Remembering Drema Hall Berkheimer

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About Drema and The Writer’s Garret

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The Writer’s Garret mourns the passing of a writer dear to the heart of our community: Drema Hall Berkheimer. A beloved long-time member of our Community and Membership Program (CAMP) and our Stone Soup Peer Critique Groups, Drema arrived at the Garret an unpublished writer with one wish: to put down in writing the life stories she wished to pass on to her grandchildren. From this wish, Drema’s writing flourished and ultimately became her debut memoir: Running on Red Dog Road and Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood.

For many years, Drema met with fellow CAMP writers Julianne McCullagh, Robin Underdahl, and Bill Marvel in her home on each month for their intimate writing group, Salon Quatre. As Drema progressed through Salon Quatre meetings and her CAMP studies, she wove intricate stories from her childhood–the daughter of a coal miner who was killed in a mining accident, a Rosie the Riveter mother, and devout Pentecostal grandparents. Wielding tales of the gypsies, faith healers, hobos, moonshiners, and snake handlers that crossed her childhood in a West Virginia coal camp in the 1940s, chapters from her memoir won First Place Nonfiction and First Honorable Mention Nonfiction in the 2010 WV Writers Competition and were published in award-winning magazine WV South. In April 2016, Running on Red Dog Road was published by Zondervan, a Harper Collins company.

Drema left several works unfinished, and while we grieve those works that could not reach completion, we are forever grateful that she shared her light with our CAMP family and chose The Writer’s Garret as the place to let her story blossom. Thank you, Drema. You will be missed.

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A Word from Salon Quatre

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I knew Drema for less than ten years; it wasn’t enough. She contributed wisdom to my life, in her judgment of character, in how to live. She was not quick to speak, but then she didn’t have to retract what she said. She was beautiful, and I’ll never forget her.

Drema seemed like a “natural” writer, who fell automatically into the perfect voice for her memoir. Actually, she had the work ethic we all want, not ready to share until the words were perfect. It was difficult to critique her work because it was carefully crafted and subtly structured. Her words were so well chosen they often did double or triple duty. She did have enormous talent, and it wasn’t raw.

She was reticent about critiquing, but in a critique group I would ask her for her comments. I can’t remember her ever being off point.

Her sense of humor was quirky and surprising. Her cat was a string artist, and she captured his works on her phone before he could destroy them.

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— Robin Underdahl

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Drema Berkheimer is an important voice in American literature. She wrote in a way that let us walk beside her and dwell in her thoughts through the colorful landscape of her memory. Drema wrote in a natural voice, as if there was no artifice, but she was meticulous in her craft. To paraphrase Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias: it takes a lot of work to look this natural.

She was a perfectionist. Every comma, every phrase, every word chosen with the precision of clock-maker or a jeweler. She delighted us in Salon Quatre, our very small and intimate writers’ group, when she read in her beautiful West Virginia voice, letting us in on all the nuance, all the mischief and sarcasm of the sassy little blonde imp who narrated her work.

Her memoir, Running on a Red Dog Road is an American treasure. Echoes of Mark Twain resonate in Drema’s tales of life in West Virginia in the care of loving and wise grandparents while her widowed mother helps to save the world as a Rosie the Riveter. This family is an icon of what we should wish to be. Drema’s work is truly a needed voice in our world.

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— Julianne McCullagh

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Losing a writer just after she discovers she is a writer, just after her first–and only–book comes out and others also begin to discover that she was a writer and one they’d like to read a whole lot more, seems to me doubly sad: the loss of a close friend and the loss of all she might have written.

After Zondervan/Harper Collins snapped up and published Drema Hall Berkheimer’s collection of stories about growing up in West Virginia coal country, Running on Red Dog Road, there were stories left over. Every month or so, two or three of us would sit around Drema’s dining room table and talk about what we’d been writing and reading. We must have been the smallest salon in the world. And Drema would read from one of the stories that hadn’t made it into her first book but surely would in her next, when she got around to finishing it. They were, like the stories in Red Dog Road, funny and sly and every now and then touched by darkness. Those who loved her first book would surely have loved her second. And her third. (She had started a book about her cat, a talented Manx who left bits of yarn in complicated, artistic patterns on the floor where Drema and her husband Terry would find them in the morning.)

But even as her book began to gain readership, as the invitations to come speak or read, started to roll in, her health started to ebb. It was almost an inverse proportion, until she was so weak she could go nowhere except back to Florida to be with her children and grandchildren and to die.

For the two or three of us who sat around her dining room table on long afternoons talking books and writing, listening to her raucous laughter and her wisdom, the pain is almost crippling. Regal and down-to earth – the qualities that also marked her stories – there could be no one else like her. For her readers it’s sad there will be no more stories of her grandfather, a coal miner during the week, a Pentecostal preacher on Sundays; her card-playing companion and best friend Cissy; her glamorous Rosy-the Riveter mother; the snake-handlers and moonshiners and mountain folk she wrote about with such humor yet such respect.

I don’t know where unwritten stories go when a writer dies. I hope they follow her into the heaven her grandfather preached Sundays in that little mountain church. They will make it ever so richer a place.

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— Bill Marvel

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Special thanks to Joe Milazzo, Robin Underdahl, Julianne McCullagh, and Bill Marvel for their input.


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