The characters in Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne‘s debut novel Holding On To Nothing want more. They want more than what their life has to offer in rural Tennessee. They want to be wanted and not just merely picked because there isn’t anyone else left. They want something bigger.
The novel, which follows a young woman who dreams of escaping her small town only to become trapped after a short lived tryst, is raw and honest. Every page is filled with the pain of the flawed characters and lets readers into their desires that always seem just out of reach.
I corresponded with the author about her time as a journalist, Grub Street’s Novel Incubator, and growing up in rural Tennessee.
You grew up in Tennessee, and we’ll loop back to the South, but I was curious what you remember about your first impressions of New England were when you studied at Amherst College?
Fear. I was like a deer in headlights, for sure! All these kids had gone to schools I’d only ever read about in books and seemed to have so much money. I was a fish out of water. So, I did what I’ve done every time since when I’ve shown up in a new place where I know no one: took a deep breath, put my big-girl pants on, pasted a smile on my face, and said, “Hi. I’m Elizabeth.”
Willie Morris once said that he’d never been more Southern than when he lived in the North, and that was my experience exactly. I spent a good portion of freshman year walking around on Saturday nights with a bottle of Jack Daniels that I’d share with anyone who wanted. Like every freshman everywhere, I was somewhat a caricature of myself. It was a relief to settle into the real me after a few months.
Still, I certainly had moments of feeling like a total imposter. People heard my accent and made assumptions about me, which I tried to prove wrong as fast as I could. But there were many things about the social culture of Northeastern private schools that I just didn’t know, which was hard. I figured out pretty quickly that anyone who laughed at me, rather than helped me learn, wasn’t a friend. Luckily, my freshman roommates—some amazing women who had gone to these private schools but weren’t of them, if that makes sense—showed me how to navigate the system and are still friends to this day.
After college, you began a career in journalism and have written and edited on a wide variety of topics. What drew you to that field?
I deeply love talking with people, especially strangers. I love hearing about their lives, who they are, who they love, how they live. I’ve always been drawn to character over theme, and in some ways this was my toughest challenge as a journalist. I find people inherently interesting and I want readers to be interested in other people’s lives in the same inherent way that I am, but journalism usually wants you to answer the question, “Why?” I could show up in a place, and have a hundred “who” stories in three days, but it was the “why” that I always struggled with. “Why not?” was always my thought. Why wouldn’t you want to know how this orphaned kid with drug-resistant tuberculosis gets through his days? Why wouldn’t you want to know about the life of a male prostitute named Charm Ramsey that I met on a bench in Vegas? Or the life of a woman I met in Uganda making moonshine in a gas-slicked humanitarian aid water bucket? To me, people are fascinating, and I hope I’ll never lose the sense of curiosity that causes me to walk into a room and want to strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Is there any piece you wrote that still stands out, for any reason?
I wrote a piece for The Atlantic about this inspiring little boy named Lunga (I changed his name in the story) with drug-resistant tuberculosis who had lived for years in a drug-resistant TB-quarantine hospital, in Johannesburg, which was, as you might imagine, a pretty bleak place. His mom had died of AIDS and TB, and had passed on both to Lunga. He was resistant to every single drug on the market. It was a death sentence. But he was plump and happy when I spoke to him, actively describing his playground improvement plans. “It’s going to be greeeeeen, greeeeeen, greeeeeen,” he said, with this enthusiastic roll of his tongue. His voice echoes in my head all the time. He died a year later. And tuberculosis is now the number one infectious disease killer in the world.
When did the shift from non-fiction and journalism to fiction start?
I started writing the novel while I was doing the bulk of my non-fiction work. But, I was trying like hell to write about infectious diseases and just couldn’t get a lot of traction. I felt like I was failing Lunga and kids like him because I had a tough time selling those stories, which I think was partly because we often don’t see the benefit of reading about places beyond our own little corner of the world. I started to feel like I might be able to have more of an impact if I tried to tell the stories I was interested in through fiction. Plus, my husband and I were starting to think about having kids and fiction seemed imminently more compatible with that enterprise than hanging out in drug-resistant TB-quarantine hospitals did. Far as I can tell, there’s no real danger of death in fiction writing.
This novel was the result Grub Street’s Novel Incubator. What was that like for you and your writing?
I loved it, and I can very honestly say that this book would not exist without Grub Street and Novel Incubator.
I was on my 3rd draft of the novel when I started the Incubator. I’d thrown away hundreds of pages, but it still wasn’t working. At this point the novel was solely focused on Lucy, and Jeptha was not a protagonist in the story yet. In my first workshop, my amazing classmates and instructors, Michelle Hoover and Lisa Borders, helped me see that the real story was in Tennessee and that Jeptha needed a voice.
So, I tossed out hundreds of more pages and was at work on the next draft, due in March. I was also hugely pregnant with our second child. My son was accidentally born on our bathroom floor the morning after a class. Understandably, I didn’t get as much done on my draft as I had hoped. But, I turned in 70% of the book, and my class gave me great feedback. And, more importantly, they (and other Incubator alums) didn’t let me put it away. For years after my incubator session ended, my former classmates kept asking me how it was going, and when I was going to let them read another draft. I owe them everything for that. I love that program so much.
The novel itself is about a woman wanting nothing more than to escape her rural town, but a series of events keep her leaving. How did Lucy come to be?
In early drafts, the first line of the book was “Lucy had a smile that made people feel safe, even though she had never felt that way.” Her character came into my head with that line around the same time that Jeptha had sprung fully formed in my head, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if those two were forced together. I always knew what the climax of the book was going to be, and just had to write towards that. Lucy is such a determined person, who always wants to make the best of her life. She maintains a sort of scarred optimism about her life and the ability of people around her to change even when it feels like she shouldn’t. She is an incredibly strong woman, who deals with so much loss and comes out the other side, which was always important to me.
What drew me to the novel was how you delicately handled how rough these characters had it. How did you approach writing Lucy, Jeptha, and the rest of the cast without making them seem stereotypical?
Thank you for saying that they don’t seem stereotypical! I think having fully developed characters is the saving grace from being stereotypical. If you can really understand a character, their lives, their motivations, and their choices (or lack thereof), you start to see beyond the stereotype. Because it’s true that some people have loyal dogs, keep guns, and drink a lot. But they also have lives, and loves, and desires.
In the book, I nod to how those things can feel like a bad country song, but I like to think of it more as an Appalachian ballad, like Shady Grove and Constant Sorrow, both of which appear in the book. Those songs persist in our culture because they are about characters making the best of what they have even when they have been dealt the worst hand ever. Those songs give you hope and that’s what I want for these characters too.
Was Tennessee where you always imagined your first novel being set or were there other locations you considered?
I was always going to set this first book in Tennessee. And, in fact, my second book is set there too, although it’s very different. Home is home. Maybe because our childhoods are so formative? I don’t know. Still, it’s the background in my head even now after many years of living away.
You currently live in Massachusetts. How often do you return to Tennessee? Were there many trips while writing this book?
I went home somewhat often until about six years ago. Unfortunately, the log cabin that my parents had built and lived in on our farm burned down. They moved into a friend’s home that just wasn’t that easy to visit with kids. So we went, but not as often. And last year, after wanting to be closer to grandkids and in need of better medical care, my parents moved to Massachusetts. So now, when I feel closer to Tennessee than I have in many years, I have no actual home there.
There are so many great works set in Tennessee and the South that have been studied in schools across America, but I was wondering if there are any other recent books you could recommend for readers who liked Holding On To Nothing?
I have two that I really love that came out recently. Robert Gipe’s Trampoline is amazing. It’s a novel (with some graphic novel elements) about a girl named Dawn Jewell growing up in the hollers of coal-mining Kentucky. It is so beautiful and gripping and Dawn is a character for the ages. And, of course, Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths. Her tagline for the book is Lesbians. Chickens. Meth. It’s set in Arkansas and it is just so wonderful.