Rural Assembly Everywhere Conversations

Video: Silas House discusses faith, writing, activism, and rest

Award-winning author and Kentucky Poet Laureate Silas House discussed faith, writing, activism, and rest with Rt. Rev. Brian Cole at Rural Assembly Everywhere earlier this month. 

House’s latest novel, Lark Ascending, is the winner of the 2023 Southern Book Prize, among others. The novel, set in the near-distant future, was called a “luminous” and “urgent” work of climate fiction by Bitter Southerner. 

House was named Poet Laureate of Kentucky. House talked with Cole about being the first openly gay poet laureate in the state’s history, calling it both daunting and an honor. 

Also a writer, Cole serves as the bishop of the Diocese of East Tennessee, with 51 parishes and worshiping communities in East Tennessee and Northern Georgia under his pastoral and administrative care. 

Interview highlights

On being named Poet Laureate of Kentucky

Well, it’s daunting, but I do feel really honored. I’m especially glad to have been appointed by a governor I really admire and respect and a governor who, his whole platform is about empathy. And he’s a man of deep faith and he’s progressive. And his first appointee as a Poet Laureate was a black woman named Crystal Wilkinson. And his second one, me, I’m the first openly gay Poet Laureate of Kentucky. So he is a governor for all of us, and I appreciate that.

… It is a fraught time for LGBT people. The human rights campaign just named a national state of emergency for our safety. And so that is of concern. It is something that people are thinking a lot about.

And I think it’s one reason that it’s more important to be a visible LGBT person who is out there as Poet Laureate and is out there as a writer. Also, I really like to talk a lot about being a multifaceted person. I mean, sometimes I have to say I am a gay writer, or sometimes I have to say I am an Appalachian writer, or I’m a working class writer. I’m a person of faith and a writer. So I have lots of identities and I like to think about the intersections and not just one of those, but just like I just said, sometimes one of those, it takes relevance in a conversation. But I do think that being multifaceted like that and recognizing all those identities as being equal and what makes me a writer and a person helps me to, I hope, represent more people in my position as Poet Laureate.

On faith

Well, again, I sort of reiterate the same thing that I think it makes it even more important to talk about that because I do sometimes feel that Christianity has been hijacked by the loudest people in the room who have politicized it. And what a terrible thing to politicize people’s faith. I just think it’s terribly sad that that’s been done. It’s been weaponized. And so it’s even more important for people of faith who do not have a political agenda behind their faith to speak up and to talk about their values.

 

... People would say to me, "Oh, things must be so simple where you're from." And I would always be, "No, things are very complicated and people have very complicated busy lives."

On the complexity of rural lives

When I first became published, and went out on tours and things of that nature, I was prepared for stereotypes that people would have. But I think the thing that I was surprised by how many people would say to me, “Oh, things must be so simple where you’re from.” And I would always be, “No, things are very complicated and people have very complicated busy lives.” And I grew up in a town of about 500 people. I was never ever bored, ever, and I never wanted to leave. There’s this escape narrative about the place. Now, at a certain point, I felt like I had to leave as the culture became more politically charged and things like that. But I never wanted to. And I live in Lexington now about an hour and a half from where I grew up, and in a city, but I’m always homesick and I’m always aware of how complicated rural lives are and working class lives are and things like that. There’s nothing simple about it.

On activism and rest  

I had a novel that came out last year called Lark Ascending, and sort of a mantra that runs throughout that book is that to survive, you have to keep going, but also to survive, you have to sometimes be still. And so the solution there is that you have to strike a balance of, you have to keep going, but you also have to take care of yourself. 

It’s the same thing if you’re a part of a social justice movement. You know are out there because you want to take care of other people or you want to take care of the land. You’re fighting for the rights of people or the land or what have you, but you also have to take care of yourself in order to do that. And sometimes I think that we sort of think that it’s selfish to take some time for ourselves, but you have to do it or you’ll just fizzle out.

On advice from Wendell Berry 

I was writing a lot about the environment and it was in all my novels and my short stories and my poetry and all that. 

But then in 2005, Wendell Berry called me and he said, “I love what you wrote in the Coal Tattoo about the land and all this, but you’re not out there doing anything about it. You need to be speaking up. And if you’re willing to do that, I would like for you to go with me and we’ll do this.”

And well, first of all, if Wendell Berry asks you to do something, you’re going to do it, or at least I am. I was just like, Wendell Berry called me. That’s all I was thinking at first. But anyway, so I did. I went with him on some anti-mountaintop removal things. And so then I just became so passionate about it. Wendell was correct in that it was really important for me to do that because I was from a coal mining family and I understood the complexities of being from a coal mining family, but also witnessing this devastation that was taking place. And so I could speak to the complexities of that.

I don’t know, maybe three or four years later Wendell pulled me aside, and he said, “You’re doing great work, but you need to slow down some.” And so again, I learned two really important lessons from him, get to work and be still. And so I did have to pull back for a while and realize, yeah, I’m burning out here. It will overtake your life if you’re not careful, and then you won’t be of any use to anybody or the land.

Watch the full interview and find the transcript below to learn more about House’s writing, what he’s working on as Poet Laureate, and why his writing begins on a walk. 

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Transcript

Brian  (00:07):

Silas, it is good to see you. The last time we saw each other, you were in Knoxville for the Lark Ascending book tour, and that was a great evening. But you’ve got even better news with this Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. And I’m just curious, I know you love Kentucky and claim it, and what has it felt like to been given this honor and this responsibility?

Silas (00:36):

Well, it’s daunting, but I do feel really honored. I’m especially glad to have been appointed by a governor I really admire and respect and a governor who, his whole platform is about empathy. And he’s a man of deep faith and he’s progressive. And his first appointee as a Poet Laureate was a black woman named Crystal Wilkinson. And his second one, me, I’m the first openly gay Poet Laureate of Kentucky. So he is a governor for all of us, and I appreciate that.

Brian  (01:21):

So I don’t know at this point, if you’ve had much time to start traveling as the Poet Laureate, but I’m curious, thinking about this theme for this gathering about communities and connection and safety, what’s hurting right now in Kentucky in the places you’re traveling?

Silas (01:39):

Well, it is a fraught time for LGBT people. The human rights campaign just named a national state of emergency for our safety. And so that is of concern. It is something that people are thinking a lot about.

(02:01):

And I think it’s one reason that it’s more important to be a visible LGBT person who is out there as Poet Laureate and is out there as a writer. Also, I really like to talk a lot about being a multifaceted person. I mean, sometimes I have to say I am a gay writer, or sometimes I have to say I am an Appalachian writer, or I’m a working class writer. I’m a person of faith and a writer. So I have lots of identities and I like to think about the intersections and not just one of those, but just like I just said, sometimes one of those, it takes relevance in a conversation. But I do think that being multifaceted like that and recognizing all those identities as being equal and what makes me a writer and a person helps me to, I hope, represent more people in my position as Poet Laureate. Does that make sense?

Brian  (03:08):

Oh, yeah. Well, because again, I think too often we all can find ourselves sort of segmented from ourselves. Right?

Silas (03:14):

Yeah.

Brian  (03:15):

And I know in a couple places I’ve heard you talk about quoting Whitman about containing multitudes. And I think most of us, even as we think our lives make sense or feel integrated, for other people, they often look kind of odd. How can you be this but also be that?

Silas (03:31):

Yes.

Brian  (03:32):

I’m curious as a person of faith, I’m aware that you’ve written about the rise of Christian nationalism. You’ve also written a lot about, and we’ve all experienced also in the state of Tennessee, the way in which anti-LGBTQ matters are so held up as sort of Christian values. I’m curious how you continue to claim your Christian faith in such a difficult time.

Silas (03:56):

Well, again, I sort of reiterate the same thing that I think it makes it even more important to talk about that because I do sometimes feel that Christianity has been hijacked by the loudest people in the room who have politicized it. And what a terrible thing to politicize people’s faith. I just think it’s terribly sad that that’s been done. It’s been weaponized. And so it’s even more important for people of faith who do not have a political agenda behind their faith to speak up and to talk about their values.

(04:42):

And I think for me, especially, it’s complex because I was raised evangelical and I was raised in a fundamentalist sect, a very strict, very controlled situation. And so I feel like my journey from being raised evangelical to wondering alone in the wilderness for some years and trying to figure myself out, holding on to my faith and eventually feeling taken into the arms of the Episcopal Church, those challenges to my faith, have made my faith stronger.

(05:27):

And to go back just a little bit to the containing multitudes, I think what you’re saying goes right into something I think a lot about is, as wonderful as the internet is and is, there’s so many great things about the internet, but one of the things that I think has been the most terrible about the internet is how it has compelled us to think more in absolutes and less in complexity. It’s made us sort of assign people to heroes or villains and if you’re not easily assigned into one of those categories, you just might as well not exist. And of course, most human beings exist in that gray. We’re full of all kinds of different ways of being and notions, and we’re not easily categorized. And so that’s something that I think as a novelist, I think a lot about. One of my jobs as a novelist is to explore that gray, is to explore those complexities. If I have a one dimensional character, then I’ve failed. But our culture increasingly assigns us into one dimensional roles. I still think that’s concerning, but I also think it makes art even more important.

Brian  (06:49):

And in getting ready to talk to you today, I had a chance to go back and reread Southern Most, and I love the fact that you have Asher, through his brother Luke, discover Thomas Merton. Because I know Thomas Merton matters a lot to you, and I always tell people that Thomas Merton made this Baptist an Episcopalian, and I’ve often thought about how Merton he goes to the middle of a rural community in Kentucky and through his writing kind of makes it the center of the universe. I’m curious for you with Merton, how did he first come on your radar screen?

Silas (07:27):

That’s a great question. I don’t really know how I first discovered Merton. To some degree, I think Merton was somebody I always heard about because he was associated with Kentucky. So anytime Kentucky writing was mentioned, Merton was probably in there, but I don’t think that I really latched onto him until I was probably in my late twenties.

(07:54):

And well, I left that little church that I grew up in when I was 17, and I mostly kept my faith alive through secular literature and secular music. That’s where I most often found God. A good example of that is Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, which just blew my mind wide open in the ways that I could think about everything, but especially the way I thought about the concept of God. And so I started thinking much more about the God of my understanding. And eventually, I’m guessing that some of that led me to read Merton.

(08:33):

And Merton was probably the first religious figure that was saying all those things I had encountered in secular media that spoke to me on a spiritual level. And so then when I finally got to go to the Abby of Gethsemane and I got to go to Merton’s Hermitage and be more immersed in the world that he was in, that was so important to him, that connection to the land increased that somehow. And I mean, I’m sure that some people probably don’t know that you were the Rector at the Episcopal Church where I first became confirmed. And I’m sure that you broadened my understanding of Merton as well, so I appreciate that. And you continue to broaden my understanding of Merton because you continue to talk about him and post about him and write about him.

Brian  (09:38):

For me, Merton was the first Christian writer where I felt like his head was as big as his heart. Because I grew up Southern Baptist in Missouri in a small town, and so much of what I knew about the church, on the one hand, these people loved me, but so much of the faith they taught me made me afraid. And for me, it wasn’t The Color Purple for me, it was John Irving.

Silas (10:02):

A Prayer for Owen Meany?

Brian  (10:05):

A Prayer for Owen Manny and World According to Garp. I was a sophomore in high school, all my homework done, reading A World According to Garp. And my teacher came up behind me and she just shook her head, like you shouldn’t be reading that book. And that was for me, that book made me aware that the world was bigger. And again, the people from that hometown, I loved them, and yet it was that book that I first really traveled a long way from home. And so it was really, really important for me.

Silas (10:34):

Yeah, I think a prayer for Owen Meany was probably my very first step toward becoming Episcopalian. It’s such an Episcopalian novel that’s so great. A life-changing book for me.

Brian  (10:48):

Yeah, I think for a long time I would’ve said it was my all-time favorite novel. I now have had other ones, but for a time it was the one that really marked me.

Silas (10:56):

It’s in my top five. Yeah.

Brian  (10:59):

Yeah. I’m curious for with the folks that are listening to you today, are there particular things you’ve written about place or that other folks who have written about place that you’d want to share with us today?

Silas (11:09):

Well, I have one passage that I think anytime I’m asked that question, I always go to that passage. It’s pretty short. Can I read it to you?

Brian  (11:19):

Sure.

Silas (11:19):

This is from my novel, The Coal Tattoo, which is probably the novel of mine that is the most environmentalist. It’s the book of mine that is most sort of a, I don’t know, a tribute to the land and maybe even an elegy for the land as I became increasingly aware of the climate crisis and things like that. But this little passage goes more to sort of the way rural people are negated and even erased from our culture and things like that.

(11:54):

“People were always going on about how you had to have some fun in your life, how you had to have adventures. But Easter had never wanted to be anywhere else, but right here on Free Creek. She didn’t feel an empty place inside herself because she had barely ventured out of these hills. She did, however, feel strange because she did not share the desires that the rest of the world seemed to have. She had never studied movie magazines and wished to be an actress, had never envied people on television. She thought about the people who drove through this county or flew by on the new highway without even realizing there was a whole town beyond the mountains on either side of them. If they saw this place, if they drove by Free Creek and saw her house with her sitting on the porch while she broke beans and her husband sat there drinking his beer, she knew what they would think.”

(12:49):

“They would consider these people on the porch and wonder how they stood living such little lives stuck in a small town where nothing ever happened. A place where the stores closed at dusk and nobody famous ever came to speak or sing in a concert hall. A place where nobody important in their eyes had ever been born or lived. They would feel sorry for the people on the porch and the smallness of their existences and be thankful that they themselves lived in places where there were fancy restaurants and tall buildings and jobs you had to get dressed up for. But her life did not feel little at all to her.”

(13:30):

And so I think as soon as when I first became published, and went out on tours and things of that nature, I was prepared for stereotypes that people would have. But I think the thing that I was surprised by how many people would say to me, “Oh, things must be so simple where you’re from.” And I would always be, “No, things are very complicated and people have very complicated busy lives.” And I grew up in a town of about 500 people. I was never ever bored, ever, and I never wanted to leave. There’s this escape narrative about the place. Now, at a certain point, I felt like I had to leave as the culture became more politically charged and things like that. But I never wanted to. And I live in Lexington now about an hour and a half from where I grew up, and in a city, but I’m always homesick and I’m always aware of how complicated rural lives are and working class lives are and things like that. There’s nothing simple about it.

Brian  (14:44):

I’m also aware that you had an early influence with someone I also had a chance to meet years ago, James Still? And I once heard James still give a reading, I actually did it a couple of times. We would bring seminarians to Heineman and he would do readings. And it was the first time I realized that a poet could read a poem and that the poem in many ways might never be finished. Because when I heard him read it a couple of times, he would do a little different thing with it. I’m curious for you, with your poetry and thinking about poetry, the idea that poems maybe never get done, has that ever hit you or have you experienced that before?

Silas (15:24):

Oh, yeah. I mean, even sometimes a book will be published and I’ll go out on the road to read from it. And as I’m getting ready to read, there’ll be little things that I’ll correct and change, even though it’s published. And sometimes people in the audience will be reading along and they’ll ask me. So to some degree, yeah, there are always little things that I want to change. And I don’t know, polish and prune a little bit.

(15:55):

I did that just the other night with a poem of mine. Probably the poem of mine that’s been most widely read is a poem about Loretta Lynn. It’s about when I was a little boy. When I was nine years old, the film, Coal Miner’s Daughter came out and my aunt took me to see it, and we had to stand in the cold for a long time. And the poem was about waiting to see that. And anyway, when she died, that poem went a little viral. It made the rounds on social media. And so I read it the other night and I had to change one word in it, and so people asked me why. Yeah, I don’t know why.

(16:35):

I think it’s good to always be thinking how can I make this better? But at the same time, as a novelist especially, it’s pretty permanent once it’s published.

Brian  (16:48):

I asked you earlier about where you see hurt in your communities. I’m curious about the places where you’re seeing people stand up and do hopeful things. Are there folks in particular you want us to know about? Either actual people or places where you’re seeing signs of some hope?

Silas (17:04):

Well, one of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed, I think was when Breonna Taylor was killed and people were in the streets protesting night after night after night. I think that they protested about 18 nights in a row in Lexington alone where I was living at the time. But then you started seeing this happen all over rural Kentucky, too. Breonna Taylor was a Kentuckian. And I think that that just really spoke to a lot of people in Kentucky to just think she was Kentuckian like me. And so I saw people in the little town that I grew up in, which when I was growing up there, it was still considered a sundown town. That is a town where black people are known to not be welcomed after dark. And that’s something that people in my hometown have been actively trying to change for decades.

(18:11):

Of course, that doesn’t mean in any way that racism is cured or I don’t mean to suggest that in any way. What I do mean to say is that there are people who want that to change and they’re working toward that change. And so to see people in my little hometown, which had been known all across the south as such a racist place, to be out in the streets marching for Breonna Taylor, it was really moving to see.

(18:39):

And now just the other day, there was a group of young people in my hometown who had a little pride rally. There were just about 12 of them, I think, and they’re just out there with their pride flags and their signs that are affirming people’s lives and just saying, I love you, and a really positive thing. And then a man comes up and pulls a gun on them and cusses him out and talks terribly to him.

(19:07):

Of course, in the news, all the focus is on that man, and it should be. It should be known that somebody is pulling a gun on peaceful protestors. But I also want people to remember that there were 12 people out there who were holding those signs just to be loving forces. So little things like that give me a lot of hope. I mean, I still think it’s difficult for a lot of people to be out in the streets of Knoxville or Louisville or Birmingham or Atlanta to say, I’m out here as an ally, or I’m out here as an LGBTQ person, but I think it’s a whole other thing to do that in a small little town in eastern Kentucky or east Tennessee or rural America. So I just have so much respect for that, and it also just gives me so much hope because that could not have happened when I was 21 years old like these people who are out there doing it now.

Brian  (20:03):

Sure.

Silas (20:04):

Well, I mean, we knew we couldn’t do that.

Brian  (20:09):

You wrote an essay, a piece for the New York Times years ago, that I’ve given to a lot of people about the art of being still. I’m just aware that thinking about the folks who are listening to us today, who are committed to rural communities, who are activists, who are doing social justice work, always the awareness of the ability to burn out.

Silas (20:33):

Yes, Lord. Yes.

Brian  (20:33):

Right? [inaudible 00:20:34] So I’m curious for you as a writer and as an artist, that need for stillness, that need for solitude as a way of fostering community, fostering creativity. Can you say a little bit about that to these folks maybe who are, again, have many, many things that they’re trying to push back against right now to think about how solitude and stillness might be some kind of medicine?

Silas (20:57):

Well, I think I had a novel that came out last year called Lark Ascending, and sort of a mantra that runs throughout that book is that to survive, you have to keep going, but also to survive, you have to sometimes be still. And so the solution there is that you have to strike a balance of, you have to keep going, but you also have to take care of yourself. I always think about that thing that they tell you on an airplane, if you’re traveling with somebody else in the masks drop, you have to put the mask on yourself before you can take care of the other person who’s with you.

(21:36):

It’s the same thing if you’re a part of a social justice movement. You know are out there because you want to take care of other people or you want to take care of the land. You’re fighting for the rights of people or the land or what have you, but you also have to take care of yourself in order to do that. And sometimes I think that we sort of think that it’s selfish to take some time for ourselves, but you have to do it or you’ll just fizzle out. I was writing a lot about the environment and it was in all my novels and my short stories and my poetry and all that. But then in 2005, Wendell Berry called me and he said, “I love what you wrote in the Coal Tattoo about the land and all this, but you’re not out there doing anything about it. You need to be speaking up. And if you’re willing to do that, I would like for you to go with me and we’ll do this.”

(22:39):

And well, first of all, if Wendell Berry asks you to do something, you’re going to do it, or at least I am. I was just like, Wendell Berry called me. That’s all I was thinking at first. But anyway, so I did. I went with him on some anti-mountaintop removal things. And so then I just became so passionate about it. Wendell was correct in that it was really important for me to do that because I was from a coal mining family and I understood the complexities of being from a coal mining family, but also witnessing this devastation that was taking place. And so I could speak to the complexities of that.

(23:26):

I don’t know, maybe three or four years later Wendell pulled me aside, and he said, “You’re doing great work, but you need to slow down some.” And so again, I learned two really important lessons from him, get to work and be still. And so I did have to pull back for a while and realize, yeah, I’m burning out here. It will overtake your life if you’re not careful, and then you won’t be of any use to anybody or the land.

Brian  (24:02):

When I was in the Baptist Seminary in Louisville in the late eighties and early nineties, I think everybody that I knew that I admired, they were reading Wendell’s novels or his poetry or his essays. And for me it was his novels that first really allowed me to bless my own roots as a rural person from a small town. You mentioned The Color Purple. Were there other books that allowed you to really bless your roots as a rural person? Was there a writer or a story or a novel-

Silas (24:30):

Oh, yeah.

Brian  (24:31):

… that helped you?

Silas (24:32):

So many. I mean, the first one was Lee Smith, her book Black Mountain Breakdown. I read that when I was in ninth grade, and it was the first time that I saw my people in a novel. They, not only were they going to the places we went, Cumberland Gap or Pikeville or Knoxville or Johnson City or whatever, but they were also eating soup beans and cornbread. And they were saying, “I reckon.” And it was just the world that I knew and I didn’t know we could write about us. I thought you had to write about New York City or Los Angeles or whatever. That’s what the culture teaches you mostly.

(25:14):

Then Dorothy Allison, she was writing about sort of the rough people that I grew up with, the harder parts of that sort of life. Of course, Jayber Crow is, I think, Wendell Berry’s best novel. It’s one of the most underrated novels in American literature. And it’s underrated because it is so rural and rural literature is always underrated. I already mentioned The Color Purple, which is such a rural celebration as well, and that’s especially important because so many people, they don’t think black people exist in rural areas in rural America. And here she is presenting this incredible black rural story. Marilyn Robinson, just the complexity of her rural and small town characters is so beautiful. That whole quartet of books is wonderful.

(26:15):

Willa Cather is my touchstone. If anybody’s interested in rural writing, you have to read Willa Cather. And I didn’t read her until pretty late. I was in my early thirties before I read her. Thomas Hardy, always. I have some others sitting here, Louise Erdrich. And a recent favorite of mine that I want to recommend, is Zorrie by Laird Hunt. It’s just one of the most beautiful novels. It’s set in Indiana. It’s a celebration of rural life and it’s about the extraordinary nature of everyday life, which is something that really interests me. I think that’s where the most interesting stories always are, just in everyday ordinary people’s lives.

(27:01):

Shakespeare said that the best stories happen in the bedroom, and I think what he meant by that was they happen in the kitchen, on the porch, in the dining room, and it’s just people’s lives.

Brian  (27:17):

That’s a great list. And I wrote several of those down, especially Zorrie. For me, Wendell and Jayber Crow is my favorite novel, and he has one of the best sentences. So when he has Jayber as the church janitor in the church and he has Jayber say, “Some of the best things I have ever thought of, I have thought of during bad sermons.”

Silas (27:40):

Me too.

Brian  (27:43):

Someone’s probably preaching those bad sermons. I’m thinking, what great thoughts have I allowed people to go to while they were thinking about besides a bad sermon?

Silas (27:51):

Yes.

Brian  (27:55):

So-

Silas (27:55):

None of your sermons, those are all during my childhood and teenage years here.

Brian  (28:00):

So two years from now, if you and I are talking again and you’re passing the mantle of Poet Laureate onto somebody else in Kentucky, what for you are you feeling called to do right now with this responsibility and this call?

Silas (28:15):

Well, I can tell you a little bit about my platform that I’m getting together. And you know, you become Poet Laureate at the end of the school term. So it sort of gives you the summer to get it all together so that when the school term comes in, you’ll have it ready to go, because I think a lot of it should serve young people. But the main thing I really want to do as Poet Laureate is, growing up I was always around old people, not only older people, but really old people, and that was so foundational for me. And so one thing that I’m implementing is a program where I go into classrooms across the state and I work with students, teach them how to take oral histories, teach them how to write a sort of magazine style feature. And so then I’m going to encourage them to find the older people in their families and their communities, take an oral history for them, write an introduction, and then we’ll have probably a website where all those will be accessible, where young people are talking to old people.

(29:18):

It’s just a way for them to have that foundation that so many of us have of being around older people. So that’s one of the main ones I’m excited about. I’m also doing a series of conversations of myself and other writers where we’re doing writing lessons. So that one might be on sense of place, one might be on characterization, one might be on plot, and each one of them people will be able to download those. So it’s sort of like a podcast, but it’s more like downloadable writing lessons so teachers can use them, but also just somebody who’s interested in creative writing can download them. Those are two of the main ones.

(30:00):

I’m also starting to work with the tourism cabinet. I have been to Ireland many times, and one thing I love about Ireland is the way it honors its writers. You know, go to a town and you know what writer is from there. And so I want, if you go to Carlisle Kentucky, you should know that Barbara Kingsolver is from there. So I want to implement ways to make that more part of our road signage and just things like that.

Brian  (30:30):

When I think about you in writing lessons, knowing that as a kid your parents let you take a notebook to church and that you observed people, I’m curious, is that the beginning of learning how to write dialogue?

Silas (30:43):

Oh yeah.

Brian  (30:44):

Just listening?

Silas (30:44):

For sure. One thing I remember specifically is doing character sketches. I would just go around to all the people in the church and write a little character sketch. If I knew them, I would write everything that I knew about them, and then if I didn’t know them, if they were visitors, I would make up stories for them. And sometimes I would put those characters in conversation together. It was just a great way to learn to write.

(31:12):

And especially I paid a lot of attention to, in the church I grew up in, testimony was a big part of it. There would be at least 30 or 40 minutes where people would just stand up and testify, however they felt called when to stand up and do that. And I just remember people standing up and the poetry would just fall out of their mouths. They just had this eloquent, beautiful way of telling their stories, and I would write it down as quickly as I could. I still have some of those notebooks.

Brian  (31:48):

So to me, I’m always impressed as I think about what you’re called to in your work and your craft, but I also know that you write a lot about music and a lot about country music. For you right now, are there particular either musicians or music or songs that are also kind of nurturing hope and a sense of connection for you?

Silas (32:10):

Well, I guess the main one that comes to mind for me is Tyler Childers, because I think what he’s doing is so important because he is using his music as a source for social justice and social good, and he’s doing it in a way that it creeps up on you in the music. Like his most recent album is a lot about the way that religion has become so divisive. Well, I mean, it’s always been divisive, I guess. And so he’s imagining a heaven full of Christians and Muslims and Jews and everybody’s there together. And one of the songs is about that, for instance.

(32:58):

But when you hear it just sounds like an old church hymn. And until you listen very closely to the lyrics where he is talking about that stuff, a place of unity instead of division. So I just love the way that he’s doing that. Also, he’s been so active with his philanthropy and the way that he’s really doing great grassroots work with his music. That’s the first one that comes to mind for me.

(33:30):

There’s so much good music happening right now. And I think for a lot of people, it’s hard to find the good music because there’s so much music. And I think we’re overwhelmed with so much. I often hear people say, “Well, there’s just no good music anymore.” I’m like, “Are you kidding? There’s so much.” But it’s not necessarily on your radio, have to seek it out, I think.

Brian  (33:55):

Sure. So the last time I saw you when you were in Knoxville for the Lark Ascending book tour, it seemed like you traveled everywhere on that tour, and I know it was sort of post covid and you were able to get out and people were able to get out. And my sense is because of the very subject matter of Lark Ascending and looking into a future that’s pretty bleak and pretty hard, I’m curious, thinking about testimony, what sort of testimony did people share with you about, again, either the grief they’re experiencing or the hope they’re encountering? What was shared with you when folks were talking to you on that trip?

Silas (34:35):

Well, I was sort of the first round of authors to get to complete a book tour. Before that, people would start to go out on the road and then there would be a resurgence. But I was so lucky I got through that entire tour. And so people were eager to come out and so many of them were just talking about the way that they hadn’t been able to grieve their losses properly because of covid. Whether that meant they couldn’t be with their loved ones when they were dying or they couldn’t have funeral services the way they used to, things like that.

(35:11):

So it was a real balm for me, and I think for a lot of people who came out to be able to talk about that. And they talked about that largely because Lark Ascending is a book born of grief and the three main characters are in deep grief. And the book is about them trying to survive that grief and to find joy, find beauty, to find hope. And so I think it did resonate for a lot of people who were experiencing those same things. At least those are the people I tend to hear the most from. They’re the ones who are moved to get in touch or to come out to the readings.

Brian  (35:50):

With all that you’re doing right now, are you able to work on anything, any new writing, any new things coming out?

Silas (35:54):

I just finished, I just put together a short story collection of stories mine that have been published over about the last 20 years. Most of the stories that are in it are more recent, but there are a few older ones. So that has just been turned in, and I hope it’ll be published. And I’m working on a new novel in my head. I usually work on a novel in my mind for about a year before I ever write anything. I like to think a lot about it so that I come to the page ready for it to just pour out of me. The most terrifying thing for me is to come to a blank screen or a blank page and just sit there. If that ever happens, I just freak out and then I never can write anything. So I have to come loaded for bear.

Brian  (36:49):

I think for me, at some point as a preacher, I’m aware that most of my sermons start in the grocery store. Because you’re encountering people in the world and you’re like, oh, there’s God showing up, or there’s a question to wrestle with.

Silas (37:02):

Yeah, the most important part of my writing process is walking. I walk several miles every day and while I’m walking, the story is coming to me.

Brian  (37:17):

Silas, thank you, thank you, thank you for this conversation.

Silas (37:21):

Thank you.

Brian  (37:23):

And give my best to Jason and I hope we get to see you all soon, either in Lexington or if y’all are down here, come see us in Knoxville.

Silas (37:30):

It’s always a pleasure to talk to you and hello to Susan and to Jerry Lee. So I keep up with Jerry Lee, the dog on Instagram.

Brian  (37:41):

He’s a great dog. He’s spiritual but not religious, but he’s a great [inaudible 00:37:46]. And again, thank you for the work you do and the call to write and to write with all those wonderful LGBTQ, Appalachian, Rural Christian, Faithful Men. Thank you for being one.

Silas (37:58):

Thank you. I appreciate you and you inspire me, so I appreciate that. Thanks.

Brian  (38:05):

Bye-Bye.

About Silas House and Brian Cole

silas house author

Silas House is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels (Clay’s Quilt [2001], A Parchment of Leaves [2003], The Coal Tattoo [2005], Eli the Good [2009], Same Sun Here [2012], including his most recent, Lark Ascending, which was a Booklist Editors’ Choice and is the winner of the 2023 Southern Book Prize and the 2023 Nautilus Book Award. Four of his plays have been produced. He is also the author of the 2009 book of creative nonfiction Something’s Rising (with co-author Jason Kyle Howard). In 2022 he was the recipient of the Duggins Prize, the largest award for an LGBTQ writer in the nation. The same year he was named Appalachian of the Year in a nationwide poll. In 2023 he was inducted as the Poet Laureate of Kentucky for 2023-2025.

brian cole

The Rt. Rev. Brian Lee Cole serves as the fifth bishop of the Diocese of East Tennessee, with 51 parishes and worshiping communities in East Tennessee and Northern Georgia under his pastoral and administrative care. The bishop’s responsibilities are visiting each congregation, preaching, celebrating the Holy Eucharist, and confirming individuals into The Episcopal Church in the apostolic tradition of the laying on of hands.

 Cole has served as an instructor in Appalachian Religion, Faith and Practices, and Appalachian Religion and Culture at Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa. N.C.; Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. Prior to his ordination as a priest, he served for seven years on the Appalachian Ministries Education Resource Center (AMERC) staff in Berea, Kentucky. Much of his work then involved teaching seminarians, listening to Appalachian leaders, both in and out of the church, and learning how to read and appreciate the region’s culture.

 

Everywhere Workshops

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