Lying in her bottom bunk bed, Mesha Maren was five, maybe six years old, and wide awake. Having dutifully filled another West Virginian summer day, she was again confounded by a sun whose setting still cast fragile light into the rafters of the evening.
“I remember being told to go to bed and thinking, Wait a minute. It’s not dark outside,” Maren said. “This isn’t fair. I shouldn’t have to go to bed yet.”
Laying there with the injustice, she waited for the ritual to begin.
While better known in town for playing alto sax with Juice and the Juicettes, Maren’s father spent most evenings in the small room Maren and her sister Asha shared sitting bunk-side with his guitar.
“Not a day passed that he didn’t play,” Maren said. “He would play songs for me and for my sister and brother before we went to bed.”
Some nights her mother, wrapped in a blue and white pinstriped bathrobe, sat with them nursing Maren’s newborn brother. But that night, her dad was up to no good.
“Last Saturday night, I got married. Me and my wife we settled down,” her father sang, showing two large silver-capped teeth he lost in high school. “Now, me and my wife are parted, gonna take a little stroll downtown.”
Maren’s mother deemed the song decidedly too adult for a childhood lullaby. When her mother was present, her father played one set of songs, and when she was absent, the setlist changed: “Sometimes I live in the country. Sometimes I live in town. Sometimes I have a great notion to jump in the river and drown.”
“Maybe it was because they were forbidden, but I always liked those songs,” Maren said of her father’s taboo lullabies. “I still remember the images created in my mind. I think that my storytelling impulse comes from that.”
The bunkbed nested narrowly in a partitioned room her father had added to the one-room cabin he built in 1984. The roof slanted just above her sister’s top bunk, and below, walls blocked either end of Maren’s bed affecting the likeness of a cave.
“That is where my brain first started to go for these stories,” Maren said.
It was in the depths of that cave, Maren said, she first met Jodi McCarty, the protagonist of her debut novel Sugar Run released by Algonquin this past January. Sugar Run follows Jodi McCarty on her return home after spending 18 years in a women’s prison for murder. Haunted by memories of a lost lover, McCarty tries to build a new family while squatting on ancestral land lost to tax sale.
In Sugar Run’s West Virginia, the fracking and extraction of the land has made scarce even those medicines that numb the pain. Bottles of liquor are always running dry and cigarettes are counted to keep time. The troubadour class—those country singers who were supposed to make sense of it all—have washed up from salad days only they seem to remember. The pursuit of opioids tears into the fabric of family.“Even the land McCarty turns to in the book is totally modeled off the land that I grew up on.”
Jodi McCarty is left there with her dream of living off the land just as her grandmother did before her in a homeland that will allow no such thing. Maren said she was not sure how long McCarty or McCarty’s story waited to come out, only that she was familiar: one of the inhabitances wading in the same dark reaches she discovered first through her father’s music.
Listening to her father sing, a woman appeared in Maren’s bedroom cave, a woman she didn’t recognize. She wore a blue-and-white pinstriped dress and, taking the hand of the singer, she pulled them toward the front door to take another stroll downtown.
As her dad sang, Maren pulled more images from the cave. “It was something like watching a movie”:
A blue and white dress. A couple walking from her house in Alderson, West Virginia. They were staying out late, and that meant going into town. The sounds of a great party. The couple pacing towards the water. The cool tension at the surface of Greenbrier, the river that bent around her hometown.
“I was too young to understand what was going on in the song, but I knew there was something really sad and kind of sweet in it,” Maren said. “That was the first time I connected to that place in my brain that I now use to write fiction. I don’t play music myself. I don’t listen to music while writing fiction or anything quite that literal. But it feels like the first literature I encountered.”
There were characters before Jodi McCarty. Maren began meeting them during her undergraduate study at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. There was the newly divorced 30-year-old woman paddling by the dam; the 16-year-old at the chicken processing plant realizing for the first time his own desires. Each of them turned to her to find the path forward, an arc Maren eagerly offered.
“These characters came alive for me, obviously. I just wasn’t obsessed with them,” Maren said. “When I wasn’t working on the piece, I didn’t think about them a whole lot. I think that’s pretty true of many of the characters from my short stories.”
In 2010, Maren found Jodi just like the others. But with most characters, Maren could take them from her notebook mid-sketch and work a story around them.
“The woman out by the dam, pretty quickly I could see the shape of her story,” Maren said. “But that wasn’t true of Jodi. There was no shape. Just some character notes I’d leave in my notebook.”
There was Jodi hitchhiking on some wide road. Then there was Jodi leaving her grandmother’s land. Suddenly, Jodi was in Mexico, meeting a strange and irresistible person at a poker table.
Listening to Jodi, Maren settled on new images that did not feel like those she used in the short forms she worked in. Jodi offered Maren a new collection of images: an old curtain disturbed, blowing in the wind. Ice cubes melting in a plastic glass of whiskey. A mirror over a porcelain motel sink.
Far from West Virginia, waiting tables in Iowa City, Maren let these images settle in her, writing through them in search of what it was exactly Jodi had given her.
“This was a stronger presence. She took over a lot of everything else I was working on,” Maren said. “That’s when I started to think, I guess this isn’t going to be a short story.”
To describe Maren’s familial home, you must begin at a white oak sapling, or so began the land surveyor who drew up the deed. From that point on, the 17 acres stretch southwest just under 1,000 feet down a hollow and between two springs to a collection of blackjack oak sprouts. From there it extends southeast 1,300 feet to another blackjack on a river cliff. It follows the river cliffs northeast 700 feet to a maple tree only to corner and slowly disembark the cliffs for 10,000 feet “more or less.”
Formed roughly 480 million years ago, the Appalachian Mountains are an old mountain system in North America. In their early days, the mountain ridges reached elevations similar to the Rocky Mountains and Swiss Alps. In geologic time, the mountain range Maren calls home has settled into a series of limestone waves.
“The mountains have been worn down so they now look as if you threw a bedsheet over them,” Maren said. “They are soft and, in the summer, incredibly green. In the winter, when the leaves fall, they look fuzzy from a distance.”
In May of 2015, Maren and her partner Matt Randal O’Wain moved from Iowa City to her family’s land in Alderson, West Virginia. Her parents had not lived there since 2004 and in that time, mice found the tables and chairs to their liking.
“I had so much life when the family lived there,” Maren said. “It was still structurally sound, but it felt sad.”
Together they did the gradual work of turning a museum of parents’ lives into a home. Out back, flowers and chard and bell pepper grew in uneasy rows.
“Whatever didn’t die would live,” Maren said.
Maren had visited West Virginia so often in her fiction, it made moving home seem a sensible place to finish her manuscript, but the materiality of limited opportunities began to sink in.
“I had to deal with the realities of what it was like to move back as an adult and be in West Virginia,” Marne said. “I don’t find it a challenge to produce art there. But I do find it a challenge to find work that pays a living wage and is work I find meaningful. That is a big challenge, and I think that too became part of Jodi.”
In Sugar Run, in her first days back in West Virginia, Maren’s protagonist—if for a second—feels at home. Under an oak tree popping Dexedrine with her brother, she hears the sound of kith:
She swallowed the pills and settled herself on the roots of the oak, listening to the twang and curl of accented voices all around her. It warmed her, the familiar sound of those words, shortened and pulled out at intervals by tongues that had never left these hills. She had never entirely lost her own accent but over the years it had begun to seem to her like a strange leftover burden, something that only made sense here.
But for every rooted moment resonating with her past, there is an arc of discomfort reminding her this homeland has changed. The bold font on a job application asks her for education levels, driver’s license numbers, and felony convictions; all are sharp reminders that there is still a sort of confinement outside the penitentiary.
Impossible prospects led Jodi McCarty to rely on whatever social network she could, a network that required complicity and eventual accessory in crimes her parole officer explicitly forbids. With excess natural gas flaring overhead, McCarty weighs her feeling of connection to this place with her seeming inability to sustain life in it.
In West Virginia, Maren taught writing at the local prison through a National Endowment of the Arts grant, supplemented by teaching classes at the community college.
But when she spoke for this profile, she was in a fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
“That time in West Virginia was my first back as an adult,” Maren said. “I loved being there on my family’s land. I mean the community of West Virginia can really be amazing. But the reason I’m down here in North Carolina is because of work.”“I always liked [his] songs,” Maren said of her father’s tabo
o lullabies. “I still remember the images created in my mind. I think that my storytelling impulse comes from that.”
Maren’s identity felt tied up in West Virginia, but living in the house she grew up in, she felt time-and-again the push to leave.
“I think my relationship to West Virginia will always be a little complicated,” Maren said. “I always want to be there, but when I’m there, I know there are limitations.”
Maren found Jodi McCarty far away from her home state. In stories extracted then distilled from where she grew up, Maren used McCarty to bridge the distance between who she was in West Virginia and the increasingly disparate places she found herself.
“She began as a manifestation of my nostalgia for West Virginia,” Maren said. “Even the land she turns to in the book is totally modeled off the land that I grew up on. In the beginning, parts of her are simply a manifestation of me nostalgically wanting to have the opportunity to inhabit the places of my childhood.”
But in her return home to finish Sugar Run these memories of home become tempered against the realities, the specific pains of this place.
“Her inability to survive when she gets back that is not something I planned out in the book,” Maren said. She wonders how the privilege of living in both worlds has made her unable to live in either.
“I sit here, and I say, ‘Yeah, I want nothing more than to go back to West Virginia and live happily there,’ but that’s not entirely true,” Maren said. “I want to make art and my art is in many ways trying to recreate parts of West Virginia for other people and that is a tension. You are never entirely in the moment if you are making the moment into something for somebody else.”
Maren returned to the places of her youth, the places she longed for. She returned allowing the other shoe to hit the floor on her childhood there on her grandmother’s land.
“Jodi is maybe a projection in some ways of my own journey with West Virginia,” Maren said. “There are a lot of privileges she does not have that I do. I don’t have a felony, but as she was trying to reconnect with this place—it was something that I was doing with her.”
At the center of Maren’s book is the dissonance of return; the knotty landscapes that appear as Maren tries to reexamine and reimagine her centers, the complicated and always fleeting places we know to be home.
“You have this beautiful dream of what it was like when you were a child. And then you go back,” Maren said. “You learn that making a living there, making a life, it is difficult. It means that you will always be—not uneasy—but always a bit out of place in the place you come from.”