When Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne moved to Massachusetts for college, the Tennessee native found comfort and familiarity in the weekly bluegrass night at Cambridge’s Cantab Lounge. In Shelburne’s debut novel, “Holding On To Nothing,” Judy, a bartender there, makes an appearance as a Boston transplant to the small-town life of Shelburne’s own childhood.
For Shelburne, who stayed in Massachusetts, setting her novel in Tennessee meant capturing the people she grew up with, in a region often more defined by its problems than its promise. “It has always struck me that Appalachia doesn’t always get portrayed terribly accurate in the media,” she said. “Everything is focused on the bad. It can start to feel like that’s the only thing happening in Appalachia.”
In the Tennessee of Shelburne’s experience, and in her novel, she sees a middle ground. “Sometimes circumstances can be bad, but people continue to have hope,” she said. “There’s a lot of warmth and humor that gives people that hope. I wanted to put all of those together in a book.”
“Holding On To Nothing” isn’t all sweetness and light. ”I wanted to think about the ways in which bad circumstances and bad decisions can pile up and lead to really heart-rending tragedies,” Shelburne said. “For me, I’m always writing against the worst-case scenario. I’m a person who thoroughly imagines all the ways the plane can go down before we take off, believing that if I’ve imagined it, it can’t happen.”
Still, the novel has moments of pure grace, often provided by the well-observed child character at the story’s center. “I started this book before my kids were born,” said Shelburne, who has four children; she worked on it “longer than I’d like to talk about in polite company,” she added.
Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne will read at 2:45 p.m. Saturday, October 19, as part of the Boston Book Festival, along with Leah Hager Cohen, Katrin Schumann, and Bradley Babendir, at the Boston Public Library’s Newsfeed Café.Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at email@example.com.