Inspiration from the American South

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Sharyn McCrumb sits high atop an overlook on Potts Mountain in Craig County, Virginia.
Sharyn McCrumb sits high atop an overlook on Potts Mountain in Craig County, Virginia.

Sharyn McCrumb has driven 180-mile-an-hour laps in a NASCAR race car, allowed herself to be strapped into Tennessee’s electric chair, and fired an 1841 muzzleloader so hot it felt like a curling iron scorching her palm — all in the interest of finding authentic details for her fiction.

“In third grade, when everyone else wanted to be a cowboy or stewardess, I declared I was going to be a writer,” says McCrumb, now the bestselling author of 27 novels. “My storytelling instinct comes naturally. My great-grandfathers were circuit preachers in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, and my father used to tell me stories every night; just picture Andy Griffith narrating The Iliad.”

Best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels set in the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains, McCrumb earned her master’s degree in English from Virginia Tech in 1985. Her award-winning books, studied in universities worldwide, have been translated into nearly a dozen languages. The New York Times has called her writing “elegiac”; the Toronto Star once dubbed her “Jane Austen with an attitude.”

Although her novels cannot be easily characterized, they tend to touch on the history and folklore of the American South. The Ballad of Tom Dooley plumbs the true tragic tale of the accused murderer. In St. Dale, the death of racing legend Dale Earnhart inspires a Canterbury Tales–style pilgrimage of fans. And McCrumb’s latest, The Unquiet Grave, brings to life one of the strangest murder trials in U.S. history—the case of the Greenbrier Ghost. In that 1897 trial, the spectral testimony of a slain woman condemned her husband to death in West Virginia.

“My books are like Appalachian quilts,” McCrumb says. “I piece brightly colored scraps of legends, ballads, and fragments of rural life together into a whole, so when you step back you can see the pattern. Not only does a story emerge, but also a deeper truth about the culture of the Mountain South.”

Written by Paula Byron. The article first appeared in the 2018–19 edition of Illumination magazine.