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Photograph by Saja Montague
Photograph by Saja Montague

Young and Queer and Mountaineer

Mesha Maren’s third novel, out this week, is a landmark achievement for a new generation of Appalachian writers who assert their right to be fully queer and fully mountaineer.

Early in Mesha Maren’s new novel, Shae, the title character, a warmhearted high-schooler living in a rural corner of West Virginia, is getting to know her classmate and love interest, an alluring kid named Cam.

“I knew her mom was dead but I didn’t know much else,” Shae reflects. “Overdose, my mom had whispered, so sad.” 

Shae then asks, “Do you miss her?” and Cam replies, “I missed her even before she was dead.”

It’s an apt thematic setup for a riveting book that asks a reader to consider all the forces that can take hold of a body: unrequited love, addiction, motherhood, pain, a yearning to make what’s on the exterior correspond to what’s inside. Does a version of the person we used to know die when one of these forces takes control? If we follow Cam’s logic about her dead mother, it would be tempting to say yes. But Mesah Maren, a distinctly modern voice from Appalachia, won’t let us get away with such a simple answer. 

Shae commands us to look its characters in the eye—and then look even deeper.

Shae, Maren’s third novel, is a searing story that covers a lot of territory in a short but engrossing narrative. There’s an unexpected pregnancy, a descent into addiction, and an exploration of queer identities. The title character can’t quite put her desires into words or actions. She starts the story stricken by an all-consuming romantic love—a feeling completely new in her young life. The object of her desire is Cam, who will soon transition into living as a woman. Cam exudes control, a quality that stands in stark contrast to Shae’s initial naivete. 

“The way [Cam] could smile and act all easy around adults, strangers even, I hadn’t understood it until she talked about her mom and I realized then it was her most essential survival skill,” Shae says.

Shae is always a rich observer, and this is part of what makes her so likable, even as we watch her head down dark paths in scenes that had me gripping the seat of my chair. Maren tells the story through Shae’s perspective, using a voice that evokes both childlike awe and budding maturity. There’s a tension a reader feels listening to the kids in this book talk frankly about big, adult things like parents lost to overdoses; there’s also a tension in noticing what Shae misses, in how she often sees everything except what’s right in front of her.

Still, Shae is no dolt. Maren renders the narrative voice with just a touch of distance, suggesting that Shae might be recounting her story from some point in the future. In these more distant moments, Shae’s voice shines through with surprising introspection: “‘Scared and confused’ was me,” Shae admits early on. “I took up all that space. I needed Cam to be shining, always. I used to think that all I ever did was look at her. But maybe that’s not true. Maybe I never did really see.”

I came back to this moment after I finished the book, realizing that something about Shae’s frankness unsettled me. I’m an expat West Virginian. I was born and raised there, a gay kid who was never quite able to find the space in my religious household to exist openly. I found a lot of the freedom I was seeking far away in Brooklyn, a place where I would build a chosen family outside of my own disapproving kin. It’s easy for someone like me—someone from the region but who no longer lives there—to hold onto a vision frozen in time, to wrap up my picture of the place in my own traumas. This stasis of memory is something that I’ve been grappling with since the day I left. But reading Shae shook me up. What things about my Appalachian home had I failed to see? What things had I stopped looking at? How had the place I once called home changed?

This is one reason Maren’s book hits with such emotional power: As soon as we’re ready to pass judgment, her writing somehow sneaks in a mirror to the reader. Maren has crafted her title character so vividly that we’re not just along for the ride: we are hungry for Shae to find what will make her whole—because we recognize some essential part of Shae in ourselves.

Photograph by Saja Montague
Photograph by Saja Montague

Mesha Maren’s work never flinches at the realities of the rural, mountain places where she grew up—but in doing so, she reminds us of the beautiful complexity that makes these spaces so wonderful, so wondrous—a beauty and complexity that is illustrated even more so in the people than in the landscapes.

I met her years ago at a summer teaching gig in Buckhannon, West Virginia. She was teaching there alongside her husband, the accomplished writer M. Randall O’Wain. There was a faculty showcase, and she read from her soon-to-be published first book, Sugar Run. I realized I was watching something wonderful and modern happen. Maren’s words hit with a clarity and honesty about a lived Appalachian experience that I’d rarely found on the page. Queer lives are front and center in Maren’s work. She tackles issues of incarceration, addiction, and unexpected love. She’s not the first writer from Appalachia to talk about these things, but in the wake of books like Hillbilly Elegy, her writing feels fresh, exuberant, and clear-eyed. 

Sugar Run would join a wave of queer Appalachian literature that began to push the stories of our region to new frontiers by building on the hard work of established writers who’d carved out what still feels like risky territory. Think of a line drawn from Dorothy Allison and Fenton Johnson, authors whose groundbreaking works from the 1990s shed light on the intersections of class, sexuality, and rural spaces, to Carter Sickels, Neema Avashia, and too many others to list here, authors of contemporary narratives that have complicated our understanding of a geography too often ceded to dominant narratives. All of this work feels especially vital in an age when Southern state legislatures are weaponizing their power against queer and trans lives. And contrary to what I’ve been told by some agents and publishing professionals, that our stories won’t succeed commercially or recognition-wise, the success of people like Sickels, Avashia, and Maren herself suggests people are hungry to read these diverse stories.

That Shae’s characters—young and queer and trans—feel so wholly and organically part of this rural world is a revelation. These characters exist fully on West Virginia’s winding roads, hiking over its mountains, shredding guitars at the school talent show, downing beers and pills with the old-timers in their American flag hats at the local dive. So much of the joy from this novel comes from watching these queer characters not hide, but  live in these small-town spaces.

Maren knows this world deeply. She grew up in Alderson, West Virginia, in the same region where much of the book is set. The closest major attractions to Alderson are the eponymous Federal Prison Camp, built a century ago to house female inmates, and The Greenbrier, a 246-year-old resort, where accommodations range from $350 to $3,000 a night.

“Greenbrier County is fascinating in its extremes,” she says. “The western end is quite poor and has the county’s only mine, and the eastern end has always been wealthy and is home to The Greenbrier resort, and then kind of in the middle there is the Federal Prison Camp in Alderson. Growing up, I was both aware and unaware of all of this. I knew these dynamics, but I didn’t know how strange it was to have all of this within one county.”

“Greenbrier County is fascinating in its extremes. The western end is quite poor and has the county’s only mine, and the eastern end has always been wealthy and is home to The Greenbrier resort, and then kind of in the middle there is the Federal Prison Camp in Alderson.”

The home she grew up in, where she now spends her summers writing, is a fair distance from the town of Alderson, which itself has all of a thousand people. You get there via winding mountain roads along tight switchbacks. And then when you’ve finished with the mountain roads, you carefully navigate a long and harrowing grass and dirt driveway before the house emerges. 

It looks like a grownup’s wooden Lego project. It’s whimsical, like something you might sketch on a scrap of paper. The house is a family heirloom, hand-built by Maren’s father without the aid of power tools, as there was no electricity on the property during construction. Maren’s mother was pregnant with her then, and as the family’s needs changed, additions were built—whole rooms and wings that don’t quite make sense. 

“The house got built onto and built onto,” she says. “At first, it was only one room.”

Maren has lived in many places. In Asheville, North Carolina, where she met O’Wain; in Iowa City, where she moved so her husband could attend the renowned University of Iowa nonfiction workshop; in Durham, where she lives during the academic year for her job teaching at Duke University. But there’s something about this house in Alderson that feels like scaffolding holding Shae together. 

I’m not sure Maren realizes the extent of this connection at first. She’s the author of three novels, and when I ask her where she wrote each of them, she sounds surprised when she realizes Shae is the only one of her books written largely on that West Virginia property.

“I think more than anything I’ve ever written, Shae has a lot of granular details that come absolutely from that house,” she says, noting that the home became a de facto permanent residence during much of the COVID-19 pandemic, a period when she did the bulk of the writing.

There are two versions of this West Virginia property—the one she grew up on, and the one that she and O’Wain, as adults, have since made into their own. It’s easy to see both versions of this home bleeding onto the pages of Shae, the endearingly youthful quality of Shae’s voice against the realities of the world that’s coming for her. 

Maren recalls being a kid and lying in the main room, staring at the wooden ceiling at a knot that looked like a diving board. She’d lay there and imagine a girl who was good at diving but didn’t know how to swim. 

“I spent a ton of my childhood in some land of sort-of-bored, sort-of-lonely, but just content to let my brain go,” she says.

A version of this diving image shows up in a pregnant Shae’s imagination, a moment in the book that in hindsight seems so innocent and peaceful in how it precedes a major turning point in the protagonist’s life. Shae is about to fall off that diving board and sink into the deep end of the pool just as Cam comes into her own identity and soars.

M. Randal O'Wain and Mesha Maren (photograph by Saja Montague)
M. Randal O'Wain and Mesha Maren (photograph by Saja Montague)

I ask Maren if it’s fair to compare Shae’s life to her own, as I realize I’m reading a lot of her biography into my understanding of Shae. There are interesting sites of overlap: her queer identity and the geography of the story being obvious ones, but also finer details, like that story about the daydreamed diving board and the verisimilitude of Shae’s stint as a stripper, the job Maren held when she first started dating O’Wain. 

“I think it’s fair to compare Shae’s life and my own; there are mirrors, but it is also not that direct,” she says. “There are locations and people and stories within Shae that do come directly from my own life, but the alchemy of making a book is so complicated. People have been asking me in interviews lately what inspired me to write Shae and although this seems like a simple question, it is very difficult for me to answer because the real true answer would be bits and pieces of my whole life, the cat that gave birth on my sister’s lap and the black walnut tree I spent hours swinging from and the horse my mom loved even though we couldn’t afford him and the woman who overdosed in the house next door to mine and the school bus rides I took for twelve years of my life and the locust trees that grew up with me and the diner that gave me day old donuts after school and, and, and…”

When Maren tells me the history of when and why her parents left Alderson, how her childhood home eventually found its way to her and her husband, she drops a little fact that almost slips by. She tells me they left because one of Maren’s siblings needed treatment for addiction: the help that sibling needed to heal was not available near Alderson.

I sense this empathy in Maren’s writing, in how she’s created one of the most humane portrayals of addiction that I’ve encountered. When I chat with her about this portrayal, she references the concept of “trauma math,” a subject she learned about from reading an interview with the novelist Emma Cline. 

Trauma math, according to Maren, “is the idea that a person does something as a direct result of some trauma in their past. Cline was talking about avoiding this in her writing, and I very much have the same urge to avoid trauma math. People are so stupidly complicated, and most of the time we don’t know why we do things.”

“The painter André Marchand once said, ‘...I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe, and not want to penetrate it.’ This is how I feel my writing works. The universe that I grew up in looks at me and penetrates me and I listen, and the result is my novels.”

Maren says she relied on the words of another writer, the late Clarice Lispector, to guide her through her final edits. Lispector once wrote, “So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing.” Maren says the idea speaks both to her writing process and how Shae, her character, communicates her own story.

The more I learn about the history of Maren’s life and this house and her writing process, the more I wonder about how long this novel was swimming around in her head. She says she began taking notes on the character around 2017, but I suspect the spirit of Shae has been lurking around the Alderson house much longer. You can sense her everywhere on that property—in that carefully constructed wood, in the grass and trees that surround it, and in the sun and shadows that filter through the windows. 

The forest setting, Maren tells me, feeds her soul.

“The painter André Marchand once said, ‘In a forest, I have felt many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me…I was there, listening…I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe, and not want to penetrate it,’” Maren says. “This is how I feel that my writing works. The universe that I grew up in looks at me and penetrates me and I listen, and the result is my novels. ”

Having read Shae and visited the landscape of Maren’s childhood, I’d argue she is an excellent listener.

Mesha Maren at the door of her writing cabin in West Virginia (photograph by Saja Montague)
Mesha Maren at the door of her writing cabin in West Virginia (photograph by Saja Montague)

Maren takes Shae, the character, on a journey to rock bottom. How it happens is painful and beautiful and honest. I didn’t want to put the book down, but when I finished it—quickly, as it’s a tight and propulsive book—all I wanted to do was give Shae a hug, to tell her she was loved. 

As a fellow writer, I wondered how Maren could portray those depths in her character while staying in good health herself. I think I see something of an answer when I reflect on my visit to that West Virginia property, in how she and O’Wain have made a life there.

The home in Alderson eventually fell into disrepair after Maren’s parents left. O’Wain used his carpentry skills to fix the place up, both inside and out. His handprints are all over the place—in the kitchen woodwork, in a captivating wall sculpture built from the insides of a piano. There’s a studio around the back that he transformed to become his writing refuge. Maren has her own writing cabin out in the woods that she built with her father when she was fifteen years old; the logs came from pines that her father had planted the year she was born. On summer mornings, Maren and O’Wain often part and go to their separate writing spaces; in the evenings, they come back together.

Maren has her own writing cabin out in the woods that she built with her father when she was fifteen years old; the logs came from pines that her father had planted the year she was born.

They’ve been together for seventeen years, and when they talk about building their relationship, they mention that right from the start, they came together by reading books, talking about writing, and helping each other move into the fraught possibility of succeeding as artists in a time when artists get little support, monetarily or otherwise. 

O’Wain—the author of two moving books: a collection of essays, Meander Belt, and a short story collection, Hallelujah Station—tells me he was a nontraditional student. He had a working-class upbringing in Memphis, dropped out of school in the eighth grade, worked manual labor for a time, and spent some years that followed touring with a punk band. He didn’t go to college until he was twenty-two years old, after first getting his GED. He says that as an adult, he basically had to teach himself how to read and write in order to chase his dream of becoming a writer. 

His journey makes me think of Shae, who, during the course of the book, finds herself stuck in claustrophobic, liminal spaces where the events of the past and the possibility of the future feel both ever present and far removed. I want to imagine O’Wain sitting down with Shae and telling her about all the winding roads it takes to end up where we need to be.

Photograph by Saja Montague
Photograph by Saja Montague

I haven’t stopped thinking about Shae, the book, since I read it. It’s unforgettable. But the truth is I’ve been fixated on Shae, the character. I can see her, running through those woods at Maren and O’Wain’s home, trying to sneak a glimpse of her infatuation, Cam. I can see Shae trudging over the nearby mountains during a painful and pivotal scene that brings her to her knees. At the crux of Shae is a desire for love and community, and perhaps, most of all, for partnership and belonging. 

I was on a visit to my hometown back in West Virginia a few weeks after reading Shae, and I swore I could see Shae and Cam walking the main drag, heading down their divergent paths. Something about reading Shae made me grapple with a thought that both frightened me and provided clarity: maybe it wasn’t that West Virginia had changed since I’d moved away. Maybe the truth was that I and so many others have been unwilling to see some of the people who’ve always been there. I’m saying this from the point of view of a gay man who grew up in a world not unlike the one in the book. 

Mesha Maren is part of a growing collective of queer Appalachian artists and writers who are asserting their right to call this rural region home, to make queer lives visible. It’s exhilarating to watch this happen.

Photograph by Saja Montague
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About the author

Author Profile

Jonathan Corcoran is the author of the forthcoming memoir, No Son of Mine (April 2024), which was awarded a Kirkus Star. His story collection, The Rope Swingwas named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards and long-listed for The Story Prize. His essays and stories have been published and anthologized widely, including in Still: The Journal, Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia, Best Gay Stories, and the Oxford University Press textbook, How Writing Works. He received a bachelor's degree in Literary Arts from Brown University and an MFA in Fiction Writing from Rutgers University-Newark. Jonathan teaches writing at New York University and in the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. He was born and raised in Elkins, West Virginia, and currently lives in Brooklyn.

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