How Much History Can Hurt: An Interview with Emma Copley Eisenberg


The Third Rainbow Girl is not an easy book to categorize; nor is it always an easy book to read, but it’s certainly worthy of the latter. The book tells the story of a crime committed in Pocahontas County West Virginia in 1980, which was known as the Rainbow Murders. Two women, Vicky Durian and Nancy Santomero, were found dead from gunshot wounds in a remote corner of the county. The girls, along with their friend, Elizabeth Johndrow, had hitchhiked toward Pocahontas County to attend the Rainbow Gathering, an annual, weeklong meeting that celebrates peace and harmony. Johndrow decided not to go at the last minute. Because of where the bodies were found, as well as narratives describing the men of the town as violent and unfriendly to outsiders, many suspected that the crimes had been committed by a local. Nine men from the county were embroiled in the case, and one, Jacob Beard, was eventually charged and imprisoned for the murder, despite the 1984 confession of serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin.

Years later, Emma Copley Eisenberg moved to Pocahontas County to work for AmeriCorps VISTA as a volunteer at a nonprofit designed to empower girls. She spent a year working with girls during the day and drinking and playing bluegrass with local men at night. “I felt ruined by my time in Pocahontas County—no place would ever be so good,” Eisenberg writes. But like every story told in the book, this one is not so simple. “I felt harmed,” Eisenberg writes, “and also that I had harmed others with my weakness and my silence and my actions, and I didn’t know how to make those two feelings stay together. Every time I grasped one of them, the other seemed to fade away.” It was at a writing group in Pocahontas County that Eisenberg first heard the story of the Rainbow Murders, and that her story and the story of the crimes first became intertwined. In The Third Rainbow Girl, Eisenberg unpacks the complex history of the region, and how this history affected the treatment of the crimes and the resulting communal trauma.

The Common’s former Wood Fellow Julia Pike spoke by phone with Eisenberg about memory, positionality, reading and writing about Appalachia, and how we love a place through writing.

: I’d love to start by talking about your short story “Forty-Four Thousand Pounds,” which was published in The Common’s Issue 15. The story has multiple parts—in one, the protagonist, Kendra, is in her father’s truck as he drives across the country, in another, years later, Kendra tells her friend/ girlfriend Carla that she’s leaving their hometown, and in yet another, furthest in the future, Kendra bikes around Philadelphia. I’m interested in the way the story handles time and memory, and curious about why you chose to tell it in this particular way.

ECE: I think the passage of time can be the most devastating thing about being alive. People say time heals all wounds but sometimes it’s the opposite, isn’t it? The farther away we get from something beautiful and complicated that happened to us, sometimes the more it hurts, precisely because it’s past and we’ll never have it again or never master it. I was inspired by Richard Bausch’s story “All the Way in Flagstaff Arizona,” which has the most masterful structure and moves between many zones of time. I liked the way the voice of that story is a bit thicker than a regular third person narrator. It’s a little old fashioned maybe in its ability to just tell about zones of time and about vast swaths of years passing. I wanted to see what would happen if I employed a similar kind of voice with that much power, and it allowed me such good and strange access to Kendra’s brain and body.

TC: That idea—that the farther we get away from something, the more it hurtsreally speaks to your nonfiction book debut, The Third Rainbow Girl. In one scene in the book (excerpted in GRANTA) you talk about a night you spent camping with some friends on Briery Knob, the place where Vicki and Nancy died, a fact you didn’t know at the time, and how that night resonated with you as you began working on the book. Has your view of time and memory in writing changed during the seven years you spent working on The Third Rainbow Girl?

ECE: I came into writing The Third Rainbow Girl with an idea that the past is painful and it should be better now. But these particular events in this particular place, for a lot of reasons, don’t feel like they’ve gotten less painful—it actually feels like the pain has been passed down. We’re learning more and more about intergenerational trauma, but I think there’s some healing that’s happened on the level of the history of West Virginia and the history of this particular county, in that people are, I hope, more able to stay in the place and talk about this history and the ways it’s playing out in the lives of young people and queer people and people of color. But on the other hand, I think the fact of these crimes, and the way they intersect with West Virginia’s history, hasn’t satisfyingly been processed for people. And if anything, writing the book showed me how much history can still hurt. So maybe there’s more similarity there than I thought.


TC: The book shows, very effectively, how this particular incident refracts on the community and how it becomes a communal, shared experience in a way that’s really damaging.

ECE: I was not expecting there to be so much trauma around all the guys who were accused of these crimes at some point, or confessed and then recanted, or who, for one reason or another, became part of the story of the crimes. There was so much damage done to their reputations, to their bodies, to their health, to their families. After the book came out I learned that one man had his kids taken away by CPS based on an accusation of being involved in these crimes which, I believe, is factually incorrect. I thought a lot about the ways that a story can continue to do damage over time, and the fact that some people might think that my book is a part of that, and I don’t think that they’re totally wrong. In participating in the re-storifying of something in the past you are participating in it being painful again.


TC: Can you talk about what your process was like writing about West Virginia, a place you aren’t from but where you lived at a pivotal point in your life, and which clearly had a deep impact on you?

ECE: When I left Pocahontas County, I felt so many conflicting feelings about the time I’d spent there. I knew it was a place that was really important to me, and that I would always be connected to, and yet I didn’t feel able to live there anymore at that time. People who are from there but have moved away talk about this sense of longing for the land and for the place and even though, again, I am not from there, I think I have access to a part of that feeling.

When I was getting my MFA in fiction at the University of Virginia, and I wrote stories that were trying to occupy the brain-space of characters living in Pocahontas County or orbiting in that world. It felt like, from an ethical place, that wasn’t going to work, and it wasn’t going to feel good for me or anybody. Also, from a craft place, I realized that my imagination did not contain the details and the insights that were going to say something true about this place, and so fiction was not going to work here.

Going through some of my journals from when I was lived there, I came across the mention of these murders from 1980, and I thought, Holy shit, this is a way into learning about the county, into learning about what happened in these crimes.’ To start, I Googled the crimes to see what was available online, and what was available online was so clearly wrong and offensive. The tone of it was so flat and had such disgust for the place and the people—it was about these clannish people who don’t like outsiders who murdered these women from elsewhere for no reason. I thought, Wow, that’s not my experience. I don’t think that is true.’ I also spoke to Liz Johndrow, the ‘Third Rainbow Girl,’ pretty early on and she said, I wasn’t physically hurt, but I was harmed.” That idea of being close to trauma, of being affected by it but not literally dying, became the engine of the project.


TC: Something you’ve spoken about in other interviews is the idea of writing quote-unquote-responsibly about Appalachia as someone who is not from there, taking care not to reinforce negative stereotypes about the place, while you’re working to paint a picture that is truthful to your experiences there. How did you go about this?

ECE: There are folks in Pocahontas County who feel hurt by this book, and I think their objection is that it shows people drinking or the violence that is present there, as it is everywhere. My feeling about that is that love can look a lot of different ways. I don’t think it’s loving a place to write only about its positive characteristics, of which there are certainly many. Loving a place is also being honest about who you are and your context there. As I do try to write about in the book, the one real regret I have is not being more honest about myself and my own reactions to things as they happened.

There have been so many nights where I’m up worrying about it and thinking about it and talking to people about it. People from West Virginia and from Appalachia more broadly did read the book with these questions in mind, and we talked about it, and I changed things. One of the benefits of book publishing being so slow is that I’ve read this book and talked about it and re-read it and re-written it and I do stand behind the position I ultimately took:Yeah, I’m not from here. But I did have these experiences, and this list of true things at the beginning of the book, and what happened to me, and what I did here is no less true than any other thing, and no less or more important.’


TC: Both the book and “Forty-Four Thousand Pounds” have queer characters and tell queer stories. What it was like to write about queer experiences in Appalachia?

ECE: My experience of queerness in Pocahontas County was that 88% people were kind of like, ‘Okay.’ There’s a deep sense that people should live their lives and do what makes them happy. There’s a lot of queer people in Pocahontas County and in the mountains and in Appalachia more broadly—like, duh, but just to say it again. Because people are so deeply connected, and no one is ever just one thing to anybody in these kinds of close communities, there’s are more complicated views and tolerance and acceptance of queer people than it might look like from the outside. People might say, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re gay, but you’re also Joe’s daughter, who I’ve known for a million years, and so it is what it is.’ In terms of the other 12%, I did have conversations with people about queerness, and they sometimes went really well, and sometimes went poorly.

I’m really excited about telling but also about listening and lifting up other stories of queerness in Appalachia. Mesha Maren’s novel Sugar Run about a queer character in West Virginia, and she’s from nearby Pocahontas County. The oral history project Country Queers is a really wonderful project run by a Pocahontas County native who has traveled all over America talking to queer people who live in small communities about how things are changing, and how it’s possible to thrive in the mountains and in rural areas. I feel a lot of hope, and I feel excited to hear more of those stories, and I think we’re starting to see them come out and receive mainstream attention. I just want more!


TC: You’ve published short stories, personal essays, and reportage. Do you find that your work in one genre has any influence on your work in another genre?

ECE: Definitely. For a long time, I felt insecure about working in both fiction and nonfiction. But then at some point I was like, fuck it. The material dictates the form it wishes to take and I’m certainly not the first writer who has played back and forth along genre lines (hello, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Grace Paley).

I was living in Charlottesville, VA when a few things happened that really pushed me toward nonfiction. The UVA ‘A Rape on Campus’ article came out while I was teaching at UVA, and a black student was beaten on campus, and all the forces that would become the 2017 White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville were already being felt by us in the city then, in 2014 and 2015. At that time, I thought, ‘I want to be part of this conversation and I can’t just go in my room and close the door and write small stories right now.

And I’m really glad I’m here now. I’d been trying to cram my whole worldview into fiction, which made for heavy and pre-determined characters. Now that I write nonfiction too, my fiction is free to be more playful, strange, and even more queer than it was before. Writing nonfiction forces me to cultivate a precision of language and intent that also serves me well in fiction.

I also think my training in fiction was a huge presence in The Third Rainbow Girl, because I’m always interested in making scenes and developing character and allowing space for things to continue past when it’s comfortable. I also have a weird sense of humor in fictionI like weird words and I like onomatopoeia and I care about sentences. All of that makes its way into The Third Rainbow Girl.


TC: In your interview with Salon, you said, “I think there’s a lot more space in really rigorous nonfiction to make very visible and upfront who you are and how you approach the story, which in some ways is more difficult to make clear in fiction.” I was really interested in this idea, because I found your book to be a refreshing answer to the kind of supposedly spectral author who appears in nonfiction works like Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. What are your thoughts on this idea of the presence of the author in nonfiction? Do you think it’s possible to write creative nonfiction where the author isn’t a main presence?

ECE: The nonfiction I tend to gravitate toward and respect is nonfiction that does make the positionality of the author clear to some extent. It’s really interesting because people have a lot of judgey feelings about that. There have definitely been reactions on Goodreads and Amazon of people saying,Why is Emma Eisenberg in the story?’ There’s seven parts and I’m in two of them. Getting that balance right was something we messed with a lot. There were drafts that I was hardly in, and drafts where I was in it a lot more.

I felt it was important to make clear that I wasn’t from Pocahontas County, and I wasn’t trying to write the definitive story on these murders told from the perspective of the community. I was trying to talk about the way the story has been told and retold from my specific perspective, which is in this middle zone of insider-outsider. That experience of being a quasi-insider-outsider is a valid one, and a lot of people occupy it who don’t feel quite authentic or quite ‘from,’ but also not quite ‘away.’

In Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings, she talks about ‘writing alongside’ experiences that aren’t your own. One way to do that ethically is not to speak from the center but to write alongside, and contribute to the conversation. That phrase has been really useful to me since I read it, and I wish I’d had access to it a long time ago. I was trying in this book to write alongside, to be there and to be honest about who I was but not center myself, because the magnitude of the events that happened to the community and to the people from there are of such higher grade than the things that happened to me. But at the same point I try to say that every experience in the book is true, and they all matter.


TC: In other interviews, you’ve indicated that you don’t view the book as ‘true crime.’ I’d love to hear more about how you would define true crime, and how you would categorize some of the objections to or critiques of it that have surfaced in recent years. Were you thinking about these critiques as you wrote, so as to consciously write against them, or were they more at the back of your mind?

ECE: Beginning the book was important in terms of placing it in a genre tradition. I didn’t want to open the book with dead bodies, and I didn’t want to open it with something that would indicate suspense, or that I was going to tell you a story that was going to be super fun and juicy and satisfying. Instead, I opened the book with a list of true things, which gives you all the facts about the case up front.

My editor was really helpful in thinking that through. He said, “If we start with true things, it will teach people how to read this book.” The content, the material of the case is not going to be the stuff that brings the intensity, it’s not the tension or the payoff. It’s the analysis and unraveling of what it means that will be most powerful for readers. That was definitely my focus. I was much more interested in how people at the time made meaning and told the story of what was happening. I tried really hard not to narrativize in my own voice. I relied a lot on the coroner’s report or witness statements or court documents that I could quote from directly. In nonfiction books we expect to be guided along by a central voice, and I tried to refuse that as much as possible and use the voices of people directly through those documents.


TC: Has anything surprised you about the process of publishing, editing, or promoting your first book? Is there anything you wish you’d known ahead of time?

ECE: Oy, yes. I wish I had known that it was going to feel so much like driving a self-driving car. You can press the gas but the car doesn’t go faster, same with the brake and windshield wipers. Also that people you don’t know are going to read your book and think thoughts about it and take notes about it and it’s going to be beautiful and overwhelming.


TC: I’m curious in particular what the process of working with your editor was like, especially with a book that took so long to write and research and had so many drafts.

ECE: Talking to editors in the process of shopping the book around is an interesting time, because you get to hear from different editors what they see as being the core of the book and what direction they would take it in. I really appreciated Paul [Whitlash, my editor]’s approach, in that he was like, “I get that this is a weird book. I get that it’s a hybrid of many forms. I get that it’s not straight true crime.” In conversation with the Hachette marketing department, he thought it could be an interesting strategy to bring people in with the words true crime and then hope they stay for the class analysis and other complicated questions.

Recently, though, I went to Powell’s, and I saw books like like Sierra Crane-Murdoch’s Yellow Bird, or Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites or Patrick Radden-Keefe’s Say Nothing in the true crime section, and I thought, well, if that’s what true crime is, I’m happy to be there. That’s good company. Maybe it’s that true crime is changing, or maybe it’s just a marketing term and no longer really a genre term. I don’t even know what it means at all anymore, but if my book is true crime, then I’m happy to be in that kind of company.


TC: Do you have any recommendations for work by Appalachian writers?

ECE: I did a round-up for The Rumpus on own-voices Appalachian books, but there are a few that I’ll definitely shout-out again. Carter Sickels’ The Evening Hour but also his new book The Prettiest Star. I did an event with Crystal Good in West Virginia, and her poetry collection Valley Girl is so good. Also, Cat Moore, who writes a lot for the Oxford American, and Irene McKinney. The epigraph from the book comes from Irene McKinney, and there’s another quote from her later in the book. Her wry, funny, and really dark and really wise sensibility about West Virginia is so good, and I think she’s wildly under-read.


TC: Are there any books that have come out recently (in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis) that you want to shout out?

ECE: Hilary Leichter’s book Temporary is wonderful and should be read by everyone. It’s very relevant to right now—it’s funny and about late-stage capitalism and how no one has a job anymore, and what that means for us as people. Mary South’s book You Will Never Be Forgotten. Paul Lisicky’s new book Later. I’d also love to shout-out Cathy Park-Hong’s book, Minor Feelings, again, because I think it’s a book we’ll be reading for a long time.


Emma Copley Eisenberg’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Paris Review online, Granta, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, Guernica, The New Republic, Slate, 100 Days in Appalachia, and others. Her first book of nonfiction, The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books 1/21/2020) has been named an Indie Next pick for February 2020, a most anticipated book from The Millions, Electric Literature, Vol.1. Brooklyn and others and an Apple Books and Oprah Magazine best book of January 2020. She is a fiction editor for AGNI and lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. She recently published an article in TIME Magazine about being an AmeriCorps member in West Virginia.

Julia Pike is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. In her senior year at Amherst College, she was the Thomas E. Wood ’61 Fellow with The Common. After graduating in 2019, Julia spent a semester teaching English in Chiang Rai, Thailand. In the fall, she will attend Boston University as an MFA candidate in Creative Writing.

Headshot by Sylvie Rosokoff.

How Much History Can Hurt: An Interview with Emma Copley Eisenberg

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