The Lawless River
Shaun Turner
Red Bird Chapbooks

“Everything Blooms,” the title of one of the stories in Shaun Turner’s new chapbook The Lawless River, is also an inadvertent commentary on the writing in this richly textured, exquisite fiction collection about growth, destruction, and renewal in small town America. Turner’s prose begs to be devoured, as he casts the eastern Kentucky foothills and the Rockcastle River as characters both beautiful and brutal, their harvests and creatures as alive as Turner’s human protagonists. The Lawless River lifts us out of ourselves and throws us headlong into the marrow of Kentucky life, with its courageous and damaged inhabitants in whose dreams we invest and whose tragedies we mourn. Here pumpkins, pickup trucks, cornfields, and campers reflect all of our truths. When Turner is done with us, we are all from Kentucky.

I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with the author, who speaks of his stories’ origins and the ways in which the chapbook format has captured his message:

Your chapbook represents life in Kentucky through beautifully woven, gritty, familial stories. What made you choose this approach?

Storytelling and close familial ties are definitely a part of Appalachia. And I’m a firm believer that my writing usually comes from a seed planted by Appalachia. The Rockcastle River turns and twists through fifty-odd miles of forested Appalachian foothills. The now-wide fields sit only on the ridges. In 1750, the river was originally named the Lawless River, and so that name inspired me.

This collection came from a series of focused edits to both new and previously-published work that ended up bound by eastern Kentucky: A definitely-gritty version of country life.

How much of your upbringing and experiences are reflected in these works of fiction?

Growing up in eastern Kentucky, storytelling is always and has always been a part of my family and regional cultures. Or more truly, people used to (and still do!) catch up by telling stories: about people we knew, about the times we were apart, about genealogy, our most far-flung and distant pasts made close.

But none of mine or my family’s experience is directly fictionalized in this work, though many of the stories do have some kernel in real life. Those small details may not be very obvious to the reader: for example, in “Everything Blooms,” in which a girl with city dreams meets a several-hundreds-pound pumpkin. That story came from an old friend’s exaggeration that his uncle grew pumpkins up to his knees. And it turned to an aspiring model interacting with her uncle and this miracle pumpkin that could somehow save them all.

Which story did you write first, and how did that story inform the others?

The last story, “Zion,” was, no-joke, the first piece of anything that I’d ever written, so in this collection, the last comes first.

That story definitely comes from a place of emotional truth for me, especially after the death of my grandfather, and that informs everything I do.

I love that you’ve written a chapbook of fiction! There’s something so satisfying about reading an entire collection of stories in one sitting. How do you see the chapbook format as advantageous in writing fiction?

Well thank you! And it’s really thanks to publishers like Red Bird Chapbooks that more and more fiction chapbooks are being seen and read.

I am a great fan of the chapbook as a piece of art, as an artifact. Red Bird Chapbooks‘ publication manager and book designer Dana Hoeschen, designs and crafts each chapbook beautifully and very personally, and it was a pleasure working with Evan Kingston, fiction editor, and editor-in-chief Sarah Hayes.

As form for fiction, chapbooks are a consumable and friendly face in which one can feel comfortable taking 5 or 10 minutes to finish a couple stories. The chapbook is the perfect home for impactful stories at one’s fingertips without the time commitment of a longer work.

Talk a bit about Krista Graham’s artwork on the cover of your chapbook. Did you ask her to paint the eastern Kentucky foothills, or did you see her work and it matched the images you’d created in your stories?

Krista Graham is a young artist who works in multiple mediums, this time in watercolor. She painted this image from her own experience traveling in the mountains, and graciously let me use the image as the cover for this piece. I felt that her piece of art matched the feeling of the hills in flux, the fall colors that are so fleeting but well-loved, and I thought it fit the book so well, and felt that Dana Hoeschen designed a lovely book to fit it.

Which books or chapbooks have influenced your writing?

I’ve always been very inspired by Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. At the time, I reread Ron Rash’s fine collection of stories, Nothing Gold Can Stay and Bo Ball’s classic Appalachian Patterns. But mostly, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction: material about steamboating the Cumberlands, and always the Foxfire series of southern Appalachian folkways.

Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the chapbook Gathered Bones Are Known To Wander (forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks). She is a regular contributor to the newspaper Newcity, and her work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, Burningword, Typehouse, Menacing Hedge, Rogue Agent and elsewhere. Amy lives in Chicago and teaches English at Harper College.


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