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Kate Long: Interview with Michael F. Hughes

February, 2003 (first published in the Hampshire Review)


Kate appeared with Robin Kessinger and the Ice Mountain Writers on April 11, 2003
For more informaton see:
Kate's web site: www.katelong.com
Robin's web site: www.robinkessinger.com

Q: At what age did you start writing?

A: For me, maybe the question would be: when did you start telling stories? "Writing" is an intimidating word to people. West Virginians are storytellers. I can't remember a time when I wasn't telling stories, or listening to stories. I remember playing in the woods when I was very small, telling myself stories, making up stories, playing all the parts. I was the Indian princess going through the woods, climbing the rocks up to the big rock that looked like a frog. I was the pioneer girl looking out over the cliffs for any kind of danger.

Stories have always been part of life for me. Though I do public performances, I've always been a shy person, and this is one way I cope with that. I have a project going all the time. I'm working on a song or I'm working on a story. Sometimes I write magazine pieces. This is one of the advantages of writing: I'm never bored. It give me another place where I can go, if I'm stuck in traffic or waiting in the doctor's office, or just plain uncomfortable somewhere. I have this other world that I can go into. I can think about the next line of a song or wonder what the character is going to do.

Q: When you were a kid, was there one person or several people who looked at you and said, "Hey, that's really neat, what you're doing?"

A: Some teachers read my stories and passed them around from one teacher to another. In junior high, I used to sit in the back of the room and write parodies of things that we were doing in class or around school. My science teacher had me read them and everybody laughed with me. In English class, we'd passed them around the back row and get in trouble for laughing. I wish I could see those stories now, but I do remember everybody laughing. That was when I first understood that you could write something that would make people laugh or stir them in some way. That writing was a way of getting beyond yourself and your shyness or awkwardness or whatever. I was 5 ft. 9 in. tall in 7th grade and very skinny, a very large geek. But when I wrote, I wasn't awkward. I could make people laugh. And be graceful.

When I was a little girl in Oak Hill, I scribbled or read all the time. I'd walk down the street with a piece of paper, just scribbling on it, or with my nose in a book. I was fascinated with what could happen when you put words together. I didn't think that I could be a writer, because I'd never heard of a writer from West Virginia. We didn't have any books by writers from West Virginia in our county schools then, and I figured that real writers came from somewhere else. I didn't see books about the lifestyle and events around me, so I assumed, although nobody said so, that real writers write about things that happened long ago or are far away.

I was thrilled when I ran into my first writers from West Virginia. Their stories said, life here is well worth writing about. I began to write, and in 1979, I did publish a book with Houghton Mifflin in 1979, called "Johnny's Such A Bright Boy, What A Shame He's Retarded." I wrote that after I supervised the Summer's County Special Ed program. They were putting all the black kids and welfare kids in the retarded classes, and getting state and federal money for it. And so I wrote this novel, based on my time in Summer's County, to explain to people how that could happen, despite people's best intentions.

I've done that several times in my life: had a social work or teaching job, then spun what I learned into a book or other project. After I worked as a home teacher for parents of handicapped children, I made a series of videotapes in which parents talked to other parents. We went to the homes of a lot of people who had handicapped preschoolers, and they talked about what they went through, both positive and negative. We showed them working with their kids, and living family life with their kids. Those parents were wonderful. I was happy to give them a way to talk to other parents.

Q: Did you start with stories, and later on pick up an instrument and start getting into music, or was it as the same time?

A: Songwriting came later. Soon as I learned to write in grade school, I was writing stories. Actually, when I was telling my stories as a kid, I'd sing them half the time. As I got older, I wrote songs for things along the way. A song for a fundraising event for a domestic violence shelter, for instance. A song for a friend's wedding or birthday. A song for people fighting a garbage dump. People asked me to record them, so they could learn them. It kind of went from there. I started performing.

The song for somebody's birthday is just as important to me as a song I record. I didn't record songs until I was almost 40 years old. There comes a point in life, when a person get past the shyness, and you don't care if people think what you're doing is silly or whatever. Life is short. You go ahead and do the thing your heart's telling you to do.

Q: When you write now, what's your process? How do you start? When you get an idea, how do you carry your idea through, whether it's a song or a story or a journalistic piece?

A: I've learned to listen.
I'll tell you a story about listening: A few years back, I listened to a tape recording of myself singing with friends. They were in perfect timing, and I was out of synch, not listening to them. That made me feel bad. I decided, well, for several months, I'm not going to sing. I'll just listen to how people sing together. I did that, and did learn to sing better with other people. But there was a great surprise: I also began to hear the little voice inside my own head singing to me, singing fragments of songs I could spin into full blown songs.

Listening is so important to a songwriter. You can miss that little voice if you're busy thinking about what you're going to say or sing. It speaks softly. So you have to listen to yourself too.

My "Who'll Watch the Homeplace," eventually became the International Bluegrass Music Association Song of the Year. The seed for that song was planted one night as I passed a small farm in southern West Virginia that had a hand-lettered FOR SALE sign on it. It was a beautiful little place, obviously cared for. The thought came into my mind, "those people don't really want to leave."

At the time, some of my friends had to leave to find jobs. I thought: Will the people who get this place love it like the people who are leaving? And I heard the little voice singing, "When I am gone from here." I pulled out my little tape recorder and sang that fragment onto it, so I wouldn't lose it.

Most adults are comfortable with the idea of thoughts, but we don't think in terms of little voices singing in our heads. But when we're children, we know there's music inside us. As we grow older in this country, we get the idea that the music is in the radio, the music's on the television, the music's on the stage with those artists up there, but not inside me. People stop listening to their own artistic voice.

Scientists say that little voice comes from the right brain, the creative side. When we're so busy being left brain and rational, many times we just don't hear that little voice singing or speaking to us. A lot of fiction writers and poets say the same thing.

After I put that fragment of song on a tape recorder, I began to picture the story and think about the possible cast of characters: the people who owned the farm, their children, people who used to live there, the Indians who were there before them, the people who might buy it. I thought it through one day: the person gets up in the morning; they leave; the mailman, the people they see going to work, the banker.

I came back to the person who is leaving, wondering about the person who would buy it. I pictured that person's life, took them through the day. I saw leaves falling and turning and a person standing on their front porch, looking out and the leaves are falling, and the postman's coming up the hill. And that's the first line: "Leaves are falling and turning in showers of gold as the postman climbs up our long hill. And there's sympathy written all over his face, as he hands me a couple more bills."

I wanted to paint a picture of what was going on with the person, rather than say, "Oh gee, it's too bad I have to leave my farm. I'm so heart broken." I'll tinker with every word in a song. I think, "The postman comes up the hill; he walks up the hill; he climbs up the hill." I'm trying to find the word that conveys the right shade of meaning. "He hands me the bills," is a warmer and more personal word than "He gives me a couple more bills."

Q: How do you know when to quit tinkering with it?

A: I just know. It sings well, the words and the music don't fight, the movie in my head is right, and when I sing it to other people, they react, maybe laugh or sometimes cry. If that happens, it's working.

Q: If you look at the work that you've done, are there themes that run through your work that you keep coming back to?

A: Attachment to the land. Dealing with loss. Religion, phony preachers, fractured religion. I wrote a song called "Little Girl God" about a little girl wondering if she might be God. There's one called, "Ain't Got Much Money, So What Did I Do Wrong?" about phony preachers. And one called, "Ain't I Been Punished Enough," when I was running a flood recovery program. That was a song that made people laugh when they sang it. That's another use of songwriting. You can help people sing things they have trouble saying.

Q: When you're writing, do you think about your audience, or do you just think about the song?

A: I do want to write in plain language. I want there to be very little between my song and the person who hears it. I hope it will go right into the heart, without little snags to catch on the way.

Q: How do you feel when you perform?

A: It's magical. I can become somebody different, shed my shyness. I particularly love performing with Robin. He's like my younger brother. We tease and play jokes on each other, and we're like two teenagers going down the road. When I perform, I feel a great affection for the audience. I'm happy they came. The show flows from that feeling.

Q: Do you get nervous beforehand?

A: Yes. Because I want it to be a good experience for the people who came, and I want to have fun. I back Robin up on traditional tunes, and I'm more nervous backing him up than I am about my own songs. He's so expressive with his guitar work. When there's a funny part in the song, he'll do something funny with the guitar. When there's an emotional moment in the song, he advances and heightens it.

In Romney, we'll do a mix of writing: songs and stories. Robin will play behind the stories. These are stories about a little country girl contemplating religion and politics. People can come expecting to laugh a lot.

We first performed together in 1999. In 2001, we went out to the west coast for 10 days. On the west coast, people tend to think that anything Appalachian is probably wonderful. They're hungry for anything that is rooted. Robin comes from a pedigreed old time music background, but he can play anything. I'm more of a musical mutt, writing and playing in many styles.

You know, once a song is finished, it never is. Somebody else will pick it up, if you're lucky; will sing it in a different tempo and style, arrange it differently, and it's new. It's quite an experience to hear that, even if you don't like the new version. Songs can be very much like kids. They're out there meeting new people, doing things you don't know about. You just hope people care for them, try to understand them, and treat them well.

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