Little did she know, but the small jobs at her mother’s beauty shop — emptying the ashtrays and folding towels — would provide enough small-town gossip for a novel.
First-time author Rebecca Elswick was just a child when she helped her mother at the local beauty shop in the coal mining town of Grundy. But she still has vivid memories of those days, especially the sights, smells and most of all, the women-talk.
“The women were so used to me that they talked like I wasn’t there so I heard some real ‘good’ stories and unfortunately for them, I remember many of them,” Elswick.
Those moments in the shop became inspiration for her debut novel “Mama’s Shoes,” which was published by Abbott Press in October of 2011. However, her journey from an English, creative writing and photojournalism teacher at Grundy High School to Appalachian author started in 2003.
“It began with a contest in Writer’s Digest. It was an opening line contest — write an open line for a novel based solely on the picture provided The picture was a pair of flip flops on the beach with the water almost touching them,” Elswick said.
She had read the magazine for years, but had never entered any contests. However, the photo stayed with her until one day she formed the following line, “Mama always said you could tell a real lady by the shoes she wears, but then nobody ever accused Mama of being a lady.”
She was the runner-up, but the line became the inspiration for a short story. And when she studied for the Appalachian Writing Project at the University of Wise, she expanded her story into a novel. She attended various workshops and kept revising her work, looking for an agent. Another contest from Writer’s Digest prompted her to look for another way to secure a publishing contract. The contest, Pitch2Win, required authors to tweet 140 characters about their novel.
“I went back to the line I used in 2003 ... they called me the next day and wanted to talk about my novel. Two weeks later, I was notified I was one of 50 finalists. I had to submit a synopses and biography and wait,” Elswick explained. “Then I got the phone call. I won the grand prize.”
Elswick never imagined writing for publication. As a child growing up in Grundy, she kept a diary. Her teachers encouraged her to keep writing stories and she attended East Tennessee State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s of education degree in English.
“At first, I wrote because I loved to tell stories and as I got older, I wrote to preserve memories of family and stories about my part of the country. It wasn’t until the Appalachian Writing Project that I began to see myself as a writer who had a story to tell,” she said.
Besides listening to beauty shop talk, Elswick’s father was a coal miner, a former bus driver and a World War II veteran. She drew on stories from her father for her character Gaines Richardson.
“But unlike my character, my father survived the war,” she said. “For example, my father was General George Patton’s driver, a fact I didn’t know until I was married.
Her father told her stories about the coal mines, Southwestern Virginia and his favorite TV show “The Waltons.” Her grandfather also shared stories about Appalachian life.
Elswick said he was a miner when they still carried canaries underground. The men in her life provided plenty of background for her novel. But it was the women who called out to her writer’s heart.
“I wanted to portray the hard-working women of Appalachia who did so much with so little. The only thing many of them ever did for themselves was go to the beauty shop and get their hair done,” she said.
She felt it was only natural to use her world as a platform for the novel about Sylvia, who dreams of dancing through life in red high heels, until she buries her parents, gives birth to her daughter Sassy and becomes a widow in a small Appalachian town. The novel tells the story of a mother’s past and a daughter’s future and all the conflict that rises between their discovery of the truth.
Besides her family, Appalachian writer Lee Smith, also from Grundy, offered Elswick even more inspiration.
“I still remember the first time I read ‘The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed.’ I was in the 10th grade and my English teacher, Mary Howard, encouraged me to write. She said that if I worked on my writing, then someday I could write novels like Lee Smith,” Elswick said.
Howard’s comment sent young Elswick to the library. When she began to seriously consider writing “Mama’s Shoes,” Smith’s career became an inspiration. Elswick started attending workshops that featured the writer.
“When she found out I was from Grundy, she sought me out. When she heard I wrote a book and was looking for a publisher, she asked to read it and gave me invaluable advice and guidance,” she added.
Since the contest and publication, Elswick has been on the road promoting her novel. Last week, she spoke at Bluefield College as part of the college’s “Celebration of Appalachia.” She has also made several other appearances, including a debut at the Grundy Public Library. Her publicist has turned to social media to promote the book. But her biggest fans are her family.
“My children love to brag on me and joke that they often ate sandwiches for dinner when I was writing. My mother, who is 88, is proud of my beauty shop tale,” she said.
Her father passed away a year before the book was published. Elswick dedicated the novel to him.
“I feel like I bared my soul to the world and gave away part of myself when I published the book ...” she said.
She said she takes every comment and reviews very personal. However, she recognizes the value of both sides — criticism and praise. As for the genre of Appalachian literature, she believes she has discovered a sense of family with other authors.
“Appalachian literature has a wonderful sense of place that gives it this amazing flavor that isn’t found in any other work ... it is more popular today that in recent years ... there’s always room for a good story and Appalachian literature is rich in good stories,” Elswick said.
Elswick is also a part of the adjunct faculty for Southwest Virginia Community College and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. She and her husband live in Big Rock with their three children and five dogs.
“Mama’s Shoes” was nominated for the Weatherford Award by the Berea College Appalachian Studies Association, the Virginia Library Association fiction book of the year and the Chaffin Award from Morehead State University.
For more information, visit her website at www.rebeccaelswick.com. Her book can be found at www.abbottpress.com.