Sadie Shorr-Parks piece, “Rat King Coal” was published in the 2015 edition of the Sierra Nevada Review. “Rat King Coal” concerns itself with the author’s allegiance to not only the Appalachian Mountains, but also nature itself in West Virginia. It is a critique of the coal companies in this area that are decimating nature and, with their practices, making its inhabitants gravely ill.
In addition to being published in the 2015 edition of the Sierra Nevada Review, Sadie Shorr-Parks works as a lecturer at West Virginia University where she teaches writing and rhetoric. Her nonfiction has recently appeared in Defunct Magazine and Sierra Nevada Review. Her poetry has appeared in Blueline and Lines + Stars, among others. Her poem “Greys, Counted Carefully” was recently anthologized in the book Gutters and Alleyways (Lucid Moose Press.) Sadie has written book reviews for Iowa Review and Southern Literary Review. She currently lives in Morgantown with her fiancée and her dog.
When you are sitting down, fingers thumbing through news feeds and to-do- lists, what is you best go to method for focusing on tasks at hand? In other words, when you sit down to write, can you describe your ideal atmosphere and head- space to achieve optimal creative outpour?
I think I’m always writing. I have a good memory, so I’ll write when I’m walking my dog or headed to campus. I’ll keep lines in my mind all day, work on them, and then jot everything down when I get home.
But when I’m sitting down to write, I like to be near a window. The view helps so much. The window in my studio looks out on a creek and a wooded hill. There’s even see a chubby groundhog that’s always running around my yard, endearing me.
To get in the right headspace, I usually listen to “Public Service Announcement” by Jay Z before I start writing. But I tend to switch to Bebop once I get going. I don’t like listening to music with lyrics while I write.
“Rat King Coal” is a place piece as much as it exists in other realms. Can you describe writing about “place” in non-fiction, or really any genre, and perhaps the writer’s allegiance or rebellion against the surroundings they describe in their work?
“Rat King Coal” grew from my dueling perceptions of nature as both a savior and danger. Like a lot of people who grew up in cities, I have this Walden-y idea that spending time in the woods will make me a better person. It’s why I moved from Philly to the Appalachian Mountains, I thought it would be healing to be around more trees.
Quickly after I moved to WV (West Virgina), I learned about mountain top removal, a coal mining technique that blows off the peak of a mountain. Obviously, this form of mining is catastrophically bad for the area. The water, air, and soil all become polluted. The houses and schools in the area get coated in coal dust and the residents get pelted with debris called ‘flyrocks.’ Clusters of people near the mining cites are developing tumors. In one area, the rain had the same pH as stomach acid. It’s nightmarish.
So my interactions with nature in Appalachia became more guarded. I was so afraid of my drinking water. I had to recalibrate my thoughts on surroundings. I became afraid, always wondering if there would retribution for decapitating a mountain range. There must be, right? The mountains must be so mad at us, right?
This piece is a critique of the coal companies in West Virginia. I wanted to show the emotional toll mountain top removal has on a population, or at least on me. My allegiance lays with the mountains and its inhabitants, not the coal kings of West Virginia.
In a broader sense. A strong sense of place keeps nonfiction honest. A person doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
What I enjoy about the “Rat King Coal” is its ability to transcend form. To me, I could see this as not only a piece of short non-fiction, but a poem as well. Would you mind detailing the attention you gave to each section break and why the piece appears on the page as it does?
In “Rat King Coal” I wanted to create a clipped, leaping experience for the reader to mimic how thoughts move during fear. Fear feeds on disorientation, and I hoped the section breaks would heighten the sense of the narrator’s thoughts restarting and regressing.
What element of nature inspires you most in your writing? Aspect of society?
I spend all day staring at sky, especially the clouds. Now that I live in the mountains, there are always the best clouds in the sky. I especially like dusk clouds, so smudged and moody. I’m cloud watcher. Clouds are enormous, yet so appealingly flighty and impermanent. They are a constant source of inspiration.
I also write a good deal about 20th century art and artists. I recently finished an essay on Rothko’s color fields, which, like the sky, are vast and atmospheric in their own right. Rothko’s really knock my socks off. I’ve even been knitting some Rothko style blankets right now, big swatches of color.
How do you represent people in your life through your work? Do you keep the names the same, change them? As a writer, what is your allegiance to the truth in people if you decide to write about them?
Writing about a loved one is tricky. I want show my loved ones in a positive light but not wash out their complexities. Writing an essay about a friend feels like the most formal version of talking about them behind their back. I try to approach with a similar level of tact and indulgence.
I try to choose stories that I can tell truthfully without hurting my relationship.
You are currently and English professor at West Virginia University. Can you tell me how you juggle the dueling responsibilities of being a mentor and focusing on your own writing? What have you gained as a professor? What have you sacrificed?
My student’s essays are so playful. They’re young, they value fun, and they don’t feel the need to divorce that from academics. My students remind me how important it is to that approach writing with joy and curiosity. They are just starting out as writers so some of their voices are so unique.
Putting together lectures and lessons plans does take up a lot of my time. But the process feels so similar to writing, with the emphasis on clarity and communication, that I enjoy the practice. I pour myself a coffee and think about the clockwork happening inside of a text and how I can remove the clock face for my students. I’m also teaching myself and brainwashing myself three days a week, on the importance of technique in writing.
What sort of revision process went into “Rat King Coal”? Can you describe your process for submitting work for publication?
The first draft of “Rat King Coal” didn’t have any sections breaks and was quite a bit longer. As I revised, and realized what I was trying to say, the piece took a shorter, more
segmented form. I ended my revision process by scanning essay and making some smaller changes based on meter and rhythm. Sound dictated a lot of my choices in “Rat King Coal.” I love reading this piece out loud.
Chocolate or Vanilla? Dogs or Cats?
Dogs, for sure. I have a dog, Gideon, and he’s one of my best friends. He’s a stray so I don’t know what breed he is. People call him West Virginia Brown Dog, but I don’t know, that doesn’t seem real.
Chocolate. I’m eating chocolate muffin right now and will probably be eating a chocolate cookie later today.
Tara E. Tomaino is a student of poetry at Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program and the Poetry Editor for the Sierra Nevada Review. She enjoys spending quality time with her cat and her never ending rolodex of thoughts in Dark City (Asbury Park), NJ.