Write what you know and do so whenever and wherever you can. Such was the mindset of local author Melanie McGee Bianchi when she found her way back to penning fiction in earnest in 2017, after more than a decade away from the craft.
Since returning to the form, McGee Bianchi has written stories inspired by her life (and the lives of others) in and around Asheville — a place she’s called home since the early ’90s.
“The city had a different vibe back then,” she says, noting that she used to rent an apartment in Montford for $300 a month. “It was a lot dirtier and more raffish.”
Such qualities are apparent throughout McGee Bianchi’s debut short-story collection, The Ballad of Cherrystoke and Other Stories, which Blackwater Press published June 24. Convicted felons, back-to-the-land folklorists and monk-seducing housewives populate the pages.
And while the author is ecstatic to have her work out in the world, McGee Bianchi says at times it felt as if her days as a fiction writer were long behind her.
Margarita for the win
Seated inside BattleCat Coffee Bar in West Asheville, McGee Bianchi notes how many of the characters featured in The Ballad of Cherrystoke came to her in a burst of adrenaline. “I was trying to find my voice again,” she says. “I was writing these stories that almost felt a little performative, thinking — can I pull this style or that style off?”
Eventually, she discovered a slightly more humorous tone. “Everything kind of started to snowball after that,” McGee Bianchi says.
Granted, she still had a full plate of responsibilities to juggle in addition to her renewed interest in fiction, including parenting as well as her managing editor roles at Asheville Made, Bold Life and Carolina Home + Garden.
Despite the busy schedule, McGee Bianchi squeezed in time to write, wherever she could. Placing her coffee mug down, the author begins to tick off on her fingers some of the locations she worked on the earliest drafts of The Ballad of Cherrystoke: The N.C. Arboretum; the parking lot of her son’s orthodontist’s office; a steep hill outside her home; and at the now-defunct Lucky Otter (“margarita for the win,” she proclaims).
“The more I wrote, the more furious I became about it,” she says, pausing to reflect on her five-year journey to publication. “I’m not sure I could ever do that again.”
Punchy and dysfunctional
When describing her collection, McGee Bianchi hesitates to label it Appalachian, despite the majority of the tales taking place in Western North Carolina. “I can’t stand sentimentality in fiction,” she says. “And I think that’s what people expect if you call your work Appalachian fiction.”
Some writers in the genre, she continues, lean too heavily on stereotypes: “They’ve got their scrappy characters with hearts of gold and the evil drug lord.” When it came to crafting her own characters, she adds, “I wanted them to be punchy … and to have a certain confidence in their dysfunction.”
This ambition contributes to the joy readers will experience throughout the collection’s 11 stories. While physical and mental scars mark the majority of McGee Bianchi’s characters, the book’s tone is handled with expert precision, never dragging readers down into a hole of inert despair.
Instead, the author approaches the bleak with a balanced blend of humor, sarcasm and cynicism. The approach doesn’t trivialize the severe circumstances these characters face but rather reveals how each individual within a given tale copes with the cards they’ve been dealt.
On the prowl for meaning
Such an approach is best exemplified in the collection’s second story, “Abdiel’s Revenge.” The narrator, Yuri, a 25-year-old Russian immigrant recently released from prison, offers readers a glimpse into his romantic life with Pamela Jean Galloway — a woman twice his age with a family legacy of murder and revenge.
Both characters are lost and seemingly disconnected from the world outside of Pamela’s single-wide trailer “sunk forever on family land.” The property, Yuri proudly notes, looks out on Caney Knob, Bell’s Mountain and Turtleback Ridge. “It was the same view those outdoorsy freaks down in town were paying for all kinds of ways, staying in thousand-dollar-a-week cabins in between camping and kayaking and driving the Blue Ridge Parkway way too slow, on the prowl for meaning,” the fictional narrator declares.
Despite his dismissiveness, readers gradually realize that purpose and meaning are also what Yuri and Pamela seek. But ultimately, it’s love and self-acceptance that the two desire most.
Like the outdoorsy freaks, “Pammy was a bit of a freak, too,” Yuri notes in the story. “She trafficked in amethysts and astrology and a tarot pack, the whole New Age disaster, but in her I didn’t mind it so much. My girl had her own style going; somehow, she pulled it off.”
Mom’s rough humanity stories
In the end, McGee Bianchi says, emotional authenticity is what she strived to channel in each of her tales.
“If there’s anything in particular that I’d really hope to get across to readers is that it’s OK to write what my son calls ‘Mom’s rough humanity stories,’” she says with a laugh, before clarifying that her teenage son is not yet allowed to read her work. “But that’s what I want people to know — it’s OK to have a rough humanity story, and it’s possible for that story to still be funny.”
And there’s plenty to laugh about in this dark and moody collection. Among the many characters readers will meet, there’s the elderly, slightly begrudging Airbnb host baffled by her guest’s oversharing. (“Folks today, they don’t consider anything a sin except a secret.”) Later in the collection there’s Mr. Ballantine, a wealthy California transplant with money to burn and grammatical insecurities to hide. (“When Mr. Ballantine texted me, he always wrote ‘it is,’” the story’s dominatrix narrator explains. “He wasn’t a foreigner or a gentleman; he just didn’t know whether to use ‘its’ or ‘it’s.’”)
But amid the laughs there are also glimpses of Asheville’s past, which longtime residents will certainly recognize. Some might lament the days gone by, while others might simply relish the time spent revisiting that not-too-distant past.
“This was before the millennium turned over,” McGee Bianchi writes in the collection’s penultimate story. “The town hadn’t been discovered yet by spiffy outsiders, the ones with new money and new ideas, a storm of them opening bistros and breweries and boutiques like this, curating the rents to oblivion.”