Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne: Raised Country with a Story to Tell

An interview with the author of 'Holding On to Nothing'

Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne grew up in rural East Tennessee. That's the setting of her novel, Holding On To Nothing (paid link), where we find Lucy Kilgore and Jeptha Taylor. Lucy has dreams of heading out of town for better things before she makes a drunken mistake with Jeptha. What follows is a story that's earning strong reviews.

"I devoured this story in one sitting and experienced every emotion under the sun while reading it," said Stacey Armand of Prose and Palate. And reviewer Emily Choate said, "Holding on to Nothing shines a light on the troublemaking forces that beset us when we attempt to improvise our futures, deciding who we will embrace as family."

Despite a hectic book tour, Shelburne agreed to an interview with Bidwell Hollow. In the Q&A below, the writer talks about her childhood, writing Holding On To Nothing, and her love of Dolly Parton.

Please support Shelburne by buying her novel (paid link), and sharing this article with others. Thank you, and thank you, Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne, for this interview.


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Interview with Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne

When was it like for you, being a creative person growing up in rural East Tennessee?

I was lucky to grow up in the place and in the family I did. My parents are huge readers and every book they had was open to us.  They loved the library and we went often. My mom was a writer and editor and my dad remains one of the best storytellers I know.

Plus, and I think this is true of many rural places, I grew up in a really strong oral storytelling tradition, which taught me about listening to the ways stories are structured and how people talk. I was lucky.

How did you get from East Tennessee to Amherst College?

I had a vision that some of the things I hated about Tennessee—racism, and misogyny particularly –wouldn’t exist in New England at a place like Amherst. It’s the kind of fallacy only an 18-year-old could believe.  Those same things exist everywhere—they are just manifested differently.

Also, I didn’t want to take any more math in college. I wasn’t bad at it—I took AP classes and did well—but I didn’t enjoy it and didn’t want to have to do it anymore. Amherst has no core curriculum, so I knew I could immerse myself in English, art, African studies, and science classes that interested me more!

I wrote my admissions essay about killing my first deer and was lucky that Amherst took a chance on me!

What was the transition like for you, going from conservative East Tennessee to not-so-conservative New England?

Hard! But I am a person who deeply loves showing up in a new place, knowing no one, and figuring out how to make a life. That’s an odd thing to love, I realize, but I do. So, I made it work. I loved Amherst – I met wonderful friends, took incredible classes, and met the man who is my husband and father of my four children. But, I don’t want to perpetuate that coastal elite stereotype of country-girl-arrives-at-elite-institution-and-finds-paradise.

There were lots of unpleasant parts and people who displayed their own prejudices that were equally as problematic as the ones I’d grown up among (and they were sometimes more ignorant of those prejudices because they believed that having grown up in liberal New England protected them from them.) No place is all good or all bad – it’s all about what you make of it.

What does Dolly Parton mean to you?

I love her! It’s funny, listening to Dolly Parton’s America, I was really struck by Jad Abumrad talking about how Dolly had always just been in the background of growing up in Tennessee. You don’t need to be a super fan growing up there, because you are immersed in a sea of Dolly. It was only once I left that I truly became a fan. 

I fell in love with her Little Sparrow album and saw the genius of who and what she has done in the world, with her music, her persona, and her philanthropic work. My dearest wish is that she will read Holding On To Nothing at some point.

Speaking of Dolly, is the title of your first novel, Holding On To Nothing, based on her song with Porter Wagoner?

It is! The original, working title for the novel was Little Sparrow, but my amazing team at Blair felt, rightly, that it didn’t fully encompass both protagonist’s stories, but we wanted to stay with a Dolly song. As soon as we found that one (she has A LOT of songs so it took a minute!), we knew that was it.

What’s the inspiration, or from where did the idea come, for Holding On To Nothing?

I am a character-driven writer, and the characters were the inspiration for the story. I wanted to write about the lives that unfold over the rise and off the highway in East Tennessee.

Book Cover

What was the writing process like for you?

I wrote my first sentence in 2006 and worked on it in fits and starts for many years, between jobs, getting married, having four kids, etc. It was quite a long process, and it changed significantly over that time. I did the year-long Novel Incubator course at Grub Street, which taught me how to read other manuscripts, apply those lessons to my own work, and listen to critiques of my work. It was invaluable and this book wouldn’t be here with it! 

Over the long course of working on it, I learned a lot about how not to write a book, and I am making much faster progress on book two, so I’m grateful for all those hands-on lessons!

Was there anything you learned through this process that you’d like to share?

When I was in middle school, I ran cross country and track. I have the world’s shortest legs so I was not fast, especially in track. I got lapped on the mile once by a friend in a race. But I didn’t quit. I still have the “Miss Persistence” trophy I won that year!

Apparently, I am really good at banging my head against the wall for a really long time and just not quitting. It has served me very well as a writer. I hope it’s a skill that my children will see and respect.

Who are some of your favorite writers, both past and present?

I love Nickole Brown’s poetry collection, Fanny Says. Anything by Ron Rash and William Gay. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, were truly formative books for me.

Have you read any good books lately?

I’ve had a great two weeks of reading! I read two of Jasmine Guillory’s books and they were delightful fun books. I read Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Keep, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Again, and Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here.  All were excellent!

You can learn more about Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne by visiting her website.

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