In Sarah Elaine Smith’s new novel, Marilou is Everywhere, a young woman from Deep Valley, Pennsylvania, goes missing. Jude Vanderjohn is smart, beautiful and seemingly capable of a secret life. She’s also mixed race, which becomes a factor as the search unfolds, a search that might not be as exhaustive as it would have been if Jude was white. The narrator of the novel is Cindy Stoat, a younger girl in the community who, along with her brothers, has turned ‘basically feral’ since their mother took a leave of absence. The summer Jude disappears, Cindy views the world newly aware of its threats, temptations and dangers. She’s drawn towards Jude’s family and sees for herself a spot in the ramshackle Vanderjohn home. She begins to slip out of her own life and into the space Jude has left behind. ‘I stood in the place where Jude was supposed to be,’ she thinks. ‘And this, I thought, was a kindness.’

Sarah Elaine Smith grew up in Greene County, Pennsylvania, and depicts the rural United States in rich detail—not just the ‘stony light’ that falls in the hills and makes ‘the vines and mosses a vivid, nightmare green’; not just the ‘rainbows in oil puddles’; but also the unspoken customs, the small-town small talk and the complicated shapes racism takes in a predominantly white community. Hers is a novel about whiteness, about life on the margins, and why some lives seem to matter more than others. ‘To be honest, we just weren’t looking that hard,’ Cindy admits. ‘Nobody knew where to search and it was summer vacation anyway—but that wasn’t the real reason nobody looked for Jude.’

Five Dials spoke to Smith in May from her home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, about the novel and the state of Appalachia in these turbulent times of face masks, rebellion and protests.


Five Dials

Can we talk a bit about the disappearing girl trope? When did that become important to you?

Sarah

One of the things about the missing girl trope is that our relationship to those kinds of stories is a lot more complicated than it first seems. We want to protect innocence and we consider young womanhood to be an avatar for that. But there’s actually something a lot more dark and curious about the fascination with those stories. It may have more to do with Cindy’s means of idolizing the disappeared person, or the kind of reverse fame that you get from being taken out of your life in some way. I noticed around 2012 or ’13 that I was fascinated and I started to get a little bit suspicious about why I was so into them.

Five Dials

The novel brings up the question of how we search for the missing. Why are some people searched for? Why do some people disappear? This, of course, ties into the importance of race in the book.

Sarah

Actually, that didn’t come in until a little bit later. I had done a few drafts of the book before I realized that that was one reason why this narrative happened in this specific way. One of the things that’s important about the question of who gets searched for is that in the case of what happens with Jude, a lot of the people in the community of this book would say, ‘I am a good person. I’m not racist. I’m not like that.’

What they might mean by that is, ‘I don’t use racial epithets and I’ve never harmed someone physically who is a person of colour.’ They mean, ‘I’ve never done these really overt forms of racism.’ But people in this community can’t get in touch with the reality that Jude is missing and that her life is important and is worth valuing and cherishing. The fact that they can’t get there is one of the most horrifying things in the book.

What I find so fascinating about crime stories and tropes from narratives like popular fiction and television. We have this huge appetite for a certain kind of story because it reinforces some sense of innocence for us. If you’re the person who’s reading the disappearance mystery story you’re not the bad guy, by virtue of the fact that you’re reading it.

You get to imagine yourself to be on the side of finding the person and you get to imagine that there is a wrongdoer, an evil person, and we’ll find the evil person and deal with them. It’s a way of getting rid of all of this societal burden for why these crimes arise in the first place.

Five Dials

The racism that you describe in the novel exists in a hazy way between the residents. In one section you describe untransformed racial attitudes. ‘Her disapproval met in the air with the disapproval of whoever she was talking to and the two silent moods married and had their own life in the air over us.’ It doesn’t need to be said. The residents never have to say what they actually mean. Nothing is real if you don’t have to say it.

Sarah

There are all of these ways in which whiteness is invisible to white people. One of the challenges of the book was how is it possible to write about whiteness? To make it apparent, to show it, make it show itself in a book that is told by a white narrator. A lot of what I hear other white writers say in their own defence of why they don’t write about race is, ‘Oh, I’m from this almost all-white place.’ ‘There weren’t many people of colour where I grew up, so it’s not part of my reality.’ As if whiteness isn’t involved in race. There’s a way in which whiteness continues to hide its tracks in the mind. What could make it visible as an action that you’re responsible for?

It became really important to find a way to show that this is powerful, because racist assumptions are powerful because they don’t have to be said. Certain attitudes can be presumed to be shared amongst white people. Not having to articulate those attitudes is one of the things that empowers them to keep existing.

One thing I started doing in my regular life was questioning other white people when they would say something that had a dog-whistle echo in it, or some kind of reinforcement of white supremacy. Even if it was a really subtle thing, or just a person saying, ‘Oh, I hear you’re moving to Swissvale. Isn’t that neighbourhood, you know, a little rough?’ I started asking, ‘Oh, what do you mean? I don’t understand. Could you tell me what you’re saying?’ And the thing is, they could. They don’t want to. It becomes horrifying if they say it.

Five Dials

So when it’s made real, it becomes something else entirely?

Sarah

That’s the very root of the question. What happens? What harm comes from refusing to see yourself?

Five Dials

Speaking of the community, the setting of your novel, Greene County, is active in shaping the lives and the bodies of those who live there. One of the sections that stood out describes how ‘those who stuck around picked up enough grit and crud and survival skills that they often could not be told apart from the rest of us who were bent into catastrophe postures.’ You describe the aloneness, well-intentioned social workers, post-industrial blight. How does this landscape transform people so severely?

Sarah

One of the most powerful features of where I’m from in Appalachia is the story that you’re given about who you are by everyone you grow up with. And by everyone in the world outside of you, too. The most potent version of that, and maybe the most visible version, is the way the gas and coal industries come into this area and take all of the wealth out of it from under your feet, from literally under your feet, and destroy the places where you live. This has been happening for a long time, ever since the initial theft of the land from First Nations people. It is inherent in some ways, the ways we’ve been given to understand ourselves and who we are in relation to this place. And those stories are so powerfully reinforcing that they become difficult to defy. Difficult in the sense that if you want to be a little bit different than everyone else, it just has to get smacked down right away, you know?

And if you want something for yourself, then you’re being uppity. And if you want to question what someone else is doing . . . There’s just a reified sense of who we are and how we’re supposed to be. And some of it comes from inside the place, and a lot of it comes from outside the place too because Appalachia is, I don’t know, America’s armpit or something.

Whenever somebody needs to write a think piece about who voted for Trump, it’s common to find some version of that, some cartoonish picture of Appalachia, when Appalachia is a lot more diverse and subtle and interesting. A lot of the pressure in that description crushes you into a catastrophe posture. The pressure of all of these repeated stories and the ways that they demand you act. After long enough, it’s hard not to believe someone else’s story about you.

Five Dials

Do you have memories of growing up and seeing the way that this power worked on people physically? Could you see it in their bodies?

Sarah

One of the main ways I saw it when I was growing up was: it holds you in place, right? It can nail your feet to the floor if you don’t pay attention. That’s a little bit arrogant of me to say because it assumes everyone wants to leave such a place the way I did. Not everyone wants to leave. Not everyone would agree with me about that. But as someone who did want to leave and someone who felt very obviously outside of the mould, I could feel this force field that wanted to keep me in a very certain shape and in a very certain size too.

I probably feel that pressure in a different way because I’m sort of like a halfling of Greene County. My family isn’t from there going back a long time. I’m from there because I’m not from anywhere else, but I’m not from there in the same way that people’s whole families have been there since the 1800s. So in a sense, no matter what, I’m still kind of an outsider there. And I think that my take on it probably reflects that.

Five Dials

On the page, Greene County seems like its own universe. The cell phone reception peters out. The deer hunting season takes place around you. It seems timeless. Classic rock plays on the radio. There’s this sense of going into a setting that’s apart from the modern world. Was Greene County in any way exaggerated?

Sarah

To this day my cell phone doesn’t work at my parents’ house. If you want to use your cell phone, you honestly have to drive out to either the gravel pit or the cemetery and stand there in the middle of the headstones.

I tried to make it just as absolutely straight up and down true to the place as possible. As someone who’s been writing about Greene County for a while, I noticed in fiction workshops people would say, ‘I just don’t think this is very believable.’ I have a little bit of weariness with that. Actually, a lot of weariness. And that’s part of what I mean about the story that other people tell you about where you’re from and who you are.

A lot of the time, totally innocently and without meaning to do this, readers can become pattern recognition devices and say, ‘Wait, this portrayal falls outside of my parameters for what a working class person sounds like or what their thoughts are like. And this falls outside of my parameters for realism.’ I think realism is just really different in Greene County. Deal with it.

So yes, all of that stuff, the deer hunting with the spotlights, it’s all 100 per cent from real life. One of the things I find most gratifying is when people from Western Pennsylvania say, ‘This book is just so this place.’ The pepperoni rolls, the Sheetz gas station, the Giant Eagle and the Single A wrestling and all of that stuff. It resonates and I’m glad it does.

Five Dials

You seem to take pleasure in some of the small interactions of small-town life. There was one line that stood out. ‘Many were scandalized. And by this I mean delighted.’ Were you always aware of these resonant small-town interactions?

Sarah

I find it so fascinating and so compelling how we’ve evolved a way of talking to each other that is the accepted way of seeing things. Or that there’s a script that you’re supposed to follow. You’re supposed to say, ‘Oh, isn’t it terrible about the Vanderjohn girl?’ Like, oh yeah, it’s terrible. But something else is going on in the group mind.

Appalachia is a place where it feels like there’s a kind of collective consciousness in a way that doesn’t necessarily make sense to people outside of it. You get hungry for details about everyone and report on them and start to think that you know everything that’s going on with everybody else. There’s a real false omniscience to it.

Five Dials

At one point Cindy says, ‘This is what makes me true rural.’ What would that mean to a British reader?

Sarah

One version of what that might mean is just this feeling of intimacy with nature and with the setting you’re in.

Another is when a car pulls up. At one point in the novel, a car pulls up unannounced at Jude’s mother’s house. It really is akin to coming in someone’s front door and picking up a pork chop and eating it. Your space extends outside of your house. And if someone drives by and they slow down a little bit, you’re like, ‘Who the fuck is that?’ You get used to this idea that your space includes more of the outer world then than it might in the city.

Five Dials

There seems to be a deep sense of rebellion in the book. Characters do not like to be told what to do. ‘I’m living this life. This is mine.’ Do you see that tying in with this current phase of rebellious behaviour, of people storming government buildings to express their rights?

Sarah

This actually is about a problem of not being able to sufficiently imagine somebody else’s reality. That problem can get worse whenever you’re used to only seeing the ways that your decisions affect your immediate vicinity. I remember in high school when people would talk about race, they were kind of talking about it like it just didn’t exist here. And if they ever encountered it, then maybe they would see how they felt about it. But it’s just not real because they can’t see it, you know? That’s the real danger of insularity. Whenever you replace what else is out there in the world with a picture that you have or that someone else gave you, then it’s difficult to imagine other people to be as real as you are.

Instead they become cardboard cut-outs and you’re the real one. I think that is completely what’s happening with people refusing to wear masks during the pandemic. The mask is, to me, the act of ultimate humility in the sense that I accept that I don’t know if I have this disease, and I accept that I don’t know how badly it could hurt somebody else. And so I accept all of those things which are hypothetical and not immediately visible to me. I agree to treat that reality with respect.

One of my fantasies for America is that we could have some kind of mandatory public service term of, you know, two or three years after high school where you have to go and live someplace else with people that you wouldn’t mix with. You do some kind of public works project. And then, after that, you go back to whatever you were going to do. I think the lives of a lot of people I grew up with and went to school with would be completely different if they had genuine in-depth experiences with people unlike themselves. That’s really what changes when you go from the city to a rural place. It doesn’t do anyone any favours to just decide that people in rural America are stupid and brutal.

And then, on the total other end of the spectrum, there is something really delicious about a sense of defiance because it’s the last thing that you can have. It’s a thing that no one can take from you – your sense of will.

Five Dials

Is it possible to survive without getting away? Jude chooses to survive and escape at the expense of others. Cindy tries to make a similar decision to save herself, but misjudges her escape route.

Sarah

The braver thing is probably to not try to escape. I believe people are capable of living together and getting past their misaligned visions of the world. I really do believe that. It’s an exhausting project to contemplate – and challenging. I don’t really know how you would do it either, which is maybe why the book is not able to imagine that yet. But yeah, I have to believe because I want this to be true in the world – that it’s possible to survive and not escape.

It’s been my experience that prolonged exposure to other people makes them very dear to me. That happens through no function I can figure out, except seeing them on a good day and then a bad day and seeing them do something kind. I’m always amazed whenever I start at a job. I think, well, I don’t have to be friends with any of these people. It’s fine. I’m not trying to. And then somehow, along the way, I know all of their pets’ names. I know what foods they’re allergic to.

This is one quality of Cindy’s that is actually really hopeful for her – her hunger for other people and her curiosity for them. It gets, in some ways, a little tarnished, when she’s just paying attention to them and just seeing them as fascinating, like jewels of being.

Five Dials

What about other depictions of small towns? How important has Twin Peaks been to you? Is it always there in the background of your mind?

Sarah

Absolutely. Twin Peaks is probably my number one artistic influence of all. It was on when I was really little. My parents loved it and I remember seeing it, not understanding it, obviously, but I remember sort of the mood of it. I also that whenever my parents would go someplace that had kind of a strange vibe, they would say, ‘We’re in the Black Lodge now.’ So I had a sense of the story, the mythos. It’s another example of the missing girl trope and maybe the first place where I saw it and thought, wow, you can take this trope from popular culture and use it as the container to carry something a lot more ambitious and strange. I love that idea.

Five Dials

In Lynch’s book on meditation, he discusses the idea of bringing ‘big fish’ up from the deep of the mind. With this technique you don’t question or tamper with the ideas, knowing that they’re powerful. You smuggle them into works of art.

Sarah

That is my MO completely. The book knows everything. It’s like I’m its little hobgoblin, you know. I do its bidding. I’m here to listen to it. It always has known more than I do. That’s just the relationship that I have with the book. What I’m really doing is collaborating with an invisible collaborator and the challenge is to trust it and to get out of the way instead of saying, ‘Oh no, please, I don’t want to write a book about race in Appalachia.’ You know what I mean?

‘I don’t know.’ ‘I don’t want to get this wrong.’ ‘I’m afraid of getting this wrong.’ ‘I’m afraid of writing this character that’s so despicable in some ways.’ Just putting aside the discomfort and fear that my ego has to say, ‘OK, book, you’re the boss. I’ll do it.’ And to trust what comes out of that. The material that comes out of that kind of collaboration is richer than what I could come up with if I sat down and thought really hard, which never works out very well for me, honestly.

Five Dials

How does that work mechanically? Do you just allow imagery, lines, whatever, to come to the page?

Sarah

If I’m trying to write something and I can feel effort – I can feel my own unwillingness to let something be strange, or ugly, or whatever, I can feel myself hesitate – I stop writing and think, why did I stop? Because whenever I stop, it’s usually because I’m trying to bargain, or trying to soften, or modulate. I think, oh, I don’t want this to be weird. Why is this so weird? Why is everything I write so weird? Please, no. It really is a process of listening. To me, there’s not really anything like writer’s block. There’s just writer’s judgement.

So there are always moments where I can feel the hesitation. And if I’m really honest with myself and I ask myself, do you know what the next word should be? the answer is always yes. I already know. And then I write it down. I trust that if I listen well enough, the right thing will be there. And it’s up to me to trust it, and develop the discipline to empty out and listen. It’s weird, but I guess that’s why I’m meditating so much.

 

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