Former Kingsport, Hawkins resident’s debut novel drawing national attention

Rick Wagner • Nov 7, 2019 at 9:00 AM

“Holding on to Nothing,” a new novel set in Northeast Tennessee, is winning national accolades and has a connection to the area.

Author Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne’s early roots run deep in Hawkins County and Kingsport, and her first novel, which debuted Oct. 22, is set in a fictitious small town somewhere between Kingsport and Knoxville.

Her dad, Tom Shelburne, practiced law in Rogersville for years, and the family lived in a yellow farmhouse on a two-lane road in Surgoinsville. When she was 5 years old, her family moved to Kingsport. In the Model City, she attended Washington and Lincoln elementary schools, Sevier Middle School and graduated from Dobyns-Bennett High School in 1997.

Shelburne will be at a book signing at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Books-A-Million in Kingsport. On Friday at 4 p.m., she will hold a similar event at the H.B. Stamps Memorial Library in Rogersville.

Kingsport Times News readers may remember her mother’s column,“On Sinking Creek” by Sally Chiles. It was published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

Shelburne wrote for The Atlantic magazine for years after graduating from Amherst College and also has been published and written about in the Boston Globe and had short fiction published, too. National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” has covered Shelburne’s first novel.

“It was loosely inspired” by East Tennessee, Shelburne said of the book, in which characters travel to nearby Kingsport to eat at the Waffle House and to Hiltons, Virginia, to visit the Carter Fold.

“My dad’s law practice was in Rogersville, and we had a farm in Surgoinsville,” she said. “It’s kind of inspired by having grown up there and listening to my dad tell stories about his clients.”

Her grandfather, John R. Chiles, worked at Eastman Chemical Co. his whole life.

Tom Shelburne practiced law in Rogersville and lived in Kingsport until his children finished high school. He and his wife then returned to the Surgoinsville farm they had kept all those years. They stayed there until they sold it and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, last year to be closer to their grandchildren who live near Boston.

Among its accolades, “Holding” has been named One of the Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2019 by The Millions, one of the 5 Hottest Debuts of Fall 2019 by The Writer, Best of the Week by the New York Post and Deep South’s Best Books of Fall/Winter 2019-20.

After the Rogersville event Friday, Shelburne plans to return to Massachusetts to spend time with her husband and children, who are ages 8, 6, 4 and 2, before a mid-November book tour in North Carolina.

The book focuses on Lucy Kilgore, who has “her bags packed for her escape from her rural Tennessee upbringing, full of loss and disappointment, to go to Knoxville” to work her way through the University of Tennessee, according to the dust jacket of the novel. “She’s all but ready to leave, when a drunken mistake after a night of bluegrass music at the local bar where she works tethers her to the town and one of its least-admired residents, Jeptha Taylor, who becomes the father of her child.”

The odds are against the new family since the Taylors are known in town as drunks, and Lucy knows better than to think her husband will rise above his family name, the jacket says. “In a place with little to offer beyond bluegrass music, tobacco fields and a Walmart full of beer and firearms for the hunting season, Lucy and Jeptha must deal with the prying eyes of their small town, disapproval from their families and the hardships of raising a child on too little money and too much alcohol.”

For more information about the book, published by Blair, based in Durham, North Carolina, go online to http://ecshelburne.com/. The hardback book’s list price is $25.95.