A Kentucky woman born in Paducah has written a book of linked short stories set in the land between the rivers. Through the fictional stories in Drowned Town, she hopes to reflect with honesty and dignity a region and its people that have played a central role in her own life. The book will debut in the fall of 2021 through the University Press of Kentucky.
Jayne Moore Waldrop was graduated from Lone Oak High School in 1974. She subsequently earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Kentucky. Her first jobs out of college were writing for the Benton Tribune-Courier and then the Paducah Sun, both newspapers of which now, along with the Herald Ledger, are part of Paxton Media Group.
She went on to earn a postgraduate degree in law at UK and worked as an attorney in Louisville and Frankfort. In fact, she met her husband, Alex Waldrop, formerly of Mayfield, while both were attending law school.
Jayne Waldrop acknowledged, “…writing is an important part of a legal practice, too, but I always wanted to write fiction.” She continued, “I love to read novels and short stories, but I never could quite get the hang of it. So, I started at the Murray State University low residency Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing in 2012.”
She travelled there twice a year for ten-day stays. “I loved the program and started learning how to write fiction,” she remembered. She was graduated from it in 2014. One of the first stories in this collection, Drowned Town, was written that same year.
Waldrop believes writing fiction is “like standing in someone else’s shoes.” She explained, “Sometimes, I compare it to method acting, where the actor tries to almost become that character. For me, sometimes it feels like I have this group of imaginary friends who inhabit my life for a while, while I’m writing their stories.”
Fiction, by its very nature, requires imagination; still, to be effective, it must reflect its subject realistically. “There’s that old saying to write what you know,” Waldrop pointed out. “Even though I needed to research a great deal for this book, I have to rely on what I know about western Kentucky. That includes my life, too.”
Childhood trips to the Land Between the Lakes certainly informed her stories, as did a later development. “My husband and I bought one of the Old Kuttawa houses in 2003 at auction,” she said. “We used it as a lake house for about 12 years. I stayed there when I was doing my Murray State work on my MFA. It was during that time in Old Kuttawa, when I started realizing the impact of being in this town that is basically half-drowned. There still is that portion of town that exists, but much of the actual town and the commercial area are all under water.”
One particular stay at the lake reiterated that perspective. “My family and I were out walking over a Christmas break along the Old Kuttawa jetty,” she said. “We started noticing house foundations all along that jetty, because the water was low, at winter pool. You could see where these buildings had been. It was like this other world was below the water.”
Waldrop found those to be haunting images. So, she started researching how the towns were demolished and relocated. Then, in close sequence she researched the federal government’s taking of the land.
She fictionalized her book in hopes of capturing what many of those displaced residents saw as tremendous, personal loss and sacrifice. “Admittedly, (the government’s taking the land) was in the public interest,” she said. “The lakes were built for flood control, economic development, and tourism, all really good reasons. But, I never appreciated the amount of personal sacrifice for some people — those who gave up home places that had been in their families for generations and those who can never go home again.”
From the time the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area opened in 1963, Waldrop and her family visited regularly, including all the nature programs available when TVA operated it. “Both the lakes and LBL have been a huge part of my life, but, it’s only as an adult that I considered those sacrifices,” she reflected. “That’s what I hope to capture in my book.”
“Linked short stories” is not a familiar term to most people. “I guess you could call it a novel in stories,” Waldrop explained, “It tells a narrative arch that stays together with the same characters. I linked the stories because I wanted to go back and forth in time to when the lakes were built and when LBL land was taken for the recreation area project. I wanted to capture a sense of what went on historically, but also the impact of that through multiple generations. The setting is really what links my stories, whether based on the old towns that were lost or the fact that everyone was moved off the land between the rivers.”
As for the title of Drowned Town, Waldrop believes, “It’s like there’s this world that was lost and what grew from that loss is something of immense beauty. I love the lakes. It’s my favorite place on earth, but there is this lost world that’s there.”
Waldrop concluded, “Through my research, I think everyone appreciates the progress that came from building Kentucky Dam and Barkley Dam and the lakes that resulted, but there’s still a lingering grief and mourning. There was an exchange of benefit vs. loss. I think for some individuals and families, the loss was something that they continued to mourn.”