Author Valerie Nieman tells her stories and Appalachia just seeps into the cracks

By Autumn Shelton, West Virginia Press Association

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Valerie Nieman wondered what it would be like to murder a person and throw their body down a West Virginia mine crack. So, in one sense, she made that happen. However, that victim didn’t stay underground for long – at least that’s the story she tells. 

Nieman, an award winning author and West Virginia University (WVU) journalism graduate, has told many stories. 

WVU Libraries and the WVU Humanities recently hosted Nieman for an event on campus. Nieman worked as a newspaper reporter and editor in north central West Virginia for several years, and many of her novels are set in the Mountain State. 

During Nieman‘s return to campus, she read from her latest novel, “In the Lonely Backwater,” recipient of the Sir Walter Raleigh Award, North Carolina’s top prize for fiction, and other of her works of prose and poetry.

Today, Nieman’s stories are fiction, like the one she tells in her fourth novel, “To the Bones,” of government auditor Darrick MacBrehon, who stops to get gas in a small West Virginia community, gets assaulted, thrown into a mine crack, and left. Fortunately, he emerges from the cavern, although not quite the same person, to help those in the community take down predatory coal mine operators. Yet, when Nieman started her career in journalism in 1978, her stories were fact. 

After working for WVU’s student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum, Nieman worked as a reporter for The Dominion Post and the Times West Virginian, where she eventually became executive editor. 

According to Nieman, she knew from a young age that she wanted to become a writer.  

“I grew up in rural New York state, out in the country, and we had a room full of family stuff, including a lot of books,” Nieman said, adding she read the works of Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorn and Ralph Waldo Emerson. “They were the classics.”

A family member owned a publishing company, Nieman continued, and every Christmas she would receive a box “full of stuff” including printed newspapers, calendars and much more. 

“I was just fascinated. I loved it,” Nieman said. “The best part of Christmas was to get the box.”

At that point, Nieman said she knew she wanted to become a writer, she just didn’t know how to make it happen. 

Valerie Nieman.

Then, in 1976, the movie “All the President’s Men,” based on reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their uncovering of the Watergate scandal, hit theaters. 

“That fired up a whole generation of reporters who said, ‘We are going to go out, and we are going to fix things,’” Nieman recalled, noting that this prompted her to start her writing career as a journalist.

One of the biggest stories Nieman said she covered while at the Times West Virginian, involved a coal company that had “cut off” the wells of those living in the small town of Mannington in Marion County. 

“They had no water and the coal company said, ‘Well, we will bring you water buffalos, but the community said, ‘We can’t run assisted living or nursing homes . . . and operate on water buffalos. This doesn’t work,’” Nieman remembered. “The coal company said, ‘Hey, we are giving you water. That’s all you are getting.’”

However, this type of injustice never sits well with a journalist, so Nieman and a photographer began to look into what was happening to the residents. 

After their work was published, it prompted the coal company to change their thinking, and agree to build miles of water lines for the people of the community. 

“To me, that is the heart of what we do,” Nieman said of journalists. “We find out cases of injustice or wrongdoing . . . and that story has always stayed with me.” 

There are many similar stories that could be shared of Nieman’s nearly two decades as a West Virginia journalist, but in 1997, Nieman was ready for a change. 

She accepted a position at the Greensboro News & Record located in North Carolina. During this time, she also received her MFA in creative writing from Queens University in Charlotte, graduating in 2004, and began a journalism and creative writing teaching career at the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University in Greensboro. 

“I came in as a visiting professor and worked my way up,” Nieman said. “I ended up retiring in 2021 as a full professor, which seems amazing to me.”

She also began to focus on her own creative writing, developing characters loosely based on people she met as a journalist. 

“I wanted to play with a lot of stereotypes, both of Appalachia and also genre fiction,” Nieman said. 

She has been successful with her goals. 

“To the Bones” has been described as a mystery, romance, eco-justice, Appalachian horror novel. 

“It’s got all of those elements in there,” Nieman noted. “I really wanted to play with horror and kind of push the envelope, because you think of the standard trope of the predatory mine owner and the workers who are being affected . . . that’s the gritty reality, but what if you really pushed that. So, in ‘To the Bones’ I really pushed that, and the mine owners are predatory in a whole different way.” 

Her most recent novel, “In the Lonely Backwater,” tells the story of Maggie Warshauer, a young woman struggling to find her identity while solving the mystery of her cousin’s death. It has won the “Sir Walter Raleigh Award,” North Carolina’s top prize for fiction writing. 

To date, Nieman has written five novels, three poetry collections, two poetry chapbooks and one short story collection. She has received numerous awards for her writing. 

She also recently donated her archives to the West Virginia Regional History Center, a part of WVU libraries, where they are on display and available for academic research. 

“Valerie Nieman is a dynamic figure in the vibrant literary history and landscape of West Virginia,” Humanities Center Director Renee Nicholson stated in a press release. “It’s really an honor to be part of the celebration of her archive.” 

As for Nieman, she said she has plans to continue writing. Her works, and additional information, can be found at valnieman.com.

“I really think of myself as a literary writer who uses genre,” Nieman said. “I write in all these different areas – science fiction, blue collar and mystery and horror.” 

“My books all have links to Appalachia,” Nieman concluded. “Appalachia is there because that’s who I am. I have been able to be true to the stories that come to me . . . I haven’t gotten rich from it. I haven’t made much money at all, but, to me, that’s not the important thing. It’s that I am bedeviled by stories and characters, and I have to be true to them.” 

In addition to “In the Lonely Backwater,” Nieman authored four earlier novels: “To the Bones,” a folk horror/thriller set in the northern coalfields; “Blood Clay,” a novel of the New South, which was honored with the Eric Hoffer Prize in General Fiction;

“Survivors,” a novel about the Rust Belt of the 1970s; and her first book, “Neena Gathering,” reissued in 2012. “Neena Gathering,” “Survivors” and “To the Bones” are all set in north central West Virginia.

 Her third poetry collection, “Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse,” was a runner-up for the Brockman-Campbell Book Prize. Her second poetry collection, “Hotel Worthy,” appeared in 2015 from Press 53. She is also the author of the poetry collection “Wake Wake Wake,” and a collection of short stories, “Fidelities.”

Nieman was a 2013-2014 North Carolina Arts Council poetry fellow, and has received an NEA creative writing fellowship as well as major grants in West Virginia and Kentucky. She held a West Virginia Commission on the Arts creative writing grant.

Additional awards include the Greg Grummer, Nazim Hikmet and Byron Herbert Reece poetry prizes. Nieman graduated from WVU’s journalism program and Queens University of Charlotte.

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