By Leslie Lindsay
~MEMOIR MONDAY|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
When Bobi Conn thinks back on her childhood in 1980s Appalachia she remembers feeling free—running with her younger brother through the remote Kentucky holler where her family lived, wading through creeks, knocking down wasp nests, and eating the sweet blackberries growing along the road to her granny’s. But she also remembers the darkness threatening to swallow the vast forest paradise around her—substance abuse, alcoholism, her alcoholic father who continuously terrorized his wife and children. Very quickly Conn learned that speaking up for herself would get her nowhere; Conn writes. “I hid myself deep so that on the surface, people would see quiet and good girl.”
IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY: A Memoir (Little A: May 1, 2020) is about surviving in a community that, regardless of its beauty, it’s marginalized, desperate, and ignored by the rest of the country. Bobi manages to perform well academically and leaves the holler for college. At school she is able to learn, ask questions, and express her opinions. Motherhood, a white-collar job, and a cycle of drugs and abusive men follow. Mistrusted by her family for her progress and condescended to by peers for her accent and her history, Bobi is followed by the emotional scars of her past. Can we ever really shed that previous skin of where our stories began?
Ultimately, this is a tale of survival; it’s about hope for vulnerable populations, particularly women and girls caught in the cycle of poverty and abuse. And here’s something she says in the pages of IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY that really rings true, “It’s the storyteller who holds the power.”
While IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY is a memoir at heart, it’s also very autobiographical, covering a large portion of Bobi’s life, her coming of age, struggles, and tends to have a circuitous flow; it’s more of a ‘telling memoir, with the singular focus on the author, and the characters who orbit her world.
As Conn writes,
“I think of my little-girl self, who is surely still inside me, and know I could tell her that she is good and that everything is going to be okay…I would tell her that everything she longs for is also looking for her, yearning to be found…it is concealed within her own hopeful heart, just waiting for her to write her story.”
IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY is beautifully written and transportive. I felt such a kinship with the land, the space I inhabited while in the company of this book.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Bobi Conn to the author interview series:
Bobi, I am so swept away with your story. About six months ago, my family and I traveled to Kentucky and Tennessee. I immediately felt at ease in this land. It was like the earth was calling me home. What inspired you to write IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY? What was calling you home?
I first began writing this memoir for my creative writing thesis in graduate school. I wanted to tell the story of my father sending me to my granny’s house to call her an awful name, and I wove other stories into that telling. At that point, I just wanted to tell an interesting story and tell it well. Over time, as I expanded the manuscript and reworked the structure, I felt like my life story could be helpful to others. I interrogated my emotions and beliefs to find the universal elements in my experience, and as I did so, I discovered a purpose in my suffering. And that’s how I see my story now – I survived and am able to articulate a lot of things that many people have not felt empowered to express themselves. Telling my story helps me heal some of the pain I still carry, and telling it with love and care means that others can heal from reading it, no matter how much or how little of it they relate to.
This is tough read. It’s beautifully written but there’s a huge amount of heartache, violence, substance abuse, poverty, discrimination, and more. The details are varied and rich. I think it speaks to your resilience and determination. Can you expand on that, please?
As a child, I felt so much, so deeply, and I have continued to find richness in the details of life – even within the mundane. Perhaps especially within the mundane…. As I wrote my memoir, I sought to convey the details that I think we all experience and that are part of the story of our lives we don’t often share with others. For instance, something as simple as a hummingbird flitting around my hanging flowers, can create a moment of joy, inspiration, and hope. When we were children, we had a lot of those moments. So, as I wrote my story, I dove into those kinds of details because the magic of childhood discovery, and the joy we were once more connected to, is still within us. I think that is important to remember and to reconnect with that joy, just as much as it is a necessity to heal our childhood trauma.
In terms of writing, there’s a lovely section from IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY, “Writing was the only thing that felt natural[…]it was a way for me to make sense of the world[…]” Do you think writing was a form of survival for you?
Yes, I do – and we have plenty of evidence that storytelling is a necessary, instinctual part of the human psyche. All children grow up constructing a narrative about their lives and the world around them. When you grow up in a dysfunctional environment, the narrative is twisted in ways that are hard to understand, both from within and from an external perspective. I believe that everything I have written – even if it wasn’t supposed to be about me or any part of my life – has helped me understand myself and others better. Writing allows me explore my own mind as I describe the motives and traits of characters, or convey underlying premises a story or essay is founded upon. Most importantly, writing and storytelling has always allowed me to take control over my relationship with my own story and to find the beauty within it.
“This memoir, although at times achingly sad, provides an uplifting tale of a woman who decided that she would prevail over the hand that life dealt her…An engaging read that will connect with fans of Tara Westover’s Educated and those interested in the ability of the human spirit to overcome adversity.”
I love houses and homes and so I have to ask about when you traveled back to your great-grandmother’s house. You talk of the floorboards being rotten or broken…room for a child or several upstairs…hot darkness…hand-sewn quilts…everything waiting for you, like an endless childhood. This is so profound. Like this place was locked in amber, a time capsule. What is it for you that this place represents? Is it decay or potential? A little of both?
I think you are right that it is a little of both. I almost always feel like there is something palpable left behind when a home is abandoned. When I stepped into my great-grandmother’s old house, it was like walking into rooms of emotion – as if the frustration, sense of possibility, and childhood curiosity were all still right there, existing without people and bodies to house them. And I felt the excitement of potential, as well as the sorrow of that disembodiment. It feels mystical to me, but just as real and practical as the natural world I was surrounded by as a child.
Much of what I think IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY does is it brings to mind the idea that as humans we are woven of more complete whole. We are the land, the people, the experiences, the trauma. We need to understand that backstory so we can forge our own stories. Can you expand on that, please? And correct me if I’m wrong about your intentions.
This is an idea that I love to explore, and you said it well. As I was writing about myself and my family, I found it really important to provide context. When I’m thinking about what I want to say, it’s sometimes hard to pick which details aren’t important, even necessary. I believe this tendency stems from the Appalachian oral storytelling styles of my childhood – you might want to tell a simple story about what Betty said at church today, but you’ve got to clarify that it’s the same Betty who used to wear those flowery dresses and always brings the worst devilled eggs to church potlucks, and her first husband died awfully young…. I think Appalachian storytelling recognizes that even as whole individuals, many aspects of ourselves are only realized in relation to other people, our environment, and our circumstances. And so a person is never just a flat character, but a point of reference that reflects a unique position within multiple histories.
I could ask questions all day—but what might I have forgotten—more about your granny, who served as a sort of touchstone for you, what it was like to read the audio version of IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY, and also your playlist for the book…or anything else???
I could talk with you about these things all day! Let’s see… I have to say that I’m touched by all of the people who have reached out to let me know they can relate to some aspect of my story, so far. And I’m happy to hear that a lot of people have had a person in their lives like my granny – someone who made them feel safe and loved. I wish I could take Granny some of my chicken and dumplings, or take her to the spring where I sometimes get water these days. It is so bittersweet to love someone who is gone.
As for narrating the audiobook, that was something that I was excited to audition for, but as soon as I found out I would get to do it, I realized I had signed up for something incredibly intense. I hadn’t considered how it would feel to not only share my story with the world, but to read it to them. The entire experience once again shifted my relationship with my story, though, and helped me claim greater ownership of it. Putting the playlist together was a lot of fun, and I love music so much, I hope people will listen to it and get an even deeper sense of what my life has felt like through the songs that are meaningful to me. Plus, you’re missing out if you haven’t heard Waylon Jennings sing “White Lightning.”
Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Join @leslielindsay1 on Instagram #alwayswithabook.
To learn more, to connect with Bobi Conn via social media, or to purchase a copy of IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY, please visit:
There were several titles that came to mind as I read IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY, and you might find some resonance with HILLBILLY ELEGY (J.D. Vance), the poetry of ARIA VISCERA (Kristi Carter), the leaving behind of family dysfunction and cycles of abuse for higher education in Tara Westover’s EDUCATED and also a touch of THE GLASS CASTLE (Jeanette Walls) meets Sheryl Recinos, M.D.’s HINDSIGHT. In terms of Appalachia stories, you might turn to F*CKFACE (Leah Hampton) and the forthcoming EVERY BONE A PRAYER (August 4 2020) by Ashley Blooms, but also–not exactly Appalachia–but some crossover in terms of oppression, trauma, and discrimination in THE YELLOW HOUSE (Sarah M. Broom).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Bobi Conn was born in Morehead, Kentucky, and raised in a nearby holler, where she developed a deep connection with the land and her Appalachian roots. She obtained her bachelor’s degree at Berea College, the first school in the American South to integrate racially and to teach men and women in the same classrooms. After struggling as a single mother, she worked multiple part-time jobs at once to support her son and to attend graduate school, where she earned a master’s degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing. In addition to writing, Bobi loves playing pool, cooking, being in the woods, attempting to grow a garden, and spending time with her incredible children.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir. Her writing has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art will be featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal, and CNF in Semicolon Literary Magazine; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available late this summer. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of ShreveWilliams and used with permission. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Join @leslielindsay1 on Instagram #alwayswithabook]