An interview with Jason Howard, new editor of Appalachian Heritage
Kentucky author Jason Howard has been appointed editor of the literary quarterly Appalachian Heritage at Berea College, announced Dr. Chris Green, director of the college’s Loyal Jones Appalachian Center.
Howard is the award-winning author or editor of three acclaimed books and numerous short works of creative nonfiction. He brings more than 11 years of editing experience to the position, including at a national magazine, an online literary journal, an independent publishing house, a small business and an environmental nonprofit. (For more on Jason’s work and career, click here.)
“Jason Howard knows, cherishes, and fights for Appalachia—its literature and music, its people and mountains,” says Green. “Jason is an excellent editor and writer who understands the contemporary literature in and out of the mountains. I am excited he’s going to be guiding Appalachia’s most important literary magazine.”
The magazine, founded by Kentucky poet Albert Stewart in 1973, has had a storied history since its inception in at Alice Lloyd College in Knott County, Kentucky. Most Appalachian cultural and literary authors and thinkers of note have since had their words pass through its pages. In 1982 AH moved to Hindman Settlement School for a few years, and then to Berea College in 1985 when Sidney Saylor Farr took over as editor. Fourteen years later, Jim Gage took the helm until 2002 when George Brosi became editor, until his retirement in the fall of 2013.
As Appalachian Heritage enters into its fifth decade, Chris Green thought it right to ask Jason a few questions about himself and Appalachian literature.
CG: What was your first important encounter with Appalachian literature?
JH: When I was in middle school in the early nineties in Bell County, I read Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker after seeing Jane Fonda’s television adaptation of the novel. I think I read it in a week. I couldn’t put it down because I recognized pieces of my own family’s story in that of Gertie Nevels and her kin. I saw glimpses of Gertie and Clovis when I visited my aunts and uncles who had settled in Ohio, having moved there in the 1950s to find work. In retrospect, that book was so formative for me, giving me context and themes in both Appalachian literature and history.
CG: What was your first publication?
JH: My first publication came when I was living and working in Washington, D.C. I was a staff writer for Equal Justice Magazine—where I would later become senior editor—and I pitched a story about Kentucky coal miners who were living with black lung but had been unable to get benefits because of all the bureaucratic hoops they had to jump through. I got the go ahead and talked to miners, attorneys, legislators and UMWA officials in my reporting. I’ll never forget interviewing Teddy Fuson, a former deep miner from Middlesboro, and hearing him cough through the phone as he expressed his anger and sadness about being denied benefits. He later died from the disease, and I’m glad that I got to shine some small light on his struggle.
CG: What about your most recent publication?
JH: I’m a big believer in music as literature, which is one of the reasons I wrote my most recent book, A Few Honest Words, which came out in 2012. The book is an exploration of how Kentucky’s culture has influenced its best contemporary musicians like Dwight Yoakam, Naomi Judd, Matraca Berg and Nappy Roots. It’s a testimony to how the land and traditions inform the literature of a place, even when the writer or artist may no longer live—or have never lived—there. I think the book really gets to one of my core beliefs: that being an Appalachian or a Kentuckian or nearly any other regional identity is about heart and spirit just as much—if not more so—than geography
CG: Would you tell us about your work as an editor and your vision?
JH: Appalachian Heritage has always occupied a strong place in my heart. My paternal grandmother always had issues lying around, and I got those after she died nearly ten years ago. I’m looking forward to preserving the legacy of the magazine’s past editors, while also taking it to new places. I’ve been an editor in many different forms—for a national magazine, a literary magazine, an indie publisher, a small business and a nonprofit, as well as for friends in informal settings. I love the collaborative aspect of the job, being in dialogue with other writers and always trying to get the piece at hand to its best possible place. That process is what I’m most looking forward to about leading Appalachian Heritage.