BUCKHANNON — Oftentimes, to youth growing up in a small town, the grass always seems greener on the other side — perhaps in sprawling suburban areas or densely populated cities where maybe there isn’t as much grass.
But frequently, the hills call those who have moved away home.
Whether the protagonist of a new novel penned by Buckhannon native Becca Spence Dobias should return to her native rural Appalachia — the only place she’s ever felt truly at home — or stay in her newly adopted California home is the urgent question churning at the center of the work of fiction, titled “Rock of Ages.”
The question the protagonist — not unintentionally named Becca — struggles with is ultimately where she belongs, Dobias said in a recent telephone interview with The Record Delta from her home in Fontana, Calif.
“It’s the story of someone from Buckhannon who goes to California and struggles with finding a sense of home there,” Dobias said. “She’s conflicted about whether to stay there or go back to Buckhannon, and there are a lot of struggles and challenges she has to face.”
As readers are introduced to generations of the main character’s family, they learn that those family members, too, have felt conflicted over whether they should stay or go.
“We get a fuller picture of the main character and how deep her West Virginia roots go,” said Dobias.
A 2004 graduate of Buckhannon-Upshur High School who moved to California in 2008, Dobias says that if the novel is, in part, autobiographical, it’s no accident. Dobias is the daughter of writer and former Record Delta editor Ken Spence, who passed away when she was only 13.
She’s always admired her father and his profession, so naturally, it’s always been her dream to be a writer.
“I feel like I’ve been writing stories in my head ever since I was a little kid for this novel,” she said. “It just kept growing and growing. Early on, that was part of my identity, a way of making myself and my feelings known in the world.”
Indeed, writing has been the boat Dobias has used to navigate the stormy waters of gnawing questions and unsettling emotions that have arisen for her around her homesickness for West Virginia.
She loves many aspects of California, where she works part-time as a child birth educator and lives with her husband Jared and their two children, a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old.
“I love a lot of things about California, but it doesn’t feel like home the way West Virginia does,” Dobias said. “West Virginia is always going to be the place where I feel like my roots are. That became especially important when I had my own children because I wanted them to know about the things that have been so important in my life, and so many of them are related to West Virginia.
“It was so much a way to get the stories in my heart out,” she added. “I had to make it be me or it wasn’t authentic. When I added parts (of the story) that aren’t me, I just kept [the name ‘Becca’ for the main character] because it felt more honest that way, it felt truer.”
So, how much of the fictional work “Rock of Ages” is fiction and how much of is based on actual events in her life?
Dobias says that’s a complicated question. While not all the stories are actually true, the feelings behind them are.
“It’s really hard for me to explain,” she said. “The heart of them, the feelings of them and the emotions are real, but some of the situations are made up. Every feeling that the character has is are absolutely true.”
As for the events, some are real, while some merely help the story flow, Dobias said.
“This feels like laying my soul out there for this small town that knows me,” she said. “But I wanted to write it because you have this feeling in your soul, and sometimes the only way to get it out and make it make sense is to find the words to explain it.”
When you can reduce emotions to words and words to a page, they seem a lot less daunting, she said.
“If you can put a feeling or emotion into words, then it’s manageable because it’s right there on the page ... in words,” Dobias said.
But Dobias needs local help to make her dream of having a novel published come true. She’s using the online platform, Inkshares.com, which says it publishes books based on reader demand.
The site works like this: if Dobias amasses 750 pre-orders for “Rock of Ages” within 90 days — the cut-off is April 8 — then Inkshares.com will professionally edit and publish the book for her. Interested readers can pre-order by visiting www.inkshares.com/books/rock-of-ages.
As of Thursday, 236 orders had been placed for “Rock of Ages,” which is named after a poem that Dobias’ dad wrote.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the novel — which she completed over a period of five years— is that it validates the experiences of people living in small towns, Dobias said.
“It shows that the experiences of people living in small towns are real and important and worthy of being in a story,” she said. “A lot of people might think, ‘aren’t you glad you got out of there?’ but it can be really isolating here (in California). It’s different. People don’t know me when I walk down the street here.
“Here, no one cares that I wrote a book,” she added. “I’m just one in a huge crowd, but in West Virginia people care that I wrote a book. It means something to them because we all care about each other.”