What I know about Appalachia is mostly romanticized: it’s the home of ramps, the wild leeks that signal spring, and the birthplace of country queen Loretta Lynn. But now I know it’s also the birthplace of Mesha Maren, whose debut novel, Sugar Run, follows Jodi McCarty, an Appalachian woman released from prison in her mid-30s after serving 18 years of a life sentence for manslaughter.
Maren grew up in rural West Virginia in a house her father, Sam, built by hand. In fact, her childhood home doesn’t look much different than the one Loretta lived in (I looked it up).
Building runs in the family. When Maren was a teenager in 2000, she built a cabin with her father using pine trees that had been planted the year she was born. She says that her father was a great storyteller, and I’ll bet that the lilt of her prose (“The rain roared, battering the trees outside and against the white cloth of the windows where dark leaves spattered and stuck”) can be traced back to his guitar playing and to the rhythms of neighbors baling hay—a rhythm her mother told her coincided with the rhythm of her labor when she was giving birth to Maren at home.
After realizing she had stories to tell, Maren started writing seriously in 2007. She traveled, mostly in Mexico, but when she moved with her partner, Randall O’Wain, to Iowa City—where he was in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in nonfiction—she grew to miss West Virginia.
“I started wondering,” Maren says, “can you ever go home?” She began Sugar Run in early 2013, going straight to the library after her shifts waitressing; and never before, she says, “did I have the experience of a character taking up residence in my head.”
That character was Jodi, who starts her journey to redemption at the Greyhound bus station in Dahlonega, Ga., after leaving prison. She soon hooks up with Miranda, a single mother living at the Rocklodge Motor Inn with her children. As the story moves back and forth between 2007 and 1988 to reveal Jodi’s past, the lovers travel south together, stopping at bars and washing jelly doughnuts down with screwdrivers in diners, while the landscape comes alive.
I wondered what Maren personally knows about prison and incarcerated women, and the pieces fall together when she tells me that her father worked at the Alderson Hospitality House, a nonprofit that provided support for the women in the federal prison in Alderson, W.Va. (Famous inmates have included Martha Stewart and Sara Jane Moore, who attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford.) Maren’s father often took her along on prison visits, she says, when she was “like four to eight years old.”
The manuscript for Sugar Run came to Kathy Pories, executive editor at Algonquin Books, from agent Bill Clegg, with an endorsement from Lauren Groff. And yes, Pories says, she likes Bill’s taste and loves Groff. But name dropping aside, she was immediately taken with Sugar Run. Pories came to the South from Cleveland and “just never left.” She has a PhD in English literature from UNC Chapel Hill, but realized while interning at Algonquin that she “liked working for nothing better than teaching.”
“Mesha’s prose has such grittiness, such authenticity,” Pories says. “It reminded me of what we used to call grit lit, but that was always guy writers. Until Sugar Run, I never felt like a woman did it.” She adds, “I didn’t find out until sales conference, but I wasn’t surprised to learn that Mesha grew up without plumbing.”
Pories got back to Clegg “pretty fast” and bought Sugar Run in June 2015. “This book had an excess of riches,” Pories says. “The only edits were about honing it down.”
Circling back, Clegg received the manuscript for Sugar Run directly from Groff, who had Maren as a student in 2014 in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, N.C. Maren sent Sugar Run to Groff not knowing whether she would even remember her, but she did, and Groff tells me, “Mesha’s talent shone so brightly from the very first page I read of hers that, even if I hadn’t brought her work to Bill’s attention, I have zero doubt that Mesha would still have found her publishing house and her readers. Sugar Run is brilliant and savage and gorgeous.”
Clegg received the manuscript as he was leaving for the 2015 London Book Fair. “I always take a peek when I get a manuscript—I can’t help it,” he says. “And Mesha’s caught me right out of the gate. So I printed it out and read it on the plane; when I got to my hotel, I called her.”
Maren remembers the call. “It sent shivers up my spine,” she says.
“The book is a deep dive into Appalachia,” Clegg says. “And I was transfixed. My list of authors get the bulk of my attention, but when I find something new, it’s like opening a Christmas present. There’s the crackle of magic, and few hit me the way Mesha’s did. It’s manuscripts like Sugar Run that keep you just hopeful enough to keep going.”
Sugar Run was sold on the first round of bids. “Kathy staked an early claim and was wildly articulate about it,” Clegg says. “Mesha and I had the same feeling—that it was a perfect fit.”
The book comes out January 8. Maren and O’Wain—who has a collection of essays, Superman Dam[n] Fool, coming from Bison Books—plan to go on a book tour together. “He was a musician in a punk band,” Maren tells me. “He knows everyone.”
In the meantime, they are living in that house her father built. And the log cabin that was her bedroom until she left home at 18? “I cleaned it out when we moved back to West Virginia. Now it’s my writing studio.”