Nothing I met in Egypt, Kentucky, was like I imagined, except the cliché of rolling hills and craggy mountains. Except the poke, and other ground cover, green. No guns were visible except the Confederate flags that flew, that hung limp, wrapped in a wan clutch, not fluttering, clinging to their poles.
In looking at Appalachia—not just from the outside, but from within as well—we reveal more about ourselves as observers than the region objectively. The subjects show us shades of our own individuality. That’s not easy to unpack, or even admit to, but I think it is why some depictions of Appalachia make us uncomfortable.
It’s a brisk February afternoon in Lexington, Kentucky, and Louis Zoeller Bickett II and I are sitting in his office, which is lined with 500 binders. A few shelves of author-signed books, all of them tagged and indexed, stand in the room behind me. Our coffee mugs are not tagged, but the small Windsor chair I’m sitting in is.
“My father was a coal miner for thirty-five years and died of black lung,” Howard told me, while resting from the heat and overhead brushstrokes of the outdoor mural he’s working on for a local food pantry. “When I [told my father] I wanted to study art—well, that wasn’t well received.”
Thirty years ago, after traveling all night across the desert, I reached the West Coast and promptly jumped into the Pacific Ocean. My plan was to meet a slew of fabled California girls, who’d be deeply impressed with my country-boy resourcefulness and reward me with sexual favors. Instead, the cold undertow pulled me out to sea, and began pushing me far from my pile of clothes.
A conversation with Manuel Gonzales.
“Magical and fantastical is what I grew up on—that and horror and the science-fictional and the soap operatic worlds of comic books—and to me it feels like a natural mode of telling a story. You learn about a character by watching him or her run the gauntlet of some horror show or run through some lengthy, fraught journey filled with monsters and magic and pitfalls.”