"My senior year at seminary, I moved off campus to inner-city D.C., and got involved with this religious commune. We lived very poorly. We had $15 a month spending money and held all our goods in common like the early church.
"It was like being in boot camp. We ate out of Dumpsters. We would go to the local pizza parlor and drink beer and wait for someone to leave with a piece of pizza on their plate, and we would go get it.
"We were young and idealistic. I was there three and a half years. As those people grew up and got married and had kids, they realized they couldn't live like hippies anymore.
"I was working on 'Good King Harry' then. I had a job at the National Cathedral, and on my lunch hour, I would write. Out my window was the cathedral. If you are writing about medieval England, what better place in this country to do it?
"When I was 15, I read a novel about King Harry and was fascinated by him. He was a tragic figure in many ways, and I empathized with him. I felt like I knew him.
"I already had the idea for 'Storming Heaven,' but I decided to do 'Good King Harry' first because I was afraid publishers would be prejudiced against a novel about West Virginia coal miners. After 'Good King Harry,' my publisher asked what I was going to do next. When I told him, he said they weren't interested. My agent found a different publisher.
"While writing 'Storming Heaven,' I thought it would be beneficial to actually live in a coal camp again. I went to a little coal camp called David, Ky. Some activist friends there founded Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. I was the secretary-treasurer. They were trying to end the practice of companies stripping land they didn't own.
"We got an amendment on the ballot to forbid that, and it passed with 80 percent of the vote. It was one of the few examples where the people actually stood up to the coal companies. It was a very proud moment.
"I lived in Kentucky from '85 to '88, then decided I wanted to see more of the world. Coal camps are hard to live in.
"I chose Durham, N.C., a working-class city. I worked at a bookstore there -- the best job I ever had. It was so inspiring to be working on a novel and then go to a job surrounded by all these books. I did that for three years.
"I started getting homesick, and my parents were getting up in years. I felt I could make more of a difference here than in North Carolina. That's when I got the job at State.
"I taught there for 21 years. I enjoyed the kids and my colleagues. The thing I never liked was grading papers. And it cramps your writing because your mind is focused so much on your students. The only writing I got done was in the summer. I just retired.
"In 2000, I was talked into running for governor. A group of people wanted to start a third party, the Mountain Party. Mountaintop removal needed to be talked about and none of the candidates were talking about it, and we knew they weren't going to.
"Something had to be done to get it out there. It didn't stop mountaintop removal obviously. It's too late for a lot of places. The mountains I grew up in as a kid are gone. All that's left is devastation. But at least it got talked about. There was a national and international spotlight shined on it for the first time. I was on CNN and on newspapers in England.
"The mountains haunt me. When I came back from England my senior year in college, flying into Yeager Airport after being away from them for three months and seeing those peaks one after another, I started crying. They get to you.
"We are the Mountain State, the West Virginia Mountaineers. How do we destroy mountains? I don't understand how we allow it. It's a mental and spiritual illness. But the coal industry runs the state. All they care about is money.
"I've got a couple of ideas. I wrote this play, 'Robert and Ted,' that I haven't had any luck getting produced, and I need to focus on that. And I'm working on a memoir. And I've got another idea for a novel I might start on this summer.
"I second-guess myself about coming back to West Virginia sometimes. I'm friends with Jayne Anne Phillips, a wonderful writer who left because she felt she would be better known if she moved. She was probably right.
"Sometimes I wish I had moved to a big city. But every time something happens like the water thing, I think this is where I need to be. I need to be here where people are putting up with this crap.
"I would have been a different writer if I had gone away and maybe more famous, but it wouldn't have been the work I was supposed to be doing. I'm not going anywhere now."
Reach Sandy Wells at san...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.