In Person with: Ann Pancake

December 12, 2013 - Kelsey Block

“When I first start a piece, as a first draft, I usually start it because I have a voice in my head,” Ann Pancake, 50 said. “It’s like a rhythm; it’s so transcendent.”

The Romney, West Virginia native said she started writing as a child.

“My mom enforced naps I didn’t need, so I was already telling stories in my head,” she said.

Pancake said she does much of her writing in long-hand and that her favorite part about writing is the process.

“It’s almost like being on drugs, but in a clean way,” Pancake said. “I completely lose track of time.”

Pancake said that while writing short stories comes to her most naturally, she also enjoyed working on her novel, Strange as This Weather Has Been, which chronicles the effects of mountaintop removal on communities in West Virginia

“Finishing something so big was satisfying,” Pancake said, adding that she had tried to publish the novel for three years before it was accepted. “There was a whole slew of rejection, and I probably would have stopped writing the book, but I felt an obligation because the book is based on real people and real stories.”

Eventually, Pancake said she dropped her agent and found a smaller publisher. Because the novel is based on contemporary political issues, she did not want to give up on the story.

After the novel was published, Pancake said returning to West Virginia was the highlight of her career.

“The reaction from West Virginia that I got it right has been the high point,” she said.

Pancake said she grew up with an awareness of strip mining because her father, a preacher, was against the issue.

“I didn’t plan to write a novel about mountaintop removal, didn’t plan to write fiction about mountaintop removal,” Pancake said, adding that she quit her job in the late 1990s to help her sister work on a documentary about mountaintop removal. Pancake said she thought the topic was better suited to journalistic or nonfiction writing.  “But when we start talking to people and they’re stories were completely mesmerizing and horrifying, they’d been made crazy by living in these circumstances. A couple weeks later I started hearing the voices of those kids [we had interviewed] in my head. I started writing what I thought were short stories, and realized oh this is going to have to be a novel, because this is too big for short story.”

With all of the material she collected, Pancake sat down to write.

“You have to compost it,” Pancake said. “So you take it in and it becomes part of your own conscious process. When you sit down to write it comes. I just read it all and tried to digest it and wrote the story.”

In closing, Pancake had some advice for aspiring writers.

“Read and read and read and read,” Pancake said. “I really encourage you to spend more time in your unconscious, just get in there and play around. My students want to jump too soon to revision, they want to make things tidy and nice and clean too soon. It’s stuff you can do in your journal, you’re listening to the story and playing around, I usually spend about 4 drafts before I turn on the editor in my head.”