{Interview} To The Bones: Award winning author and poet Valerie Nieman talks to Kendall Reviews

Valerie Nieman’s third poetry collection, Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, was published in fall 2018. Her fourth novel, To the Bones, is scheduled for June 1st 2019.

She was a 2013-2014 North Carolina Arts Council poetry fellow, and has received an NEA creative writing fellowship as well as major grants in West Virginia and Kentucky. Her awards include the Greg Grummer, Nazim Hikmet, and Byron Herbert Reece poetry prizes.

Nieman is the author of three novels: Blood Clay, a novel of the New South, which was honored with the Eric Hoffer Prize in General Fiction; a novel about the Rust Belt of the 1970s, Survivors; and a science fiction title, Neena Gathering, recently reissued as a classic in the post-apocalyptic genre. She also has published a collection of short stories, Fidelities, and two earlier poetry collections, Wake Wake Wake and Hotel Worthy.

Nieman graduated from West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she now teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University and at venues ranging from the John C. Campbell Folk School to WriterHouse. She was a founding editor of Kestrel and formerly the poetry editor of Prime Number magazine.

KR: Coffee?

KR: Could you tell me a little about yourself please?

I was born in rural New York State, in the hilly southwestern portion that’s considered part of Appalachia. I grew up and out of sickness to become a sturdy tomboy who divided her time between reading, woods-wandering, and fishing. After finishing a journalism degree at West Virginia University, I went to work at small dailies nearby, while homesteading a hill farm and writing my first novel.

Things changed.

I wound up in North Carolina, newly divorced, starting over at another newspaper. I went back to school in the low-residency program at Queens University of Charlotte and got my MFA, which with luck and timing led to a tenure-track post at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

I’ve been able to do what I always wanted, write poems and novels. I never thought I’d be a teacher, but here I am, loving the time I get to spend with creative writing students. A mistake or three along the way, but I regret nothing—it’s all material.

KR: What do you like to do when not writing?

I love to hike, mostly alone—reference Robert Macfarlane’s Tweet about the phrase “ciúnas gan uaigneas— literally quietness without loneliness(Irish/Gaeilge). A phrase that carries a sense of calm solitude, of being (even briefly) outside or beyond the usual chaos & noise. I sometimes hike with groups, more sensible at my age, but there’s so much chatting! I am also learning to fly fish, after inheriting my father’s tackle. I was able to wet a line in Ireland last year, and caught trout in the Annalee River and Lough Corrib, a great thrill!

I also love traveling near and far. Wandering jaunts to the Perigord region where Cro-Magnon man was discovered, hiking across and around the Highlands and islands of Scotland, and last year, Ireland. I garden, though only in a small way now, and I enjoy (American) football and hockey. And reading, of course.

KR: What is your favourite childhood book?

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Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass, along with many books featuring horses. I sort of skipped most children’s literature, and I read a lot of nature and science books when I was quite young because the town librarian did not allow anyone under 18 to take out novels!

KR: What is your favourite album, and does music play any role in your writing?

I love a wide range of music, from classical to rock to country blues, but I cannot listen to music while I write. I am pulled right out of the creative process and into the songs. I did, however, listen to Kathy Mattea’s “Coal” album during the time that I was completing To the Bones.

KR: Do you have a favourite horror movie/director?

Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, John Carpenter.

KR: What are you reading now?

I am getting ready to start Get in Trouble, stories by Kelly Link, once I knock out a couple of columns.

KR: What was the last great book you read?

Elizabeth Hand’s Saffron and Brimstone.

KR: E-Book, Paperback or Hardback?


KR: Who were the authors that inspired you to write?

I grew up with a small home library of old books, notably Poe, Hawthorne, Tennyson, Shakespeare, and Twain. We lived in the country, so I read and re-read these books between trips to the town library. I discovered Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man on a drugstore rack in my early teens, then Ursula Le Guin and Tolkein and Lovecraft and, well, you know the story!

KR: Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you?

I’ve done both. Generally the character or situation catches me first, and I’ll get a sense of the direction. I’ll work my way to a fuzzy outline and let it fill in organically. My first novel, Neena Gathering, had a fairy tale as a general template. On Blood Clay I started from an explosive incident but did not know how it would end. I had a more structured approach for To the Bones, specifically because I was wanting to experiment with a genre mashup, but I still did not know how the end would transpire. The characters always have to lead.

KR: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

My research for To the Bones was my time living and working in West Virginia as a farmer and reporter. I covered both the coal industry and the environmental beat, along with many years as a police reporter, so that material was available in my own memory stores. I did some research to refresh my knowledge of acid mine drainage, and also reviewed notes I had on Celtic king-making practices and the role of the brehon.

To the Bones was the quickest book I’ve written, less than a year, a goal that I set myself to work quickly and have fun. I was working from lived experience. I usually labor along for 4-5 years on books that require more research.

The longest research span has been for an historical fantasy set around 1000 AD in Scotland, with ties to actual events and speculation on the interplay of religions, both ancient and Christian, and power. I did an immense amount of research over many years, wanting to portray the people and the period accurately, but the publishing world has not looked with favor on this one.

KR: How would you describe your writing style?

I am a poet as well as a novelist, and I was educated as a journalist, so there are no wasted words in my prose. I just cannot be discursive. One beta reader said of this book that “It reads like a rocket.”

KR: Describe your usual writing day?

Nothing is usual. The idea of the writer who has a fixed schedule has a lot of support among writing gurus, but I don’t think it works in real life. I am always writing, whether or not I’m at the keyboard, thinking, plotting, observing. The notes feature on my phone is great for capturing those moments, though the texts sometimes end up pretty cryptic.

That said, I write best in the morning, and I am fortunate in coming to the point in my life (as a professor) where I have good chunks of uninterrupted time to work.

KR: Do you have a favourite story/short that youve written (published or not)?

I had a story called “Corridors” that kicked around for many years but was never taken. I’d almost forgotten it when I saw a call for “American Apocalypse” at the Green Mountains Review. The editors there were wildly positive on the piece. That was back when I was writing short stories. I don’t write short fiction any longer, but have gone to either extreme, novels or poems, and abandoned the middle.

KR: Do you read your book reviews?

Ummmm… yes, though that can be bad or good, or both at the same time.

KR: How do you think youve developed as an author?

I have become less fearful. I’ve also found myself returning to my roots as an Appalachian and as a writer of speculative fiction, after a long time working in realistic/mainstream realms.

KR: What is the best piece of advice youve received regarding your writing?

Finish what you start.

KR: What scares you?

Not creepy-crawlies—I love wild things and spend as much time taking photos of fungi as flowers. I am, however, afraid of heights.

When it comes to horror, I prefer to be scared by the eldritch and uncanny rather than by gore.

KR: Can you tell me about your latest release please?

To the Bones is a genre mashup, with elements of mystery, horror, the Appalachian tall tale, even a dash of the Western. It began when I made the comment that, back in West Virginia, if I was going to kill someone, then I’d toss him down a mine crack. My friend challenged me to do just that —so Darrick MacBrehon, a government auditor, wakes up in a pit full of human bones after getting off the highway at Redbird, WV. He finds his way to a sweepstakes parlor operated by Lourana Taylor, a grieving mother who’s been searching for her missing daughter. With a snowstorm bearing down on a Thanksgiving weekend, the pair find themselves making common cause against the local coal barons, the Kavanaghs, whom Lourana believes are behind both incidents. Darrick has also developed a lethal defense mechanism, its source unknown. They gain and lose allies, make discoveries, and confront the Kavanaghs. There’s a zombie panic, a New York psychic, and a terrible human tragedy in the acidic river.

KR: What are you working on now?

I am trying to complete a haibun manuscript based on a month hiking solo in Scotland after my mother’s death. I have the glimmerings of three novels, all of them speculative, and am watching them closely to see which one starts to let off some light and heat.

KR: You find yourself on a desert island, which three people would you wish to be deserted with you and why?

You can choose

a) One fictional character from your writing.

Arden, the “barterman” in Neena Gathering. He’s smart, adaptable, ruthless when necessary, and loves books.

b) One fictional character from any other book.

I’ll cheat and say television’s Doctor Who, because then I’d have access to the entire history of the universe and no fears of Daleks. And he/she has a great sense of humor.

c) One real-life person that is not a family member or friend.

Michelle Obama. We’d have grand discussions, and a fantastic garden!

KR: Thank you very much Valerie.

Valerie Nieman


You can follow Valerie on Twitter @valnieman

You can find out more about Valerie by visiting her official website www.valnieman.com

To The Bones


Darrick MacBrehon, a government auditor, wakes among the dead. Bloodied and disoriented from a gaping head wound, the man who staggers out of the mine crack in Redbird, West Virginia, is much more powerful—and dangerous—than the one thrown in. An orphan with an unknown past, he must now figure out how to have a future.

Hard-as-nails Lourana Taylor works as a sweepstakes operator and spends her time searching for any clues that might lead to Dreama, her missing daughter. Could this stranger’s tale of a pit of bones be connected? With help from disgraced deputy Marco DeLucca and Zadie Person, a local journalist  investigating an acid mine spill, Darrick and Lourana push against everyone who tries to block the truth. Along the way, the bonds of love and friendship are tested, and bodies pile up on both sides.

In a town where the river flows orange and the founding—and controlling—family is rumored to “strip a man to the bones,” the conspiracy that bleeds Redbird runs as deep as the coal veins that feed it.

You can buy To The Bones from Amazon UK Amazon US

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