Appalachian roots lay framework for novelist
Becca Spence Dobias is a writer, and it feels pretty good for her to finally say that.
“Maybe I’m just in the honeymoon stage, but it kind of does feel like a switch flipped and now I’m a writer. I’m really doing it,” she said. “I’m more motivated to make this what I do, because suddenly it seems more possible. The door is open.”
The door she’s referring to is the one marked “author,” which she recently passed through with the imminent publication of her first novel, Rock of Ages.
The Claremont Graduate University alum has published before—a poem in Girl’s Life magazine, and pieces in blogs and academic journals—but a book is something else.
“I’m surprised it feels so different since I definitely struggle with imposter syndrome. Other published writers have told me it doesn’t go away. There’s that nagging voice in my head that asks, ‘What if I’m just a good salesperson and not a good writer?’”
Ms. Spence Dobias’ sales skills were certainly put to the test to get Rock of Ages published. She used Inkshares, a publishing and literary rights-management platform that employs a quasi-crowdfunding mechanism to decide which books it prints. She needed 750 pre-orders before they would commit and, after two months on the site, she hit that goal last week.
“We were all pacing around our house refreshing [the browser] and yelling the count when someone would order,” Ms. Spence Dobias said. “My husband yelled ‘751!’ and we all started jumping and yelling, even the kids!”
Ms. Spence Dobias, 31, grew up on the same piece of land as her paternal grandmother in the Appalachian town of Buckhannon, West Virginia, where her father’s family has been since the 18th century. A Californian since 2008, she is married with a four-year-old son and a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. In 2011 she earned her master’s degree in women’s studies from CGU, after getting her BA from Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Along with writing, she is a doula and childbirth educator.
Writing has been her North Star since she was eight years old. “My dad was a writer,” she said. “I’ve always identified as a writer. I can’t not do that.” Her father, who died when she was 13, was the editor of her 150-year-old hometown newspaper, The Record Delta, in Buckhannon.
For Ms. Spence Dobias, the struggle to get Rock of Ages published was imbued with the added emotional heft of the subject matter. The book is about “an LA transplant [who] struggles over whether to return to rural Appalachia after her father’s death and an abusive relationship. A feisty rule breaker and her abuelita, and maybe a little bit of magic, help her understand the meaning of home.” Coincidentally, the deadline for Inkshares preorders is April 8, her father’s birthday.
“I know he would have told me he’s proud of me,” she said, when asked how her dad might have reacted to her triumph. “My friend Henry said, ‘What everyone did was a reflection of who you are. You deserve all of this.’ And it was probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. I sobbed. To feel like all of this work, and this moment that was such a huge culmination of it, is a reflection of the love I try to put into the world, is the best feeling I can imagine.
“I hope my dad would have said something like that too.”
Her biography reads in some ways like a stereotypical story of an Appalachian mountain family. In the seventh grade she and her fellow students took a semi-mandatory gun safety course. Her neighbors hunted and ate squirrels and other native animals. The music—bluegrass and country—was everywhere.
But her mother and father were Jewish hippies who met at Woodstock, and the family was raised vegetarian. To say she stood out in her hometown would sell it short.
“Oh man, I could give you a thesis about it!” she said.
The pull of home is strong in her work and life. “It informs everything in my novel, because it informs everything about me,” she said.
She visits every summer, but doesn’t think she’ll ever live in Buckhannon again. She’s been spoiled by California weather and culture, she says, and doesn’t miss the sub-zero winter temperatures. Although she does wish her kids could grow up roaming the countryside, like she did.
“That’s been the hardest part of moving away, having children and realizing how different their childhoods are going to be,” she said. “I see the things they’re missing, specifically the freedom of the outdoors. But then I remind myself of the things they have here: access to diversity, people with different languages, different religions. They’re not going to be the minority here because they’re Jewish; they’re not going to feel like outcasts because they don’t eat meat.”
Still, the voice of that distinct Appalachian culture is ever present.
“Hearing the old-time music, and having moved away from that, I don’t think I realized how much it was a part of me.”
Experience—especially parenthood—has softened the slights of her youth. “I’ve realized some things that made me feel like I had to get out, like I was the punk kid at school, seem so much more trivial as an adult looking back. Sure, people laughed at my stupid hair, but they also knew when my dad died, and sent me cards. They also cared about me in very real ways.”
Coming of age in isolation, both geographically and culturally, left its mark. Appalachia though, like the rest of America, is skewing younger and more liberal.
“I think it has changed since I left,” she said. “My friends and I were all called dykes and faggots, and from what I’ve heard, even the scene in the high school is not like that. It’s become much more accepting and open. It makes me a little sad to think I took the escape route, while a lot of people I’m friends with stayed and made the place better. They actually did it.”
Meanwhile, her expectations for Rock of Ages are modest. “So much of my support has been friends and family,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a bestseller, but I want people who don’t have a connection to me to read it and feel a connection to the book.”
Good things are happening for the first-time novelist. A literary journal accepted one of her submissions just two days after she met her Inkshares goal, and she’s completed a first draft of her next book. And though she has some doubts about her bona fides as a writer, they seem so be abating.
“Yes!” she said, when asked if all that’s happened has helped to boost her confidence. “I’ve built an audience and now I want to keep them!” Her new, as of yet untitled sophomore novel is “a retelling of Czech folklore combined with a cross-generational story based on characters from my mom’s Jewish/eastern European side of the family.”
To read more about Rock of Ages and Ms. Dobias, go to inkshares.com/books/rock-of-ages.