“I try to convey the richness of what it means to live in West Virginia.”
Jaws of Life (West Virginia University Press, 2018)
Could you share a representative or pivotal excerpt from your book? Perhaps something that that invites the reader into the world of the book?
Picture it: four industrial bulbs, 1,000+ watts each, trained on the house all night. And it doesn’t matter if I use blackout curtains or move to another room – there’s no way to ignore the production happening just a quarter mile from my bedroom window. I can hear the workers yelling, the whine of machinery, the wrecks that sometimes happen because drivers are confused by the brightness. I can see the lights through closed eyelids.
When you’re looking at a check full of zeroes for just a few acres of land, you think about a new roof, replacing the furnace that hasn’t kept the house properly warm in at least ten years. You think about how you won’t have to pinch pennies until the beginning of the next month. You don’t think about the fact that fracking is a 24-hour business. Or that they’ll point their lights straight at your bedroom window, then claim it’s the only angle that works.
For six months, I called Jameson Wells, the county, the state, anyone I could get on the phone. Everywhere I turned, I received the same stony silence. So I got out of bed one night at midnight and slid off my nightgown, replacing it with black pants and shirt, black shoes, my white hair tied up under a black hat. They wouldn’t see me coming. I crouched behind trees and crawled across the field on my elbows, a serious undertaking for a woman my age. About fifty yards off, I lay on the ground and caught my breath. Then, I pulled the BB gun off my back and aimed for center mass. There was a small ping and then a tinkle of broken glass as the first bulb burst. The men hadn’t figured out what was going on before I’d shattered two more. I never got a chance with the final bulb. They’d realized what was happening and turned the light from my line of sight. As their voices filled the night air, I crawled back to my house and slid into my bed without anyone realizing I’d been gone. It was the soundest I’d slept in months.
Why did you choose this excerpt?
This is the opening of the first story, “Frackers,” which invites readers into one woman’s response to hydraulic fracturing on her land, and I view all of the stories in the book in this vein – they reflect how individuals interact with a world that often feels like it’s actively working against them. In West Virginia in particular, we often do get caught in the jaws of larger problems – fracking, coal, drug addiction, poverty. This collection is all about how we deal with those worldly realities in our own unique ways.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
When choosing the order of the collection, I sprinkled my favorite stories throughout the book. I love “Frackers” and “Photographing the Dead,” so I began and ended with those. Then, I placed some of my favorites in the middle – “Jaws of Life” and “House of Tires” are the two that come most readily to mind. I like the worlds I created in these different stories – they are some that I really enjoyed writing and still enjoy reading.
The funny thing is, I did not actually come up with the title Jaws of Life. A writing friend suggested the title, and when it came time to name the book, I thought it encompassed the entire collection. A reader suggested I change the name to Photographing the Dead, and while I do like that title, I don’t want to imply that the people of Appalachia are dead. I want the region to be a place of life and vitality – not somewhere that only exists in the past. So, yes, the people in the collection are alive, but they’re also caught in the jaws of life, which is a place where people have to fight just to exist.
What was the final story you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
“House of Tires,” hands down. It’s one of those stories I worked on for years, always revising, never quite content with it. Even when I gave my revisions to my editor and she was happy, I told her I wanted to take one more crack at “House of Tires.” A month before the absolutely final date to submit the manuscript, I scrapped almost everything beyond the opening scene and rewrote it from scratch. While this method isn’t usually a good idea, the final result is one that I really love. When I finished “House of Tires,” I knew I could be content in what I would submit. So, while there will always be problems in any published work, the moment I felt content with every story’s arc, I knew I was done.
Why West Virginia?
I know this is where I’m from, but it’s more than that. West Virginia is such a rich landscape, because it’s a place that often exists outside of the realities of most Americans. It exists as stereotype for many, but underneath that stereotype, the lives of the people who live there are so rich. In this book and in all my writing, I try to convey the richness of what it means to live in West Virginia among so many hardships a person must contend with. It makes for an extremely rich cast of characters.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently writing a novel. It takes place in the community I created and built in the collection, but the story is very different, and the form of the novel is brand new to me. I learned so much about the story and about writing in Jaws of Life, but the novel is a different beast. I’ve had to really consider the differences between the story and the chapter, how narrative arc works over pieces of different lengths. It’s exciting – and terrifying!
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Keep writing. No matter what. I’ve seen so many people give up, and that’s the one way to truly fail. Writing is about being in it for the long haul, practicing your craft, piling up rejection after rejection until the acceptances start rolling in. It’s about perseverance and learning from every word you read and write.
Laura Leigh Morris lives in Greenville, South Carolina, where she teaches creative writing and literature at Furman University. Before that, she spent three years as the National Endowment for the Arts/Bureau of Prisons Artist-in-Residence at Bryan Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, Texas. She’s previously published short fiction in Appalachian Heritage, Louisville Review, Notre Dame Review, and other journals. Originally from north central West Virginia, all of her fiction is set there, the place she is most at home. From the landscape to the rich variety of people to the long history of resource extraction, the region serves as a rich backdrop to both her life and her stories. Jaws of Life is her first book. She is currently hard at work on her first novel.