Tom Eblen: How a New Jersey native became a Kentucky writer

Herald-Leader columnistJanuary 22, 2013 

What, exactly, is a Kentucky writer? Is it a writer from Kentucky? One who lives or has lived in Kentucky? Writes about Kentucky?

That idea has been discussed a lot since the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning began a project last year to celebrate Kentucky writers of the past and present, and to promote Lexington as the "literary capital of mid-America." On Thursday, the center will name the first six inductees into its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

With all of this in mind, I went to talk with a talented Kentucky writer who took a roundabout journey to get here.

Joseph G. Anthony was born in New Jersey and raised "on the wrong side of the tracks" in Camden, which seemed to him like a no-man's land between New York and Philadelphia.

Anthony said he lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a dozen years, managing an off-track betting parlor and teaching English part-time at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University.

Then, at age 33, he was offered a teaching job at Hazard Community College in 1980.

"I knew nothing about Kentucky, except the Derby happened here," he said with a laugh. "I found it to be a great adventure."

After five years in Hazard, Anthony moved to the humanities faculty of Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington.

As he nears retirement, Anthony, 66, has had a burst of literary output in the past year: a novel, Pickering's Mountain, set in Eastern Kentucky, and a short-story collection, Bluegrass Funeral, set in Central Kentucky.

With those two books and his first novel, Peril, Kentucky, published in 2005, Anthony considers himself a Kentucky writer. (He also published a short-story collection in 2009, Camden Blues, set in New Jersey and New York.)

"I've really bonded with Kentucky," he said. "I get angry at it, like you only can at a relative. I really love so many things about it. We're so lucky here in so many ways. Kentuckians understand their identity. I come from Jersey, where we didn't."

Anthony enjoys seeing Kentuckians meet for the first time and do what he calls "the county dance:" figuring out where each is from and what connections they might have. "We never did the county dance in New Jersey," he said.

The states do have similarities, he said. People in both states tend to feel outside the American mainstream. And both are often stereotyped by outsiders.

Insiders and outsiders are a recurrent theme in Anthony's fiction. He doesn't avoid stereotypes, but he tries to play off them to show readers that things are always more complicated than they seem.

This is particularly true in Pickering's Mountain, in which a young New Yorker comes to a small Eastern Kentucky town to take a job as a newspaper reporter.

Sam Weatherby and his family are thrown into complicated situations involving families, religion and coal mining. The outcomes are anything but predictable.

"Things get complicated, because there's real people involved, real dilemmas," he said. "Eastern Kentucky is a very complicated place. I wanted to write about the complexity of it."

Anthony faced the same challenge for Bluegrass Funeral, whose stories are set in Lexington and a fictional Godard County. The stories include explorations of the region's complicated history with race and class.

Anthony will be reading from and signing Bluegrass Funeral at 6 p.m. Friday at Wild Fig Bookstore, 1439 Leestown Road, and at noon Jan. 30 in the lobby of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, 470 Cooper Drive.

The Bluegrass Funeral stories led Anthony to his next project, which he says will be either a collection of short stories or a novel set in Lexington during the civil rights era, between the 1940s and the 1960s. He has been preparing to write by researching that era and listening to oral history interviews.

"I want it to be fiction," he said. "I really feel fiction can tell a story in a way journalism can't or essays can't."

After three Kentucky books, Anthony said, he sometimes feels as if he's just getting started as a Kentucky writer. There is so much interesting material to explore.

"We're called a border state," he said. "I don't think anybody else is like us. We're not the border. We're it."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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