Trilobites and other stories: The wonderful world of Breece D’J Pancake

It’s always worth asking the people in bookstores for book recommendations. Tell them what kind of books you like and they may just recommend a jewel you might otherwise never have found. And that is exactly how, a few weeks ago,  I came across the truly wonderful stories of Breece D’ J Pancake from West Virginia.  His writing is utterly absorbing and describes in vivid detail the coal country of West Virginia. He died tragically at the age of twenty six while he was studying creative writing at the University of Virginia. The year was 1979 and in 1983 a collection of his stories, Trilobites and Other Stories  was published posthumously. It took the literary world by storm. The opening lines of the title story, Trilobites, give some sense of how he vividly he portrays a sense of place:

I open the truck’s door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave.

We all have places in our hearts, images of houses, landscapes, people. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for literature, Seamus Heaney recalled the house in which he grew up: “It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other….”

Try writing about a place you know well, somewhere that means a lot to you: perhaps a house you grew up in or a place you went on holidays. What was it like in early morning? Was it full of sunlight? Was it cold? What are the sounds you remember? What smells do you associate with this place? Try writing quickly without thinking too much for ten minutes.

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