This month, Lily Lit Club is reading “Sugar Run” by Mesha Maren. The novel opens with Jodi McCarty’s sudden release after being sentenced to life in prison when she was 17 years old. Instead, she walks out 18 years later and finds herself at a bus stop, confronting unexpected freedom. Soon after she is released, Jodi meets and falls for Miranda, who is separated from her husband. The two, along with Miranda’s three sons leave on a journey to West Virginia, where Jodi is from.

In her debut release, Maren tackles what it means to have another chance at life.

The Lily chatted with Maren about the concept of home, vulnerability and her writing process.

(Natalia Weedy for The Lily)
(Natalia Weedy for The Lily)

The Lily: Can you talk about Jodi’s relationship with West Virginia? Why was this important for you to touch on?

Mesha Maren: Jodi’s relationship with West Virginia is really an outgrowth of my relationship to West Virginia. I grew up there on a farm on top of Muddy Creek Mountain and then left and lived in a bunch of different places. When I started to draft [“Sugar Run”], I wanted to return. I think unconsciously that her relationship to West Virginia comes from my relationship with it. It’s something I get a lot — whether people are asking about me or Jodi — this question of “Why return?” People often talk about this roster of bad decisions that Jodi makes — and she does — but I would not count returning to West Virginia among her bad decisions. I moved back when I was three-quarters way done with the novel and that became part of the novel — being there as an adult and not a child.

I think a lot about how West Virginia has been for a very long time a place of extraction. There was a shift from agriculture to extraction industries like coal and timber. And if we fast forward you can see fracking for natural gas. But this idea of extraction also extends to the way people understand the place and the people of West Virginia. A lot of folks have this unexamined idea of “Why wouldn’t you want to get away from West Virginia?” That it’s the only way to have a better life, to succeed — whatever that means. American culture really has this conception that “If you have the bad luck to be born there, then you have to get out as soon as you can.” That’s problematic.

TL: One of my favorite lines is: “As much as she had desired to return here, this place was itself a prison of sorts and she could feel herself dissolving into it. Coming home was like disappearing in a way, she thought, slipping back into the past.”

What is it about this complicated relationship with home that resonated with Jodi all these years she was in prison?

MM: I had a teacher in grad school whose name is Naeem Murr, and he was talking to me about his own concepts of home and he said something about how when you go back home you encounter the part of yourself that was young there, that the adult you almost disappears.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that. Particularly to those of us who left home at 17, 18, we become adults in different spaces. Going back can sometimes feel like losing autonomy.

(Natalia Weedy for The Lily)
(Natalia Weedy for The Lily)

TL: I read that you spent a lot of time visiting prisons when you were young. Can you talk about that and how it influenced your work in “Sugar Run”?

MM: I grew up in a town called Alderson, West Virginia, that has a deep history with the federal prison system. In 1979, the prison had a part of it that was maximum security and two of the women imprisoned there, Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme — both serving life for attempted assassinations of President Ford — escaped within a relatively short amount of time. When Sara Jane Moore escaped, she went to this nonprofit called the Alderson Hospitality House that offered space for families of inmates to stay.

[Moore] went there and asked for a ride to the bus station and once she was caught, it was traced back to the house and they all ended up going to the trial, which left an opening for someone to come work there. My dad heard that they needed someone for just the summer to help run this house. He came and met my mom and ended up staying.

So growing up there, my whole life I had this awareness of the federal prison system and the lives of the women. I knew what my dad did for work but I was more interested in the vending machines when I went to the prison with him. I’m sure some of that awareness of these stories filtered through to me though.

I didn’t ever set out to write out a novel about prison but once I realized that was part of the story I was more interested in exploring the post-prison story. I was more interested in what it looks like after: What is the outcome of years and years in the federal prison system?

(Natalia Weedy for The Lily)
(Natalia Weedy for The Lily)

TL: Jodi meets Miranda very soon after leaving prison. What did you want to portray in their relationship?

MM: In thinking about their relationship, I was thinking about the moments in my own life when you meet someone at a very particular time and it feels like something larger is at work. I was thinking about times in my own life — and other people can relate — when you don’t have a lot going for you. Whether that’s financially or you are just in a tough place, you might need someone at a similar crossroads. It’s sort of like you can gather what little bits you have together and head in the same direction.

At moments of vulnerability in our lives, sometimes we meet someone else in a vulnerable spot and you can see that in someone else. I wanted to think about how vulnerability can open us up sometimes. When I am most vulnerable is when I am most open to making a connection. You have to be in a particular place mentally and emotionally to form a bond with a stranger and sometimes when we are in the right place we can make an amazing bond. How well that bond may serve us in the end is a different question, of course, but I was thinking about the places in my life where I have been close to the edge or the bottom and there was someone else there with me.

TL: How long did “Sugar Run” take you to write?

MM: This book started in 2010. My process with longer works of fiction tends to be that it starts with taking handwritten notes. Sometimes, like with “Sugar Run,” that part can take years. Eventually, I realized I had so much for what was then just a concept for “Sugar Run,” that it had to be more than a short story. It was a story that was much more lasting for me, personally. Jodi was really sticking with me as a character. And this is a totally character-driven process for me. I figured out the actual plot for the story after I figured out what all the relationships between the characters would be.

TL: What was it about Jodi’s character that stuck with you?

MM: Naivete mixed with tenacity. World-worn but not jaded. She has been through a lot at a pretty young age but is ready to sit by the river and have a beer and see how beautiful the world is.

TL: There aren’t many novels that center around queer people in the South. Why was that an important story for you?

MM: That’s a question that makes sense. I understand why you are asking me that. But the way I work with fiction is almost the opposite. If I approached it as an important story to tell then it’s dead to me already because I’ve already made a decision about it. For me, in my process with fiction, it’s all about finding things out. So, if I started out having decided it was important, then that spark is gone. I definitely did not decide to write a novel about queer women in the South.

I will say I knew early on that Jodi fell in love with a woman named Paula earlier in her life and that was something important to her story.

I identify as a queer woman and grew up in a rural area but I didn’t set out to write about this. The non-fiction, academic part of me agrees that there should be more books like this, but the fiction writer part of me didn’t make a decision to make a queer narrative, but I agree there isn’t much out there, especially that take place in rural areas.

(Natalia Weedy for The Lily)
(Natalia Weedy for The Lily)

TL: What’s next for you?

MM: I am in the process of working with my agent on edits for my second novel. The new book takes place on the U.S.-Mexico border and focuses a lot on Mexican professional wrestling. One of the characters was adopted from Mexico by a family in Appalachia and in the opening scene, they are driving to El Paso and Ciudad de Juárez, and it is his first time returning to this landscape.

Place and identity are two things I will never stop writing about.

‘Those Who Knew’ by Idra Novey addresses the ‘patriarchal messages we have been marinating in’

‘Those Who Knew’ is January’s Lily Lit Club pick

May-lee Chai’s collection of short stories is an ‘act of resistance’ for the Trump age

‘Useful Phrases for Immigrants’ is December’s Lily Lit Club pick