It’s a strange thing when a voice appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and speaks to you.
Sometimes people’s faces scrunch up when Valerie Nieman tells them that a woman’s voice, unlike anyone she had known, started talking to her one night. But that’s exactly what happened.
Nieman is far from the only writer with a surreal experience like this to her name — Toni Morrison has said she sees people, Nieman noted. Like any good writer or journalist, Nieman followed the woman’s voice, encountering parts of her life and learning about her. Hagar, a biracial child born in 1930s Appalachia, eventually became the crux of a novel that Nieman is two-thirds of the way through writing. In The Leopard Lady Speaks, Hagar eventually joins the carnival sideshow.
Nieman also hears the voice of the professor, the man who introduces the sideshow and helps anchor the book, but she said writing in his voice doesn’t come as easily.
The subjects of The Leopard Lady Speaks aren’t the only unusual things about the book — it’s also a novel written in verse. The professor is more formal, speaking in blank verse, while Hagar’s lines are free verse and more intuitive.
It might seem like a daunting task, to meld two mediums that are typically kept at arm’s length while incorporating characters that are talking to you, but Nieman is anything but a greenhorn.
In conversation, Nieman neglects to mention that she has been a finalist for an assortment of different literary awards in different disciplines. She isn’t one to brag, but offers her credentials as they come up, letting slip that she received a NC Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry for 2013-2014 and teaches workshops at the John C. Campbell Folk School.
There are a whole host of other things on Nieman’s resume — years as a journalist for the News & Record and as a newspaper editor in West Virginia, more than a decade of teaching at NC A&T University and numerous books including Blood Clay and Neena Gathering.
And there’s more. Nieman is the kind of writer who always has several projects rolling in different stages of development. She just finished a novel, Back Water, and has a book of poetry called Hotel Worthy coming out in 2015. This summer, the Missouri Review is publishing several of the 35 poems she has completed for The Leopard Lady, and will come with a recording of Nieman reading them. She is also part of a monthly poetry-critique group with Mark Smith-Soto and Sarah Lindsay.
“I’m just not one of those people that does one thing,” Nieman said.
Certainly not. A banner of the leopard lady hangs in one of the rooms at her house off of Dolley Madison Road in Greensboro, a piece of folk art she painted with the help of a class on Coney Island, NY. Nieman attended the class, a museum and performances dedicated to carnival sideshows with help from NC Arts Council and ArtsGreensboro grants supporting the book.
Nieman wrote Neena Gathering, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi book set in the Southern hinterlands, in the ’80s, and it did well enough that it was translated into Portuguese. But when the publisher was bought out, Nieman and other writers were axed. Last year, Permuted Press, an outlet that specializes in post-apocalyptic stories, republished it.
“It came back to life, just like a zombie,” Nieman said, smiling.
While there is an obvious breadth to her work, there are several recurring elements.
“I think you find that you have certain themes,” Nieman said.
There’s often an element of fantasy and magical realism, she said, adding that in writing and life, she often returns to things that are hidden, buried or almost lost.
Several of Nieman’s books take place in Appalachia or the South, which has long been her home, though she grew up in New York state’s “snow belt.” And they might all evoke some connection to the land, be it the South or Scotland, informed by extensive research as well as direct contact.
“I guess I am kind of a peasant,” Nieman said. “I need to touch the earth and feel.”
Fellow format-busting writer Fred Chappell once told her that the theme of people who are nearly exhausted by the struggle unites her various writing projects. Chappell, a former North Carolina poet laureate who also lives in Greensboro, encouraged her to continue drawing outside of the lines by crossing genres and formats and “to write what came,” she said.
Nieman has followed that advice, eschewing common wisdom that writers must communicate a clear brand.
“It’s probably not good for the career,” she said, “but it may be good for the soul.”