Emancipator staff-member Kristin Mayes recently had the good fortune to talk with Anne Shelby, a Renaissance Woman who can seemingly do anything: she has published poetry, nonfiction, children’s books, and has an upcoming collection of folktales called Molly Whuppie. She is also an accomplished actress, singer, and musician. Shelby will perform her one-woman play The Lone Pilgrim at the second annual Mountain Heritage Literary Festival. She lives in Clay County, Kentucky.
Mayes: Can you describe your childhood?
Shelby: My childhood, which seems rather long ago to me now, was spent in small towns and country places in Kentucky. My dad was from Jackson County, my mother from Clay County—two poor rural counties next to each other in Southeastern Kentucky. Both my parents had graduated from Berea College and had become teachers. They believed in education, and they also had a deep love for the area they were from and a deep sense of commitment to that place. So these were values that I grew up with, that were in the air around me, like honeysuckle in the spring.
My dad was from a big family – he had eight brothers and sisters – and so I had a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins on that side, and we would all get together at the Gabbard home place in Jackson County and there would be a lot of singing and laughing and eating and Rook-playing. At the other end of the road, at my mother's family's home place in Clay County, my grandparents had a little country store where I heard many stories and wonderful old expressions that I always loved. At both places, I had a feeling of being part of something that I've missed ever since then.
Mayes: Who first introduced you to writing, or was it simply innate?
Shelby: I always read a lot, but I don't remember writing anything till I was in high school, and then it was only those awful "themes" we had to turn in for English class. I tried to make mine funny sometimes just to relieve the boredom. Creative writing wasn't taught or even encouraged in schools at that time, and I didn't know anybody who was a writer, so I just didn't think about it. In college I noticed I kept doing a lot better at English and in classes where writing was involved than I did at anything else, so I just kept going in that direction. But I never took a creative writing class in college. I didn't think of myself as a creative writer until much later.
Mayes: What was your first published piece of literature?
Shelby: My freshman year in college I turned in a piece in English 101 that was an argument against the death penalty. My professor liked it and took it to the school newspaper, which printed it. I remember seeing it there and being really happy about it.
Mayes: Where do you find your inspiration?
Shelby: It doesn't feel like "finding" anything to me; my brain just starts working on something and keeps on until either I’m satisfied with it or until I get so tired of it and I can't stand to work on it anymore. I don't feel as religious or as cosmic about this process as some writers do. I think we just don't know how all the parts of our brains work yet. It's a mystery, and that's okay with me. That's part of the fun of it, not knowing what you might work on next or what you might think of next, not knowing where these things come from or why.
Mayes: What issue(s) are you most passionate about?
Shelby: I am actually trying to become more dispassionate than passionate at this point, so that I am not always mad and upset about things. But there is much to be passionate about. The war in Iraq is a horror that goes on and on; I am concerned about global warming, the pollution of our oceans; and about the increasing number of poor people in this country and elsewhere; I think we have to do all we can to stop mountaintop removal mining; and I can still get pretty upset when I hear the persistent and denigrating stereotypes about Kentuckians in general and about Appalachians in particular.
Mayes: What is your favorite aspect of writing Appalachian literature?
Shelby: For me the best thing about being an Appalachian writer is being part of a community of Appalachian writers that supports and likes and enjoys one another. And Appalachia offers us so much to write about – the history, the social and economic issues, the complex relationship of Appalachia to the rest of the country, the rich language of the region – all of these offer endless possibilities for the writer.
Mayes: What do you want your audience to take away from your writing?
Shelby: At the risk of sounding pretentious, I guess I would hope that the audience or reader would take away a heightened sensitivity to other people different from himself or herself; and I hope they would take away a renewed sense of the joy to be had in language, which is something all children know, and which is free to us all.
Mayes: Do you have any additional creative outlets?
Shelby: I like to sing. I sing with my husband, my sister, my friends, whoever I can find to sing with me. I play the autoharp and piano, both very amateurishly. And I tell stories.
Mayes: In regard to your play based on Aunt Molly Jackson, what is it like to write a play about a real person since most plays are based on fictional characters?
Shelby: In writing about a real person, you have an obligation to be true to that person; you owe them that. And at the same time you have an obligation to the audience to create a dramatic structure and to make the material as interesting as possible. Fortunately with Aunt Molly this was not a problem, since her own stories were very dramatic and interesting.
Mayes: What were the most challenging aspects thus far?
Shelby: What I've enjoyed most about working on the Aunt Molly Jackson show is getting to know her. She talks like people talked around here when I was a kid. She was from a community near where I live now. She was very brave, and very much an artist, and very much an Appalachian woman. And we need her example today, because we have things we need to stand up for, too.
Mayes: What are you looking forward to most at the literary festival?
Shelby: I enjoyed the feeling of community we had there last year among everyone associated with the festival. And it's a beautiful place. -e-