With a family history from 17th-century Virginia to coal-mining West Virginia, Gretchen Moran Laskas has ample background for her novels, through which she aims to “shine the spotlight” on people following the American Dream. The heroines of her books, 2003’s “The Midwife’s Tale” and the recently-published “The Miner’s Daughter,” illuminate Depression-era Appalachia through their trials and successes. Recently, the Fairfax resident and University of Pittsburgh graduate took some time to answer a few questions about herself and her writing.
How long have you lived in the area? We have lived in Virginia for 10 of the last 12 years, but we’ve moved all over — we’ve been in Northern Virginia, we’ve been in Charlottesville — so let’s say six years.
Family: My family has been in West Virginia for eight generations, and we were in the Virginia mountains since 1754. We had an original Fairfax land grant out in Winchester. So we have ties to this area. I have a relative who came from Bladensburg, who came over as an indentured servant. We came in through Jamestown and I’ve traced it back to 1632 ... it will say in a family Bible, “William Trowbridge left his family in 1832 and was never seen again,” and you wonder, “Where did he go?” I think that’s why I turned to fiction, because I wanted to answer these questions in the genealogy.
Education: I went to the University of Pittsburgh.
When did you get started writing fiction? I first started writing fiction seriously in 1991. We were living in New Haven, Conn. My husband was at Yale, and I was very ill, I had fibromyalgia. He was going to have this grand and exciting career, he was going to the Ivy League school, and I was in a Burger King parking lot, crying because I’m like, “I don’t have any grand career ahead of me.” He said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Write.” And he said, “What’s stopping you?”
Activities/interests/hobbies: I have a 10-year-old son, that keeps me very busy. I help run a church youth group. Mostly I read. I would really rather read than do anything else in life, and I would rather do read than do anything else in life. I even joke that I write to justify all the reading that I want to do.
The last book you read: “The Thirteenth Tale.” It’s a gothic melodrama by Diane Setterfield. It’s like “Rebecca” [by Daphne Du Maurier], with the house on the moors. It was a fun book.
The last movie you watched: “Night at the Museum.”
Favorite place to hang out in the community: Fairfax County libraries. I’m in them at least once a week, usually twice.
Do you have any community concerns? This is something I talk about in the novel — we’re still battling issues of class and bringing immigrants into a society. My son’s class is filled with kids from all over the world, and there’s still tension ... I am really passionate about helping people live an American Dream. I believe in the American Dream; my family came out of abject poverty through education, through government, through what I call the “common wealth.” I think we should always be asking ourselves, “Can we be doing a better job?”
How did you settle on writing a story about mining life? My grandfather was a coal miner. He stopped for health reasons when my father was a teenager, but even with that, it got him in the end: he died of black lung 20 years later. You don’t really recover from being a coal miner. When you’re a West Virginian, you grow up with coal.
Where did you find inspiration for the book’s main character, 16-year-old Willa? When I was a teenager I really loved reading books like “Little House on the Prairie,” and there was a book that won the Newbery called “Jacob Have I Loved” which is one of my favorite books of all time, and they’re about girls for whom work defines them. Yet through work, they become really strong women. I wanted to write a book that I would have wanted to read as a teenager.
If you could go on a trip anywhere right now, where would you go? I have never been to Europe. I would like to take a sort of old-fashioned European grand tour, like you read about in Edith Wharton novels or something.
Future writing plans: The one I’m working on now is called “Three Rivers” and it will be set in Pittsburgh. There will also be a woman who lives in modern-day Fairfax, Va. They say, “Write what you know,” and I’ll definitely be able to write about a woman in Fairfax.
Describe the process of getting published. When I first started out I did not know anybody. I didn’t grow up in a world where I knew writers, I didn’t know anybody who was a writer, I didn’t have an MFA which a lot of writers go on to do. I did what I always do: I read a lot of books on the subject of writing and submitting and publishing. I started writing letters to agents to see if they wanted to see my work. People think that I’m joking when I say that my query letter was the best piece of writing I’ve ever done, but I’m not.
Personal goals: People ask me “What am I trying to do,” and I firmly believe that everyone has a story, that everybody’s life is “epic and important.” I often write about people who are invisible to the public community. I want people to know that the people you see on the street, or someone you see on their porch, these are people who have epic and important lives goin