WV Native Releases Memoir of Growing Up in Webster County
Graffiti had an opportunity to interview Todd Snyder about his upcoming book, “12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym”. Snyder, a first generation college-goer who grew up in Cowen, writes of his childhood in West Virginia and his father’s work, both as a coalminer and as the driving force behind a series of boxing gyms set up for at-risk youth.
“12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym” will be released this month from West Virginia University Press. Snyder will be at Homeward Bound Books in Charleston (March 31, 7 p.m.) and Marshall University (April 3, TBA), as well as other stops around the state. Further details of his writing, book, or events can be found at his website, www.hillbillyspeaks.com.
Graffiti: How did your childhood in West Virginia influence your decision, as a first generation college-goer, to pursue a career in academia and to write a memoir? Was your adolescence uniquely “Appalachian,” or could it have occurred elsewhere in the country?
Snyder: I grew up in Cowen, West Virginia. Cowen is a small coal mining town tucked away in Webster County, not too far from the geographic center of the only state fully engulfed by the Appalachian Mountains. I refer to Cowen as a coal mining town only when looking back on my youth. There are no mines currently operating in Cowen. All of the men in my family worked in the mines. My father, for example, was a fifth generation coal miner. So, to use your phrase, my adolescence was indeed “uniquely Appalachian.” My mother’s maiden name was McCoy. I grew up in a trailer park. My family tree is firmly rooted in the West Virginia coal mines. I’m about as Appalachian as you can get.
My decision to become a first generation college-goer is tied to my father’s decision to follow in the footsteps made by his own father’s mining boots. An outstanding athlete during his high school days, my father turned down a scholarship to play football at a small Division III college. Why? He accepted a job at the mine where his father worked. That’s what all the boys did back then. It was a good paying job and very few people in our county went off to college in those days, nobody from my father’s immediate family. My father lived in regret because of that decision. I grew up hearing stories of that regret. When it came time for me to make my “college decision,” I figured that I owed it to him. I went to college for my father. I graduated from Webster County High School in spring of 2000 and by that time the coal industry was already headed into a downward spiral. I didn’t see a future for myself in following our family’s occupational tradition.
My initial plan was to become a high school English teacher, obtain my certification, and return “home.” My high school teachers had convinced me that I was a good writer so becoming an English teacher seemed like the most practical thing to do. But, much to my family’s surprise, I fell in love with college and really started believing in myself as a writer. I obtained a BA in English Education from Marshall University in 2004, stayed for an MA in English, and scored a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Writing at Ohio University. After graduate school, I was fortunate to be hired as an Assistant Professor of English at Siena College in Albany, New York. So, I shipped off to college and never came back. I’ve been in college, in some capacity, all of my adult life.
As for my upcoming memoir, all of my scholarship is intimate. My 2014 book, “The Rhetoric of Appalachian Identity,” contained elements of autobiography as well. I write about Appalachian culture, doing so requires that I write about my own life and experiences.
Graffiti: Can you highlight the importance, as you see it, of the availability of extracurricular activities to youth in the Appalachian region?
Snyder: “12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym” serves as a testament to the importance of extracurricular activities in rural and impoverished Appalachian towns. The goal of my father’s boxing gym was to catch troubled youth before they slipped through the cracks. He wanted to make a positive impact in the lives of kids who had already been given up on. With this being said, I do not think extracurricular activities are the solution to West Virginia’s problems. I’d like to see a little more attention placed on the curricular side of the fence, so to speak. We cannot continue with a model where poor kids go to failing schools and wealthy kids go to good schools.
Graffiti: What do you believe the most rampant misconception about West Virginia is and how can it be corrected?
Snyder: There are plenty of folks who will try to sell you the idea that Appalachia culture maintains a uniquely defeatist characteristic. They will tell you that folks in Appalachia have given up and have accepted their place in the hierarchy. I would argue this the furthest thing from the truth. Appalachians are fighters, survivors and adaptors. We correct these notions by challenging them.
Graffiti: A cabal of conservative leaning figures have proposed seemingly “easy answers” to big problems in the state and Appalachian region. Examples being Donald Trump, Jim Justice, and J. D. Vance. In brief, Trump and Justice believe fewer regulations and more mining will make the area prosper. Vance argues many Appalachians are lazy and insufficiently industrious, thus if they work harder, they’ll succeed. What is your response?
Snyder: People like easy answers because they are easy to understand. The idea that fewer regulations and more coal mining will solve cyclical poverty in West Virginia is laughable. Yet, such a notion reminds us that to many outsiders, West Virginia is simply a coal mine. Coal mining is the only identity we are allowed to have. I would ask those who uphold such a worldview to take a look at the long history of West Virginia poverty. We have always been well behind the national averages in median income, access to proper education and healthcare. All of this is a call to Eden, the good old days. Take a look at the long history of poverty and struggle in our state. I’m not sure if we’ve ever had “good old days.”
As for Vance, part of me is happy for him. He was a poor Appalachian boy. He came from a very problematic family background. He overcame numerous obstacles and has gone on to become wealthy and successful. I am happy for him and his family. With this being said, I couldn’t possibly disagree with the arguments promoted in his book any more than I do. I have yet to meet a single scholar in Appalachian Studies that takes his rhetoric seriously. He has simply recycled the “personal responsibility/ culture of poverty” argument outsiders like to use to justify Appalachian poverty. If the hillbillies are to blame, then the rest of society has no moral obligation to come to Appalachia’s aid.
Graffiti: What do the decision makers of West Virginia need to do to finally “get it right” in efforts to solve some of the systemic problems facing state residents? (Poverty, substance abuse, joblessness, etc.)
Snyder: I don’t pretend to be smart enough to solve issues such as cyclical poverty, substance abuse, and joblessness. However, I’d wager that improving our public schools would be the right place to start.
Graffiti: What can you impart to other young West Virginians who wish to pursue a career, part-time or full-time, in the arts?
Snyder: If you want to become an artist, surround yourself with artists. If you want to become a writer, surround yourself with writers. The first step, of course, is scouting schools or programs that will allow you to do so. For me, the major roadblock was getting over my fear of moving away, “going abroad.” There wasn’t a vibrant community of writers in my hometown. It is often fear that keeps us from truly chasing our dreams.
Graffiti: How long did you work on “12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym”? When did the idea first occur to you?
Snyder: It took me three full years to draft “12 Round’s in Lo’s Gym.” I began work on the manuscript a few months before my son was born. Becoming a father completely changed my perspective. My initial idea was to compile a collection of short stories about my father’s boxing club. When my son was born, my entire life changed. Becoming a father helped me understand my own father in new ways. Thus, the manuscript gradually shifted to the genre of memoir, with a key focus on the social construction of Appalachian masculinity. My relationship with my father, the full-time coal miner and part-time boxing trainer, was the real story that motivated my earlier drafts.
I will also give credit to my late Siena College colleague Naton Leslie, a very accomplished writer from Steel Valley, Ohio. He was relentless in encouraging me to write about my boxing background.
Graffiti: Briefly outline your writing process. Do you get up, write for a few hours and then go about your day? Write mainly at night? Use an office or public space?
Snyder: I have a working-class approach to writing. I block off four to five hours a day to write. I write five days a week, if life permits. When it is time to write, I write. When it is quitting time, I quit. It doesn’t matter if I am on a roll or in the middle of a sentence. I have my hours blocked off and I put in my hours. I don’t owe the page a second more. Because I am a college professor, my schedule changes every semester.
Graffiti: As the advisor to Siena’s newspaper, are you concerned about the evolution of journalism? The waning popularity of print media, the rampant use of the term “fake news,” and the desire among many to only consume news which is slanted to reinforce preconceived ideas and opinions?
Snyder: We are, without question, in a strange place these days. There are plenty of folks who cheer for their favorite news station like sports fans root for the Yankees or Red Sox. They will defend their brand to the end. Social media has changed journalism and the way people think about the concept of news. The 2016 election brought with it a perfect storm of sociocultural factors. The term “fake news” as I understand it is often employed by folks who aim to defend any news story that is contradictory to their own ideology or worldview. I wasn’t surprised to hear that copies of Ray Bradbury “Fahrenheit 451” were flying off the shelves of bookstores last year.
H. S. Leigh Koonce is a sixth-generation West Virginian. He writes from Jefferson County.