CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Forget any celebrity swagger. She's soft-spoken and unassuming, admittedly bashful. Prize-winning novelist? Erudite theologian? Fiesty community activist? Really?
Despite literary acclaim and media prominence, Denise Giardina remains as unpretentious as the humble McDowell County coal camp that spawned her.
Those coalfield roots nurtured the social consciousness that inspired two of her best-known novels. In "Storming Heaven" and "The Unquiet Earth," she looks at the lives of oppressed miners in an era of coal company disdain and domination.
An ordained Episcopal deacon noted for historical fiction, she chronicled the life of England's legendary Henry V in her first novel, "Good King Harry," and told the story of a German priest executed for conspiring to kill Hitler in "Saints and Sinners."
In 2000, she ran as a third-party candidate for governor as a way to share her ongoing outrage over mountaintop removal mining.
In December, after 21 years, she retired as writer-in-residence at West Virginia State College. Finally, she can plunge unfettered into her passion for writing and the fight to salvage her beloved West Virginia mountains.
"I grew up in a McDowell County coal camp called Black Wolf. My dad was the coal company bookkeeper. The superintendent lived in a big house on the hill. Our house was like the miners' houses, but my dad was a white-collar worker, so he got paid a little more.
"Our house had four rooms. Then they added a fifth room, so we had one more room than everybody else. I was always aware that we were a little better off.
"It was a hard time for coal miners back in the '60s. They didn't have much work, and people were hungry. We didn't have to worry about food because my dad made a little more.
"My mom's brother was a miner, and I knew from them what the miners went through. He had to shoot squirrels to get food sometimes. We were just really lucky, and I was always a little guilty about that.
"My mom was a nurse. She worked in a hospital for a few years, night shift, so she could be home with us. Then she took a job with the Public Health Department. She drove around visiting people with TB. McDowell County was such a poor county, and tuberculosis was a big problem.
"I made really good grades. I was a National Merit Scholar finalist at DuPont High School. I was definitely a nerd. Other kids were crazy over rock stars, and I was crazy over Henry V. That's who I wrote my first novel about. So even back then I was thinking about things like that.
"I didn't write when I was a kid. I was discouraged about it because of where I lived. I didn't know any books about where I was from. And writers were from places like New York, not from West Virginia coal camps.
"When I was in eighth grade, we moved to Kanawha County near Malden, up Georges Creek. My eighth-grade English teacher had us do creative writing. She had us write a sentence using all the parts of grammar. I wrote this long sentence, and she read it to the class and everybody went, 'Ooooooh!' It was this complicated sentence about the light coming through stained glass in a cathedral and splashing over the pews. I actually used part of that sentence in 'Good King Harry' when I was describing a cathedral in Paris.
"The teacher had us do a short story. I wrote a story about a raccoon family caught in a forest fire, and the father raccoon dies. That was the first thing I ever wrote. I didn't write again until college.
"My mom had a two-year nursing degree, and my dad had a two-year business degree. I have a younger brother, Frank. It was their dream that we would get four-year degrees. My dad saved for it. He told us we would not work when we went to college. He wanted us to focus on school.
"I got a big scholarship. I wouldn't have been able to go to Wesleyan without the scholarship.
"I majored in history and political science. I've always loved history. I was fascinated by the pilgrims and the Civil War. The Civil War had its 100th anniversary in 1961, and I ate all that up. I even had a Civil War board game. I had to force people to play. I had to be the North. I didn't like the South because they were racists.
"I took political science because I thought I might go to law school. I took the LSAT my senior year in college, and I realized there was no way I wanted to spend three years studying that stuff. It was boring.
"I got typing jobs the first three years out of college. I was a substitute teacher and took night classes in education at Morris Harvey to get certified. In the meantime, I started going in a different direction -- theology and seminary.
"I grew up a Methodist, but I became an Episcopalian. In college, I went to England for a semester and fell in love with the Anglican Church, the liturgy, the beauty of the service and the music. And I met Jim Lewis. He and my mother are probably the two biggest influences on my life. I decided to go to seminary. I'm an ordained deacon.