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" Writing, for me, is kind of like going underwater. You come up for air eventually and everything is more normal again. So I'm not sure when I'm writing that I really know what I'm writing. I'm just telling a story, and I don't really know what it is."
A glimpse of Denise Giardina
Growing up in a McDowell County coal camp, Denise Giardina didn't think she could be a
writer because she didn't know of any writers from West Virginia. She went to West Virginia Wesleyan, then seminary, thinking she would become an Episcopalian priest. Then she found writing, or rather, it found her. "I felt called to be a writer, not a pastor," she said.
Often involved with social justice struggles, she creates passionate characters who aim to change things. Her writing has received reviews other writers would crawl to California to get. Like from the Los Angeles Times: "Brilliant, diamond-hard fiction, heart-wrenching, tough and tender." Or the Washington Post: "Great narrative force, full of anger, wisdom and redemption."
Her novels range from a compelling biography of England's Henry V, through a time-travel adventure to a gut-wrenching account of the plot to kill Hitler. Her novels set in the West Virginia mine wars - Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth - bring that violent time to life, in moving, sometimes terrifying stories about fictional people who lived through it.
In The Unquiet Earth, one of her characters, a young aspiring writer, says she thinks maybe "Real writers live in New York apartments or sit at sidewalk cafés in Paris," not in West Virginia. Denise Giardina has proven beyond doubt that that is not true. In this program, she provides you with keen insight into the writing process and an open, generous glimpse of herself as a writer in West Virginia.
Retired from teaching at West Virginia State University, Denise lives in Charleston.
A sample passage from Storming Heaven
Denise Giardina's grandfather, Sam Giardina, a coal miner, first came to West
Virginia from Sicily in the early 1900s. Storming Heaven is set in a coal camp during
that same time. In this scene, a young boy who will grow up to up to be an organizer
for the coal miners' union remembers his daddy coming in late from working in the mines. Denise researched her scenes carefully. Here, she takes readers to another time by describing the scene through that boy's eyes. As you read, notice the little details that bring the scene to life.
"Earliest thing I recall from when I was a boy is Daddy coming in from the mines and taking his
bath. It always scared me when he came in. It was way after dark, and I'd be asleep with Talcott and Kerwin in the bed in the front room.
Most nights, he'd come in quiet, just lay himself down, coal crust and all, on a mat behind the cookstove in the kitchen, so as not to track dirt into the rest of the house. He would be back out before dawn anyway, so there was no need to bathe. But on Saturday, Mommy boiled water, rattled coal in the buckets to throw on the fire, pulled out the Number Three washtub. I could never sleep through the noise. I always lay on the side of the bed next to the door, so I could hang my head over the edge and watch her.
Daddy would stomp onto the back porch, peel off his boots and bang them against the steps to knock off the crusts of mud and coal. He stripped off his clothes and dropped them in a heap for Mommy to wash the next day. She never washed his mine clothes with the rest of our things. Then Daddy came inside. His face and hands were black and shiny: the rest of him was pale and waxy like lard. The whites of his eyes were vivid. He tossed his pay envelope on the kitchen table.
"Snake again," was all he would say, meaning he hadn't been able to mine enough coal to pay off the bills at the company store, that he still owed for food and doctoring and his work tools and blasting powder, that his paycheck had a single wavy line where the money figures should have been."
An activity to go with this passage:
List the things you can see in your mind, as you read this passage. Use Denise's words, like "stomp" and "back porch" and "peel" and "boots." Some will be nouns, and others will be verbs.
Now write the same scene again from the point of view of the mother, using every one of the details.
If you wanted to rewrite this scene from the point off view of Daddy, what would you need to know before you could do that?
~ Go to the Activities page for other ways you can learn from these writers. ~
Five ways to get the most from this web site:
1. Listen to the whole program.
Hear Denise Giardina's voice, stories, readings, and advice.
2. Read/download the program transcript. Read it as you listen. Mark passages that speak to you.
3. Read/download the table of contents.
These are outlines of the programs. They will help you find the passages you want to return to.
4. Play short audio snips from the program in a class or presentation.
It's easy! Click here to find out how to do it.
5. Explore learning activities that give you ways to use these writers' writing to practice or teach writing skills.
"I really did think it would be nice to be a writer, it would be fun to be a writer, but I never dreamed I could. Because I did think you had to write about sophisticated things. I didn't know of any writers from West Virginia. So I had no role models. And I thought nobody would want to write stories about where I was from. I mean, good grief, that was just the last thing in my mind, the idea that somebody would actually want to read a book that was set in West Virginia. So I was in my twenties, really, before I started getting enough confidence to start writing."
- Denise Giardina