“Nothing’ll ever fix what’s broken in this town, but it would be nice if they’d at least get the dead bear out of the parking lot at Food Country.” So begins the title story of Leah Hampton’s debut collection F*ckface: And Other Stories (Henry Holt & Co.)—a simultaneously raucous and sobering look at rural existence in the modern-day American South. The tenor of that opening line, world-weary and wacky, characterizes Hampton’s prose: she mines the fractured scars of industry on land and relationships while still making time for jokes. That humor is often how we, and Hampton’s characters, survive.
These stories are populated by hard workers and big dreamers, by college students employed at slaughterhouses, by a gay tech sergeant with bigoted parents, by broken families of beekeepers, by a woman in love with her husband’s best friend—but even more in love with the sparkle of Dolly Parton. As a West Virginia native (the only state considered Appalachian in its entirety), I felt a deep connection to the folks and mountains of F*ckface, and I knew I had to talk to the author. Hampton is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, and she lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Michelle Hogmire I’m embarrassed to say that I was ashamed of being from West Virginia for a long time. So thank you. For F*ckface. I’m going to get all teary about it, but it’s seriously one of the most accurate and diverse representations of Appalachia and the region’s working-class people that I’ve read in a long time. Could you tell me about your background and your relationship to where you’re from?
Leah Hampton I’m really, really glad you liked the book, and that it spoke to you as someone from the region. That’s super important to me.
I’m kind of a hybrid Appalachian, which I think is maybe why I’m writing about the place in a different way than what readers usually see. My father is from Harlan County, Kentucky, and I was born in Charleston and have lived in western North Carolina pretty much all my life. But my mother is British, so I have dual citizenship and spend a lot of time overseas.
I should pause here and say this does not make me fancy. My mother’s side is just like my dad’s—very working class, factory-floor socialist types. Everybody in my family always worked, and I’m the first person to finish college, write a book, etc. I often like to say I’m a bifurcated woman, half European in my thinking, half pissed-off mountain girl. Half in this Appalachian world, and half out. I think that’s a good vantage point from which to write fiction. Especially if you’re writing about a place that’s as bittersweet, complicated, and storied as this region.
MH What led you to write these stories?
LH I wanted to write stories that complicated and feminized the Appalachia I know, and highlighted the environmental problems in the region. We don’t talk enough about how masculine narratives and gazes dominate the representation of this place, or how much of Appalachia is non-normative, non-white, non-whatever-people-think-it-is. Also, I wanted to write stories that juxtaposed humor and loss. Because for me, this is a place where love and hurt are so very close together, all the time. Basically, I’m a weird and unique person living in a weird and unique place. I wanted to write the book I couldn’t find, write the stories I wanted to read, about what it’s really like living here.
My first job out of college was working for Greenpeace, and I did a lot of eco-warrior stuff in my youth, so the stories in the book focus on the symbiosis between body and land. For good or ill, in Appalachia our experiences are intertwined with our ecosystem. We act upon the land—abusing, exploiting, extracting, loving, cultivating, longing. And, in turn, the land acts upon us. That inextricability drives the plots and personal arcs of a lot of my characters. The epigraph for the book is a quote from Wendell Berry: “You cannot save the land apart from the people, or the people apart from the land.” This is a book full of people and places who need saving, and there are no easy answers for any of them. I’m not good at answers, so the book doesn’t really offer any. Instead, I hope it makes people think and see some nuance where maybe they haven’t before.
Lastly, I very much did not want to write a book about “old” Appalachia. That’s been done, and done beautifully, so there’s no point to me writing about the way-back or sitting on granny’s porch. All the stories are set in the last twenty years or so, and the characters have modern problems, modern opinions and ideas. I hope I’ve represented the rural experience as not an outdated or old-fashioned one.
MH Many of your stories seem to feature women narrators who are wrestling with issues of identity and self, in relation to place and other outside forces, like work or family. The character Pretty, from the title story, is closeted and loses the person she loves. Margaret, from “Wireless,” struggles to trust or go home at all because her abuser is so closely tied to her family. Could you talk a little about these great female characters that populate your work?
LH Almost much everyone—insiders and outsiders alike—thinks white American manhood is emblematic of Appalachia, and vice versa. This misconception infuriates me. As I said before, I wanted to feminize the landscape, to re-gender, or maybe de-gender, Appalachia in the reader’s mind. Maybe that’s presumptuous of me. But I mean, enough with “mountain man” stereotypes, enough with meth-and-moonshine movies where dude bros shit their nonsense all over my home. Those stories are toxic fantasies, or they perpetuate and glorify our problems. The best literature coming out of Appalachia right now leaves that crap in the dust, or directly interrogates and subverts it.
I wanted to center women, and to show tender bodies, of all kinds, in symbiotic crisis with their landscape. That’s what I see happening here, so that’s what I wrote. For too long these mountains have been at the mercy of patriarchal systems—systems that hurt everyone, including men. Processing the Appalachian experience requires a feminist lens. There’s massive, untapped (or oppressed) feminine, queer, and nonbinary power here—matriarchal species in our forests, diverse cultural traditions that outlast and overshadow all the cishet he-man fuckery we’ve endured. So even though the men in F*ckface are good guys, by and large, they take a backseat to the women, and everyone has to surrender completely to the land, even if doing so destroys them.
I don’t know any other way to write about this place I love. We heal, or at least reckon with what’s happening to Appalachia (and places like it), by changing the misgendered, white supremacist narrative about rurality. If we want hope, if we want a future, we need to reclaim the representation of this place, move our collective thinking forward. We have to center the feminine, the nonbinary, the Other, in order to protect our vulnerable ecosystem, because that’s where its power has always lain.
MHThe theme of tourism and outsiders to the region comes up in a really smart way in your book. In your story “Boomer,” the firefighter Larry is fighting to save his home from the ravages of wildfire, but there’s the acknowledgment that none of this is making the news, and that the fancy rental condos around the golf course are what the authorities want to save. There’s also the way that the Native American character, Coralis, frames his park ranger occupation in “Parkway”—they have to hide all the parkway’s bodies and sadness from vacationers. And the tour-leading naturalist in “Frogs,” who judges how the locals treat the environment.
LH This is a more complicated idea in the book, especially in stories like “Parkway” and “Frogs,” as you mentioned, and one that’s harder for me to explain. I guess the simplest way to convey it is, I was interested in the tension around gatekeeping in Appalachia. That tension is deep, deeply embedded in us. Who is really “from” these mountains? Who gets a say in how we protect and use this land? This is an ongoing problem, a constant quandary for everyone in the region. Cherokee Removal, coal and timber extraction, the War on Poverty, our national parks, and the tourism industry—these are all huge movements that loom large in our history, and they all bring up the same gatekeeping problems. Who lives here? What is an “invasive” species? What must we preserve, and what must we abandon to survive? And most of all, who is the real destroyer?
I don’t have answers for these questions. I wanted to ask the reader, because maybe together we can figure it out.
MH Speaking of reading: is there literature from the region that you wish more people would read?
LH I love Crystal Wilkinson and Ann Pancake. I want both of them to be mega-famous. I also love Emma Copley Eisenberg, Karen Salyer McElmurray, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, and so many other women from the region. And there are indeed men writing against the dude bro stereotype: David Joy loves tearing up toxic masculinity, for one. Also, Steve Scafidi’s poems are my favorite drug. And of course I adore Robert Gipe. He’s been a huge influence, a touchstone for me, and his Trampoline novels are like Appalachian urtexts.
MH Do you have any advice for Appalachians (or anyone) who want to be writers? Especially from your frame of reference as a first-generation college student? Working-class knowledge, autodidact learning, is so rooted in community and cultural survival for me—this stuff gets shared and taught as a defense against erasure. But higher education is all about gatekeeping knowledge—pulling people into this system that’s all internal and isolated.
LHI had no model for how to live a life in the arts or academia. My parents both left school at sixteen, and neither of them ever had a “career”—just jobs. But here’s the thing: my family is full of legit geniuses. My mother speaks five languages. My dad could rebuild any engine you put in front of him. My uncles were all autodidacts and inventors; my grandmother wrote hundreds of lost, forgotten songs. Everybody I grew up with had skills and knowledge that an Ivy Leaguer could not possibly understand, even if he wanted to. It saddens me deeply. The academy does not value or support working people. It simply doesn’t know how.
I have so much to say on that! But why bother? The people who need to hear it most will forever deny that they’re the problem. It’s often the most vocal leftists who are the worst offenders—“champagne socialists,” as it were. I spent a decade teaching at a university, and I’ve seen supposedly “woke” academics openly harass people who didn’t have the right pedigree—i.e., they were non-white, first-generation, non-male, or all of the above. Some of my colleagues (not all, of course) would mock people’s accents and backgrounds, or they would adopt this patronizing, noblesse oblige stance that enraged me. All while exploiting the labor and knowledge of those same people. But I got lucky and escaped all that, so there’s no point dwelling on the negatives. I try to focus on the good mentors I’ve had (especially at Michener), the wonderful students I’ve taught, the gifts my education has given me. The worst academics, the really toxic ones, will never recognize their bigotry or their elitism, so I don’t give them any energy.
On advice for writers: Look, all I know is, the most interesting artists are always autodidacts and rejects. Everyone’s experience is different, so I don’t have craft or career tips. But I would advise people not to worry about participating in any system where they feel unwelcomed. If you’re an outsider, lean into that, because there are so many role models for you. My first literary hero was Truman Capote. When I was a teenager, I worshipped him. Capote was an openly gay kid from an abusive, rural home. He refused to go to college, so he taught himself his craft, and when he got famous he showed zero respect to the establishment. I also loved Thomas Hardy when I was young. (I read a lot of canonical works because I didn’t have a great K–12 education.) Hardy was a bricklayer’s son and a farm kid, and he hated Victorian classism. There are so many models for Appalachian writers, and for anyone who doesn’t feel like they’re part of the MFA Industrial Complex. Be like Capote. Be like Hardy. Be like pretty much any writer who wasn’t a cishet man before 1970. Live your life, teach yourself. Then, when the system starts to listen to you, light your cigarette and give ‘em hell.