In Denise Giardina's 1992 novel, The Unquiet Earth, an Appalachian fifth-grader named Jackie, whose life roughly parallels the author's own, decides she can't become a writer. "Real writers live in New York apartments or sit at sidewalk cafés in Paris," Jackie declares.Well, no. From West Virginia and outside the region, Giardina has written Good King Harry, a historical novel about Henry V, and two acclaimed novels, Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth, grounded in West Virginia's storied mine wars. Now settled in Charleston, West Virginia's capital city, Giardina has grappled with even bigger questions in Saints and Villains (Norton), an epic drama chronicling the life of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, noted for his role in a failed plot to kill Hitler. PW's starred review observed that Giardina manages to give "a known story genuine tension and spiritual resonance."
If Germany seems far from Appalachia, the questions of responsibility and belief entwined in the episodic narrative remain close to the author, a licensed lay Episcopal preacher. "I'm interested in how people with a conscience deal with the compromises they have to make," declares Giardina, a blunt-featured, brown-haired woman, youthful at 46 in jeans and a sweater. She lives with two cats and a dog in a modest house in a quiet neighborhood a few blocks from downtown Charleston and the coal barges flowing down the Kanawha River.
Giardina has ruminated on Bonhoeffer for some 20 years, ever since an Episcopal priest first gave her a book of his writings. Books for her research occupy her living-room horizon, along with a cat, a TV and a NordicTrack. Sure, she acknowledges, there are biographies of Bonhoeffer, but they're "mostly out of print or kinda dry." In conversation, a guarded intensity emerges from her West Virginia twang, which compounds her unpretentious demeanor: "I write what I have to write. It wouldn't have mattered if there'd been a novel about Bonhoeffer on the bestseller list. This is what obsessed me."
Company Town Childhood
Giardina spent her first 13 years in Black Wolf, a 10-house coal camp in southern West Virginia, a place of winding roads and steep hills, where ruling coal companies rend the land. Her mother was a nurse -- a character that recurs in her West Virginia sagas -- and her father a low-level mine manager. The family's slight privilege and Giardina's budding 1960s consciousness combusted into clashes over politics.
She read constantly (especially Shakespeare and historical fiction), soaked up neighbors' tales and daydreamed her own. If Giardina and her characters rankle at hillbilly stereotypes, she acknowledges that the oral culture gave her "this feel for stories."
Still, she had no writerly role models, and, after she graduated with a history degree from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1973, she drifted professionally. She worked as a hospital clerk and took the LSAT. But Giardina found a spiritual home in the Episcopal church, which she found to be more broad-minded than the fundamentalist Methodism of her childhood. Her priest's reading suggestions helped steer Giardina from law school to seminary: "I thought I was called to be ordained. I realized later I went because I needed that education for writing. [My books] are actually more theological than political."
Ordained as a deacon at Virginia Theological Seminary in 1979, Giardina returned to a church in her childhood territory. Within a year, she left, after clashing with superiors over her criticism of coal companies. Meanwhile, she'd begun to work on Good King Harry. She moved to Washington, D.C., worked on a peace campaign, and lived communally with some radical Christians in an inner city outpost. "We were kind of young and self-righteous, but we were really trying to live our faith," Giardina recalls a bit ruefully. However, the experience of ministering to military families and living near the involuntarily poor dampened some of her certainties. Meanwhile, she stretched her budget by subscribing to the New York Times Book Review, mindful of reviewers' comments on craft and style.
After a stint in rural West Virginia, Giardina returned to Charleston and a job as a congressional aide. She also finished Harry, which is told in the first-person voice of King Henry V. Unable to sell it, she took a class with the visiting novelist George Garrett. He helped with revisions and recommended her to agent Jane Gelfman, who sold the novel to Aaron Asher at Harper &Row.
After Harry was published in 1984, Giardina -- who had feared being pigeonholed as a regional writer -- returned to her roots. Storming Heaven (1987) and its successor, The Unquiet Earth, are wrenching stories about families caught up in fighting or accommodating King Coal. They're set around the fictional Justice County -- the freighted name is actually a common southern West Virginia surname. Storming Heaven culminates in a version of the Battle of Blair Mountain, when U.S. Army troops marched on striking miners in 1921. The Unquiet Earth, which follows some descendants from the earlier book from the 1930s to the 1980s, also draws on a bitter strike and a mine disaster, history embedded in the local consciousness.
Giardina tells her coal-country sagas via multiple narrators in regional dialect, a strategy that didn't come easy. She had to scrap nearly 500 third-person manuscript pages of Storming Heaven: "I decided the people had to tell their own stories." While Storming Heaven eventually put Giardina on the critical map, it was tough to place. Asher had left Harper, and only Norton's Kathy Anderson bid on it.
Giardina found inspiration for both books in Wuthering Heights, with its rugged landscape and tales of women "who have this passion for a difficult man." Both books contain union organizers more committed to their cause than their lovers, and Bonhoeffer also fits that pattern: "I guess in none of my books are the personal relationships real easy."
Giardina also drew on local histories, childhood memory and even people she met in eastern Kentucky, where, while writing The Unquiet Earth, she lived in "this hovel" and volunteered for a citizens' group fighting strip mining. Still working on that manuscript, she moved to Durham, N.C., got a bookstore job and studied with novelist Laurel Goldman at Duke. In retrospect, Giardina says that the class helped her to recognize what she'd done intuitively and gave her the confidence to teach writing.
Giardina's alter ego, Jackie, once said that mountains "invade my dreams," and the author acknowledges she's had to leave Appalachia to gain perspective. But unlike so many peers, she came home. An old friend, now a dean at West Virginia State College near Charleston, got her a teaching job there six years ago. Indeed, it was the job, not the books, that bought her the house.
"Perhaps," she wrote in an essay, "it takes a hybrid to help create a body of writing where once there was only oral tradition." Now she claims "a measure of contentment through conjuring lost places" and, in Charleston, a mix of coziness and activity. She tests chapters in a long-standing local writers' group, plays cameo roles in community theater and sometimes preaches in church and protests strip mining and tax inequity.
Honing In on Bonhoeffer
From Charleston, Giardina immersed herself in the world of the martyred Bonhoeffer, who struggled with his faith, his patriotism and his loyalty to friends and family targeted by the Nazis. Her fascination, she says, stems "partly from the witness of Bonhoeffer's life, his taking a stand, but also the ambiguities of the situation. If you read his letters, he wasn't this plaster saint." The odyssey also helped bring her back to the church, says Giardina, who had given up her vows but now characterizes her faith as a struggle to "live in God."
Saints and Villains is the first novel Giardina has written in the third person, though she began it in the first person. With the help of Norton's Mary Cunnane, who edited The Unquiet Earth, Giardina aborted her first effort at 50 pages. She also decided to shift from past to present tense for the book's final scenes, adding suspense to the question of whether the imprisoned Bonhoeffer would be freed by the advancing Allies.
The title seems to leap out of the book's frontispiece quote from Bonhoeffer: "Today there are once more saints and villains." But the title was actually suggested by a friend who saw the quote gracing Giardina's refrigerator. She ultimately used lines from Mozart's Mass in C Minor -- the music and words "seemed to stir up something in me" -- to frame Bonhoeffer's saga and Germany's slide into Nazism and war. The music's liner notes helped her focus on the character of SS officer Alois Bauer, a music lover who serves as Dietrich's doppelgänger and is a composite of Bonhoeffer's real interrogators. Acknowledging a touch of authorly revenge, Giardina bestowed on Bauer the same surname as the New York Times reviewer who gave Storming Heaven its only prominent negative review.
Giardina absorbed some indelible atmosphere in a visit to Germany but mostly drew on her local library for research. In an afterword, she explains her tactics, noting which characters were real and invented and why she combined some characters and altered dates for the sake of narrative. "I have to go by feel," she says. Some of the book's plentiful dialogue she excerpted from real letters, but "it's mostly made up."
One invention is Fred Bishop, a black minister studying with Bonhoeffer at New York's Union Theological Seminary. Giardina places Bishop at a church in, yes, Charleston, and has Bonhoeffer visit him. Together, they learn of another scar in West Virginia's past, the death of some 700 workers drilling a mountain tunnel. "I wouldn't make a parallel with the Holocaust," Giardina says carefully. "But it seemed to preshadow that kind of callousness."
Giardina, who admires Milan Kundera for writing page-turners that raise questions about identity and commitment, feels a loyalty toward readers who lack her education: "I wanted to write a book a coal miner could read. Just 'cause it's accessible doesn't mean it hasn't got depth. I wanted the story itself to carry the depth, rather than the density of the language."
With matter-of-fact spirituality, Giardina calls her writing "a gift. I didn't know how good I'd be able to be. The same with preaching. There's a responsibility to say something that's true, make people think, but also help them connect with something larger than themselves." She hastens to add that she's asking questions, not saving souls.
Still, a few critics have found her descriptions of miners and bosses too melodramatic. Giardina counters by saying she actually tamed down the mine wars and that she aimed to create difficult characters. As validation, she now sees Storming Heaven taught in colleges. She even addressed the freshman class at Clemson University in South Carolina -- a "right-to-work state [unsympathetic to unions]," she says with incredulity. Although her mentor, Garrett, has connected her with some authors, notably Maine's Carolyn Chute, Giardina says: "I'm kind of out of the loop. I just tend to be a homebody."
Still, Giardina doesn't shrink from reading her work. With Saints and Villains, Norton hopes to expand on her audience by touring her to at least five cities, with readings at seminaries as well as bookstores. Gerald Howard, who inherited the book after Cunnane left the house, calls Giardina "the least jaded author I've ever worked with."
Giardina says she can't write without marinating in her subject, so she's considering early fundamentalism in 17th-century England and also a futuristic look at West Virginia ravaged by strip mining. Other ideas may surface. Ensconced in a place with but a faint presence on the literary map, Denise Giardina, indubitably a real writer, knows she can take on the world.