PJ Piccirillo


The History of The Writers Conference of Northern Appalachia (WCoNA)™

In 2007, I was selected as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC). Immersed by then in fiction writing, I’d come to see how other regions across America boasted canons of literature inspired by their history, culture, and landscape: New England; the Southwest and Midwest; the West with its big-canvass writers; the South with its gothic tale tellers. Yet here, a place steeped in what great literature is made of, the work of regional authors was not recognized and embraced by publishers, readers, universities, archivists, and reviews, nor did writers have a regionally-themed conference to latch hold of.

So I traveled the state engaging with audiences in that PHC program I called “Missing Pages—The Neglected Literature of the Alleghenies.” Sharing my experience and the work of great albeit underappreciated northern Appalachia poets, fiction writers, essayists, and journalists, I sought partners to begin a conference, literary review, publishing imprint, and canon of this unrecognized literature.

Though I found no takers during those early years, I continued on, spreading the word through my writing residencies and making contacts at readings and seminars while cataloguing the many great writers and works that had been overlooked. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I’d planted a few seeds that would eventually take root.

In 2018, resigned that no institution was interested in a partnership, I decided to spearhead a writers conference on my own. I reached out to the network of writers and literary advocates I’d crossed paths with in my work over the years. A small group responded with enthusiasm. It was a start.

On September 8, 2018, with my teenage son handling registrations and my wife taking notes, I led a meeting in Brookville Pennsylvania with 12 people from across northern Appalachia, including authors, scholars, and publishers. Building from my years of research and planning, we mapped the literary region, listed characteristics of the culture and literature of northern Appalachia, and ratified the name, mission and objectives I proposed for the conference. We even laid the groundwork for a publishing imprint with the help of Sunbury Press, envisioned a literary archive and journal, and began planning a book-of-the-year contest. The Writers Conference of Northern Appalachia (WCoNA)™ was born.

On September 7th and 8th, 2019, we conducted the inaugural Writers Conference of Northern Appalachia (WCoNA)™ in Wheeling, West Virginia. People from across the region gathered to explore opportunities, challenges, and trends specific to northern Appalachia writers through keynotes, panels, craft talks, a book fair, and readings. The overwhelming consensus was It’s about time. Since then, we have incorporated and gained a 501c3 nonprofit designation.

Today, the Writers Conference of Northern Appalachia (WCoNA)™ and the literary review it spawned continue to evolve, serving writers across the region with education, publishing, and networking.

PJ Piccirillo, Founder

Click on this link to read a guest article PJ wrote for The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship about the vision of the conference: Call of the Wilds: Rallying the Literary Voices of Northern Appalachia

PJ Piccirillo’s opening remarks, Writers Conference of Northern Appalachia (WCoNA)™

September 7, 2019, Wheeling, West Virginia:

Thank you for being here. I thought long and hard for how I might start out, capturing in a few words what this is all about. Then I realized it’s there in our program. And I recalled how everybody I spoke with about this conference would shake their heads up and down before I got half way through explaining it.

You all get it—how the body of work created in his region has not been recognized for what it is. If you asked me to boil down my goal for WCoNA, it’s simple—I hope we create the kind of recognition that will make people choose books of this region, because they’re of this region, while all the while they get even better.

The 2019 WCoNA Planning Committee made all this happen. Formation happened a year ago with a day-long formation meeting in a café in Brookville, PA. Through serendipitous circumstances, it found it’s way to Wheeling for this inaugural event.

I’d like to recognize this small group of doers.

Mike Kane, from Johnstown PA, who can’t be here today, has been a valuable consultant for understanding how to fund a public event.

Lora Homan-Zill from Conneaut Lake, PA and whom I can’t say enough about, brought so many insights from her experience as an educator and multi-discipline artist.

Lawrence Knorr, of Sunbury Press, gives us the creds of having the support of a publisher—and publishers finally behind our regional work are essential to this task—just look at other regions. Lawrence also guided us with his business acumen and provided us the resources to meet remotely and to conduct our contest.

Wendy Duchene came to us after finding out about the conference, just to volunteer her time and expertise.

And I have two very special acknowledgements.

Pamela Twiss, who lives near Pittsburgh and teaches at Cal U, was not only the conduit who linked our group to the resources here in Wheeling, but her wisdom about our mission and about events like this was the beacon that led us through many murky moments.

And then, do you know how there’s always that one person? You’re in a project and you think how are we ever going to get this or the other thing done, and that person blurts out again and again, I can ­do that. Well that’s Christina Fisanick. All the logistics, all the site arrangements, all the design.

So please join me in thanking these people for all they did.

PJ Piccirillo’s Introduction to David Poyer, Keynote Speaker at the Inaugural

Writers Conference of Northern Appalachia (WCoNA)™

September 7, 2019, Wheeling, West Virginia:

When I read David Poyer’s biography, which, frankly, we don’t have time to cover completely this morning, I have to ask myself if he’s somehow more than one person. Many of us know how consuming the craft of writing can be. Yet this man has produced enough works to fill a small library, and he’s excelled in careers in the military, academia, editing and publishing. Somehow he finds time to tour on his motorcycle and visit events like this.

He earned his way into the US Naval Academy and served his country sailing three oceans and two seas, then spent ground time in the Pentagon, Saudi Arabia and Bah-rain. At the same time, he managed to earn a masters degree and set off writing novels.

But why David Poyer, here today? Well, he’s published nearly 50 books. Yet their subject matter spans Navy stories to underwater adventures, historical thrillers to comic novels, Civil War sea tales, oral history, non-fiction. But tucked within all that is a series of novels that came to my attention about 15 years ago. The Hemlock County books—they seemed to boil right out of their place, the place of David’s youth in the hills of Pennsylvania. I found something visceral and true in those novels, vibrant as the landscape, yet “dark and gritty as a gravel road,” as the Pittsburgh Trib-Review said—this while the writing was so smooth your eyes slid along the pages as if they were coated with the black crude of the Bradford oil-field David Poyer knew and rendered so well. They were books steeped in place, my place. And I liked that.

But that’s still not why he’s here today. David Poyer is here today because of something he said to me those years ago, something that burned in my craw, though I couldn’t let it go. I was new to fiction writing. My own work, too, seemed to be speaking from its place. At the time, I was going about rural northern Pennsylvania conducting book discussions for the PA Humanities Council. I’d just been contracted to do a series on PA writers, and I wanted to include something by this guy whose work was so rich, yet—strangely—so little known, even in its home.

See, I was getting tired of hearing from people in my reading groups who wanted something other than the same-old, same-old the publishers kept giving them. I knew books like David’s that could bridge that divide. I’d sought them all my life, collected them, even though I didn’t know what to call that part of my bookshelves. And even though I found David’s books out of print, I determined to track him down. Maybe he had enough copies in a closet for my sessions. Maybe he had advice for a writer who saw a cornucopia of subject matter in his own backyard but couldn’t understand why no one defined a distinct body of work by the books that took that subject matter on.

I was able to reach David Poyer. I found him approachable and pleasant. He told me things about our craft I’ll never forget. And then he gave me the bad news. There were no copies of As the Wolf Loves Winter to be had. It might never be in print again. He said that though his Hemlock county novels were his labor of love, his literary high notes, he’d had to return to his naval books, which sold better. And then he said this: “PJ, I’ve found that New York doesn’t want to hear from the hinterlands.”

This man, who knew the ropes of the publishing business inside and out, who had some serious creds, a lot of energy, and was one smart fellow. He was turned away.

It was that day that I said, “we gotta do somethin’ about this.” And so in a way, we’re actually here because of this man. Please welcome David Poyer.