A Conversation with Ed Davis:
I Was So Much Older Then
The following is a conversation with Ed Davis about his first book, the coming-of-age novel I Was So Much Older Then. You can also read the answers to frequently asked questions about Ed’s latest novel, The Measure of Everything.
Q: How did you come to write a coming-of-age novel set in southern Appalachia?
A: I’ve always written autobiographical fiction, taking events from my life and transforming them into something new through the fictionalizing process. When a friend who knows something about my West Virginia childhood challenged me to tell my real story,” I decided to try it, at first sticking as close as I could to the literal truth of growing up poor in urban Appalachia. But memoir doesn’t excite me the way fiction does, so I soon began making up my autobiography. Though I draw generously on my basic family background, there’s nothing in my book that happened exactly the way I describe—and even when I try to cleave to the literal truth, it’s still fiction; someone else who was there at the time would see things completely differently. And while Danny and I share a lot of similarities, he’s not me. He’s much gutsier, for example.
Q: What’s unique or special about your book?
A: The setting. While much excellent Appalachian fiction focuses on the rural ambience—Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek, to name a couple of recent works—my book is mostly urban, exposing the darker yet distinctly human side of small-town West Virginia. It’s what a literary friend of mine calls “county seat” literature. Because Danny is poor, he has to deal with classism, and his opportunities seem limited. However, he perseveres, and, with help, rises from the squalor and heartbreak he’s born into—attending college, for instance. And I also hope the first person point of view will appeal. Danny’s voice ages; he’s seven when the novel begins and in his early twenties when it concludes.
Q: Does your book have anything to say about family?
A: Yes. A nearly—universal theme of Appalachian literature is the value of the family, because Appalachians are family-obsessed. My book dramatizes dysfunctional families, including violence, as Danny, the protagonist, searches for some sort of extended family to replace his child-like, obsessive mother and his hard-drinking, hard-fighting father. And find it he does, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places and with often explosive results. But I think he’s begun to find his place in the world by the end of the novel.
Q: Why are you qualified to write about Appalachia?
A: I was born in Princeton, West Virginia and spent my first twenty-five years in the Mountain State. My college degrees are from Concord College (Athens, WV) and West Virginia University. Living in Ohio for the past twenty-five years has allowed me the perspective of the expatriate. In ways, West Virginia, and much of Appalachia, is totally out of the American mainstream, especially the hills and hollers away from cities. Plus, I did a lot of research a few years back in order to teach a college class in Appalachian folkways. In high school, I played music in the same rowdy bars that Danny does in the book. Although I’m an Ohioan now, my bone home—the spiritual geography that sings in my subconscious and is the source of my fiction—will always be southern West Virginia.
Q: What about the publishing side of Appalachian fiction? Was it hard for you to get published?
A: Appalachian fiction will always be published, will always be popular—and not only with small presses. Authors like Denise Giardina, Lee Smith, Wendell Berry, and Pinckney Benedict are taught in schools and colleges and have large audiences. Also, despite what some publishers think, coming-of-age stories are ever-popular. Examine any good current literature anthology, and you’ll find it full of such stories due to their universal appeal. But I’m taking an unconventional route with an electronic publisher, Disc-Us Books, which publishes books not only as trade paperbacks but as electronic downloads (to special reading devices or to one’s computer), CD-ROMS, and audiotapes. A big advantage is my book will never go out of print and is instantly available world-wide on the Disc-Us and nuvobookstore.com websites.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: The novel I’m writing now focuses on a forty-ish woman returning to the small fictional Ohio town of Shawnee Springs, where, among other things, she gets involved in a fight to save the thousand-acre farm surrounding the village from being developed, which would double the village’s size and significantly change its way of life. As she tries to save the farm, she also tries to save her young son from the consequences of her past mistakes; She’s come back to confront her son’s real father. So I’m back to the family theme, putting mothers and sons under intense emotional pressure. And dealing with small towns and their conflicting values. But while the focus was on a young boy’s identity in I Was So Much Older Then, now it’s a middle-aged woman’s. Capturing her point of view—and two of the important male characters’—is the major literary challenge I’ve set myself in this latest book. And to dramatize the effect of urban sprawl on small-town life.