News and Reviews
What reviewers are saying
From the Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing:
"In this unusual tale of death and monsters and environmental devastation, horror, science fiction, romance, and satire bleed together to form a vibrant literary delight that is as powerful and imposing as the fearsome orange-hued river that runs through it...This nicely paced, suspenseful tale, imbued with detailed knowledge of the Appalachian region and the coal mining industry, is aided by Nieman's rich, artistic language and redolent descriptions of a grim but fascinating literary ecosphere where giant cracks open in the ground, ordinary rock underfoot leaks a kind of vile pus, and orange goo fills the waterways. It's a strange, disconcerting place populated by thoughtful, articulate people; trigger-happy rent-a-cops; zombies; and residents who can mysteriously evaporate or be stripped to the bone."
From the News & Record:
"Nieman is certainly not the first person to write about West Virginia, the devastation to landscape and health caused by mining and fracking, and the desperate lives of many residents as mining jobs vanish, leaving only ruin and hopeless poverty. But in "To the Bones," she writes about all this in an unusual way. Her prose reflects her background as both a working journalist, trained to investigate, notice details and write dispassionately, and as a poet, who encounters the world in a different way....In the end, there's much in the story about good and evil, the responsible use of power, love and relationships, and the beautiful , tragic part of Appalachia called West Virginia."
From The Observer:
"...bodily decay serves as a metaphor for a ravaged land and ecological devastation while Redbird's zombie panic and end-times paranoia are the expression of the prostrate hopelessness of the town's residents. While some of the story elements like the Kavanaghs' brooding mansion bring to mind familiar cinematic tropes, the story progresses assuredly thanks to Nieman's strong characterizations and sense of place, hallmarks of earlier works such as her superb realistic short story collection Fidelities (2004)— an entertaining supernatural thriller about all-too-real threats."
From Small Press Picks:
...From here, the novel takes readers on an entertaining, genre-bending ride. The hunt for Dreama, whose disappearance seems to be the novel's central mystery, brings surprising revelations that complicate the story of the Kavanaughs. Layered onto this is a tale of ecological sleuthing, in which a local reporter, with help from Lourana, discovers why the river that runs through Redbird has become so polluted with sulfuric acid that it can break down the metal of bridges and piers and burn the flesh off any people who have the misfortune of falling into the water. As the reporter and Lourana discover, the pollution was no accident...
The novel also has elements of a western, culminating in a tense, OK Corral-style showdown between Darrick and the most threatening member of the Kavanaugh family, whose powers have come to exceed Darrick's. (As an aside, the scene of the showdown, the Kavanaugh mansion and crypt, might be the set of a horror film. Nieman makes masterful use of this setting, showing how it helps fuel the villain's powers, and the fears of his prey.)
On a lighter note, Darrick unwittingly kicks off a local zombie legend, of which he is the star. The legend begins when some locals spot Darrick after he first emerges from the bone pit, bloodied and sullied from human remains...
Instead of feeling like disparate parts, all these genre elements fit together seamlessly, and they build upon one another in satisfying ways.
Finally, like Stephen King's masterpiece The Dead Zone, Nieman's novel insightfully portrays the complications of possessing unexpected powers, which rarely are unmitigated blessings. As Nieman and King make clear, these powers can force uncomfortable dilemmas and decisions on those who harbor them, and as Darrick discovers, they can be as likely to bring negative consequences as good ones."
Advance praise for To the Bones:
"This is the West Virginia novel done right: slam-bang storytelling in tightly controlled language, by turns horrific and funny and beautiful."
Pinckney Benedict, author of Miracle Boy and Other Stories
"A storytelling feat: a pulse-pounding thriller that also manages to construct a whole terrifying, gorgeous mythology. To the Bones surprises and captivates at every turn."
Clare Beams, author of We Show What We Have Learned
"A thrilling hike into coal country, Nieman's page-turner pulls off an audacious trick: empathy for a misunderstood region."
James Tate Hill, author of Academy Gothic
"Evocative, intelligent prose conjures an anxious mood and strong sense of place while spotlighting the societal and environmental devastation wrought by the coal mining industry."
"An immensely readable story of good versus evil, with enough twists and turns (and twists within turns) to keep you guessing to the last minute."
Steve Weddle, author of Country Hardball
Speaking of the Leopard Lady
David Halperin, an eminent scholar of the Old Testament and UFOs alike, wrote this incredible essay on the Bible in Leopard Lady. Here's an excerpt:
"This leopard-skin come onto me / when I lost love," this Lady begins her tale. She adds in parentheses, "this is not for the marks to know," these being the "rubes," the hicks come to see her circus act, who gawp at her as she lets the enshrouding red silk fall away from her leopard-spotted body.
" … the letting-go of that man–
him of me then me of him–
left me streaked, specked, and spotted
like the flocks of Jacob,
and I opened my mouth to say
the true things that underprop the world."
You already can feel her voice: earthy, uneducated yet eloquent, drenched in the language of the Bible, which (we later learn) was the essential book on which she grew up. She alludes to the story of Jacob and his flocks in the 30th chapter of Genesis, but more tellingly to Jesus's quotation of Psalm 78: "I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:35).
The first review for Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, was the lead title in Grace Cavalieri's roundup for the Washington Independent Review of Books. "Traveling showfolk, river towns, Siamese twins, the rubber man — and there's a professor that tell stories reverberating through the Leopard Lady's contemplations and ruminations. Some parables are funny, some sad, all are profound in Lady's innocence and discoveries. The Leopard Lady is the product of a powerful writer who knows what she wants and sets the Lady out to find it. Nieman, with vivid language, writes what Leopard Lady believes — including Bible teachings, dramatized and characterized through a fictional mind that suddenly becomes wholly real to us. This is about the stages of life for one whose perseverance is to seek pieces of the puzzle and even a piece of love. The poems are images of truth with stunning versatility," writes Cavalieri, Maryland's poet laureate, who produces "The Poet and the Poem" at the Library of Congress for public radio.
When the Characters Find You
Thanks to Women Writers, Women's Books for letting me talk about the process of creation, persona poetry, and the long process from the Leopard Lady's first appearance to the finished book.
A New interview
Here's a new interview up at Speaking of Marvels.
The Creation of the Leopard Lady
A new blog post up at Trish Hopkinson's site lets me expand on the Leopard Lady and how she came to be.
Where did she come from?
I wrote this blog post for LitChat on how the Leopard Lady entered my life. Every story comes from somewhere, but some are stranger than others.
Notes from a student
I enjoyed this blog post from Angela Leffel, who took my class at John C. Campbell Folk School in July.
I was vacationing in Ireland, shaking the debris of the past year out of my head, when I searched out a wi-fi signal and checked my email. There it was - confirmation that a lengthy process toward the publication of my next novel had come to fruition.
I'm not announcing the publisher yet, letting them have the official announcement, but it's a book that is both a look back at my earliest writing, and a leap into a new form. Pub date is supposed to be spring of 2019.
Along with that good news, I can confirm that my latest poetry collection will also appear in 2019. "The Leopard Lady Speaks: A Novel in Verse," will be out in the fall from Press 53. Some of the poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Chautauqua, and other journals.
More to come!
"Backwater," my YA/crime crossover novel, won the Seven Hills Prize for YA fiction. That was a nice bit of confirmation as it continues to seek a home. Meanwhile," "The Leopard Lady Speaks: A Novel in Verse" has garnered a finalist status for the May Sarton Prize and semifinalist in the Crab Orchard Review series.
The end of March brought two interesting encounters with literature in other tongues - one in Spanish, one in Greek.
On March 22, I was delighted to take part again in the Quixote Festival that Rafael Osuba has created across North Carolina. Last year, I read from Cervantes as well as from "Hotel Worthy" in Cameron Village Library, Raleigh. This year, it was a celebration of 50 years of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "One Hundred Years of Solitude." You can see an impromptu interview on the home page, and a bit of the readings (also from "Hotel Worthy") on my Facebook page as well.
It was great to be back on the campus of Queens University of Charlotte, where I gained my MFA, and to join a group of poets and writers to celebrate the work of the word in both English and Spanish. My Spanish, sadly, is limited - I could gather a few phrases or words, but it was like picking wildflowers out of dried hay, the color and scent were gone.
If my Spanish is limited, then my Greek is nonexistent - still, I will be excited to see translations of some of my poems done by students of Evangelia Liana Sakelliou at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. I had some correspondence with one of the students regarding "He Whom You Love," a pantoum about the fate of Lazarus. It features vernacular like "full of piss and vinegar" - wonder what the equivalent is in Greek?
Should they appear in Poeticanet, as Dr. Sakkeliou indicated, I'll post a link - it is a bilingual journal.
A New Review at "Books for Readers"
Poetry, of course, has long been thriving in small presses. In Hotel Worthy by Valerie Nieman each poem is serious–not meaning without humor, because they are witty and often brilliant in their word experiments– but rather always reaching as far as they can go--serious as the opposite of superficial. A poem like "Stratigraphy," for example, starts with an archaeological site and brings us twenty-first century readers back to our ancient progenitors. Nieman makes this identification so smoothly that you feel suddenly that you are one of the ancient makers of the engraved figures.
Another good poem connecting us to ancient archeological sites is "The Guide: Cave Paintings at Fonte de Gaume," which takes another strategy and gives us the story of the guide's grandfather who, with his friends, marked the old cave paintings with graffiti.
We then, in Nieman's poems, are led to identify with the ancient artists, the scientists, and the careless adventuring boys– just for starters.
I have known Valerie Nieman's novels better than her poetry, so I'm not surprised she can tell a story–but I am awed that she can do it so compactly, with such brilliant attention to imagery and dreams and words. The title poem, "Hotel Worthy," written in full-justification chunks, is a splendid evocation of her own childhood (and much of mine!)– not the nostalgic parts, but the parts when you are trained and shaped in ways that your adult self may have to reject.
Balancing this psychological depth are other poems like the wonderful "Live With It" in which a woman takes a stand in favor of her own body:
It's not my hairy body that offends you,
but my hairy mind,
mammalian, full of heat.....
But to focus on the personal poems would be to miss the breadth of Nieman's collection: the archaeological poems are one part; there are also poems drunk on words like "Spandrel;" lots of nature and natural phenomenon for which she has precise language; poems about gardening and harvesting and other work. Even road kill gets a poem. The collection ranges widely, but its intelligence is always grounded in objects and bodies
.Almost at the end is a several part poem with apples called "A Blessing on the Tongue" that describes "the narrow hips of Red Delicious" and then ranges into history and the naming of apples like King Luscious, and the derivation of the word Luscious.
A lush and luscious collection.
A good start to the year... in the photo above, you see me reading with Richard Krawiec at the East Bay Meeting House in Charleston. This series, Monday Night Poetry and Music, has been running for several years, and Jim Lundy keeps it humming.
Also this early January, Hotel Worthy was featured by Sundress Publications in their ongoing series called "The Wardrobe" highlighting poetry by women. A link to one of the poems is located above, while three others were featured earlier in the week.
Thanksgiving is here, and thanks are given - which should not be reserved to one day a year.
I was delighted to learn that work from Hotel Worthy has been nominated by Press 53 for two prizes.
The title work - flash fiction/poem - was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2016, along with work by Hedy Habra, Kathleen McGookey, Joseph Mills and Grant Faulkner.
Another poem from that collection, "Choice of Words," has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Thanks, Press 53, for believing in Hotel Worthy.
This has been a good year - I enjoyed doing readings at Piccolo Spoleto and the Joaquin Miller Series and at Salem College's Center for Women Writers. I am thankful for these and other opportunities - for work that continues - and the great unfolding delight of each day.
I was driving back from Raleigh the other night and a shooting star - a meteorite - flashed across the road in front of me. It was a brief but memorable encounter, as the speck of dust or ice flashed out in a sizzzle of light.
Thanks for that, too.
I read the other day that Paul Simon wrote "Homeward Bound" while on a train trip in or around Manchester, England. That song was a favorite when I was a teenager, though I'd traveled no farther than Maine, and still calls up strong emotion when I hear it.
So it's not surprising that when I connected with the folks at Kestrel literary journal to appear again this year at the Kestrel Festival in October, that music began playing in my thoughts. Kestrel was a special part of my years in West Virginia, where I began my work as a writer, gained my first publications, and then was "brought into the fold" as a literary magazine editor with the nascent Kestrel.
Martin Lammon and the late John King and I would gather over coffee at the Poky Dot restaurant in Fairmont, WV, a classic "breakfast all day" diner that's been upscaled in recent years, to exchange our stacks of manuscripts and discuss what we liked, and what we weren't certain about. I'm proud that in those early years were published many writers who were already well known or who would go on to gain distinction nationally.
Soon after the magazine began, we started thinking about a festival of literature, art, and music. That came to be, and we hosted such luminaries as Donald Hall and Jean Valentine and Margaret Gibson and many others.
Mary Dillow Stewart would join the editorial team, then John Hoppenthaler. I left West Virginia in 1997, but Kestrel is still going strong, under the leadership of Donna Long and Suzanne Heagy and Elizabeth Savage. The festival, too, endures.
If you are in or around Fairmont, WV, on Oct. 9-11, catch the events at the university and venues in town. I will be reading Saturday at 2 p.m. and doing manuscript consultations.
North Carolina is blessed with fine organizations that support writers, from the North Carolina Writers Network to the MFA programs at several universities, from excellent bookstores to retreat centers that offer a quiet space for reflection.
The Center for Women Writers at Salem College is one of those special places, and I'm honored to be invited to read there on Oct. 9.
Established in 1996, the center encourages writers at its host institution of Salem College, within the Winston-Salem community, and around the world through its international literary awards. Annette Allen's vision has been continued by Metta Sáma, Director of Creative Writing & Assistant Professor in Creative Writing, who runs the center with the aid of student interns.
If you want to know more, contact the Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.