A confluence of events led to Mesha Maren writing Sugar Run. The debut author grew up in rural West Virginia where her father volunteered working with incarcerated women. Years later, while working as a waitress in Iowa City, she drew on those scenic summer days she missed to create an atmospheric setting for her characters.
Nearly two decades after shooting her girlfriend when she was 17, Jodi is released from prison. Confused by her newfound freedom and desire to escape her life in the Appalachian Mountains, Jodi heads south where she’ll meet and fall in love with a woman with mysteries of her own. What follows is an engrossing noir about secrets, desire, and freedom.
I spoke with Maren a week after her book published about her debut Sugar Run and why it was important enough to attempt to write multiple times until she finally got it right.
When did Sugar Run come into form? When was the genesis?
I started working writing on some parts of the novel in about 2010 originally. I started seriously started rafting the novel in 2013. I thought of Jodi first and I started writing longhand. I was really teaching myself how to write a novel. It was a long process for me to figure out what story I was writing and how it would unfold. It really started with Jodi. I started jotting down ideas about her. It was 2013 when I started drafted chapters of the novel.
How did the different pieces of the story all fall into place from incarceration to the Appalachian region?
A lot of it was personal for me. I grew up in rural West Virginia. My father worked with incarcerated women with a non-profit called the Alderson Hospitality House. He would go in and visit women in prison who were about to get released. I would see their joy of being released, but also the fear of the unknown.
The novel is set up in a way that explores the present as well as the past. Was that always a part of your vision for the novel?
I had started with the chapters that started before prison. I knew there was something that happened to Jodi’s life that takes her away from West Virginia. The sections before prison came naturally as short sections, but I knew I didn’t want to write the novel like that.
I started drafting the sections after prison, which are the main parts of the novel. The pieces moved around. I kept trying to be flexible while writing the novel so I could find the rhythm that worked for it.
While reading it, it felt very cohesive and yet I never felt comfortable with what to expect. I’m obviously not a woman who spent 18 years in prison, but I felt that uncertainty she would have felt.
I wanted it to feel like that. I decided to stick the 1988-89 chapters in the present tense because, for Jodi, the past is still strong in her mind. Everything that she remembered of the past is right there beside her. I wanted that feeling that this was not a far away memory.
That rhythm was one aspect I loved about your work. The other that really made Sugar Run so memorable was the tone and the feeling of your setting.
When I was drafting the novel, I was living in Iowa City and when I started to dig into the novel it was a long, snowy winter. Honestly, a lot of the descriptions of the landscape was to help transport myself. I wanted to be back in a southern West Virginian summer. I wrote it to be back there. Some of the intensity comes from that.
I’m originally from northeast Pennsylvania, which is obviously slightly different than West Virginia, yet it reminded me of my childhood running around catching fireflies. The book is very sensory evoking. Even if you were not describing a smell, I could smell the scene.
I was pulling from memory to really have the characters inhabit them. I was pulling on what it feels like to be there to be there from that season.
I feel like there are still a lot of misconceptions about the Appalachian region. Why do you think this still occurs in such an information-hungry era?
For a very long time, Appalachia has been viewed by American society in two ways. There are fantasies about this place that has wonderment about it that sort of makes it seems exotic. Then on the other side of the coin, there is this othering in kind of a darker way that makes it separate from the rest of the country. For instance, West Virginia primarily voted for Trump but so did a lot of areas. It’s easier to say, “oh, the people who voted him in are different and far away from me.”
I think these two sides, the fetishization of the exotic as well as blaming the others have roots in this dichotomist view of Appalachian hillbillies. Pre Civil War there was this idea that the people who lived in the Appalachian Mountains were independent mountaineer folks who set off to pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made a living on their own. Around the time of just after the Civil War, the views shifted way from a farming economy and more towards an economy based on extraction. People traveled to West Virginia and saw these virgin forests and the economy shifted toward extracting lumber and coal. In more recent times, the extraction of natural gas.
When that shift occurred, there was a way the Appalachians were viewed where they weren’t smart enough to do anything on their own. Their only good was to put them in the mines to pull things out. The whole concept of Appalachians changed. There’s this idea that it’s not a place to live in, but only a place to pull things out of. Of course, it becomes this idea that people need to be extracted as well. For anyone to stay means they’re not smart enough or strong enough to pull themselves out.
There’s the view if you can’t pull yourself up to a middle-class lifestyle, then there is a moral failure.
And after you captured all of this — the feeling of leaving prison, the senses West Virginia evoked, the true spirit of Appalachia — what was the editing process like for you?
I probably drafted the novel three times before showing it to an agent. I made it to the end for the first time then I had some close friends read my work for me. Then I started from the beginning again. The overall process was throwing away and starting again. The first time I drafted was about 190 pages; all but 40 pages of that ended up thrown away. I wrote another 100 pages and threw a lot away. Once I made it all the way through to the end, nothing major changed. I tried it three times.
Was Sugar Run your first official attempt at a novel?
This is the first one. But, I started and threw a lot away three times. It’s my first book, but I just kept trying the same story over and over instead of trying to write a new novel. It was the third attempt at my first novel.
Which makes sense because of how important this particular story was to you.
It’s true. I felt I had to try to get this out there. If I could make it to the end and if it never came out into the world, then I could finally move onto another book.
This book was a very passionate project. What do you want to explore with your writing moving forward?
I find that I am interested in the intersection of landscape and identity. The new book takes place on the U.S.-Mexico border. One of the characters is from West Virginia, but was born in northern Mexico and adopted by an Appalachian couple. He was raised by a white couple but returns to the border for graduate school.
The themes of place, home, landscape, and identity will always be apart of what I write.