SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Mesha Maren's novel "Sugar Run" opens as Jodi McCarty is getting turned out of prison on parole after serving 18 years for manslaughter. She shot her girlfriend when she was 17, so Jodi has lived most of her life in prison and must now make a new life in the real world outside she doesn't really know. Soon, she'll meet someone. And they'll try to make a life together in a small West Virginia town, where they're outsiders in every way.
"Sugar Run" is the first novel from Mesha Maren, whose short stories and essays have appeared in the Oxford American. She's a visiting writer at the University of North Carolina and a writing fellow at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution in West Virginia. She joins us from West Virginia Public Radio. Thanks so much for being with us.
MESHA MAREN: Thank you so much for having me.
SIMON: You kind of grew up going to prisons, didn't you?
MAREN: I did, yes. My dad worked for a nonprofit. And part of the work that he did is he volunteered to visit women in the federal prison camp in Alderson, W.Va. - women who hadn't received a visit from family or friends in more than a year. And I would often go along with my dad. So as a very young child, I think it was exciting to me because I got to eat candy out of the vending machines. But those experiences stuck with me.
SIMON: Well, and they come up here?
MAREN: They do. So I think, you know, when I started writing "Sugar Run" and started realizing that my character Jodi had spent a significant amount of her life in prison, those impressions that I formed when I was young came back to me. I specifically remember overhearing my dad speaking with women at the Alderson prison who were soon-to-be released. And later as an adult, I realized just how strong their joy was, you know, to be released, but also their fear of what it meant to make a life on the outside.
SIMON: Did I hear you say, once I realized my character Jodi had spent all these years in prison?
MAREN: Yeah. I mean, Jodi came to me very strongly. Before I even realized that I was writing a book, I was hanging out with Jodi. And she kind of took up residence in my mind. And I became a little infatuated with her. I started thinking about her all the time. And then the plot and the rest of the story sort of fell into place. I really, actually, kind of felt like I was getting to know her. And so it was a process of realizing what she had been through.
SIMON: Well, Jodi - without giving too much away - gets out of prison. She meets an interesting woman, Miranda, who has three children, a failing marriage to a has-been country singer and an addiction. What draws them to each other?
MAREN: She's just gotten out of prison. And she knows, in many ways, that taking up with Miranda is a bad decision. I mean, she kind of looks at her the first night that they're hanging out and tells herself, don't do this. But at the same time, she's drawn to her. I mean, she's physically attracted to her.
But she's also, I think, attracted to the fact that Miranda is bound and determined to enjoy life despite everything that's going wrong. So it's this sort of love of life and determination to make something joyful out of life.
SIMON: Certainly, one of the things that compelled us to pick up the book is that we don't hear a lot in literature about West Virginia. What do we misunderstand sometimes about West Virginia?
MAREN: So I get asked a lot, like, you know, why not just leave West Virginia, you know? Or why would a character like Jodi go back to West Virginia? And I think that for those of us who love places that are sometimes difficult to love, we love them with this extra fierceness - this fierce tenderness for this place that isn't always easy to love. But there's so much that's so interesting and beautiful, both in the people and the landscape.
SIMON: You do take on the fact that fracking is, in all ways, truly changing the landscape.
MAREN: One of the things that's difficult about West Virginia is that it is a place where a lot is extracted from here - right? - coal, lumber, now fracking for natural gas. And it's devastating on the land here. But I also think that that's part of where we get the conversation of, why don't you just leave, is that people kind of envision West Virginia as a place to take things out of.
SIMON: Yeah. And addictions - you do have to make that a part of your telling - storytelling, too, don't you?
MAREN: Absolutely. So, you know, the characters in my book - they use a lot of different substances. And, of course, that happens anywhere. That is not specific to West Virginia. But I do think that, you know, in some rural areas, it can be easy to fall into a trap of using substances as a crutch to make it through a life that's difficult.
For Jodi, you know, she's trying to find a job after prison, and living in a rural area doesn't make that any easier for her. And I think that, you know, sometimes she goes to substances to alleviate that.
SIMON: We noted that you're a writing fellow at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution. Is there a great story in every prisoner?
MAREN: I think there's a great story in every human being. And that - so that - the same is true. There's a great story in every prisoner.
But the thing that I love about teaching there is just how - obviously, how much it means. The guys who are in my class - being able to sit down once a week for two hours and focus on their writing. And they've told me just to be in a quiet room, too, where, you know, I'll give them a writing assignment, and then we're quiet - they've told me that that, in many ways, is one of the things that is most valuable to them.
SIMON: Without giving away the end of the novel, does Jodi go on with you in your life now?
MAREN: She does to less of a degree. I mean, I think when I found the end of the book, I was able to let her go in some ways. I definitely still think about her.
SIMON: When you found the end of the book. Now, people who don't write for a living will think, what do you mean you found it? You created it.
MAREN: True. But the thing is, I think that, at least for me, the way that I write is I have this sort of foggy idea of the ending. I need to have something that I'm working towards, right? But I don't want it to be too sharp, actually, in my mind because then I might write towards it at all costs, and I might miss something along the way.
And, actually, this book ended slightly before I had planned. So I had this kind of idea. And then when I reached the place where the book does end now, I thought, you know, I think that's the end.
SIMON: Mesha Maren, her debut novel "Sugar Run." Thanks so much for being with us.
MAREN: Thank you so much.