Getting Personal: Elaine Palencia

Getting Personal: Elaine Palencia

Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, author ELAINE PALENCIA of Champaign chats with staff writer Paul Wood about literature, romance novels and growing up in Appalachia.

Tell us about some of your books. Didn't you start out by selling a couple of romance novels?

I published four genre novels for the money, but my heart and mind were in literature, so I turned to literary short fiction, poetry, the personal essay and, eventually, to literary essays and nonfiction.

You're the author of six books of fiction, four genre romances, then two acclaimed short story collections, as well as poetry. Is there a thread running through your work?

The genre fiction had rules of its own, which I chafed under. The fiction and poetry returned me to Appalachia. I have a fictional town, Blue Valley, Ky., that I write about, with a recurring cast of characters. The short story collections, "Small Caucasian Woman" and "Brier Country," are set there. I have enough short stories for a third collection. This summer, my scholarly essay, "The Literary Heritage of Hindman Settlement School," was published with archival photographs. It's about the first rural settlement school in America, which is still healthy and operating in Knott County, Ky.

You are a founding member of the Quintessential Poets of Champaign-Urbana. Tell us a little about that.

There are five of us, hence the name: John Palen, the real founder; Pat Simpson, Frank Modica and Mary McCormick Deka. We meet every other week to critique each other's work, and we give a couple of public readings a year. We surprise each other at every meeting.

And you're also the moderator of the Red Herring Fiction Workshop, a community group founded in 1980. You've nurtured a lot of writers. Do you have a favorite work that came out of Red Herring?

It's a wonderfully inspiring and dedicated group. Three members have books out in the last year and they're all terrific: "The Lady Professor," Bob Switzer's historical/scientific novel set in the Midwest; "Courting Death," Paul Heald's Southern legal thriller; and "Chain of Command," Frank Chadwick's science fiction novel, due out this month.

And now you are working on a historical manuscript from the Civil War. How did that get started?

I've been editing the letters of my great-great grandfather, John M. Douthit. He served with the 52nd Georgia Infantry Regiment and was in some interesting places — Cumberland Gap, the Confederate invasion of Kentucky, Champion Hill, the siege of Vicksburg. I've done a lot of research to contextualize the letters and to document what happened to the family after he didn't come home.

You grew up in Appalachia. How has that affected how you view the world?

Although I love living in Illinois, I miss the eastern Kentucky hills and the storytelling culture. I grew up in a small town there with a strong tradition of community service. People looked out for each other. I'm still in touch with my grade school class and am very engaged in Appalachian cultural issues.

Tell us a little about your education.

I majored in English and French literature at Vanderbilt University and studied a semester in France.

And then public service — how long have you served on the mental health board?

I've served two years. Before that, I served a term on the developmental disabilities board. Both are crucial to the health of our community.

Tell us a little about your family.

My husband, Michael Palencia-Roth, is retired from the UI Program in Comparative and World Literature, but he still is very engaged in research. Our daughter, Rachel, a Centennial graduate, directs the Writing Center at the University of Missouri, where she got her Ph.D. She also coordinates and teaches in the honors humanities course sequence there. I guess you could say she went into the family business of writing and literature. She and her husband, Jeff, have three boys. Our son, Andrew, who graduated from the special-ed program at Urbana High, lives in a group home in Urbana and attends a day program at DSC. He comes home every weekend.

From looking online, not from actually talking with you, your son Andrew has been a challenge — you've had to struggle to communicate. What would you like to say about that?

Andrew is the greatest teacher I've ever had. Learning how to communicate with him, helping him grow up and find a good life, has made us better people and has challenged us to confront the big questions about humanity. I became a poet in order to express what it is like to be his mother. Fiction and nonfiction didn't seem to have the metaphorical concentration to capture what I needed to say.

Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?

Chocolate and watching BBC mystery series.

What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?

I'm reading the letters of Seneca — very calming. I don't have a favorite book, but my favorite authors are the modernists — Eliot, Joyce, Faulkner.

Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?

I'd love to see Istanbul because it's the hinge between East and West.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

We had two favorite pets, a Boston terrier named Sofia and a cat named Basho, after the Japanese poet. They died a month apart, unexpectedly, of two different maladies, in 2015.

What's your favorite sports team?

The Illini, of course.

What would you order for your last meal?

A Texas sheet cake with a hacksaw baked into it.

If you could be reincarnated after you die, what would you like to come back as?

I'd like to try being myself again. As Dennis the Menace once said, I'd like to be 3 again, knowing what I know now.

Who are your favorite musicians and why?

Willie Nelson and Luciano Pavarotti. I heard them both here and have never forgotten the sincerity of their connection to their art.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

Every time the entire family gets together.

If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite? What would you serve?

I'd invite my husband and the Obamas. I'd serve what my Tennessee mother would serve — Swiss steak, scalloped potatoes, fresh green beans, homemade rolls, chocolate pie.

Which historical figure do you admire the most and why?

Abraham Lincoln. The more I read about the Civil War, the more I admire his steadfastness, wisdom and compassion.

What personality trait do you most hate in other people? Most hate in yourself?

Willed ignorance in other people. In myself, impatience.

What's your best piece of advice?

What my mother used to say: This too shall pass.

What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

I graded the multiple choice and true-false parts of exams for my father when I was probably 12, for 25 cents an hour. He was a professor of history.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

Deciding to give up pulp fiction, though I was making money, and trying to write something that might last. I wanted to participate in defining and interpreting the culture that nurtured me.

Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?

I've had a few; but then again, too few to mention.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

I can hear my husband laughing now. I rant and stalk around for a while. Then I settle down and deal with whatever it is.

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):Books, People

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