Celebrating Our Culture  

A Sense of Place

An Interview with
Fiction Author Sharyn McCrumb

By Joyce Dixon




Virginia author Sharyn McCrumb lives less than a hundred miles from where her family settled in 1790.  She attributes her gift for storytelling to her great-grandfathers, who were circuit preachers in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains a hundred years ago.  Through her ballad series, Ms. McCrumb passes along the legends, stories, songs and traditions of Appalachia – giving the world a sense of place. 

A New York Times best-selling author, Ms. McCrumb was honored for Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature by the Appalachian Writers Association in 1997.   The Ballad of Frankie Silver was a 1999 SEBA Best Novel nominee.  She has received the Chaffin Award for Achievement in Southern Literature (1998), the Plattner Award for Best Appalachian Short Story (1998), the Flora MacDonald Award for Achievement in the Arts by a Woman of Scots Heritage, and was given the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel by Kentucky Governor Paul E. Patton in 1999. 

Sharyn McCrumb has lectured on her work at Oxford University, the Smithsonian Institution, and at universities and libraries throughout the United States.  Her novels are studied in universities worldwide.  

Baird Christopher, who runs The Cosmic Possum Hikers Hostel (The Songcatcher, pp. 122-128), brings his skills from the Peace Corp and knowledge of the world to the southern mountains, but holds the language and heritage of Appalachia dear.  As travelers come to his restored mansion, they leave with the knowledge that the mountain culture has value to the world at large. 

Sharyn McCrumb is our cosmic possum


In Chapter One of The Songcatcher, Lark concludes that her role is to be “the cultural ambassador for Appalachia.”  Though you do not mention the documentary by a socialite filmmaker by name, you are clearly alluding to Rory Kennedy’s HBO documentary “American Hollow.”  How was this documentary misleading for that community?  How has the area changed since Robert Kennedy’s 1964 tour of the region?

As I said in my novel She Walks These Hills, “cities are judged by their richest inhabitants and rural areas are judged by their poorest.”  Generally people find what they are determined to find, particularly if they have an agenda. If you want find poor homeless people in San Francisco, I can find you hundreds of them, and if you want to count millionaires in Appalachia, I can find you just as many, but the media- driven images of these two regions are quite the opposite of each other. See my references in the novel to the “Cosmic Possums.”  

As to documentaries... In West Virginia I was told that a recent crew of documentary film makers working the area drove past a few miles of perfectly ordinary middle class, well-kept, brick homes and past a brand new community center in order to find a poor shack-ridden area to film as “typical Appalachia.” If this is true, then aren’t they presenting a distorted view of reality? You asked: Has it changed since Robert Kennedy was here in ‘64? Nah. We had rich , well-educated people, then , too, but they aren’t picturesque enough for an ad misericordiam  documentary. 

Do you feel a responsibility to be a cultural ambassador for Appalachia?

Not really. It’s just that I don’t suffer fools gladly, so when people make assumptions about the region based on ignorance, I have a hard time overlooking it. Again referring to my novel She Walks These Hills, in which a main character had a disease that kept him mentally mired in the past:  America itself seems to have a severe case of Korsakov’s Syndrome when it comes to their concept of the Mountain South: that is, their collective memories are stuck in 1894 and cannot be up-dated.  Remember that when the “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” culture existed, here, New York City had horse-drawn street cars and you could buy a steak dinner for a quarter. If one is still true, the other must be also.

Renown scholar of Appalachian folklore Charlotte Ross was the inspiration for the character Nora Bonesteel.  How has Ross aided your research in the “Ballad series”?

Research is about gathering facts. Charlotte listens, which is a rare and wonderful gift. When I am working out a story, she will listen while I thrash it out, and make helpful suggestions based on her knowledge of the politics of culture that I’m dealing with. A sample of one of our conversations is preserved almost word for word in The Ballad of Frankie Silver when Spencer Arrowood takes Nora Bonesteel to the ruins of the Silver cabin. Their conversation in that scene was substantially the one that took place between Charlotte and me at the same place.

“The Rowan Stave,” the ballad in The Songcatcher, beautifully weaves the generations together as each finds truth in the line – “And when I’ve come back home, I will be changed – oh!”   Why did you choose to write an original ballad instead of using one that was passed down?

I had to write an original ballad because the premise of the book was that the ballad was very difficult to trace. My own family’s song “John Riley” was recorded by Joan Baez in the 60's, so if I had used it, readers would have written to me and said, “If you wanted to track that song, why didn’t you call me?’ The only way to get a song so obscure that no reader would know it was to write it.

The British ballad-collector Cecil Sharp explored the region while collecting material for his book English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians.  Do you see this as an act of preservation or taking advantage of the mountain people for profit?

Cecil Sharp was a scholar, not an opportunist. My sense of him is that he truly wanted to preserve the old songs for posterity and not for gain. Others who came after him copyrighted the songs that they were freely given by the mountain people, and that is when the “intellectual strip mining” began.

Southerners take pride in being stewards to the land.  Could this be a handed-down tradition from those who settled the region from Scotland and Ireland where they could not own land?

The Anglo-Celts emotional kinship to the land is much older than the political troubles you refer to, and exists even in regions-- like the north of England-- where land ownership was not an issue. It is a sentiment shared by mountain people throughout the world, I think. Consider the concept in the Arthurian legend and in King Lear  that  the king and the land are one. In lieu of a long historical lecture on the subject, let me cite you an example from a Yorkshire writer. Here’s Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights, expressing the same sentiment through Catherine Earnshaw:  “I was only going to say that Heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy.”

Nora Bonesteel has “the sight”, and Lark’s father is visited by the dead as his time nears.  How do Appalachians see this gift?

It is by no means universal. Elizabeth Sutherland’s study of second sight in the Scottish Highlands “Ravens and Black Rain” makes me think that the sight is a Celtic cultural trait that came over with the settlers from the mountainous areas of Britain. We see less of it over time as we enter the world of call-waiting and cable television. For whatever reason, the sight flourished in areas of rural isolation, and that is hard to come by any more. These days we use e-mail.

There is a timeless quality to the message in legends and folklore.  Is that part of your purpose in using them in your novels?

I think that the present is best understood by studying the past. Why do locust trees have thorns that extend 20 feet up the trunk of the tree? Thorns are a protection against bark-eating animals, but today’s bark-eaters like deer can only reach half that high. It’s because when locust trees evolved here in these mountains, the predators they had to worry about were woolly mammoths who could indeed reach bark that grew 20 feet off the ground. My knowing about the region’s past helps me understand the locust tree that grows in my pasture today.

How do you balance writing your mysteries with writing the ballad novels?

Well, that question makes me sad. Actually the Elizabeth MacPherson novels are cultural satires, and not mysteries for the same reason that Pride & Prejudice is not a romance novel-- that is, unless you are reading with your brain in too low a gear. However, since I am utterly weary of explaining this to people in tones of decreasing civility, I’m afraid I’ve given it up. No more Elizabeth MacPherson novels, --- because of questions like this.

You use your own genealogy to create The Songcatcher.  What advice would you give writers wanting to use family history as a foundation?

I would advise extreme caution. Remember that I wrote 16 novels before I ventured into this territory of family history, and even then I did so because Malcolm’s story intrigued me, and not because he was a relative of mine. There is always the tendency to skimp on character delineation in family works-- the writer knows what a sweetie Uncle John was, and she forgets that the reader will not take this for granted and must be shown. Unless you can be absolutely objective or even disapproving of your kinfolk, and unless you are fearless in the face of familial wrath over what you have written-- don’t do it. Hagiography makes for lousy fiction.

What advice would you give to writers wanting to write about their region?

First of all, to write entertainingly about a region takes talent and a genuine love of the place, and to write knowledgeably about a region requires the sort of research that people usually put into dissertations. I read history, geography, geology, British and Irish history and natural history, and scores of other non-fiction works on everything from handicrafts to Cherokee folklore. Writing about place is not an easy field in which to work, and I do not think place is ever the primary focus of my novel. I always have a strong story, and a sense that the emotions and events will strike a chord with people from other places as well. As J. M. Barrie once wrote: “This has all happened before, and it will all happen again. This time it happened in... in his case...London.”

When you consciously write about a region you must make sure that you actually have something to say, something besides, “Gee, whiz, Boise is a nifty place.”

Visit the Sharyn McCrumb Official Web Site at:

E-mail Sharyn McCrumb at mccrumb@netscope.net

The Ballad Series


The Song Catcher, Dutton, 2001

                     Southern Scribe Review



The Ballad of Frankie Silver, Penguin, 1999
The Rosewood Casket, Signet, 1997
She Walks These Hills, Signet, 1995
The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Onyx, 1993
If I Ever Return, Pretty Peggy-O, Ballantine, 1991

© 2001 Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved