Eastern Kentucky authors make a mark
By Noble Sprayberry
The hills of Eastern Kentucky are a place for storytellers. Some writers grew up in the small towns and hollows, learning to craft words that enlighten and entertain. Others find new homes and sink deep roots where they find creativity.
Book authors, playwrights and educators — they each carry a bond to the land and the community.
Anne Shelby grew up in Jackson County. Her father, Luther Gabbard, taught agriculture classes at McKee High School. Her mother, Jessie, was an English teacher.
And while there was a natural connection to language and literature, her big family provided another link to words. “They were people who sang, and who played guitar, and who enjoyed telling stories,” she says. “Even though reading might not have been all that big with everyone, the ability to tell funny stories and to tell histories was always valued.”
During the 1980s while attending graduate school at the University of Kentucky, Shelby learned of a growing interest in female writers and Appalachian writing. She embraced the idea and made a career as a writer.
“I do a lot of different kinds of writing,” she says. “Most of it does end up being about the part of the world that I lived in and my family lived in.”
She wrote “Homeplace,” tales inspired from the house and farm in Clay County that provided a home for generations of her family. Another, “We Keep a Store,” is a collection of poetry. While drawn from memories of her family’s store, the poems are not autobiographical. “They are the voices of people that I knew, or that were similar to those I heard while growing up,” she says.
Throughout her work, Shelby tries to tap the realities of the region, including the dialect, which is often a challenge. “One danger is that we’ve all heard that ‘fakey’ Appalachian speech, and we’ve all got that in our heads,” she says. “I often ask, ‘Did I hear that from my grandmother, or was it a bad Western?’”
So, she works to craft words that capture the reality of the place and the people. This year, she wrote the annual Owsley County “Home Song” play. “You want to give enough of the flavor of the language without drawing attention to it,” she says.
Finding a Kentucky home
While some locals find inspiration from childhoods spent in Eastern Kentucky, Kathy Rowe migrated to the community. Her books, including military thrillers, science fiction and romance, are available through services such as Amazon.
She chose life in Kentucky after a 20-year career in the U.S. Air Force. Her last stop, where she was a radiology technician, was McGuire Air Force base in New Jersey.
There, she met her husband, Scott Shore, who also served in the Air Force. “He was a combat version of an emergency medical technician,” she says.
While they retired in 2011, planning had begun six years earlier. “We wanted to find a place that was affordable and quiet, and where people were nice,” she says.
Now, they have 40 acres of organically grown hay, which they market. They also raise poultry, including chickens, ducks and turkey.
While managing the farm takes up much of her day, Rowe finds time for a passion she first developed as a sophomore at a San Diego high school. She loves to write. But a military career that included stops in Great Britain left little time for crafting books.
“In July of 2009, I had to have ankle surgery. I was going to be laid up for a long time, so I loaded the book that I’d been working on for 20 years onto my laptop,” she says.
The result was “Project: Dragon Slayers.” In 2010, The Military Writers Society of America named it a runner-up in the military thriller category.
She kept writing and self-publishing. Her titles include “Space Invaded,” “Cowboys and Olympians” and “Battle Rhythm.”
She also helps other authors publish on Amazon through her Sturgeon Creek Publishing, named after the stream on the couple’s property.
Lessons for the future
Keven McQueen also works to help writers. He earned an English degree from Berea College and a master’s degree from Eastern Kentucky University, where he now teaches English and composition.
He’s passing on lessons acquired growing up. “I was born in Richmond, but I spent my formative years in Jackson County near Annville,” he says. “I had a couple of really good teachers who really encouraged me. By the time I got to Berea, I had a good background thanks to teachers at Jackson County High School.”
In addition to teaching, McQueen writes books based on historical accounts from the region — but, don’t expect dry, dusty histories.
For example, “Offbeat Kentuckians” explores just what the title claims. The book includes tales of men such as William “King” Solomon. Considered Lexington’s town drunk, his life took a heroic turn when he put his health at risk to bury victims of the 1833 cholera epidemic.
And there was Simon Kracht. Not only was he custodian at the University of Louisville Medical School, but he also served as the official “body snatcher.”
A second volume followed, and other books maintained a similar bent: “Forgotten Tales Of Kentucky,” and “Cruelly Murdered: The Murder Of Mary Magdalene Pitts And Other Kentucky True Crime Stories.”
Research for McQueen means searching newspapers’ aging microfilm records. “It is history, but it’s hopefully amusing history about events that are not particularly well-known,” he says.
Engaging stories always have a place, but he says he has seen a shift in students’ habits. “A lot of them tell me they don’t enjoy writing and reading,” he says. “When I was a kid, TV had three channels. You’d go read or go out outside and do something. Now, there are 10,000 channels, and many people aren’t interested in reading anything.”
Technology, however, also provides benefits. Buying a digital book is fast, easy and often cheaper than purchasing a printed edition. “Who knows, maybe in the long run technology will increase sales,” he says.
One thing, though, will likely never change. “Whether they see it on a screen or in a book, people like a good story,” he says.”