Drema Hall Berkheimer, author of Running on Red Dog Road
And Other Perils of An Appalachian Childhood visits with us today. If you haven’t read her book you have missed a wonderful time remember your own childhood.
Drema what has been the biggest surprise to you in writing your book?
How hard it was. Physically, spiritually, and creatively hard. If I’d known that before I started, I might have taken up mountain climbing instead. Writing RUNNING ON RED DOG ROAD and Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood exacted a merciless toll. Gut punched, I needed to catch my breath. I didn’t write a word for over two years. I gave out, but I never gave up. Somewhat battered, I finally managed to drag myself over the finish line— after six years (or was it seven?) the book was finished.
I didn’t understand why this writing thing was so painful. My childhood was happy. No one so much as raised a voice to me, much less a hand. It was a puzzle. Then I realized that all the family I wrote about were dead, except for me.
Robert Frost said, No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. If that is true, I did him proud, because I, who never cried, shed buckets as I unearthed my Appalachian kin, long dead and gone on to Glory, and buried them again. Once again I mourned them, this time from a place of gratitude. With tears, yes, but also with joy.
No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. Frost continued. Surely there couldn’t be any more surprises. After all, I knew the stories of my life because I lived them. No surprises there. But I was wrong. I was surprised again and again as I dredged seventy-year-old memories up from the murky past. Some lost detail would resurface—eyebrows that squirmed like wooly worms, buttons shaped like daisies, a gypsy skirt swirling red and purple and magenta. Something that added authenticity. Something I didn’t even know I knew. And then it turned out I did. I find one of the daisy buttons in Grandma’s button jar. A friend tells me she remembers that gypsy skirt. Hair on my neck prickles each time.
What is the one thing you enjoy most about writing?
Sometimes I think I don’t enjoy writing at all—I enjoy having written. Writing is a bloody process, best suited for those who are drawn to self-flagellation while sipping a bile-colored kale drink like the one I have for breakfast every morning. People like you and me. Someone told me writers are divided into planners and pantsters, the latter being seat-of-the-pants types. I have a friend who is a planner. He spends months, years, planning. He makes graphs and pie charts and pages of character bios and scene sketches. He talks about reliable and unreliable narrators and points of view and the merits of first person or third. My eyes film like a lizard’s just thinking about it. I ask how his book is going. He claims he’s working on it.
I am not a planner, but that’s most likely a fault, so don’t mistake this for bragging about it. I sit down and peck out a first line. More lines follow. Some are okay. Some I cut or tweak all the goody out of them and have to go back and untweak. My husband says that’s because I don’t know when I’m finished. I grudgingly admit to that possibility. But now and again, there’s a line I fall in love with. Head over heels. Where did that come from, I wonder, looking admiringly at my perfectly ordinary fingertips. I’ve heard an altered state of mind is experienced by many, maybe even most, writers—not all the time, but on occasion. Once I saw a shirt that said, “I don’t write, I just take dictation.” That’s when your muse is sitting on your shoulder whispering precisely the right word or punchy sentence in your ear. It can neither be bidden nor forbidden. It just is. That’s the one thing I enjoy most.
What author do you like to read?
I’ve been immersed in memoir, so I’ll name just a few of the many on my list. I have read and reread Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and use a quote from her book in mine. I love the raw simplicity of Maya Angelou. I relate to Homer Hickam’s Coalwood series, because they’re books about growing up in the same West Virginia region and era as I did. I’m an admirer of Mary Karr. Next on my list is J. D. Vance’s brilliant NYT bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy.
Tell me about your book.
Sure, but first let me explain what red dog is. Mining companies piled trash coal in a slag heap and set it ablaze. The coal burned up, but the slate didn’t. The heat turned it rose and orange and lavender. The dirt road I lived on was paved with that sharp-edged rock. We called it red dog. Grandma said, Don’t you go running on that red dog road. But I do.
Gypsies, faithhealers, hobos, moonshiners, and snakehandlers cavort through my life in 1940s West Virginia after my father is killed in the coal mines and my mother goes off to work as a Rosie the Riveter during World War II, leaving me in the hands of devout Pentecostal grandparents. Grandpa, a retired coal miner turned evangelist, preaches hellfire and salvation while Grandma sews my piano recital dress from a surplus silk parachute and tries to keep Uncle Ed from drinking the rubbing alcohol, all the while praying I don’t fall into disgrace. Celebrating hardships, humor, and heroics of life in small-town West Virginia as seen through the eyes of a precocious and somewhat irreverent little girl, it is a journey of life and death—of searching for my own truths while coming of age in a multi-generational family of saints and sinners whose lives belie their own stereotypes. RUNNING ON RED DOG ROAD and Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood was released in April by Zondervan, a HarperCollins Company. It is a living, breathing history of a bygone time and place.
And a red dog road runs through it.
What’s next for you?
All the stories I’d left untold compelled me to start another red dog road book. It will cover the same time period and characters as the original, so it will be a companion book rather than a sequel. The working title is STILL RUNNING ON RED DOG ROAD, More Appalachian Tales I Meant to Tell You.
What do you do for fun?
My husband and I have kept a boat at Lake Texoma for over thirty years. It’s a great boat, with all the comforts of home, an escape from life in the big city. So, of course I go to the lake. Wait, actually I don’t. I used to, but I don’t anymore—at least not often. I stay home. I answer interesting questions from interesting editors. I host Salon Quatre, a quartet of award-winning writing friends who have met at my house monthly for eight years, my favorite day of the month. I visit with friends and talk with old classmates and with children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren scattered about the country. And remember, I still have a book to write. I’m telling myself it will be fun.
Thank you Drema for visiting with us today.
Susan, thanks for allowing me to share some of my journey with your Southern writers and readers. I want them to know it is never too late to make a dream come true. Impediments are mere bumps in the road. Use them as stepping stones to reach your possibilities. Many may say you can’t. Dismiss them all. Only one may say you can. Believe that one.
I’ve read your book and found it delightful, full of wonderful people, people I wish I would have known. I must tell you, I did shed tears and laughter reading this book, for it brought back to my memory wonderful times in my own childhood and the precious people that were once a part of my life that are now gone.
Be sure and visit Dream she would love to hear from you.