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 Cathy Swarmer:

Cathy Ostrum Swarmer grew up in the Northern tier of Pennsylvania in one of the smallest counties in Northern Appalachia. When she grew up, it was Sunday dinner at Grandma’s and riding bicycles from one end of town to the other. There was tennis and bowling and reel to reel tape recording the songs from the only radio station available - WLEM radio, meaning Land of the Endless Mountains.

She is a proud graduate of Cameron County Jr.-Sr. High School and brags that it is the only degree she ever needed to be successful in her secretarial career and through life. She applauds her high school teachers (Hometown Mentors) for instilling the desire to learn more and more every day through life. Cathy says, “Never quit learning and never let your memories be greater than your dreams.”

Always having the desire to write, Cathy was paid for her first magazine article in August 1989 at the age of thirty-five. The article was titled, Building a Family: Adoption as an option. However, August of 1989 was also the month that a drunk driver hit her husband and he suffered a traumatic brain injury that made her his caregiver. She had to put her writing desires on hold to raise her daughters and provide as best she could for her family. She was forty-eight when she snapped and left the difficult situation with her husband. She was sixty-four when she made her way 800 miles to his grave and said how sorry she was that she was not strong enough to help him through life. She believes that she survived it all only with the help, love and support from her parents, her church family and her unending faith in God. All these qualities were instilled while growing up in Northern Appalachia.

Today she is an indy author with books available exclusively on line at Barnes and Noble. She is also the volunteer executive director for Hometown Mentors, Inc., the website writer and designer and she is retired from a large government contractor, having worked as a secretary in the heart of Washington, DC for ten years. It’s never too late to live “Happily Ever After” so Cathy and Steve Swarmer were married on 12-13-14. Since then, they have traveled the world together on cruises and are enjoying their young granddaughter and retirement through the rest of their years. “Mom always said that life is short but I never understood how short. I really thought it would take longer to get this old.”

What Northern Appalachia Means to Cathy:

Emporium, PA is Cathy’s hometown and she has a proven passion for it after founding a nonprofit for the town’s benefit. Northern Appalachia holds this isolated town and it sits in a valley about 50 miles from everywhere, where few people live but many amazing stories have been written. In Emporium, most mornings are cool and misty no matter the season. The wide borough streets are quiet and lined with trees. In the distance, there may be the occasional bugle of a bull elk, screech of a hawk, or howl of the encroaching coyote. The air smells clothesline fresh with no hint of farming but once in a blue moon, you may smell a skunk or two.

Emporium has the friendliest people, the most beautiful scenery and front porch swings that really work.

In Great-Great-Grandma’s day, and over the last one hundred and sixty-plus years, many folks lived out their days, from cradle to grave in this wooded area. But lately, many have started their stories here and then went on to live their lives outside of the sanctuary of our hills. For the time they lived in the PA Wilds, they developed similar strong characters from the rural background, developed a great work ethic, and an appreciation for nature and all God’s creatures.

The telling of their stories is rare and important. Thus, it must be done. Unlike biographies of the rich and famous, these stories are life essays of hometown folk who are real and unknown. Remember, no matter who you are, you are famous in the hearts and memories of your classmates, friends and family who now live all over the world. This is the reason that Cathy is the author of a new exclusive Barnes and Noble series about the people of this area. Essays of the Real and Unknown starts with the story of Ruth Kronenwetter Lathrop which has seen glowing reviews. Also, Hometown Mentors, Inc., a nonprofit started by Cathy to benefit her hometown, is the publisher of this series of books and receives the profit from each sale.

About Rita Wilson

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.