ROGERSVILLE — Hawkins County and Kingsport Native Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne recently released her first novel, “Holding on to Nothing” in October of this year. On Nov. 8, Shelburne visited Rogersville’s H.B. Stamps Library to read, discuss and sign copies of her new work.
Shelburne’s novel is set in a fictional, rural Tennessee town and touches on themes of family, music and small towns. Shelburne’s website explains that the story follows Lucy Kilgore, who “has her bags packed to escape her rural Tennessee upbringing, but a drunken mistake forever tethers her to the town and one of its least-admired residents, Jeptha Taylor, who becomes the father of her child.”
Though the work is not actually set in Hawkins County, there are many aspects that are loosely based on Shelburne’s experiences growing up and her interpretation of East Tennessee.
Shelburne lived with her family in the “Sinking Creek” area of Surgoinsville in an old farmhouse until she was five years old. The family then moved to Kingsport where she attended school.
She currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but her family history is also deeply rooted in East Tennessee. Her father, Tom Shelburne practiced law in Rogersville for many years. Her mother, Sally Chiles Shelburne, also wrote a popular column called “On Sinking Creek” for the Kingsport Times News.
A little like an Appalachian Ballad
“To the extent that there is a theme in the book, it’s maybe a little like an Appalachian Ballad come to life,” Shelburne told the gathered crows at H.B. Stamps.
She then poetically read the lyrics to “Constant Sorrow,” which she explained is one of her “all-time favorite songs” that is also found within her book.
“One of the reasons that I love those old-time songs is that they continue and persist in our culture,” she said. “Some of them are even hundreds of years old, but I think they persist because they are full of characters like Jeptha and Lucy who are really striving to make the best of the hand they’ve been dealt in life. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they don’t.”
She went on to tell the Review that Kingpsort and Hawkins County were “pretty strong influences” on her novel.
“Where the novel is set is a fictitious small town, but it was definitely inspired by living around here,” she said. “I got to take the best of everything I knew and put it in the book. So, it’s definitely the background in my head when I write. I don’t see where I am at the moment, I just see Tennessee.”
There were no specific people from Kingsport or Hawkins County that influenced her work, rather, it was “an amalgamation of everyone I’ve met and heard stories about.”
“It was kind of like wondering, ‘what would someone be like if this were there situation?’” she explained. “It was fun to create my own characters who got to do whatever it was they wanted to do.”
The writing process
Shelburne explained that she actually wrote the first sentence of “Holding on to Nothing” back in 2006.
“It a line about Lucy that read, ‘she had a smile that made people feel safe even though she’d never felt that way,’” she said.
Between 2006 and the book’s completion over 10 years later, Shelburne explained that she worked on the book periodically.
“I wasn’t working on it every day during that time,” she said. “I’ve got four little kids, so I took some time off for the having of those kids. But, I kept coming back to it because I loved those two characters and I wanted to know what was going to happen to them.”
She went on to explain that there are two kinds of writers: ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers.’
“There are some writers who are ‘plotters,’ and have everything planned out and know exactly what’s going to happen in their books,” she said. “Then there are ‘pantsers,’ who are riding by the seat of their pants — I am that. So, I had these two characters, but every day I said, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen with them today.’ It was an adventure to figure out where they were going to go.”
She later told the Review that the book has morphed quite a bit from that first sentence in 2006.
“Originally, the book just had Lucy’s perspective, and Jeptha’s voice wasn’t there,” Shelburne said. “Then, I realized that I really should have him in there too. At one point, there was also a really bad part where Lucy was living in Cambridge and hanging out at a Bluegrass bar feeling homesick, which was pretty much exactly what I was doing at the time. This part was really, really bad, so I had to throw all that away. Thankfully, it was the right thing to do. Then, once I got the story all situated in Tennessee and gave Jeptha a voice, it felt like the story broke open.”
Jeptha and Lucy
“In the book, Lucy is arguing with Jeptha and telling him ‘don’t do that,’” one of the audience members said to Shelburne at the H.B. Stamps event. “It’s almost as if you’re writing, but the story comes from the universe. Did you have that experience?”
“I think if I knew I was writing a book that would tie up in a very happy bow at the end, I would have written a different book,” she responded. “Then, Jeptha would have listened to me when I yelled at him. But, he did not because that’s also just not his character. If you’re writing a character and they suddenly veer 180 degrees from their path, the reader might think, ‘that doesn’t seem quite right.’ So, I had to keep going with the character that I had created.”
She went on to tell the Review that, through Lucy and Jeptha, she wanted to tell the story of the “middle where life happens.”
“Nobody is either all good or all bad,” she said. “No place is either all good or all bad. The story I was trying to tell was somewhere right in the middle.”
Writing is in her blood
Shelburne explained that her mother’s writing ability influenced her own interest in writing.
“Her column in the Kingsport Times News was a lot about raising the four of us, but she also wrote on politics and a little bit of everything,” she said. “Someone even told me tonight that their favorite column of hers was the one about Easter grass and finding it stuffed in various places months after Easter. She is a gorgeous writer and so, so funny.”
She went on to explain that her mother’s ability to always “observe the world around her” made her writing so strong.
“My dad is also an amazing reader and incredible oral story teller,” she added. “He was always telling stories. Between those two, I always felt like I didn’t have a choice but to become a writer.”
Coming back home
Shelburne currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but she often came back to East Tennessee to visit her parents when they were still living here.
They actually moved to Cambridge a few years ago to be closer to their grandchildren.
“It has been really wonderful to be back home this week,” Shelburne told the Review after the H.B. Stamps event. “But, I have also cried a lot because I am writing this book about Tennessee, but I don’t have a home here at the moment. It’s hard and a little bittersweet.”
She also explained at the event that she has already started writing the second book, which she explained will also be set in the fictional East Tennessee town.
“I love all of the characters in small towns who all have their own stories,” she said. “You don’t always get to know them as well as you would like. As a writer, it’s fun to dive into their heads and get to know them better. Two of the characters who didn’t appear on the page very much in this book are much bigger in the next book.”
She also explained with a laugh that the writing process for the second book is progressing much faster than the first one did.
“I’d love for readers to come away from the book with some empathy for Jeptha and Lucy and for their lives,” Shelburne told the Review. “I think fiction sometimes does a really good job of creating empathy and helping people understand characters better than straight news articles would, and I say this as a journalist (Shelburne’s Journalism has appeared in “The Atlantic, “Boston Globe,” “Boston Magazine” and “GlobalPost,” among others). That’s the reason we all sit on our porch and tell stories. It helps you understand people better by telling stories about them.”