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Nicktown native publishes first book

Nicktown native Gerry Stanek, now of Greensboro, North Carolina, recently published his first book “They Came Here Looking for Light: The Plattsville Stories” a fictional work inspired by the culture of coal mining families and towns in Cambria County.

Published by Bitum-inous Press, the collection features seventeen short stories and three poems, all connected to a fictional town called Plattsville and set in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania. Stanek’s mother, Vicky, and brothers Lee and Jack live in northern Cambria County while his sister Diane Hake lives in Dallastown and Judy Ickes lives in Altoona.

The book is an examination of lives affected by and dependent upon the coal mines with the aim, Stanek said, “to present an authentic look at a lifestyle and culture that has largely disappeared — European immigrants and their children, and the ubiquitous coal that shades and shapes every life, even for those who don’t work underground. I’ve been fascinated with this place and how it shaped me for decades, and I felt like the best way to understand my forebearers was to imagine their lives and problems

through fiction.”

The book reflects reality in that it is both affectionate and brutal, which Stanek said is the reality of a place where work is dangerous and life is difficult.

Author Charles Baxter calls the book “both tough and tender in equal measure,” and says the stories are “beautifully honorable.”

Stanek is a 1980 graduate of Northern Cambria High School. In the early 1980s, he was a radio disc jockey at several Altoona radio stations and at WNCC in Barnesboro.

Stanek spent more than a decade as a touring musician and lived on the East Coast. He later drove a truck for Pepsico in Altoona, until 2011.

One piece, entitled “Grandpa Steven,” Stanek “scribbled in a journal in 1997, and I had to include it — it fit the theme of the collection, and it’s the only piece that wasn’t put to the grindstone; it still looks a lot like it did 20 years ago. I started two of the stories sometime in 2014, but I made a firm decision to write this book in 2016.”

That year he started at Warren Wilson College for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.

“At that point, my vision was very clear, and I knew exactly what I wanted to write, but it was just a concept. So the work really started in the summer of ’16. It was a long process of imagining and inventing people and situations, followed by a lot of revision. I just sort of went over stories countless times, to really fine tune the structure and language. It was a lot of work, but it never felt like work, if that makes sense — it was just something I had to do.”

He published his first of many feature articles for Johnstown Magazine in 2006. He lives in Greensboro with his three daughters Mikayla, 13, Macey, 11, and Alice, 8, and teaches writing at North Carolina A&T State University.

He received his undergraduate degree online in English/Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University, while a “stay-at-home dad” to his three daughters.

“I write all the time, because I find solace in the process,” he said. His second, also set in Plattsville, is underway. “… One of my teachers talked a lot about place and how you build that as a writer. That idea is an obsession for me, the place where I come from. It’s still on maps, but it’s not really there anymore, not the way it was. That’s a place I have to pursue, a place that deserves close attention. It’s a complex place, and I’d like to understand it better.”

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

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