Learn about the individuals from northern Appalachia

Working diligently to keep WCoNA alive!

About Lora:

Lora Homan Zill grew up in the coal and clay mining area of central Pennsylvania and treasures her blue-collar roots. A graduate of Allegheny College, she is an adjunct professor at Gannon University and has also served as a faculty member in Allegheny’s gifted programs for public schools. She is a teaching artist with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, conducting artistic residencies in public schools and community centers. Lora speaks at writing, arts, and educator conferences, including an NCTE conference in New York City. Her poetry and nonfiction have been widely published and include co-authoring a chapter in the textbook Teaching Creatively and Teaching Creativity(Springer, 2013). She also edits and publishes the quarterly poetry journal, Time Of Singing, now in its 48th volume.

From her Appalachian arts and crafts roots, Lora is a self-taught musician and vocalist, and stained glass artist. Her stained glass windows are on display in Greenville Alliance Church in Greenville, PA and she has won commissions for her work. She lives in NW PA and loves to read, kayak, camp, and bike. She has two adult children, one grandchild, and is owned by one cat. She is also a coffee snob!

Check out her websites: www.thebluecollarartist.com and her poetry journal www.timeofsinging.com

About Deb:

Deb Reynolds is an avid writer, blogger, dreamer, and voracious reader who has always lived in the wilds of northern Pennsylvania. For her, northern Appalachia is home. More than that, though, it is a way of life, a culture, and a choice. It does not signify deprivation, and in this day and age, it is not representative of a lack of education, culture, or anything else. Deb explains that "Just because people choose to live miles from their nearest neighbor, and hours from a city, they're not wrong, just different."

Deb can also be found advocating for disability rights with emphasis on autism, epilepsy, and eldercare. She often writes on the difficulties particular to rural areas, especially health care access and services. However, she's a "jack of all trades" and also enjoys writing on travel and gaming, indulging in handicrafts, and the unique and beautiful character of the region she calls home.

About Samantha:

Samantha Rump Backstrom holds a BA in English from Clarion University of Pennsylvania and an MA in English Literature from John Carroll University, where she has published poetry in the John Carroll Review. She is currently an MFA in Creative Writing candidate at Carlow University, with a concentration in Fiction. Her most recent presentations include “Point of View in Historical Fiction: What Happens When We Let Characters Tell the Story,” a craft talk in partial fulfillment of MFA Degree requirements at Trinity University, Dublin, Ireland, “Historical Fiction: Zelda Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age in the Present Day,” at the English Graduate Organization Popular Culture Methodologies conference, and “Transatlantic and The Invention of Wings: Historiographic Metafiction in Contemporary Novels,” at the 3rd Annual Social Injustices conference.

Samantha also served as Carlow University’s MFA Program Teaching Assistant Fall 2018 and Spring 2019, after which she stayed on as an adjunct English Instructor where she continues to teach. Furthermore, she has been an adjunct English, Literature, and Study Skills Instructor for the Gussin Spiritan Division at Duquesne University for onwards of six-years. Samantha, along with a colleague and three students at Duquesne University, are the recipients of a 2020 John G. Rangos Sr. Prize grant to develop their project “From Pedagogy to Practice.” Samantha is also the Managing Editor, Design and Brand Manager, and a fiction staff reader for the Northern Appalachia Review. She most recently became the Vice President of the Writers Conference of Northern Appalachia.

What Northern Appalachia means to Sam:

One of the thoughts I gained from my research about Pittsburgh and my work for the Review and Conference has much to do with transformation. For instance, it may be pertinent to consider the work we undertake not so much as the history of northern Appalachia people but rather their biographies. Sometimes we’re so afraid of what others will think, that we don’t declare who we are. Therefore, it's beneficial to then consider what that “fear” did, does, and can continue to do to us as not only individuals but as a group of people. Also, one of the more interesting comments made about Pittsburgh that I think we all can relate to in terms of our own cities includes the point that there's no place like it, and that's both its blessing and its curse.

I love this idea that it is unlike any other place and that this unique quality is both good and bad. I couldn’t help but feel having the opinion of such a uniqueness that it can be seen occasionally as both a blessing and a curse to be writing about, writing from, and creating in northern Appalachia. Perhaps that’s why the “heavier” pieces exist more than the "comical" ones for the area. There’s been an extensive amount of trauma done to not only the landscape but the people. How is it even possible to consider the idea of transformation without looking first at this trauma? Perhaps the reason there are so few and far between “light,” “positive,” and “upbeat” pieces has to do with the fact that many may not feel or believe there’s been a full recovery from the trauma of the past.

Indeed, transformation can take place but that does not mean healing has fully occurred. But, that is not to say there have not been and are not, and will not be intercepting moments of happiness, joy, and reconciliation.

Though it is still primarily my own family I turn to for inspiration, when I dig back and come up through my family tree it is with these thoughts and ideas that I am left chewing on.

About PJ:

PJ Piccirillo is a two-time winner of the Appalachian Writers Association Award for Short Fiction. He is the author of The Indigo Scarf (Sunbury Press) and Heartwood (Middleton Books). PJ’s fiction and articles have appeared in journals, magazines, newspapers, and syndicates. He is a literary artist-in-residence for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, founder of the Writers Conference of Northern Appalachia (WCoNA)™, and founding editor and current editor-in-chief of the Northern Appalachia Review. An instructor of English and Humanities at Butler County Community College, PJ holds an M.F.A. from the University of Southern Maine and a B.A. in English from Saint Francis University. PJ returned to fiction writing after ten years in corporate marketing communications. He has always lived in northcentral Pennsylvania where he enjoys all outdoor pursuits. PJ is an EMT and captain for his community’s fire department, and Cubmaster for scout pack 39.

What Northern Appalachia means to PJ:

My paternal grandfather, who was not born in this country, took his first job at 14, dynamiting sandstone boulders in the construction of what we call here in the Alleghenies a high tension line. He worked later in a tannery, soaking cattle hides in vats of a caustic liquor of lime, chicken manure, and crushed hemlock bark. He gained and lost a lot of jobs until he finished with a demolition company, tearing away rail lines and razing old factories. He saw industry and mines and hand-to-mouth farms come and go. During the depression he’d boxed for bets in barns, and before that, played semi-pro football and got himself into many street fights because of things people called people who looked like him, and he smoked two packs a day and lived to 82 and I remember watching him snatch honey bees out of the air and squeeze them to death between his fingers and snuff his Winstons the same way, and he did these things because that’s what you did, not for some Hemingway Code, which he knew nothing about. This physically powerful man was incredibly tender to his wife and sons. He never missed a vote or a Sunday mass and fought fires to save peoples’ lives and homes. But those hands, mangled and missing the nails of several fingers and the tips of others, they wrought the raw material and dismantled the factories that from this place fueled parts of America that care nothing for our little mountain towns and black forests, or our stories, nothing but what they can take. That grandfather, not to mention another of his ilk, and their wives, are to me, northern Appalachia.

About Lisa Harris:

Lisa Harris, MFA, grew up in the Allegheny Mountains of Central Pennsylvania. Her publications include The Quest Trilogy novels,: 'Geechee Girls, Allegheny Dream, and The Raven's Tale, (Ravenna Press) and poetry, Traveling Through Glass, Dwelling Space, (Cayuga Lake Books), and Broken Open, (Wasteland Press.) Her poetry and short stories have been published in journals, such as Nimrod, The Coe Review, Puerto del Sol, Facets, Stillwater, Crack the Spine, The Penman, as well as others. She has taught and administered at private and public schools and colleges in Georgia, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Lisa's Testimonial About Northern Appalachia:

Becoming, Belonging, and Believing

by Lisa Harris


In September of 2018 I received an invitation to a daylong event in Western PA to discuss what constitutes Northern Appalachia Literature and to envision a conference that would celebrate and expand upon that vision. The invitation came via email from PJ Piccirillo. We had an affiliation through Butler County Community College. As soon as I read the name for the proposed new genre, I became a tuning fork—resonating.

I knew immediately that I would attend.

I had spent ten years bouncing around in academia, and I had a New York agent for several years. My novels, considered by publishers at major houses, were rejected because they did not fit a known genre.

At the same time, my writing was being published in small literary magazines and had won the Bright Hill Press Fiction Chapbook Award twice in the 1990s. Those chapbooks were the seedlings for two of my novels, ‘Geechee Girls and Allegheny Dream.

Although my writing has never been placed in a specific genre, I write anyway, still, daily. You get the point. During the past six years, I have had six books published—three novels from Ravenna Press, and three poetry collections, two from Cayuga Lake Books, and one from Wasteland Press, Broken Open.


The gathering in Western PA and the subsequent definition of Northern Appalachia Literature provides writers from that region with a sense of belonging. My stories and poems emerged from my childhood spent in the Allegheny Mountains of Central Pennsylvania, specifically Snow Shoe. I belonged there. I loved the Bald Eagle Valley. I knew Nittany lions were eastern mountain lions, and also the best university football team.

I went to Wyoming Seminary, a Methodist College Preparatory School and to Bard College. Neither of them was Appalachian in culture or reference point. I learned a lot at both schools, and I changed, but I was still rooted in the purple rocked soil of Central PA.

During the time I lived in Savannah, I knew the culture was Low Country and Appalachian, but I was perceived as a Yankee, as someone who did not belong. In Ithaca, I was a member of writing groups and taught writing, but I didn’t quite fit here either.

Now I have a sense of belonging by having a name for what I write.


I believed that participating in the gathering at Brookville was going to help me provide an answer to ‘In what genre do you place your writing?” And the meeting did. I used to answer, ‘I write North American magical realism,’ and there is still some truth to that, but now I know exactly what my genre is—I am a Northern Appalachia Writer. I value my MFA experience at Bard College’s Avery Graduate School of the Arts. I value the residencies granted to me by Hambidge in the Cherokee National Forest and the ones at the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in Ithaca. I appreciate small presses and literary reviews that have published my work, and now I am honored to be advisory to the Writers Conference of Northern Appalachia. Welcome to all others!

About Rita:

Rita Wilson is an artist, writer, and educator. She has won awards for her artwork and has been published in Rune and Riverspeak Literary Magazines, wolfmatters.org, Voices from the Attic, and the 100 LIves Anthology. Her first book, "Greek Lessons: A Cultural Odyssey", includes photos of several of her paintings. "Better Times", the painting that graces the cover of her book, won first place in the West Hills Art League annual exhibit and was juried into the Webster Arts "Relationships" national exhibit.

Wilson earned her MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from Carlow University. A retired teacher, she holds writing workshops in creative and professional writing and teaches adjunct at the university level. She enjoys painting and writing from her home in Moon Township, where she resides with her husband, son, dog, and cat. She is working on her second book, a novel.