When the winner of the 2021 Weatherford Award for Best Appalachian Book settles into our little corner of the world, the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition takes notice. A recent migrant to Cincinnati, Carter Sickels is also the winner of the 2021 Ohioana Book Award in Fiction and the 2021 Southern Book Prize. These facts also grabbed our attention. Carter Sickels takes the work and art of Appalachian fiction and non-fiction into realms that are often ignored by others. Themes of tremendous historical importance are depicted within the small towns of Appalachian Ohio and West Virginia while many other authors treat these themes within the context of larger metropolitan centers. I was fortunate enough to talk with Carter Sickels about his work and to get a sense of what is behind his fiction and essays.
Carter Sickels’s new novel, The Prettiest Star, takes us back to 1986 and the height of the AIDS crisis. The novel focuses on one young man living with AIDS at a time in which the disease was a certain death sentence and public attitudes toward the disease were clouded with ignorance and homophobia. Among the many details of the novel that stand out is the fact the protagonist returns to his small town in Appalachian Ohio. This is a feature of this complex time in history that is not often portrayed in fiction. Carter Sickels explained that he “wanted to look at the AIDS epidemic through the lens of small-town America.” This lens provides a window into the multiple struggles that young gay men had to live with as they were confronted with a fatal illness and homophobic attitudes even from within their own families. Sickels also told me that the novel allows him “to shine a light on Appalachian Ohio,” which is another story not often told.
I asked Carter Sickels how he came to write the Prettiest Star, and he said, “I grew up in the 1980s as the AIDS crisis unfolded.” For people who do not remember this time, it was a period marked by a tremendous fear that was compounded by the homophobic attitudes that still plague our nation. As countless people died of AIDS, the ignorance and complacency on the part of many people and the national leadership of the time allowed young gay men to simply die of a horrifying disease. This nightmare was compounded as many men were confronted with being ostracized by even their own families. Carter Sickels told me he needed to portray some measure of this time. “The familial homophobia is something I’ve experienced,” he said. He went on to describe how these dynamics play out in the novel, “the family will either come together or fall apart as the face they stigma of the disease and the stigma of queerness.” Focusing the action in small-town Appalachian Ohio allows us to witness these dynamics, ideas, and issues at a level of intimacy that has not often been revealed in literature.
Carter Sickels knows about Appalachian Ohio first-hand. He grew up outside of Columbus, but, as he explained further, “my grandparents and extended family are all from Appalachian Ohio.” He also attended Ohio University in Athens, Ohio which introduced him to life and culture on Southeast Ohio. At least at some level, Southeast Ohio and the Appalachian culture that defines this part of the country shaped Carter Sickels’s thought such that this region remains a focus for much of his creative work. His previous novel, The Evening Hour, has just been adapted into a feature film, and both novel and film are set amid the West Virginia coalfields. Inspired in part by his own experiences in West Virginia, “I became interested in the work of groups resisting mountain top removal in West Virginia. This led me to going there and meeting up with grassroots groups who were working to stop mountain top removal mining,” Sickels told me. Much like The Prettiest Star, this novel does not shy away from the difficult and complex issues that face contemporary Appalachians. Drug addiction, the strain on families that comes with a shifting economic landscape, and the rifts between tradition and modern life are all features of Sickels’s fiction.
Carter Sickels has recently moved to Cincinnati. He is making the adjustment to settling into a new city while teaching creative writing at Eastern Kentucky University. As asked him if brings the themes of his own work into his classroom: “I do try to bring some of my own work into the classroom, and I have taught classes on Appalachia, gender, and sexuality. Many of my students are from small towns—some Appalachian and some not, and these kinds of things empower them to begin interrogating their own experiences. These students are hungry for these kinds of classes where they can bring their own experiences to bear on what they study and write.” Carter Sickels has plenty to offer where these things are concerned. In addition to the novels and short fiction, there is a substantial list of essays on his website that includes a reading list of rural queer fiction. I will provide the website below.
I asked Carter what is up next for him, and all he could say is that he is working on a new novel: “There is too much to explain…” he said with a laugh. With his novel, The Evening Hour, optioned for and made into a major motion picture, a new novel in the works, and a teaching load at EKU, I would say Carter Sickels has plenty going on. This and settling into his new home in Cincinnati. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is happy to welcome Carter Sickels to Cincinnati.
For more information about Carter Sickels, you can visit his website: http://cartersickels.com/.
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.