing a book a year.
SN: What's the value of critical acclaim versus
McCrumb: I don't see why they should be mutually
exclusive. They certainly weren't in Charles Dickens'
day. He had both, and I think if you want to change the
world, you have to reach a whole lot of readers. Critical
acclaim usually comes if you are doing good work, if you
are not just trying to please the reader or trying to
write the next Cold Mountain. You're not looking at the
audience, you're writing what you think you need to say.
Sooner or later, people will realize the value of what
SN: You seem to take seriously the task of being true to
the Appalachian region and its people.
McCrumb: I take it as a very great responsibility.
Somebody has to do it and I figure I mean well. If it
wasn't me, I can think of a lot of people who can do it
who would not be the ambassador we want. I try to really
contradict the stereotypes. I don't want people thinking
Deliverance was a documentary. They think this is
reality, but someone's got to go in there and say,
"Hello, this is where the culture came from."
Bring in the Celtic roots, and remind them that at one
time we were the West. Every time I cross the
Mississippi, I invite people to consider Dr. Quinn:
Medicine Woman versus Christie. They're set five years
apart in equally rural places, except Dr. Quinn's in the
Rockies and Christie is here (in Appalachia). Those shows
should be identical. People should dress alike, and talk
with the same rural accents, and have about the same
political beliefs, and they're not equal at all.
SN: So there's no reason that that can't be shown in the
mainstream instead of as a separate genre?
McCrumb: If you write and publish regionally about
Appalachia, you really are preaching to the choir. I want
the people in Idaho and Arizona and Taiwan, who don't
know they're bigoted, to get another point of view. I
can't do that with little books that get a 500-print run.
SN: Genre literature is no less "literary" than
other forms, but isn't there a perception out there?
McCrumb: You tend to get different readers, and I really
don't want people reading my books with their brains in
neutral. I don't want to be a literary Twinkie.
Nobody ever gave me anything. Part of it is that
"Appalachian thing." People ask me for the most
outrageous favors. If you don't want to be beholden to
people, and you feel really bad about networking, you try
to gain as much control as you can over your work.
For some reason, I was never the teacher's pet in New
York. They like urban books, they like sophisticated
books, they like books about tall, thin, beautiful,
blonde women lawyers who fight off serial killers. I just
wasn't writing that movie-genic book. So I had to fight
every rung up the ladder to get where I was, and I
wouldn't take "No" for an answer. There are
some people who have been really lucky in their careers.
Their first book is exactly what New York wanted, but
that didn't happen with me.
SN: How has the publishing climate changed over the
course of your career?
McCrumb: I'm one of the lucky ones. It's harder to get
published these days. Scribner's published me first in
hardcover. They used to publish fifty books a year at
5,000 copies apiece. That's 250,000 books a year. They
didn't sell but 5,000 copies of each book, but they were
happy with that. As long as you had a series going and
the author was accepted, they were happy to publish you.
You didn't have to break out. You could just keep
plodding along. That stopped in about 1988.
Now Scribner's, which is part of Simon & Schuster,
wants to publish five books a year at 50,000 copies of
each. That's still 250,000 books a year. They say they're
saving on cover art, materials, typesetting, all of the
overhead that goes into putting a book together. They're
making big pushes to sell those five titles really well.
If you happen to be one of the five who made the cut,
then you're in real good shape. But if you're one of the
other forty-five authors...
Most of the writers who I started with are no longer
publishing. I didn't know this was going to happen. I
worked really, really hard. They paid me, for my first
book, what they pay me for a page now. But that wasn't
why I did it. I figured I had something to say. If you
want to change the world like Dickens did, you've got to
talk to that many people. I just kept wanting more and
more people to read it. What happened was my print run
kept going up and up and up. I worked for it.
SN: You've been attributed with the all-time great
writer's line, "I'd never show a book to anybody who
couldn't write me a check." What spawned that?
McCrumb: When I started out in the 1980s, there was a
little group of instructors at my university who had a
writers' group. Once a month, you'd go to one of the
houses, and there would be wine and cheese, and everyone
would read one of their chapters or whatever they'd done.
Everybody says, "Well, I liked it, and it was really
nice." You know, five years later, they're still
meeting once a month and reading the fifth revision of
Chapter One and none of the work is even mimeographed.
And they say "I think Bobby should be taller."
And I'm thinking, "What qualifies you to critique
anybody's fiction if you're unpublished, too?" I
also thought being in a writers' group was a little like
subscribing to Bride magazine for seven years. Sooner or
later, you've got to stop talking about it and do it.
It was such a cushion for your ego. It's a tough world
out there. They don't care in New York. They will send
you a rejection letter back and say "This
stinks," but nobody's mean to you in Sue's living
room. So why should you risk your ego with those
heartless people in New York when you can come to Sue's
house and have an audience? It's like a little cocoon
where you get comfortable. I'm the only one in that group
who has been published. I got out, I sent my book to New
York, and I stopped going to the meetings. And they
stopped speaking to me.
SN: What is your advice for beginning writers?
McCrumb: I think there's one secret that published
writers know that unpublished people don't. You're
writing a book, and you're going along maybe fifty pages
into it. It was fun and exciting and a great idea, and
you just rattled out those fifty pages. All of a sudden,
the well dries up. Then it's "What happens next?
Gosh, this is boring and the characters are wrong and I
don't want to write this book." So you put it in a
drawer and you start a new one because you have an even
better idea. Then, fifty pages later you go,
Unpublished writers tend to have ten Chapter Ones of
different things in the drawer. What published writers
know is you always dry up. You always hate the book. With
me, it's page seventy. I always come storming out of the
office and say, "Can we afford to give the money
back? This book stinks and it will ruin my career."
husband says, "What page are you on?"
"Then get back in there," he says. And by the
time I get to page eighty-three, the feeling goes away.
The difference with unpublished writers is that they
think the "Muse" is telling them to quit, and
they do. Published writers keep working. I think this
advice works for marriages, too. There's a "page
seventy" that you have to work through there, too.
article Copyright 1999 by Scott Nicholson
on Sharyn, visit her website
Sharyn has to say about Scott's story collection Thank You For
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