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Author Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne Discusses Her Novel 'Holding On To Nothing'


In Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne's debut novel "Holding On To Nothing," where the story unfolds looms just as large as who's doing what to whom and why. The setting is Appalachia, rural Tennessee. And you are not halfway through Chapter 1 before you realize you're about to learn exactly what it must feel like to have been born and raised there, as Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne was. I asked her to describe the sounds and smells of the place.

ELIZABETH CHILES SHELBURNE: Cicadas are everywhere. And then the smells are, especially right before a thunderstorm, that kind of yeasty smell of a storm about to break over the mountains. There's still cattle farming there, so you're always going to smell some cattle somewhere.

KELLY: Yeah.

SHELBURNE: It's just a very green-smelling place, too.

KELLY: You actually dedicate the book - I'll read it. You write, to my Tennessee, my heart, my home, my forever, which is beautiful. And I paused and looked at it and thought, I'm not sure I've ever seen a book dedicated to a state before.

SHELBURNE: (Laughter) Yeah, I actually don't live in Tennessee anymore, which is a great sadness in my life, but it's still home to me. It will always be when people ask me where I'm from, that's the first answer I give, whether or not they're asking me where I'm really from or if they're just asking me so we can coordinate carpool for kids.


KELLY: Yeah.

SHELBURNE: It's still home. It doesn't matter how long I've been gone.

KELLY: So this was just a given when you sat down to write your first novel this was where it was going to take place.

SHELBURNE: Yeah, it really was. I mean, and I'm a character person. I read books for the characters, and I write books for the characters. I just want to know what's going to happen and where they're going to go. These two characters grew up there and came out of there, and there was no other choice but to set it there.

KELLY: All right, well, let's go to the characters, and I will start with Jeptha, who is - among other things, he's an alcoholic. You write a bunch of scenes that broke my heart. There's one I just want you to describe for us. This is the beginning of Chapter 21, and you write, Jeptha doubted there was a man alive who had ever wrestled as hard or as long as he had with that one beer. Just describe what is going on here for Jeptha.

SHELBURNE: So Jeptha had - he's just sort of been busted. He's had their son Jared with him for a full day the day before, and it's been an unmitigated disaster, as bad as it could be. And doesn't help that he, as an alcoholic, hasn't had a drink. And he's really, really, really hurting bad. And he gets busted by his wife, Lucy, and he just - he wants to be a better man. Much of the book is about Jeptha wanting to be a better man and be the kind of man that Lucy and Jared could depend on but, because he's an alcoholic, just really not able to make that kind of choice to be that kind of man.

KELLY: Yeah. You write with - it struck me as just such compassion about that battle that he's fighting, that wrestling with this one beer and trying to figure out whether to open it or not all night, you know, this battle that so many alcoholics fight every hour of every day to stay sober. How did you go about writing these scenes?

SHELBURNE: I think for me as a writer, I think I'm always trying to write against the worst-case scenario. So if I write a scene or write this book about an alcoholic then that won't happen to me. So I really spent a lot of time putting myself into his shoes and hoping that I'm sort of capturing that accurately.

KELLY: Without wanting to give too much of the story away, there is a tragedy at the heart of your book, and it involves a gun. Was that hard to write? Even as you were sitting there typing out these chapters, there were mass shootings unfolding on - sometimes it seemed like a near-daily basis around our country.

SHELBURNE: It was really hard to write. It's something that I really wrestled with. And there were times when I thought maybe I shouldn't have that be what happens in the book.

KELLY: Yeah, I wondered that.

SHELBURNE: Yeah, as I first started writing this book - before I had kids, so I've been working on it for a long time.

KELLY: Because you have four kids. Am I right?

SHELBURNE: I have four kids, yes.

KELLY: (Laughter) OK, it's been a project.

SHELBURNE: It's been a project, for sure. And once I did have kids, it was even harder to sort of follow through with that scene. But then I also knew that was the original climax of the book from the beginning. It always had been that. It really had to be there.

KELLY: Yeah. Did you grow up with guns in your small town in Tennessee?

SHELBURNE: I did. I did. I grew up in a family. We had many, many guns always, you know, sort of kept in a locked gun safe with bullets stored somewhere else. So I grew up as a hunter and became a feminist, actually, because I wanted to prove my brothers wrong because they said I couldn't hunt.

It is a fact of life in the South and in Appalachia that there are guns around, but it is the case that sometimes, you know, there's violence kind of over the rise. And that can happen accidentally, or it can happen as a result of just a bunch of bad decisions strung together over the course of a life. You know, it is just true. And I wanted to capture some of the truth of Appalachia and the place I grew up because I didn't always feel like I saw it.

KELLY: Did you worry at all as you were trying to capture the truth about reinforcing stereotypes about Appalachia? I mean, you've written a book about - where guns feature and tobacco's in there and Jeptha isn't the only character who's drinking too much and there's, you know, this loyal dog kicking around on people's front porches. I mean, did you worry that you were trying to write something true but that also for outsiders looking in would confirm their worst stereotypes about the place?

SHELBURNE: I did worry about that, but I started to realize I sort of had to stop worrying about it because it was kind of making it hard to write. But what I didn't want to do was make it so that it was sort of only focusing on the bad or only focusing on this kind of bucolic view of, you know, kind of country life. I wanted to sort of find that middle where there is this dark stuff that happens. There can be these sort of stereotypes that, you know, might be on the page but that the people and the characters at the heart of it aren't stereotypes. And, you know, my hope is that they feel very real and their struggles feel very real and, you know, through the way they navigate those with music and with humor feels very real.

KELLY: Speaking of music, I mean, another way to look at a book that takes on guns and tobacco and loyal, old dogs is you've basically written a country music song...


KELLY: ...Over a few hundred pages. And I gather if - you know, people always ask, is your protagonist based on you in any way, but your female protagonist, Lucy, has a real thing for Dolly Parton. Is that you in some form in her?

SHELBURNE: In some form. I mean, I love Dolly Parton. I think she is a national treasure. But I think you - and I have this line in the book that Dolly Parton is - she's not just country; she's mountain. And I do think that there is a difference there. And I think, you know, she really does sing about that all over the world to people who might not otherwise care.

KELLY: Tell me about that. What is the distinction, country versus mountain?

SHELBURNE: I think there's a toughness. I think growing up in Appalachia makes for a pretty tough people because - you know, and that's what I wanted to capture, I think, as well was the way in which there was - you know, there could be these awful things happening and that people would still have a lot of humor and hope even in times when it didn't feel like they really should. And I think that's a lot of what she's done is sort of, you know, give voice to that.

KELLY: That is Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne talking about her debut novel, which is titled "Holding On To Nothing." Thanks so much.

SHELBURNE: Thank you so much.


DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) And I ain't been home in I don't know when. If I had it all to do over again, tonight I'd sleep in my old feather bed. Good lord, have mercy on a country girl trying to make a living in a rhinestone world. It's hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world. Tennessee homesick blues is running through my head. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.