One of the primary goals of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition in assembling the Cultural Resource Directory is to allow all artists and creative folks to find each other, and to help people from outside the urban Appalachian community to find artists and others who work specifically within Appalachian culture. Tess Collins is one who not only works specifically within Appalachian culture, she is also an artist who brings the culture of Appalachia directly from her own life. Her Appalachian Trilogy and other novels place Appalachia at the heart of her fiction by drawing on her own life experience.
The Law of Revenge is the first novel in Tess Collins’s Appalachian Trilogy. The novel centers on a successful woman, now a lawyer in California, who is drawn back to her hometown in rural Kentucky to defend her brother on a murder charge. The novel shows us the conflicted emotions of one who returns to rural Kentucky after re-inventing herself far from home. Though a suspense-thriller, the novel offers images that should be familiar to many. A displaced Appalachian woman returns to her home to find the familiar and the uncanny. Collins certainly has the experiences to draw on for such bitter-sweet depictions. Tess Collins is from Middlesboro, Kentucky and now lives and works in San Francisco, California. She knows the mix of emotions that can be conjured from reflections on home as they mix with present life in a metropolitan city.
I asked Tess Collins about the origins of this book. She explained, “I suppose in that first book I was using my framework— a person from Appalachia who now lives in a city and goes back into a world where she no longer fits and has to re-discover her footing.” Collins first workshopped the book in a writing class with James N. Frey, and she credits her college mentors, Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, and James Baker Hall, with instilling in her “the artistry of the written word.” It is the art of writing that matters most even if the momentum of memory offers the source material.
Coming from Middlesboro, Collins describes her early years as being shaped by the magic and beauty of this part of Kentucky while being quite aware of the harsh realities of the region. “My schoolteacher dad was involved in local politics, so I was keenly knowledgeable that we lived in a very political town that was not always safe,” said Collins. Both her grandfathers were coal miners, and one of them died of black lung. Bittersweet memories of Kentucky are not an affectation for someone like Collins who knew the charms and the dangers of small-town life in Kentucky.
Tess Collins has written novels, non-fiction, and plays. She has a Ph.D. in Theater Management, Producing and Writing from The Union Institute and University. Collins’s creative energy moves between the novel and the theater stage and from suspense-thrillers to the business of theater. She is currently finishing works that remain tied to Appalachian but is also working on some ideas that are more centered on what is closer to her now: “I have been playing around with some San Francisco stories inspired by the recent quarantine for Covid 19,” Collins told me. But even as the immediacy of the current moment and her current context fuel her work, she also keeps her eyes on her origins, both geographically and creatively: “I started out as a poet and have always suspected that I’m working my way back to that mystical world.” I suppose we can imagine the mystical world of poetry as much as the mystical world of Appalachia.
Collins said she is still inspired by Appalachia. “I get nostalgic for the spirit of Appalachia, the gothic wonderment, and gritty rawness of its history. These braid together with my own imagination, and that becomes my world.” Collins cites Gurney Norman when she thinks about her relationship with Appalachia: “He described himself as being a ‘product of Appalachia’, and that’s me as well.” It is safe to say that this is the story of most urban Appalachians. As Appalachians disperse around the country into urban areas and make their mark in all areas of arts and culture, the legacy of the hills stays with them and shapes the way they then shape the world. Tess Collins is exemplary of this phenomenon.
Tess Collins looks back on where she came from with a great deal of pride. The changes that have unfolded over the past couple decades are astounding. As she told me, “I’m encouraged by what I see coming out of Appalachia these days. Appalshop was barely a decade old when I left, and it’s thriving today. There was no internet for folks to stay in touch, no way to affordably publish books, or make films. That can be done today.” Collins also talked about some of the dramatic changes in the kinds of voices that are coming out of the Appalachian regions: “from the Affrilachian poets to the woman rebuilding their lives at New Opportunity School for Women to LGBTQ communities making themselves heard.” As Tess Collins’s own work makes such a profound impact, she is always mindful of those who remain in Appalachia and the massive contributions they make to the arts and culture.
From suspense-thrillers set in Appalachia to theater management, and a host of literary accomplishments in between, Tess Collins is an urban Appalachian who places Appalachia at the heart of what she does. And Appalachia remains in the fore of her mind no matter how far, both geographically and professionally she may travel. Even as her work has taken her far beyond her Middlesboro, Kentucky home, the culture of home travels with her. You can find Tess Collins’s profile, with a link to her website, on the Cultural Resource Directory on the website of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition at https://uacvoice.org/artist_profile/tess-collins/.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.