The plot for The Dirt originated in a completely different story I'd started years ago when I was studying Southern Gothic lit and realized that the area where my family lived was just as rich with bizarre material as the deep south. What I had plotted involved a glamorous protagonist returning unwillingly to a economically depressed area where evangelical Christianity and coal ruled over all. There was going to be a cult leader. There was going to be a hot redneck. Naturally, steamy forbidden sex would happen, and ultimately at least one building would be burned down, apocalyptically.
That stuff all happens out in southeastern Ohio, yes, but my story was ultimately exploitative, so even if I'd written it, and even if it had been published, I think I would have been ashamed of it. I was just mining my weird-ass childhood for shocking stories, from a safe distance.
Then, like my protagonist, though maybe not as glamorous, I moved unwillingly back to Ohio, myself. To the poorest, most meth-ridden, ATV-humming, Trump-loving county imaginable. Confederate flags everywhere. It's harder to wrap it all up in a shiny little gothic package, when you live in it. When you live in it, the main thing you have to deal with is the temptation to despise the people you were willing to enjoy as curiosities, from afar.
Then the fracking started. When it was discovered that we were perched above the Marcellus and Utica Shales, some of the richest deposits of oil and gas in the whole midwestern fracking region, everyone but a few of us were overjoyed, believing the promises of big payouts, development, restaurants, hotels, and of course jobs, jobs, jobs.
It got even harder not to despise the people, when I saw how joyfully they sold out. As though the evidence weren't all around us, that the big fossil fuel companies do nothing to benefit the regions where they find their wealth. The coal and oil all gets sucked out, the hillsides are blown up, someone somewhere else gets richer while we get poorer, dirtier, sicker, uglier.
And everyone everywhere else enjoys their cheap gas and electricity, not thinking much about where it comes from.
I ended up wanting to write a story about where it comes from. About people who seem to represent everything that is most hopeless in humanity - racism, violence, sexism, bad hygiene, Wal-Mart fashion - but who wouldn't be this way if the rest of the nation weren't happy to enjoy the resources extracted from under our dirt.
I wanted to write a protagonist trying to come to terms with being "from here" but also perpetually an outsider. I wanted to explore with her the humanity of the people around her, without romanticizing them, but without reducing them to caricature, either.
And I wanted to make her interesting in her own right, as a woman in middle age holding onto her secrets, burdened by her family's scandals, trying to make her life over, not needing to be defined by beauty or by a fabulous romance or sex life.
For a while there was a hot oil worker in the story, but I nixed him. Sorry, hot oil worker. You were probably an asshole anyway. My protagonist might have liked your tight ass but she would have hated your politics. She's better off on her own, with her land. If there's a romance anywhere in The Dirt, that's where it is: with the land.
Because most of the relationships are pretty twisted. When I told a friend the basics of my plot, the way it ultimately unfolded, he said "that's a fucked up story."
How pleased I was. I imagined Flannery O'Connor beaming down on me.
The Dirt is complete, now.
Here's how it begins:
This is not the story I wanted to tell.
But there’s never just one version of any story, and every story is always a little bit beyond your control. You think you’ve got a hold of it, a magic staff in your hand, but without warning it starts blossoming with lilies, or writhing into a snake, maybe even sprouting legs and scurrying off into some corner you were trying not to notice. You poke at it, set traps for it, but it likes the darkness. Eventually you’re intrigued. What’s in there that’s so interesting? Not until you’ve crawled after it and gotten lost in shadows do you realize it’s not you who are running the story, the story is running you.