Bobi Conn was born in Morehead, Kentucky, and raised in a nearby holler, where she developed a deep connection with the land and her Appalachian roots. She obtained her bachelor’s degree at Berea College, the first school in the American South to integrate racially and to teach men and women in the same classrooms. After struggling as a single mother, she worked multiple part-time jobs at once to support her son and to attend graduate school, where she earned a master’s degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing. In addition to writing, Bobi loves playing pool, cooking, being in the woods, attempting to grow a garden, and spending time with her incredible children.
1) When did you know that writing is what you were called to do? What is it about being a writer that you love the most?
I loved to write even as a child, and when I went to college, I took classes that allowed me to write for both academic and creative purposes as often as possible. I don’t think I had the confidence to believe I could really do anything with my writing, but I wrote constantly and I knew that writing was the one thing I loved to do.
After college, I worked at an insurance company as an administrative assistant, and I remember thinking that like so many other people, my dream of being a writer would fade away and I would just have a regular job that didn’t fully satisfy me. I resigned myself to that thought, but instead of fading away, my need to write grew stronger. When I could no longer ignore it, I dropped everything to go into a graduate program and focus on creative writing – that’s when I knew that writing is what I am called to do.
I love the fact that writers work with the same words that have been in existence for a very long time, and those words have been spoken countless times, but when we put them together, we can create stories and images, and even express thoughts in a way that no one has ever done before. I think there’s something very special about language and the power to create so much through it.
2) Can you tell us a little about your book(s) and where our readers can find out more about them and you?
My memoir, In the Shadow of the Valley, will be published on May 1 by Little A. It is available on Amazon and was selected as an Amazon First Reads book for the month of April. This book tells my story of growing up in eastern Kentucky in poverty, experiencing abuse, and how those things shaped my perceptions of myself and the world. I also aim to highlight the beauty of Appalachia and beautiful moments in a difficult life. I take a storytelling approach in this book that reflects oral traditions in Appalachia, so there is some weaving between stories in the timeline, though it mostly follows my life in chronological order.
My website, http://www.bobiconn.com, will have links to interviews, Q&As, and other pieces that I’ve written. I’m also easy to find on social media, and Instagram is the place to go if anyone is interested in seeing pictures of my Boston Terrier or other things I find beautiful and amusing!
3) What projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a novel that will tell the story of a family over four generations, primarily through the experiences of the girls and women. The novel is set in eastern Kentucky and will loosely incorporate stories I grew up hearing about my ancestors. As I wrote my memoir, I came to realize that family history shapes us in so many ways, and one of my goals in this novel is to explore generational trauma and triumph.
I’m also excited to imagine my great-grandmother’s perspective as I write about things she did – her children were born during the Great Depression and her favorite child was born while her husband was in prison for moonshining or murder – my great-grandfather was quite the outlaw, according to family lore. I realize my great-grandmother would not have been in a position to tell her own story freely, given the social constraints she must have experienced, and I’m interested to see what the character based on her will have to say.
4) What has been your most significant achievement as a writer thus far? Where do you see yourself within your career in the next five years?
Getting my memoir published is definitely my most significant achievement as a writer thus far. I taught creative writing courses at a university in the past, and I really love doing that. I’m hoping to teach classes or some type of writing program in the near future. I’m also eager to write in a variety genres and hope to do a lot of writing in the next five years.
5) How have you dealt with rejection within your writing career?
I used to find rejection pretty discouraging. In my early thirties, though, a mentor told me to look at rejection as redirection, and I’ve tried to thoroughly adopt that attitude. Sometimes rejection still stings, of course, but when it came to publishing my memoir, I took time to consider the feedback we got during the initial proposal round and I used it to revamp the proposal and first several chapters. Whenever possible, I look for the reasons for rejection and shift accordingly. We can’t let rejection make us give up – we have to let it help us become better.
6) Do you have a schedule for when you write? Do you outline your novels? How long does it generally take you to finish a novel?
I tend to write at night, preferably after my daughter has gone to bed. Thankfully, I’m a night owl. I also try to write when she goes to a friend’s house, or if I’m trying to meet a deadline, I’ll take a day off work and write while she’s at school. Of course, we haven’t been able to visit friends and she hasn’t been in school for the past couple of months, so I’m typically writing at night these days.
I did develop an outline for my novel in progress, and also for my memoir after I had written a draft of it. I always find outlines help me stay focused on what I’m writing, and they help me keep track of my timeline. I think my memoir, all in all, took about a year and a half of writing because I wrote significant portions of it in different years. I read that Stephen King says it should take no more than three months to write a novel, so that’s what I’m going to aspire to, but I suspect I’ll take a little more time since I will presumably be working full-time as well.
7) Do you believe that there is ever a point in life where it’s too late for an aspiring writer to become successful in this industry? Do you feel a late start would hinder their chances?
I’m a stubborn optimist and I don’t think it’s ever too late to accomplish anything we want in life. Of course, some things become more difficult as we grow older, and our list of responsibilities often grows with time, and those responsibilities may compete for our time and creative energy.
Looking back on my life now, I would encourage any aspiring writer to do whatever they can to make writing a priority in their everyday life. For me, that meant quitting a full-time job to go to graduate school. But almost everyone can take an online writing class or something similar. It’s important to take tangible steps toward our goals, even if those steps seem small.
8) What’s the first book you ever read that really touched you emotionally and moved you? Who is your favorite author? What book are you currently reading?
The first book I read that really moved me was One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez. I found myself immersed in the world he created in that book, and although I knew nothing about magical realism at the time, it resonated with me and felt similar to my understanding of the world.
It’s hard to pick one favorite, of course, but García Márquez is on that list, as is Frank McCourt. I’m in complete awe of Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, and I wish I could take classes devoted to their works. Right now, I’m reading William Dameron’s memoir, The Lie, and I’m about to dig into several books written by other Appalachian authors.
9) So many writers say that they hate reading their own work? Do you ever just sit down and curl up with your own book?
I don’t read my book for pleasure for several reasons. One is that due to the nature of it, there are a lot of painful memories in there that I have re-lived many times now, during the writing and editing process. I also can’t help but see room for improvement as I’m reading it, and it pains me to think it could always be better. But as a writer, I don’t think any manuscript ever truly feels done, because there is no perfect book (or other art). I don’t hate reading my work, but I suspect I’ll always read it from a technical perspective, which makes it more difficult to read for pleasure.
10) What are your thoughts about how the publishing industry is drastically changing?
I have often idealized the past, and I don’t always love how technology and the economy changes things. However, change is inevitable, and for the most part, there’s not a lot I can do individually to impact markets and industries, and I try not to fret over things I can’t control. While there are some drawbacks to the way publishing is changing, there are also a lot of benefits, such as increasing the diversity of published authors, and the way some people have made self-publishing really work for them. Social media gives authors the kind of reach and a connection to their audience that wasn’t possible in the past. As things change, I try to remain focused on what’s important to me, and what I can do to support the good in the old and new ways of doing things.
11) I feel like writing is a remarkable tool to help people not only express themselves, but also to cope emotionally and mentally. I know for me I write to be and feel more authentic. What unique quality is there about you, about your art, that you feel represents your authenticity? How does writing help you to be more empowered in your purpose?
I see myself as a storyteller, and I view stories as an essential part of life – individually and collectively, we make meaning through the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Stories help create culture, as well as personal identities. I experienced so much in a relatively short time, I have a lot of stories that I can tell, and I chose to tell them because I believe a lot of people will be able to see themselves in at least one of my stories. Doing this requires me to be vulnerable and honest, but I trust that in doing so, my readers will feel safe and empowered to be vulnerable and honest in turn.
For me, writing is a way to help myself and others reconnect to our humanity, and that is what gives me purpose.