Research Notes · 10/18/2019

To The Bones

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Valerie Nieman writes about To The Bones from West Virginia University Press.

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Each fall, a truck from the Harkness Feed Mill chuted anthracite coal into our cellar to warm the drafty old farmhouse through western New York State winters. I’d listen to the crash of the fuel into the bin, pick up fallen chunks of the stuff, glossy and blue-black, and turn them to catch the light.

Oh, and there were trilobites everywhere a kid could look, in the driveway, in the stream, along the erosion cuts from mismanaged crop fields. I collected them, along with other fossils and interesting stone, in shoeboxes pushed under my bed. I had the Golden Nature Guide to Rocks and Minerals. Thank you, Mom and Dad. Thank you, authors Herbert Zim and Paul Shaffer. I also had the Golden guides to Birds, Trees, Butterflies and Moths,and Acadia National Park. I really loved those rocks.

But all that was long ago and far away. What made this book, so intimately entwined with the lore and history and grim reality of coal mining, find its way to the surface now?

Maybe it was the decision I made to head south and get a degree at West Virginia University, where I became a Mountaineer and a journalist and began to learn about the coal industry through the coal camps and mine workings that surrounded Morgantown.

Maybe it was that geology class at WVU. Dr. John Renton, with his ginger hair and emphatic mustaches, lecturing to 300 mostly bored freshmen in the big lecture hall. I was lucky enough to get him for my lab section, where his brilliance could really shine. I’ve never looked at the stone facing on a bank building the same way, or been able to pass through a road cut without tracing the synclines and anticlines.

Perhaps it was my years as a reporter and editor in the northern coalfields of West Virginia, which I adapted as the fictional location for To the Bones. I worked as a cops reporter covering coal truck accidents, murders, and train derailments, then moved on to simultaneously serve as the “outdoors” editor and the business (you can spell that coal) editor.

I remember the people, the places, the stories of power and abuse of power. The village of Joetown (if my memory does not fail me) that lost its water supply when the coal company cut through its wells, and our (successful) crusade to get a seven-mile water line laid to the cluster of homes and small businesses. And that terrible blowout on the Cheat River, inspiration for the preternatural one in To the Bones, acid mine drainage covering miles of the rocky riverbed with a poisonous orange pall.

I remember how two rivers merged in Fairmont to form the Monongahela, with the blue water from the Tygart Valley River slowly merging with the orange-brown flow from the West Fork River. The color of AMD.

Especially, I remember a visit to a working deep mine. The Martinka operations extended under the river; it was wet, and cold, and a long ride back to the working face. That experience became a prose poem by one of the characters in the novel:

Two miles back in a slope mine, the longwall chews coal like teeth taking niblets from an ear of corn, light gleaming on the hydraulic haunches holding up the top. The cutter opens a methane pocket; the sensors taste it. More than 5 percent, less than 15 percent, and the power cuts off, the mine goes silent, the only sound the breath of the miners and their prayers that it is not 9.5 percent, the perfect number, the oxidation point when the mine blows itself out like a candle. The voice of the mountain is a deep groaning. You can hear it as the machinery whines to a stop, the complaint of Atlas under his burden, the mountain flexing its muscles.

To the Bones also came out of my years homesteading a farm on a Marion County hillside. Thirteen acres, plus a bit. Pasture fields and a slice of woodland, on which we built a house, barn, fences, a life. A mine crack rendered a corner of the third field unusable. It was left to grow up in dogbane and brambles. I watered my garden and orchard and beef cattle from the end of a hose, “city water” required as the Farmington No. 9 mine had cut through the underlying strata and destroyed the natural springs. That was the same mine that blew up in 1968, killing 78 men—19 of them entombed forever under the green, rolling hills of West Virginia.

And while the decades living and working in West Virginia pressed a lot of this material into my memory, like fossil ferns into coal, I did some “refreshing” on the coal industry, reading about acid mine drainage and historic explosions, child labor and unionization, and the statistics on tons mined annually versus miners employed as mechanization has advanced. I also had to do some investigation into a medical condition, ataxia, as well as the history of ancient Irish kings. You’ll have to read the book to see how those elements weave into the genre mashup!

Ultimately, To the Bones came out of heart and gut, as well as head.

The ultimate answer to the question of why this book, now, was a friend’s challenge. I was carping about my difficulties in starting a new novel. At one point I said that, back when I lived in West Virginia, if I were ever going to murder someone, then I’d dump the body down a mine crack. He said, “Then do it.”

So, dear reader, I did.

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Valerie Nieman is a professor of English at North Carolina A&T State University. A former journalist and farmer in West Virginia, she is the author of three novels, as well as collections of poetry and short fiction. She is a graduate of West Virginia University, and she received an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.