Growing up in a trailer on the banks of Robinson Creek near the Laurel River in Lily, KY, a town of about 500 at the time, Silas House saw nothing degrading about what would be stereotyped as a “hillbilly childhood.” In fact, he disdains the mark of “trailer trash,” speaking of his early years as full of dignified richness and joyful magic. Surrounded by storytellers—his father’s friends as they gathered around a busted truck engine, his mother’s gossiping gospel groups, and the visitors to his Aunt Dot’s store—he also developed a profound appreciation for the ways in which life is woven from the fabric of people’s stories and their communication. As a member of the Holiness Church fellowship in Lily and a precocious student at Lily Elementary, House was surrounded by an intricate and energized social network of family and friends that intensified his love of the tightly knit community and its connection to its place—the mountain ranges, coal fields, towns, and woods of Eastern Kentucky.
A Student of Life
As a young man, House commuted to and from Sue Bennett College in London, KY, a two-year college with about 500 students, and then Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond and its Manchester satellite campus. He excelled as a student, pursuing interests in story craft and earning a B.A. in English with a concentration on American literature. He went on to receive his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Spalding University in Louisville. He is quick to mention, though, that he probably learned more from the countless odd jobs he has taken over the years to survive, including stints working at Wal-Mart and “every restaurant in Lily,” pouring concrete, and delivering Lily’s mail.
Works and Awards
House published his first book, Clay’s Quilt, in 2001 at the age of 29. The book tells the haunting story of Clay Sizemore and his struggle to find peace after a lifetime spent carrying the pain of a traumatic past event—the death of his mother. After its publication, House entered the writing life, taking on the promotional and business end professionally while continuing to plumb the depths of his storytelling voice. In 2002, he published A Parchment of Leaves, the story of a troubled love triangle gone murderously wrong in the dark days of World War I. 2004’s The Coal Tattoo examines the lives of two sisters in the 1960s as they face the sweeping changes brought to their community as a result of the expanding coal mining industry. His play The Hurting Part, a mountain Christmas story that reveals the painful elements of separation and love during the holiday season, debuted in 2005 to wide acclaim.
His work has won two Kentucky Novel of the Year awards, the Award for Special Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Appalachian Book of the Year, the Chaffin Award, and many other honors. He serves as writer-in-resident at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN, where he also directs the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival.
House is also a contributing editor for No Depression magazine; remains one of Nashville’s most in-demand press kit writers; and performs regularly with his band, the Doolittles, playing guitar and singing. He was recently chosen to edit the posthumous manuscript of Appalachian writer James Still and is also co-editing Something’s Rising, a collection of oral histories on the subject of mountaintop removal mining. He is a member of Public Outcry, a group of writers and activists who visit universities to educate people about mountaintop removal mining, a practice he actively opposes through those and other projects. He is currently working on two novels and was recently commissioned to write a new play, which will premiere in 2008.
Letting the Story Unfold
House claims that the majority of his work could be considered autobiographical, given its deep roots in the places and people encompassing his youth and adulthood in the mountains. Preservation of the past—the dialects, customs, and close relationship patterns of his home—also remains a constant thread in his books, as do the stillness of the woods and the preeminence of the mountain environment. He says he is drawn to the format of a novel simply because it allows each of his characters to develop fully as they drive the story and, though usually troubled in the dim light of the first few pages, find some form of peace by the end. Of his method, he says that he has usually written a book in his head long before putting pen to paper. He prefers to let the story unfold after long periods, often spanning a year or more, of deep reflection and observation.