My interview with Valerie Nieman, author of In the Lonely Backwater: Part II

Part II of my interview with Valerie Nieman continues our discussion of her novel and her poetry and also covers the poetry she loved to teach her students. She also shares what she’s writing and reading, right now. (Spot the friend of Rust Belt Girl in her TBR!) Missed Part I of the interview? Find it here.)

Valerie Nieman’s latest, In the Lonely Backwater, a mystery in the Southern gothic tradition, has been named the 2022 Sir Walter Raleigh Award winner for the best novel by a North Carolina writer. To the Bones, her genre-bending folk horror/thriller about coal country, was a finalist for the 2020 Manly Wade Wellman Award. She is also the author of Blood Clay (Eric Hoffer Award) and two other novels. She has published a short fiction collection and three poetry collections, most recently, Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, which was runner-up for the Brockman-Campbell Prize. She has published widely in journals and anthologies, and appears regularly in juried reading series such as Piccolo Spoleto, Why There Are Words, and Women of Appalachia. She has held state and NEA creative writing fellowships. Nieman has degrees from West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, and was a reporter and farmer in West Virginia before moving to North Carolina, where she worked as an editor and a creative writing professor at NC A&T State University. 

Valerie, In the Lonely Backwater has been praised for its “deep sense of the wonderment of the natural world.” I see this in your poetry, too:

Can you talk about this poem of yours, its impetus, its rooting in the bog but also “close to the sun?” 

This is a poem that came directly from observation. I was walking in the Bog Garden in Greensboro when I came upon a group of people staring up into the treetops. It’s that barred owl, I thought, a resident of the garden. Instead, I was shocked to see a full-grown groundhog up there grazing on the new leaves. I went home and looked it up online, finding numerous videos and learning that it’s not uncommon for woodchucks to climb trees.

Among other inspirations was the late Gerald Stern’s poem “Behaving Like a Jew” and his line about a dead opossum’s “little dancing feet.”

Poet and author Valerie Nieman

The family at the center of your novel is part of the “Appalachian diaspora.” What does this term mean for you personally—and for your poetry, especially?

Well, it’s who I am. I grew up in northern Appalachia, the Allegheny Plateau in western New York where the Allegheny River rises and flows to Pittsburgh. I went to school at West Virginia University, and worked as a reporter and editor at papers in Fairmont and Morgantown,  both on the Monongahela, before leaving the Ohio River watershed for the first time in my life. I moved to central North Carolina in 1997 for a newspaper job. Now I live one county line over from Appalachia as defined by the ARC, but Rockingham County has all the earmarks of Appalachia—rural, with faded industry and a changing agricultural life, and beautiful hills and rivers. Not really mountainous enough, I guess. So my work draws on my upbringing in dairy country, 20-plus years in the coal fields, and then working as an editor in tobacco country before a final 20 years in academia. Nature poet, blue collar writer, Appalachian writer, Southern writer.

“Tinder” feels like a nature poem, an ode to Shakespeare’s witchy “double toil and trouble,” and a horror story all at once:


I am the woman your mother 
warned you about. 

I am boiling bones boiling bones boiling bones. 
I am washing out the war-rags at the ford,
blood pluming downstream 
gaudy to catch the heart.
I am scraping scraping scraping
on the stretched skin of the world. 
My pet is a scrofulous cur,
my bird a dobsonfly all wings and jaws.

I look under rocks.
I find what I expect to find. 

Can you talk about your influences here and what you want your reader to know about the persona in the poem?

Ah, that’s a dangerous woman. She harbors grudges and has a long memory for those who’ve done wrong by her. What bones are those in her broth? Difficult to say.

Influences indeed include Shakespeare, and Poe as well, a bit of Hawthorne—all of whom I read as a child, pulling the classics from the shelves during long western New York winters. I also was influenced by many years of research into early Celtic and Norse cultures. “The washer at the ford” or bean-nighe is found across the Celtic nations. She’s seen in wild places, kneeling beside a lake or river, washing the blood out of the clothes of men who are fated to die. So that was in my mind as the image of the dobsonfly appeared. It’s the quite terrifying winged adult of the hellgrammite, a stream insect with enormous pinching jaws. As a child I spent a lot of time in “the crick,” turning over rocks, and as an angler I’ve done the same for years, to see what fish might be eating, and just because I like to see what’s underneath.

What was your favorite poem or story to teach students when you were a professor at NC A&T State University?

“Out, Out” by Robert Frost is a favorite, to show how a poet can compress an entire short story into 34 lines—dialog, description, setting, plot. I liked showing students the flexibility of the sonnet, comparing traditional forms with Terrence Hayes’ “American Sonnets.” I also loved teaching humanities and exposing students to ancient work from the negative confessionsof the Egyptian Book of the Dead, to framing a discussion about war and the death of young men through Priam’s visit to Achilles.

What are you reading right now? What are you writing? What can we look forward to, next?

The top of one stack: Hemlock Hollow by Culley Holderfield, The Sound of Rabbits by Janice Deal, Red Clay Suzie by Jeffrey Dale Lofton, All the Little Hopes by Leah Weiss, and Hungry Town by Jason Kapcala. Dipping into a number of poetry books as well, including Anything that Happens by Cheryl Wilder. Eager also to get back to some science fiction, with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future. There are many shelves, and many stacks, and I keep adding to the accumulation.

I’ve just (as of 4/3) completed the first draft of Dead Hand, a sequel to To the Bones. I had almost as much fun writing this as the first one! The action moves from the West Virginia coalfields to Ireland. I revisited places I’d seen a few years ago, from the Shannon Pot to County Cavan to Dublin, and added others including an Irish coal mine. While that simmers in the hands of beta readers, I’m working on pulling together a new book of poetry.

In the Lonely Backwater

By Valerie Nieman

Regal House Publishing $18.95

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What are you reading and writing this week? Let us know in the comments…

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2022 Reading Superlatives: top book picks and passages

With thanks to one of my fave book bloggers and reviewers (and Rebeccas), Bookish Beck, for the inspiration … I present to you my year in books (or novels, really–I do love an escape!), in a nutshell.

Note that this reading summary doesn’t include the books I read as a beta reader or as a member of a fantastic writers group I joined this year–a 2022 highlight–or books I read for a class. Then there are also the craft books and collections of poetry and stories that I dip in out of and don’t always log. Do I sound like I’m making excuses? The thing is, I never feel like I read as much as I want to, but I try.

Longest book read this year: Chimes of a Lost Cathedral by Janet Fitch at 752 pages. Was it worth all those many pages set during the Russian Revolution? Mostly yes, worth all 22 CDs of the audiobook listened to on the way to and from my kids’ school. Second longest, if you’re taking notes: The Nix by Nathan Hill at 640 pages. Another (very different) historical novel, that one was one of the funniest books I read this year. (Want a book that will undoubtedly make you cry? Try the gorgeous Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart.)

Most popular book read this year (735,545 reads on Goodreads): An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Did it live up to the hype? Pretty much, even if the ending was tied up with a bow a little too neatly for my tastes.

Best first line: “God was dead: to begin with.” From Winter by Ali Smith. This is a play on the famous first line of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “Marley was dead: to begin with.”

The best first line also leads into the best opening paragraph, imho:

God was dead: to begin with.
    And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead.
Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and
art was dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead.
Literature was dead. The book was dead.
Modernism, postmodernism, realism and
surrealism were all dead. Jazz was dead, pop music,
disco, rap, classical music, dead. Culture was dead.
Decency, society, family values were dead. The past
was dead. History was dead. The welfare state was
dead. Politics was dead. Democracy was dead.
Communism, fascism, neoliberalism, capitalism, all
dead, and marxism, dead, feminism, also dead.
Political correctness, dead. Racism was dead.
Religion was dead. Thought was dead. Hope was
dead. Truth and fiction were both dead. The media
was dead. The internet was dead, Twitter,
instagram, facebook, google, dead.

Have I gotten around to the other novels in this seasonal quartet? Not yet.

Most challenging book read this year (but not as challenging as it would have been if I’d not read it as an audiobook): Matrix by Lauren Groff. Worth it? Definitely. Also it was the first novel I read of hers. What should I try of hers next?

Most Rust Belt-y (and that’s a very good thing): Hungry Town by Jason Kapcala. Read my interview with the author here. Have you every made a play list for something you were writing? Check out the author’s take on literary play lists here.

Book I’m most glad I read despite the literary community’s love of hating the author: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen. Another doorstopper (at 592 pages), this is the first book in a projected trilogy. Do I plan to read the next couple? Maybe, but the more than a little depressing personal lives of the characters make me a little reticent to re-enter their world.

(And now you see why the Franzen also wins for worst cover!)

And last and the opposite of least … my favorite book of 2022 (drumroll, por favor): Book of Extraordinary Tragedies by Joe Meno. If you’re on Twitter, you know I can’t shut up about this book. Really, it’s wonderful and, the author says, his most autobiographical novel yet. This book–that ticks all my boxes for a story that sings–also wins for a favorite passage that will stick with me well into the new year:

[The MC says] I put on my headphones, pull up my hood, and go through my CDs, looking for the right composition.
     Be it a riot, Mozart. Having your throat cut, Beethoven.
Be it the beginning or end of the universe, Bach. Getting
your nose broke, Wagner. Having your head stomped,
Mahler. A knife in the back, Bartók. Death by drowning,
Haydn. Blunt-force trauma, Grieg. Slow poisoning, Puc-
cini. Blown to pieces by cannon fire? Brahms. A car acci-
dent with multiple fatalities? Stravinsky. Strangled to death
by someone you know and love. Stauss. Overdose? Liszt.
Suffocation? Handel. Internal bleeding? Ravel. But what symphony do you play while riding your wobbly bike across the southside?

And that’s a wrap! Want to see more of my year in books, find me at Goodreads.

Please share your top reads for 2022 in the comments. I’d love to hear about what you’ve been reading–or writing.

Want more Rust Belt writing, book reviews, author interviews, writing advice, essays, guest posts, and more? Follow me here. Thanks! 

And a very happy, book-filled New Year to all!

*free header image courtesy of Pexels

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Weird Year Revisited: A 2020 Rust Belt Girl Roundup

[Read in your most guilt-laden “Mom” voice] “Oh, 2020. It’s not that we’re mad; we’re just disappointed and maybe a little sad.”

Scratch that, of course we’re mad, too. But rather than stew, let’s do the old superlative list to close out this dumpster fire year. It was a weird one here at the blog, but I’d say that’s par for the course.

2020 Most Viewed Post (heretofore known as MVP): Violence and Ascendance in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, likely owing to the fact that the popular Italian novelist had a very good year, releasing The Lying Life of Adults in the fall.

2020 Most Liked (you know, the popular girl): On *Not* Writing (with thanks to Stephen King) garnered 112 likes, so it seems I wasn’t the only one who was finding it hard to put pen to paper, this summer.

2020 Surprise Finisher (the scrappy underdog): for being a bummer of a post, The Dead Mom Club…and other lessons in grief got quite a bit of traction (172 views and 63 likes)–though I wish it hadn’t. Next year, let’s plan for “lessons in joy,” shall we?

Special shout-out to the WordPress Editors, who brought back WordPress Discover Prompts for the month of April. The one-word prompts helped me chronicle my family’s isolation at the beginning of the pandemic and also helped me connect with other bloggers–now friends. My most-viewed: my response to Day 2’s prompt, open: Open…water, heart, art

Top author interview was my 2020 two-parter with Sonja Livingston, Rochester NY native and award-winning memoirist. In addition to being a fantastic interview subject, Livingston’s latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions Into Devotion, was top on my list of favorite nonfiction reads, this year.

Top book review was my 2020 review of Pittsburgh-area native Margo Orlando Littell’s second novel, A Distance from Four Points. Telling a beautiful mother-daughter story, the setting of post-coal country, Pennsylvania, adds a gritty realness that makes this book a standout. Also, among the prettiest book covers of 2020, for sure!

Reading superlatives: I read more in translation in 2020 than any other blog year (there have been 4), concentrating on Moomin-famous Tove Jansson, whose literature for adults informs my current WIP, set partly in Finland. Favorite novel this year: Shiner by Amy Jo Burns. Favorite backlist novels: a three-way tie (I know, I’m pretty terrible at superlatives) between (the very different) The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent; The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling; and The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, which I read with a book club. Favorite memoir: Rust: a memoir of steel and grit by ElieseColette Goldbach. As for poetry, I haven’t been reading many collections, but I have been getting good daily doses over at Parhelion. Poet Clay Matthews, especially, drew me in.

In other creative writing and editing news: I backburner-ed one novel in favor of concentrating on the new one (55K into draft 1–so I’m beginning to see the light). I’ll have exciting news from short story land early in the new year (woot!). And I’ve been trying my hand at a little essay writing, which has been a nice change. (I keep my About page up to date with my published pieces, if you’re interested.)

I was promoted to associate editor at Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I’m also the features editor. I was proud to help introduce 15 features to the world, including one by fellow blogger, Lani V. Cox, and a few I wrote myself. Not to mention three issues of the magazine, including the latest holiday issue, which has some fantastic fiction, flash, CNF, and poetry for your holiday enjoyment.

One of my fellow bloggers, over at You Can Always Start Now, is doing a #2021wordchallenge, and without really thinking about it, I lit on my word: still. Of course, there’s one of my favorite Christmas carols, “Still, still, still,” which might have been running through my head at the time. But more than that, “still” is a word of resilience. I’m still here, still writing and connecting. Which makes “still” a kind of promise. And then there’s the act of being still–of inviting silence and space for inspiration and creativity, whatever that looks like that day. I want more of that.

I wish for more of that–stillness in all its forms–for both of us, in 2021.

Meet me there.


Interested in more Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Start here. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

*Header photo by Tairon Fernandez on

Rust Belt Girl roundup for June 8, 2018

agricultural agriculture animal blur
Photo by Pixabay on

It’s a Rust Belt Girl roundup for an end of the work week that also coincides with the beginning of CRAZY summer vacation.

Going with the “roundup” theme, I can say that the cows are loose, having broken the fence, and now they’re just roving around the plains willy nilly. (I know I’m impressing you with my vast knowledge of cowpoke life right now.)

Let’s be real. There are no cows. The cows are the items on my to-do lists, lists which don’t actually exist anymore, because so much of my life has gone digital.

I used to have real paper-and-pen lists: meal plans and menus, work to-dos based on deadline, and post-its galore with snippets of story ideas. Concrete things I could hold in my fingers. Then I’d go about numbering the items according to importance.

What happened? Hmm. Could it be that I jumped on social media last year, and my lists are collateral damage?

Whatever. The upshot: I’m bringing back the lists, because they’re real.

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