Author Mesha Maren is deeply rooted by her native West Virginia and her father’s work with incarcerated women.
He volunteered to visit women in the federal prison in Alderson, W.V., those who hadn’t had visitors in more than a year. Maren often tagged along with him and heard the women speak of their hopes of freedom and their fears of building life on the outside.
So it’s not surprising that her debut novel, “Sugar Run,” which will be published Jan. 8, explores what it’s like for a woman to leave prison ready to start the next chapter of her life.
Maren has crafted the story of Jodi McCarty, who at 17, was sentenced to life in prison for manslaughter. After serving 18 years, she returns to the Appalachian Mountains searching for someone from her past. She meets and falls in love with Miranda, and the two try to make their own family. But the couple are trying to create a life together in a small town, where everyone knows your business and doesn’t mind telling you so. McCarty is so bent on recreating a relationship that she overlooks the warning signs.
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Maren, 34, is the 2018-19 Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill. She teaches a fiction class and is working on her second novel. While Maren considers West Virginia her home, she completed high school in Burnsville, N.C. She received a bachelor’s in history and literature from UNC-Asheville and her master’s of fine arts from Queens University in Charlotte.
Her short stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, Oxford American, Hobart, The Barcelona Review, Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial and other literary journals. Hillsborough author Lee Smith selected her as the winner of the 2015 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, and she is the recipient of a 2014 Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, an Appalachian Writing Fellowship from Lincoln Memorial University.
She returned to the family home for the holiday and took a few minutes to answer a few questions about “Sugar Run.”
Q: Do we ever get to outlive our past sins?
A: The most straightforward answer is no. But do we get to continue to live beyond them, yes. When I think of Jodi, I don’t think she gets to outlive what occurred in the past. One reason I wrote some chapters from the past in present tense and then present chapters in the past tense was I was trying to emulate something I feel strongly about. The past is never as separate from our present as we would like to think it is. For all of us, the past is in everything we do.
Q: Is it harder to reinvent yourself in rural America?
A: I’ve spent the majority of my life in rural America. I’ve only spent a very brief time in larger towns and cities. So from what I imagine, it might be harder because of the smallness of the community. It’s one of great benefits that rural areas have close-knit small communities. But the truth of that is everyone knows everything.
Perhaps in the cities you can move to a different part of the city where people wouldn’t know about our past. In rural America, everybody knows your family. And people hold you to a more realistic version of who you are.
Q: Could you talk about how growing up in West Virginia influenced “Sugar Run”?
A: The land Jodi returns to in the book is my parent’s land. I modeled it directly from my family’s farm. The town is a slightly fictionalized version of the town I grew up in Alderson. When I started writing “Sugar Run,” I was in school in Asheville. Then I moved to Iowa City, Iowa, when I was digging into novels. I was yearning for West Virginia. I was kind of recreating it for myself on the page. I couldn’t have written the book without growing up here.
Q: You wrote in an essay about writing this novel that you wanted to explore this idea of leaving versus staying and whether you can ever really belong again in a place you once called home. Can you?
A: I’m still working on an answer. I moved back to West Virginia in early 2015 full time. I had been coming and going during graduate school. I think yes, you can belong again. But you will never belong in the same way. The fact of leaving will always make an impression on you, even once you return.
There’s no way to return to live as if you never left. There are multiple ways to belong. It’s building a new relationship to the place. You get a different perspective on the place.
Q: Your characters have a lot going against them, ranging from small-town bigotry to substance abuse along with secrets. What do they have going for them?
A: What they have going for them is the desire for life. One of the things Jodi and Miranda have in common and draws them to each other is a desire to enjoy life. They want to make something good for themselves. And Jodi has a huge love for West Virginia. No one can take that away from her.
Q: Why is place so important in Southern fiction?
A: For me in my own writing, place has a distinctive way in Southern fiction. Growing up rurally a mile off the road, we had some neighbors but no others kids my age living around me. I have a younger brother and an older sister. My main playmate was the land. After school, I couldn’t wait to get to the swing hanging from the black walnut tree or play in the tree houses my brother and I have built. My brother and I would go fishing in the stream. The place felt like a friend.
Mesha Maren will talk about “Sugar Run,” (Algonquin Books, Jan. 8, 2019) at several area bookstores.
▪ 7 p.m. Jan. 11, at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill.
▪ 7 p.m. Jan. 31, at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road, Charlotte.
▪ 11 a.m. Feb. 2, at McIntyre’s Books, 220 Market St., in Fearrington Village in Pittsboro.
▪ 7 p.m. Feb. 7, at Quail Ridge Books & Music, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, located in North Hills Shopping Center in Raleigh.