The ancient mountains rolling over Western North Carolina made me as a boy and later as a writer.
As a child growing up in the suburban 60s of the South, my deepest memories were hemmed in by high hemlock-covered ridges. Beyond Boone, my grandfather farmed a small tobacco allotment, grew vegetables, raised chickens, milked a cow. No tractor, only a wooden plow and a draft horse.
I roamed his woods, explored the granite cropping of the Raven Rock, climbed Frozenhead Mountain, pocketed lucky, smooth nuts from the tree that gave Buckeye Mountain its name, steered clear of Snake Mountain. A place with specific names and stories I devoured as a boy.
Roaming more mountains later as a beat reporter for the Asheville Citizen-Times, the same daily that Thomas Wolfe delivered as a paperboy, I had the great privilege of listening to the stories of the natives. I discovered Stories come out of place, landscape comes before language.
Some are hill-born and hill-bound, wrote Wolfe who first spoke to me of the Buried Life in his famed first novel. And what good are books not excavating the deep secrets of our own lives?
In my new novel Kings of Coweetsee, Birdie Barker Price keeps the history of her remote mountain county at the local historical society. Birdie still likes to sing the murder ballads of women wronged and even killed by their lovers. Coweetsee’s curse is that nothing ever changes, but Birdie suspects that may not be true. When Birdie finds a long missing ballot box from a stolen election on her front porch, she opens a Pandora’s box of vote-buying, betrayals, child brides, suspicious deaths.
Too many Southern novels fall prey to the Gothic stereotypes of moonshine, front porch soliloquies, and snake handling set in a nostalgic past. I wanted to write about the people who live in an ancient land in our changing times.
All my novels have been set in these woods, exploring modern dilemmas. Cow Across America won the 2009 Novello literary Award, followed by The Half-Life of Home in 2013. Appalachia Book of the Dead, a Southern Buddhist thriller, was a finalist for the 2020 Thomas Wolfe Literary Award. My short fiction and essays have appeared in Carolina Quarterly, Four Way Review, North Carolina Literary Review and elsewhere.
A North Carolina native, I graduated from Wake Forest University and earned my MFA in creative writing at Warren Wilson College. I have received fellowships at Virginia Center for the Arts, Hambidge Center and Weymouth House. As an award-winning journalist for 38 years, I received fellowships the Gralla institute for Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and in religion reporting at the Knight Center at the University of Maryland. In 2016, I was on a two-week reporting tour in Islamabad and Karachi, Pakistan through the International Center for Journalism. I currently teach fiction writing at the Asheville Graduate Center of Lenoir-Rhyne University.
And yes, I still make my home in Asheville with my wife, Cynthia; my hiking buddy, Merlin the poodle; and Opie the long-haired Chihuahua.
For more, check out www.dalenealbooks.com.