My words were rooted in these hills, carried on the backs of the Irish farmers who followed the Potomac southwest instead of crossing the spruce-covered ridges of the Allegheny Front. My muscles formed from climbing white oaks and boulders, from hauling firewood. The mountain rivers that flashed through narrow canyon walls, over boulders and under high railroad bridges flowed through my veins. Laurel brakes that nestled beneath Pottsville sandstone ledges were my nursery. Sad fiddle tunes, played by old-timers beside a dying fire, were my genetic code.
These words from the epilogue of my second novel, Hellbender, came from the point of view of my main character, Henry Collins. But as the author, I had specific experiences from my
own corner of Appalachia in mind as I wrote them. Growing up among the ridges and mines of Fayette County—a place long written off by people who don’t get it, or don’t try to—has inspired almost a million words of my published fiction and nonfiction, and has left me with enough gas in the tank for at least a million more. From the Youghiogheny River’s Dimple Rock rapid to an abandoned coal mine called Crow’s Works, just outside of Fairchance, the locales of my home live on in the minds of readers, many of whom have never set foot in these hills, but now want to because of my books. The Currence farm from The Devil and Preston Black is based on my Great-grandmother Muchnok’s, near Dunbar. And Mick’s guitar shop? It’s where I bought my first guitar. And it’s still there, on Morgantown Street in Uniontown.
I ended Hellbender with the line Blood is not thicker than water. Family isn’t who you are born to, but with whom you choose to spend your life. And maybe I’m one of the lucky ones, because my wife Heidi and I chose to move back here after a stint in Florida. We chose to be close to our families and friends, to live in a place we’d call home no matter how far we wandered.
And this is why I’m so happy that the Pennsylvania Literary Festival’s journey starts here in Uniontown. Right where my very own literary journey did. It’s a place that fosters strong, deep roots.