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Photograph by Meg Wilson
Photograph by Meg Wilson

Silas House Speaks the Truth

With the publication of his seventh novel, “Lark Ascending,” the Appalachian writer tells a riveting tale set in a frightening future, but he’s also hard at work on reckoning with — and reconciling — the conflicting facts of his mountain home.

Kentucky writer Silas House is one of Appalachia’s strongest and most eloquent defenders.

House emerged as an important Southern voice with his first novel, 2001’s “Clay’s Quilt.” The former mailman, born in Corbin, Kentucky, and raised in nearby Lily in rural Laurel County, kept writing and building a career that aligns him with fellow Southern writers Barbara Kingsolver, Bobbie Ann Mason and Wendell Berry — people who write with deep connections to the region, its people and to the lives they actually live.

Humanity and story drive House’s writing. Always. And his seventh novel “Lark Ascending,” which was published on Tuesday, might well be his magnum opus. New York Times columnist and author Margaret Renkl, a Tennessee native, says the book is “shot through with such tenderness and humanity, such love and courage and beauty and hope, that it feels almost like a prayer.”

“It was really important for me to write a tender love story in this book,” House says. “I think so often gay love stories, particularly between men, are rooted in violence. The most famous example of a gay romance in popular media is ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ What do they do before they hook up? They have to wrestle and fight. And, of course, that romance dies in a hate crime...

“Even though my book is a love story played out against a violent world, a violent backdrop, the relationship itself is very tender. And I just don’t see that represented very often at all.”

In conversation, House’s voice rolls down like salted caramel. It is warm, familiar, but with just a snap of brackish knowing. It is a Southern voice that rises to the story, takes its time with the vowels — and is always welcoming in a way that is comfortable.

“Lark Ascending” has already been called dystopian, compared to Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station 11” and Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars.” It’s easy to take the story of Lark, a young man fleeing a future world that’s literally on fire and ruled by religious zealots, and extrapolate dystopia. But that is to fall into an easy trope and miss the larger realities going on.

 

“In this book, it makes sense that the lead character is on the run from not only climate change fueled by catastrophe but also these fundamentalists who have taken over and stripped rights from women and immigrants and LGBTQ people."

“To me, it’s sort of a short novel that’s written on an epic scale,” House says. “I think of it as an adventure story in the mode of ‘Kidnapped’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, or ‘The Call of the Wild’ by Jack London. And, you know, we never think of gay people as the center of those. So, I did know that I was doing something in a different way. And it’s not,” he continues, “necessarily a ‘gay’ book, but a book wherein the protagonist is gay.”

House — once an activist who sat in at the Kentucky governor’s office over mountaintop-removal strip mining — pauses, thinking about what he’s just said. An openly “out” man in Appalachia, where he was born, raised, married and had two children, the facts of his life that should be of no consequence often come to the surface in profound ways.

Photograph by Jason Kyle Howard
Photograph by Jason Kyle Howard

The Eerie Prescience of “Lark Ascending”

House, who has published six other novels and three plays and serves as the National Endowment for the Humanities Appalachian Studies Chair at Berea College, believes ultimately it is the story that must be served. If social circumstances rise, that is a means for the character to face the world.

Considering the times we live in, “Lark Ascending” seems eerily prescient.

“The book was really relevant, and it was all there when I was writing it,” he offers. “All this stuff was going to get worse. It wasn’t hard to figure it out, so I don’t think I was prescient as much as being really observant with what was happening with the isolation and the fervor.”

Feeling a strong responsibility as a man living his truth in a place where others like him are often afraid, he’s built a desire to braid the realities he sees — his deep love for his Appalachian home and his life as a gay man. But his craft always rises first. He first serves the story — knowing that the example shown is better than the lecture given.

In “Lark Ascending,” the stakes of global collapse are real, and that reality serves as a tempering factor in the story of the 20-year-old lead character’s struggle to survive. Publisher’s Weekly’s review says that House “fearlessly leans into his dark vision” and produces a result that is a “fiercely visceral reading experience.”

“Do you write the book that’s presented to you?” House asks, almost rhetorically. “In this book, it makes sense that the lead character is on the run from not only climate change fueled by catastrophe but also these fundamentalists who have taken over and stripped rights from women and immigrants and LGBTQ people. So, the narrator’s the one in real trouble with real conflict, so the story’s from his point of view.”

Despite the dark vision that is the backdrop of “Lark Ascending,” House’s outlook is never hopeless.

“I think that I will always have hope, and, to me, that’s what this book is about,” he says. “This book is about somebody who’s lost everything; he’s lost the love of his life. Everybody he’s ever known is dead, but he still has hope. He still keeps going. I think that’s something I learned from experiencing deep grief. And I think when you’re writing about grief, hope is a real organic part of it. [Hope] comes up.”

Having lost an aunt who truly “got” him, an elder who intuited all that he was, the grief House speaks of is palpable. He understands the soul-tearing that comes with feeling separated — literally or through circumstances — from the things that ground you. For him, who he is, is a collection of the people and places who’ve shaped and sustained him through his growing up.

Why Place Matters

Place defines a massive piece of who Silas House is. As many Appalachians would tell you: It’s all intertwined.

“I grew up around people who innately knew how to tell stories, and describing the place in which the story was happening was just an important part of that,” he says. “You had to understand the culture to totally understand the story. I think growing up in the Holiness Church was a big part of it, because I grew up always hearing such descriptive language — whether the scripture or these impassioned testimonies that people would stand up and give.”

Although he still describes himself as a man of faith, the chestnut-haired author/activist also recognizes the inherent conflicts of deep fundamentalism.

“I loved the place that I grew up in so much, and I loved the people in that place,” House says. “I always had the fear that if they knew who I really was, they wouldn’t love me anymore, and I would be banished. So, in a way, that made my connection to the place even deeper because I was afraid of losing it always.”

House stresses he doesn’t believe there’s more homophobia in Appalachia than anywhere else, “or more bigotry, but I do think that when I witness bigotry where I’m from, it hurts me more. It hurts me deeper, because the place you’re from should be the place you feel most welcomed. And safe. So, when you don’t feel that way, it cuts deep, you know?”

"When I witness bigotry where I’m from, it hurts me more. It hurts me deeper, because the place you’re from should be the place you feel most welcomed. And safe."

Partially, that hurt inspired House and his husband, the writer/historian Jason Kyle Howard, to move to Lexington, where they are only 15 minutes from the airport. With a 30-city book tour already committed — and likely more to be added — the functionality of “the big city” helps.

“The thing I love about Lexington is it’s a city populated by Appalachian expats,” House says. “It’s a lot of people who want to live an hour or so from where we’re from, so it’s close enough to go home when we want to, but we also live in a place where I can walk down the street and hear different languages, see different kinds of churches and many ways of life. It’s the best of both worlds, because my people are here — people who have the same accent as me — but also other accents.”

Still, he yearns for home, where his roots remain strong.

“I’m homesick every day,” he says. “Just missing my people. I can’t not think of my people and my place. I miss the topography, the way the mist is there over a river and in the cliffs, between two hills, you know. It’s specific things like that. And I felt a lot of guilt about not living in Appalachia anymore. That’s part of living in a rural place, you always feel guilty about leaving ... and a lot of people are pretty judgmental if you’re Appalachian and you don’t live in Appalachia anymore. They judge you for that. Growing up, I was taught everybody in Lexington was snooty: They all owned a thoroughbred farm. So, as stereotyped as Appalachian and rural people are, we have our own stereotypes about people from the North and people in the city.”

He laughs — a delicious laugh, like good coffee with cream. He sees richness in how even the things that divide us are so much the same. Those contradictions are part of what fuels and inspires him.

Silas House with his beloved beagle, Ari (photograph by Bradley Quinn)
Silas House with his beloved beagle, Ari (photograph by Bradley Quinn)

And for all the seriousness of his work, House laughs a lot. Even in moments that would make most wince, he looks back and leans into the humor. He tells a story about a man from the gas company, who’d come to do work at the house he shares with Howard, “just chatting my leg off.” But when Howard came home, and it became clear they were a couple, the man wordlessly packed up his tools and left — not just left, but left the work unfinished.

“There’s sort of a code of silence,” House says. “Most people are like, ‘I don’t care if you’re gay, but do you have to talk about it all the time?’ They say that. ... But I’m just living my life open and honestly. If I were a straight person talking about my spouse, that wouldn’t be an issue.”

When the pair went to get their marriage license five days after the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage, two female clerks made a big deal about storming out of the county courthouse. But a third woman greeted them, did their paperwork, and wished them well.

“She treated us just like any other couple,” he recalls. “That’s the thing I hear people say over and over: ‘You all want special rights.’ Well, no, I just want to be treated like everybody else.”

The Responsibility to Speak Truth

He knows bias runs both ways. “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance played to the stereotypical view of the working poor in Appalachia. House fears the encroaching meanness of Trumpism, which has resulted in an aggressive exhibitionism of hatred, homophobia and meanness that’s kept him from spending time on the lakes he grew up on.

“I think it’s just as dangerous to romanticize a place as it is to vilify it,” he says. “I think it grows out of organizations that rely on funding. ... They don’t ever want to admit that we do anything wrong in Appalachia or the South. But of course we do. We’re human beings.”

Heartened by people taking to the streets in his hometown to march in protest after Breonna Taylor was killed in Louisville, House feels the tide turning somewhat. Having spent time as a diligent environmental activist — and receiving more blatant vitriol, even being cussed out at the gas station — he realizes his example and his words are perhaps his strongest and most effective weapon in the changing of hearts and minds.

“To be somewhat in the public eye, I have a responsibility to talk about (these things) to some degree,” House says. “I feel like it’s important for me to talk about it, because growing up, I didn’t know an Appalachian public figure who was out that I could look up to or model my own coming out process on.

"In a lot of people’s minds, being a rural, working-class, person of faith and gay, those things don’t go together very comfortably. And that’s both sides of the aisle."

“As often as I’ve been told ‘You’re rubbing it in my face,’ I’ve also heard, ‘You’re not gay enough.’ People have this idea that you have to be a certain way to be gay, but I pride myself on being multi-faceted. I’m a person of faith who talks a lot about that, and I’m proud to be an Episcopalian. I talk about being a rural person, a working-class person, and that’s all really important to me. In a lot of people’s minds, being a rural, working-class, person of faith and gay, those things don’t go together very comfortably. And that’s both sides of the aisle. People want me to be more of some, less of others, but they’re all equally important to me. Having said that, I don’t feel I need to be in the streets as a person of faith, because they’re not under threat in this country, but I do feel like LGBTQ people are. I feel like working people are always negated by popular media — and I talk about that a lot.

“I’m an environmentalist who comes from a coal-mining family. Those things are thought to be in opposition, but I think it’s even more important for me to talk about being an environmentalist because my papaw was a coal miner who lost his leg in the mines.

“All those facets can work together to illuminate something.”

Holly Gleason is a Nashville-based writer and artist development consultant. She's written for Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Oxford American, No Depression and many other publications.

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Holly Gleason

Holly Gleason is a Nashville-based writer. She's written for Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Oxford American, No Depression, Paste, Lone Star Music, Texas Music, Spin, Musician, CREEM, Interview, Playboy, The Palm Beach Daily News, The Vineyard Gazette, Tower Pulse, Request, Rockbill, Bam, Rock & Soul and Mix.

1 thought on “Silas House Speaks the Truth”

  1. Holly, this is a beautiful story about a brave and very talented person. We need more stories and courage like the ones exhibited within. Thanks for sharing with Salvation South.

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