The beauty of being asked to interview Chris McGinley about his new book Once These Hills was I knew I was going to read it anyway and knew I was going to read it as soon as it hit my hands. Chris is a writer of very specific passions—classic Appalachian literature and crime fiction—and he has married the two beautifully as I suspected he would. I spoke to him recently to find out just how he did it.
WB: The first thing that struck me about your amazing book Once These Hills is that it’s two things at once. It’s a gripping crime novel dressed up in the clothes of a classic Appalachian yarn full of superstition, hard-living, haints, wildlife, mountain characters, and all the other trappings you’d expect. Is that the book you knew you wanted to write all along?
CM: Hey Wesley, that’s a great question. In part, yes, I expected to write a tale with regional flavor, one involving many of the elements you mention. I’ve had an on-going relationship with Appalachian literature for over thirty years now – a love affair, if you will – and so I fully intended to write about mountain characters and the wilderness they inhabit, about spirits like haints, and about the trials of mountaineers – set around the late nineteenth century. In short, I wanted to write a historical novel. But I never expected to write a thriller where escaped convicts figure so crucially to the plot. Nor did I expect to create someone like Burr Hollis, the cruelest character I’ve ever imagined. But once I went down that road, the men on the lam became increasingly important to the narrative arc. In this sense, things developed organically, and what was intended to be a novel in the spirit of John Ehle or Wilma Dykeman, became more like a Sharyn McCrumb novel. (Or at least I hope it did!) The thoroughly criminal Burr Hollis allowed me to add tension at any point, too. In fact, it was liberating to discover this character. The novel bounces back and forth between the mayhem he single-handedly generates and the more domestic dramas of the hill clan.
WB: Your book really is one of pairs and duality. Burr Hollis is a villain of the highest and harshest order but Lydia King is an equally, if not more commanding character who counterbalances his darkness in some ways. I suspect writing both of them set the pathways of your brain alight but was one more enjoyable than the other or could you even say?
CM: Yes, Burr Hollis was conceived as a sort of moral antithesis to Lydia. Even the very structure of the novel reflects the duality you note, with one chapter set in Lydia’s world and one in Burr’s. Ultimately, the two spheres meet in the final chapters of the novel, and there this duality is reversed in certain respects. Of course, while Lydia is the moral foil to Burr, she also possesses skills necessary to hill people of the era. In a strange sense, she possesses some of the very same skills as Burr, and this is what makes things tense. As for the writing, Lydia was a delight to get onto the page, but writing Burr was at times even more rewarding, or fun, let’s say. I was careful to make sure he didn’t devolve into a villain stereotype, that the dialogue attributed to him, for example, emerges naturally, without a self-consciously “bad guy” affect.
WB: Mark Powell is something of an icon in our region. In fact, Ron Rash called him “the best Appalachian novelist of his generation.” Powell in turn called Once These Hills “A brutally beautiful tale of violence and redemption, a page-turner with genuine depth.” What does praise like that form someone like Mark mean to you after all the meticulous work you put into crafting a book of this caliber?
CM: Truthfully, when I read Mark Powell’s blurb, my eyes welled up. It means the world to me that such a talent, a writer whose work I absolutely love, would respond to the novel in such a way. In fact, thematically Once These Hills shares some ground with books like Lioness or The Dark Corner, tales in which environmental issues figure importantly. What I like about Powell’s work is that it’s not polemical. Ecological issues, and the related social issues they usher in and sustain, never threaten to undermine the story itself. I hope this is true of Once These Hills, too. And so, when Powell says that my book is a “page turner,” it really resonates with me. I was so pleased to see that my publisher (also the publisher of Powell’s newest) decided to use that blurb on the front cover.
WB: While it reads rapidly, this is an exceptionally intricate and well-studied work. You’re a school teacher by trade. How long did it take you to go from writing that opening paragraph to signing off on a final edit? How long did you research this book and what was your writing process like?
CM: The whole novel took about two years to write, start to finish. As you note, I’m a middle school teacher, a fact that allowed me to do much of the research during that first summer. (Funny, I wrote much of this book in my classroom after school hours!) My research came from regional scholars, people like Ron Eller, a historian who teaches at the University of Kentucky. Eller’s work on industrialization in Appalachia was central for me. There are many others like him, too, who have gifted us with works about the region and its long battle with extractive industries. Beyond the scholarly work, I became obsessed with photographs of nineteenth century timber camps, railroad workers, engines, sawmills, and machines generally. These images were like kernels of gold for the creation of the story. I imagined the lives of the people depicted in the photos, and thought about how the machines they operated affected them and their world. At the risk of sounding self-consciously poetic, I should say that I could hear the novel I wanted to write as I looked at these images. I could smell it, too—the smoke, the cut wood, the burning fuel, the sweat of the men . . . all of it. These historical photos, many from university archives, aided me tremendously.
WB: You’re one of the most prolific readers of classic Appalachian fiction I know. I thought I was fairly knowledgeable until I saw some of the authors and books you’re reading. What are some underappreciated, lesser-known, Appalachian crime novels folks should be reading.
CM: Wesley, I’m going to do my best to restrain myself! I could go on for pages with this question. I’d have to say, one of the most under-read novels set in Appalachia is Hubert Skidmore’s Hawk’s Nest (1941), a book about corporate crime and the brutal exploitation of human resources. It’s based on the construction of the tunnel at Hawk’s Nest, West Virginia, during the Depression. In the same vein are another pair of dark novels by Skidmore, one a sequel to the other, I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes (1936) and Heaven Came so Near (1938), also about industrialization and the corporate exploitation of mountain folk. Harriette Arnow’s Mountain Path (1936) is a novel that deals with moonshiners and dangerous mountain codes and feuds between families and factions—an incredibly tense read. Of course, people should read Silas House’s A Parchment of Leaves (2003), maybe not regarded as a crime novel per se, but there’s a murder in there that generates much of the action. It’s tense, tense, tense! Finally, there are the novels of Kentucky’s own Janice Holt Giles. (I cross myself when I say her name!) She wrote a range of titles that span different eras. Her eighteenth-century-set works The Kentuckians (1953) and Hannah Fowler (1956) are action-packed page turners, like her “frontier” novels, the best of which, I think, is Savanna (1961). These books are earthy and ribald, chock full of tension and violence.
WB: You mentioned Silas House and he’s a pretty much a celebrity author in Kentucky at this point. Are there any other contemporary authors from Kentucky or the region who inspire you that more people should be reading? And I know what a nice guy you are so don’t say me.
CM: One regional writer whom few people talk about is Sheila Kay Adams, from North Carolina. First and foremost a musician and traditional story-teller, she’s only written one novel at this point, My Old True Love, an achingly beautiful tale of love and violence set in Civil War North Carolina. I recommend it to everyone I know. Denise Giardina wrote two fantastic historical novels about coal mining in West Virginia, one a sort of sequel to the other, The Quiet Earth and Storming Heaven. These are hugely important to my writing. Of course, there’s Kentucky’s own Chris Offutt, whose last four novels have been crime stories. Check out his Mick Hardin series on Grove Press. Another Kentuckian, Crystal Wilkinson has penned a towering novel in The Birds of Opulence, a family drama so easy to read that the style belies its psychological complexity. Ann Pancake’s novels are spectacular, too. In particular, I love Strange as this Weather has Been. Interestingly, the publisher Shotgun Honey, out of Charleston, West Virginia, produces a good deal of regional crime writers, too many to note here, but check out their website. Two more writers who are hugely influential to me are Charles Dodd White, whose Lambs of Men is one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, and Chris Holbrook, Appalachia’s finest story writer, for my money. Check out his collection, Upheaval. (OK, I won’t mention your excellent novel, Hillbilly Hustle, a true page turner! I read it in a day.)
WB: You made one stylistic choice that always makes me curious. You created a fictional setting for your book, most notably Black Boar Mountain and the town of Queen’s Tooth. We know they’re in Kentucky generally, but I suspect you were thinking of somewhere specific. In your mind’s eye, where are Black Boar Mountain and Queen’s Tooth?
CM: No one specific place, but the idea of a hill community looking down on a valley settlement comes from travelling around central Appalachia. In Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee, there’s always a hike to some overlook where one can see the valley below. Something in my mind’s eye when I wrote the book was the view from Chained Rock on Pine Mountain in Bell County, Kentucky, where there’s a perfect view of Pineville below. But really, there are dozens of such vistas in the region. Almost every state park with a mountain offers views of a valley or a valley town: Cooper’s Rock and Dolly Sods in West Virginia; Breaks Interstate Park, in Buchanan County, Virginia; and Lookout Mountain over Chattanooga. These (admittedly touristy) sites actually generated much of the visual orientation for the novel. But part of the geography for Once These Hills I gathered from novels I’ve read, like Wilma Dykeman’s The Tall Woman in which the main characters move to the Devil’s Brow up above the town. In fact, so many novels set in Appalachia create dichotomies between town and hillside, and these helped me construct the setting as much as any actual place.
WB: What’s one question you were just certain people would ask you about ONCE THESE HILLS that nobody has asked yet?
CM: No one has said a word about the sex scenes, and I thought people would have! The later one, especially, is really odd, and I thought people would remark on it. I hate to use the word “supernatural,” but there are “extra-human” elements there, let’s say. (Now I’m hoping I don’t win that “award” for worst sex scene of the year!)
WB: Enough basking in the glow of this one. What’s next for you?
CM: Well, I’m waiting to hear about a completed manuscript. This tale features the Vietnam Veteran character from two stories in Coal Black, Sheriff Curley Knott, who’s now rumbling about the hills trying to solve the murder of a young girl. And I’m almost done with my historical horror novel, set at a nun’s convent in late nineteenth-century western Massachusetts. In this one, nuns and postulants go to war with a massive wolverine-type animal, The Gulo. Fortunately, they have help in the form of a kick-ass French nun, a living saint if you will, who’s already done battle with demonic wolves and other creatures! I’m really trying hard to get a literary agent at this point, too, and that takes much time. (Anyone interested?)
Chris McGinley is the author of the story collection, COAL BLACK (Shotgun Honey, 2019) and the LITERARY thriller ONCE THESE HILLS (SHOTGUN HONEY, 2023). He writes for Crimereads, Mystery Tribune, Reckon Review, and other forums. He lives with his wife in Lexington, KY where he teaches middle school English and Social Studies.