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Mountain Magic: The Spells Of Sharyn McCrumb
By Scott Nicholson

Sharyn McCrumb is the author of 17 books, including The Ballad mccrumb1.jpg (15831 bytes)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 of them.

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 thriller." 

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 commercial success?

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 you're doing.

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, "Nah."

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."

And my 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.


 -Photo and article Copyright 1999 by Scott Nicholson

For more on Sharyn, visit her website

Read what Sharyn has to say about Scott's story collection Thank You For The Flowers


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