Carter Sickels: Honesty, Compassion, and Grace
“You rarely see gay characters who are living in rural areas in contemporary fiction. Not all queers want to live in cities. People stay in small towns for different reasons, but sometimes they stay because this is home, because they love the land, they feel this deep connection…”
Carter Sickels’ debut novel, The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury), takes us into the life of Cole, who works as a nursing home aide in Dove Creek, a rural mountain town in West Virginia. Dove Creek has thrived and now is threatened by coal mining, particularly the mountaintop removal method that is destroying homes, drinking water, and the very landscape that is home to the community. But the increasingly damaging mining isn’t the only pressure Cole is facing. Stuttering, shamed, conflicted Cole must make a choice to stand up or risk losing everything that matters to him. Sickels writes with grace about a people and a community that could easily slip into simplistic caricature in the hands of a less diligent author. Instead, we spend time in a world on the brink of change, with complex characters who have everything to lose.
Sickels, who now lives in Portland, OR, gave his first reading for the book to a sizable crowd at the downtown landmark, Powell’s City of Books. The tall, soft-spoken, and sometimes shy author joined me in my kitchen for coffee recently to talk about his book. One on one, he was enthusiastic to talk about his connection to Appalachia, his writing process, tenderness between men, and coming out as trans at the same time his novel was released earlier this year.
What have you been up to since your book was released?
I’ve been doing readings in Portland, Seattle, New York, Philly. I’ve been doing some interviews, and obsessively going to Facebook to see if anyone’s commented. (Both laugh.)
Have you been getting a positive response?
Yeah, so far. I’ve had a few reviews and they’ve been good. It seems like the book is reaching different parts of the population.
Will you talk about that a little more? This book, to me, seems like it could have a lot of different audiences: fans of literary fiction, people interested in environmental issues, cultural and class issues…
My hope is that it is a strong literary novel and attracts that audience, but isn’t just limited to that. People are really interested in the environmental aspect too. And I think people are really interested in stories about rural areas and communities.
The mountaintop removal in the book creates this outside, omnipresent pressure on Cole and the other characters in the story. It bookends the pressure building up on Cole around his drug dealing, people becoming more addicted and damaged by their addictions, and the law starts moving in, the pressure ratchets up a lot. What attracted you to writing about mountaintop removal?
I knew it was going to be set in Appalachia, I was writing about this rural space and class issues. I found out about mountaintop removal when I was doing some research on coal mining and environmental issues in Appalachia, and I had no idea what it was. It blew me away, it was really shocking. At the time there wasn’t a lot of attention around the issue, maybe just a couple of documentaries. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I called up an organization that I read about in rural West Virginia called Coal River Mountain Watch. I was living in New York at the time and asked if I could come down and see what was happening, and it was an amazing experience. What was happening was so devastating. I also got to meet these great people, and they were so unlike anyone in my life in New York City. They reminded me of people in my family, very local West Virginia, or in my case, rural Ohio. Most of the people I met didn’t go to school for environmental studies or anything like that…
But they became activated…
Yeah they became very activated because of what was happening to their homes and they were so on top of things, so smart and savvy. They knew the political landscape ofWest Virginia, and also what was going on nationally with environmental issues. And their lives changed in such a radical way that I have never really seen before.
In a way, they had nothing to lose, everything they knew and believed in was essentially under attack. One of the major conflicts in your book is the bind that some of these people are in, they are stuck working for this company that is essentially destroying their home…they get nestled in the arm of this giant that is basically crushing everything over here, which is an all too common story for many poor communities in our country, for example the Native tribes that have nuclear waste stored on their lands. Maybe there’s this expectation from those corporations that disenfranchised communities won’t fight back?
Yes, that’s absolutely the expectation. But the people I met are really fighting back. In my novel, I don’t really have a lot of those activist characters, but I met this woman, Judy Bonds, she died last year, she was the one who got all of the organizing rolling. She was amazing. She was five feet tall, grew up there, she was a waitress. Judy told me she’d never thought about any of this, ever, environmentalism, none of it. She became totally radicalized, and she was so tough, people were scared of her, she was such a tough little spitfire. As that movement grew, and more people from the environmental movement started showing up, I saw people change and open up in other ways, and become more progressive. People became more open to diversity. All of these anarchist kids showed up from Earth First, and I had no idea how that was going to work out. But it seemed like it did.
It sounds…beautiful! (Both laugh) So, were people open to sharing what was going on in that community with you?
People were open with me, to a point. I remember this moment where I was talking to this guy who was dressed all in camouflage, a very tough, über-macho guy. He was talking about his grand-daughter getting sick from the drinking water, and he just started crying, it was really intense. I felt like there was some sort of openness there, even though I was clearly an outsider. I established a good connection with a few people, and one person especially, Bo Webb, became a close friend. But we have very different lives. I was nervous to give him the book, but he really liked it. He wrote a little review on Powells.com.
That’s great! So sweet. You mentioned that you have family in rural places like Appalachia, was it easier to focus on a region that is a little removed from where your relatives might be living?
I think it would have worked to set it in Ohio, because I would have created a fictitious place, with images of what I’ve seen in rural parts of the state. The reason I set it in West Virginia was because of the mountaintop removal. Culturally, it is similar.
In The Evening Hour, many characters are on the verge of finding their voice. Fighting back against the mining company helps Cole find his voice for the first time. Both with an actual speech-impediment, and also a lot of shame. At the end, there’s a little bit of a cliff-hanger: is he actually going to leave, or is he going to stay and help out his community. Talk about Cole’s transformation a little bit…
I wanted to write about how folks were living their lives in rural West Virginia with this intense destruction happening all around them. I was interested in writing about how people hold on to their sense of home when the landscape is literally shifting. I really was drawn to Cole as a character, and everyday life in this town. He starts to find his voice when he meets Lacey and her daughter Sarah Jane. They are much more aware of what is going on. Then disaster happens and at that point Cole takes action, he realizes that he has something to give to his community.
There’s a scene in the book where Cole is with Sarah Jane, while she is taking pictures of the mountaintop removal, and she knows so much about the issue, and Cole asks why she can’t have fun like a normal kid. I loved that exchange, it felt very real – many of us have felt a little like that around our really hardcore activist friends sometimes. (Both laugh) Cole is interesting, he’s a very complex character. He has many contradictions that I found that fascinating. He has such a strong sense of duty and connection to his grandparents and his place in Dove Creek. There’s his deep care, interest, and respect for the people in the nursing home, he brings human touch and connection to them, warmth that they don’t seem to be getting from anyone else, and yet, he’s ripping off their heirlooms and stashes of cash.
One of the first kernels of an idea I had for Cole came from reading a New York Times article about this guy who was a dealer. He bought drugs from the old people and sold them in the community, and he had a real respect for the people he was buying drugs from. That was so interesting to me, and the story stuck with me. I also knew I wanted to set it in a nursing home. One of the first things I wrote was Cole feeding one of the residents oatmeal, and then stealing his money out of his drawer. In one way I was challenging myself with characterization, and wanting to develop complicated characters. I had a tendency as a writer, and a lot of writers have this issue: we want our protagonist to be a likeable and good person, to protect our characters and keep them from doing bad things. I wanted to push myself.
I appreciated that about the character of Cole, because I think his complexity is more honest, people aren’t just black and white, the way people tend to rationalize things is so complicated. I liked that he had these different facets…
He grew more sympathetic to me as I was writing him.
Another contradiction with Cole was that he didn’t use drugs himself, he sold drugs to people, and also when people in Dove Creek became more addicted, or more harmed by their addictions, he seemed to be repulsed or terrified by that, but he didn’t seem to feel culpable for his role in that…
Cole had to distance himself from these things. Like with the coal mining, he ignored his role in that at first, too.
Well, it’s kind of survival-mentality, only being able to see your own immediate needs. I read that into him, not sure if that was what you intended, his inability to see the long-term effects of his actions…he needed to just get through the day. But his actions also fed this distant idea of getting out of Dove Creek.
Yeah, a need he can’t quite articulate. In the last scene, where he finally looks at what’s been happening, what I was hoping for was a waking up, not just in terms of the mountaintop removal, but it’s the moment where he realizes that he has stolen from people he loved, and he starts to feel a sense of responsibility.
Can you talk a little bit about the spiritual aspects of the book? As much as Cole was oppressed by the religion of his grandfather, he was also somewhat buoyed by it. There was a way where scripture verse seemed to flow out of his thought processes and at the same time you see how intense his grandfather was, in shaming him, calling him a sinner.
I’ve always been interested in and drawn to religion, and to the many contradictions within it. I was reading nonfiction books about Appalachia and oral histories, and religion was something that came up often — it’s a strong part of personal and cultural identities. The intimacy and the vulnerability that people showed each other was really beautiful, and surprised me. I wanted to write about the complexity of the beliefs – this kind of beauty and emotional experience, coupled with the fundamentalism and anti-gay sentiment. Cole’s grandfather’s religion is oppressive and scary for Cole, but it’s also something that gives him comfort. I also was drawn to how nature played a role in spiritual beliefs. When I was reading these oral histories, people spoke again and again of hearing God in a small voice and of finding salvation in the mountains.
At your Powell’s reading, I noticed that a couple of times people wanted to know how the book was connected to your own life. Why do people seem to need to know that the story is somehow connected to your personal story?
I think this is just the world we live in – reality TV, social media, etc. Memoir sells more than fiction, and people seem to feel better if they know a novel is “real.” When I was a kid, I read constantly, but I don’t remember reading much nonfiction, unless it was for school. I read novels and they opened up worlds of possibility, showed me lives different from my own, revealed all kinds of “truths.” This is just the story that called to me, that I felt compelled to write. I identify with Cole on some level, even though we have different lives. I tried to tell Cole’s story with honesty and compassion, and I hope that people can find truth in the novel.
Was it important to you to have queer undertones in this story?
You rarely see gay characters who are living in rural areas in contemporary fiction. Not all queers want to live in cities. People stay in small towns for different reasons, but sometimes they stay because this is home, because they love the land, they feel this deep connection. Reese, the openly queer drug dealer, is one of my favorite characters in the book. He’s a flamboyant queen living in this small, conservative town – I wanted to explore the complexity of that, to show that one doesn’t cancel out the other.
The relationship between Cole and Terry was also important to me – Terry was Cole’s best friend all through high school. I wanted to show how there can be tenderness between men, even in such a hardscrabble place. It’s mentioned several times that Cole and Terry think of each other as brothers, and that is a very real part of their relationship and one that’s accepted. It’s later revealed that they also had some component of a sexual relationship – you could see it as normal experimentation, or you could see it as them being gay. That’s not really the question for me: if they’re gay or not. Instead, I think their relationship is one of intimacy. In Terry, Cole finds safety, and attention, and he finds love. I wanted that relationship with Terry and Cole to seem very fluid and natural, and also complicated.
Through the process of publishing this novel, you’ve also been coming out publicly as trans. How are those two experiences intertwined? What has the response been like?
It’s been complicated, but for the most part, positive. I had to make a lot of decisions about how out of the closet I wanted to be, and to make them somewhat quickly. I’m still navigating this journey. I do think there is a lot of overlap – coming out with my first novel, and coming out as trans. You’re sharing this vulnerable part of yourself with the public. There were moments that felt very scary to me, but mostly it felt extremely liberating.
Do you think that there is a big disconnect between the literary community and the queer literary community? Or do you think queer authors are integrated well in the literary community?
I don’t know how well I can speak to this. Queer writers, historically, haven’t been published by mainstream presses, or they’ve been labeled as queer and then segregated. And, there are a lot of queer readings in queer spaces, which I think is important, but, they also don’t reach a wider audience. Sometimes I would like to see the communities integrate more, but I don’t think there is a huge disconnect between the literary and queer literary communities.
Now that your book is out, you are doing interviews and readings. Do you like the social/public aspect of being an author, or do you prefer the behind-the-scenes life of a writer? What are some highlights from your speaking engagements?
Writing is the part that matters the most. The public part is necessary—you have to get your book and name out there—but it’s something that still feels very strange to me. The best part of being published for me, so far, is when people tell you that the book meant something to them. It’s such an amazing, humbling experience when a person just starts talking to you about the characters or particular scenes, or how the book made them feel. I always feel surprised, and overwhelmed with gratitude, whenever someone tells me they read my book and liked it.
Do you feel like you get the community, support, and stimulation that you need as a writer while living here in Portland?
I’m still fairly new to Portland, but it seems like a very literary, cool city. There are a lot of different reading series, and great bookstores. I had a lot of local support behind my book when it was published, and that was great, and unexpected.
What has your experience been like with a large publisher?
The Evening Hour is my first book — I don’t have experience with smaller presses. But I can say that Bloomsbury has been extremely supportive, and I feel lucky to be with such a great press.
Are you already working on your next project? Do you want to share a little bit about it?
I am working on something, but it feels too soon to talk about it. I will say that I think that this project will be more autobiographical.
Photo: Carter Sickels Photo Credit: Yukiko Yamagata