Contributor Spotlight: Jason Howard


Photo by C. Williams

Photo by C. Williams

Jason Howard’s essay, “Heart Burial is featured in Issue 73 of the Bellingham Review.

What would you like to share with our readers about the work you contributed to the Bellingham Review?

I’ve been captivated by Anne Boleyn since childhood and I’ve come to regard her as a guiding spirit for my life. This essay grew out of my identification with her, as well as my deep love for England.

Tell us about your writing life. 

My first book was a biography of John F. Kennedy that I wrote when I was in the fifth grade. I still have it in a binder, written in longhand—very neatly, I might add—on college-ruled paper. Even then I was intrigued by people and other places, and that curiosity is what helped make me a writer and what keeps me writing. Much of what I’ve been writing of late has a strong theme of exile, and in particular how an insider to a culture can become an outsider.

Which non-writing aspect(s) of your life most influences your writing?

I have to make time for stillness, whether it’s having a cup of tea or taking the dogs out. I’ve always had a rich interior life and I’m constantly dreaming, mostly of England or historical figures from the past. It’s been important to my work and my personal life to keep that imagination alive. I’ve taken up baking in the past few years, which I find both therapeutic and focusing—I can easily think and dream when I’m making a Victoria sponge or a Bakewell tart. Travel is vital for my soul and my writing. And I love to explore other mediums, especially theatre, film and portraiture, which often provide me with new ways of thinking about my work.

What writing advice has stayed with you?

Richard McCann, a mentor of mine, once told me that in setting the scene—in describing, for instance, a rain in London or Union Square in New York—that it’s not enough to write about a place. One must instead write from a place. That’s an important distinction. It’s great advice that I’ve tried to put into practice.

What is your favorite book(s)? Favorite writer(s)?

Choosing favorites is agony. But I love Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Lee Smith, Joan Didion, Neela Vaswani, Helen Humphreys, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, and Kate Atkinson, whose novel Life After Life I regard as genius. I love The Color Purple by Alice Walker, All the Brave Promises by Mary Lee Settle, A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman, and Mother of Sorrows by Richard McCann. I love the plays of Howard Brenton and Peter Morgan. And I’m a sucker for English mysteries, spy thrillers, and biographies about musicians and the Royal Family.

What are you reading right now?

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane and How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life by Ruth Goodman. I’ve also been slowly re-reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk—another one of my favorites—and savoring it even more this second time around.

What project are you working on now?

I’ve been working on a book that is in many ways an extension of “Heart Burial.” Like so many, I was so demoralized after the election, and I couldn’t seem to do any creative work. All I could write was political commentary, and so I tried to write my way through the grief and anger with a few pieces that appeared in Salon (here and here) and The New York Times. I’m still dismayed and deeply worried—and I’m still resisting and persisting—but I’ve finally been able to return to my book, in part because I’m convinced that we need each other’s stories now more than ever.

Anything else our readers might want to know about you?

I’m also a music writer, and I’ve interviewed and profiled a wide-range of musicians including Yoko Ono, Carly Simon and Patty Griffin for a variety of publications. My most recent book, a work of literary journalism titled A Few Honest Words, explores how Kentucky musicians including Dwight Yoakam, Naomi Judd, Joan Osborne, Jim James and others have been shaped by the land, stories and culture of their native stateand how they work, in turn, has influenced American music.

Where can our readers connect with you online?

I’m on the web at, and on Facebook and Twitter @jasonkylehoward.

JASON HOWARD is the author of A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music and coauthor of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, both works of literary journalism. His essays, features and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, The Nation, Sojourners, Lumina Journal, The Louisville Review and in other publications, as well as on NPR. He holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and serves as editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly based at Berea College, where he also teaches.