Reading with... Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne

photo: Karen Kelly

Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne grew up reading, writing and shooting in East Tennessee. After graduating from Amherst College, she worked at the Atlantic. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Atlantic and the Boston Globe, among others, and her short fiction has been published in Barren magazine and the Broad River Review. She lives near Boston with her husband and four children. Her debut novel, Holding On to Nothing, was just published by Blair.

On your nightstand now:

Fanny Says by Nickole Brown, a crackling book of poetry about the poet's grandmother, because if you are reading a poem called "Fanny Says How to Be a Lady" and the first entry starts, "Never tell your age," and ends, "You're the doctor here. If you're so f*cking smart, why don't you tell me how old I am?" then you are gonna need to buckle up your seat belt.

Florida by Lauren Groff, because short stories often confound and elude me, but hers are so profound and perfect that they never fail to leave me awestruck and wiser.

We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, because the conceit of this book is so unusual and also recognizably and terrifyingly possible, and thus, so very heartbreaking.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. Does this need explanation? We live in a world of mansplaining and it is so exhausting. Solnit is so incisively observant about society, reading her words I felt seen and less exhausted.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas is so good. There's music on every page and Bri's come up is so heartfelt and all on her own terms. It gave me goosebumps.  

Favorite book when you were a child:

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder! The whole series, but especially the early years when it was just the Ingalls family on their own in the woods and the prairie. My daughter has read them all multiple times, and like her, I didn't care a whit about the calico-wearing pioneer princess part of the books but only about the survivalist aspects. When my daughter turned to me a few weeks ago and said, "Did you know you can make string from the sinew of a bear?" my heart exploded with joy.

Your top five authors:

William Gay--I would take I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down with me as a my desert island book. I'll read any book that James Lee Burke writes, but especially his Dave Robicheaux books. When I read a Lee Smith book, I feel like I'm on a front porch listening to someone tell me a story. She is an incredible writer, and a fabulous storyteller. I'll read anything by Kate Atkinson, because she does dark so well, but always manages to guide you back to the light with justice delivered. And, to be honest, I love me some J.K. Rowling. Those books are such little juicy packages of drama all packed into one year.

Book you've faked reading:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I've tried and tried and tried, but I just can't get into his work. I met him once at a party where I was a waitress and he was one of the honored guests. He spent the whole night by the wall, largely alone, some portion of it making small talk with me, the very lowly waitress. For that moment alone, I want to love this book, but I fear his work isn't for me.

Book you're an evangelist for:

I recommend Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel once or twice a week! I love it with an abiding passion. I am obsessed by epidemic books, which is what my work-in-progress book is about, and this is my favorite. It's a master class in creating an uneasy sense of quiet foreboding and drawing out the small connections between the characters' lives. And one more: my friend Kelly J. Ford's book Cottonmouths. Her tag line is: Lesbians. Chickens. Meth. It's so good.

Book you've bought for the cover:

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge. I love the lush green of the illustration and the block print of the title peeking through as if it's imprisoned within and being overtaken by the jungle. Greenidge works on so many levels and while the cover is outstanding, the book is even better!

Book you hid from your parents

I didn't really have to hide books from my parents that I can recall. What I did hide was the fact that I kept How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss so long past its due date in second grade that I racked up a $10 late charge from my school library. It presaged a long history of library fines because I like to keep the books I read!

Book that changed your life:

Kate Chopin's The Awakening. This book is so awash in feminism and also so real about how hard it can be to carve out a self that is distinct from your identity as a mother. The love, pain and heartbreak that swirl within Edna at all moments in that book, but especially in that last walk into the sea, will always be with me.

Favorite line from a book:

"Those people out there may be firsthand familiar with sin, but they ain't studying no guilt." This line from Terry Roberts's The Holy Ghost Speakeasy and Revival perfectly captures the rhythms of speech and the mindset of the people in my part of Appalachia. I could only ever hope to write such a wonderful piece of dialogue as that.

Five books you'll never part with:

My original copy of Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White, which is the one that my dad read from when I was a kid.

Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo, whose use of the omniscient voice and ability to create a lovable unlikable character is spectacular.

My copy of The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough is the original version I stole from my parents' bookshelf (maybe this is the book I hid from them!). I love this family saga--so much drama, life, love and just the right amount of sex crammed into its pages.

The cover is falling off my original copy of The Old Man and Lesser Mortals by the hilarious and thought-provoking Larry L. King, which my dad read to me when I was a child and is single-handedly responsible for showing me that my experiences and my voice growing up in East Tennessee were worth writing down and might be worth reading someday.

My dog-eared, tattered paperback copy of Toni Morrison's Beloved because that marginalia proves how fiction, and particularly fiction by Morrison, can blow your mind and change your perspective with a single sentence.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Can I pick two? I was a voracious reader when I was a kid and I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee when I was seven. I didn't know what rape was, which, as you can imagine, made for a confusing story. I missed so much of what was happening in that book, but even so, I knew it was something special. I'd love to read that again for the first time and understand what I missed then.

The other is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I dreaded reading it as a college student, but once I started, I fell in love. I'd like to read it again now as a mother and wife. I suspect I might be more forgiving of what I thought of then as Anna's frivolities, but which I know see as her desperately seeking some sense of self in a world that was determined to take that from her.

What books would you like to see more of?

I want more stories set in modern-day Appalachia and more "grit lit" by women, such as Sugar Run by Mesha Maren or The Past Is Never by Tiffany Quay Tyson. Many of the most successful books set in this region are set in the past. They are incredible, without a doubt, but I'd like to read more set in the current day.

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