Have you ever started a book and just a few sentences in took a deep breath and settled in because you knew you’d be there for a while? That’s exactly what happened to me with Julia Keller’s debut mystery featuring Bell Elkins, a West Virginia prosecutor. There are now four books in the series, including that debut book, A Killing in the Hills, followed by Bitter River, Summer of the Dead and Last Ragged Breath, published in August.
Bell Elkins is the prosecuting attorney in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. She’s feisty, stubborn, and totally believable. You don’t always like her; you don’t always agree with her decisions, but you care about her… a lot. The stories are complicated and incredibly well written. But the sense of place, oh my, the sense of place is remarkable. You see the poverty and anger and resignation combined with the beauty of West Virginia. Keller knows this place and somehow gets it all down on the page. She’s not new at this – she was the culture critic for the Chicago Tribune and won the Pulitzer Prize while she was there. But I for one am happy that she’s turned to writing fiction. The books are not always easy – bad things happen and bad people exist. But Bell Elkins gives Acker’s Gap just a whisper of hope that things will get better. And Julia Keller gives her readers outstanding books.
What made you want to become a writer? Not only of mysteries, but non- fiction too?
The first time I walked into a public library – I was about five, if memory serves – I felt a sort of funny whooshing feeling in my stomach, like riding a roller coaster and having the flu, both at the same time. I was dizzy, and my palms were sweaty. Just the sight of all those books, rising higher and higher on shelf after shelf, beckoning me, left me woozy and besotted. (I’m a little lightheaded right now, just from the recollection!) From that moment on, I was hooked. Hooked on reading and, shortly thereafter, hooked on writing. I started writing my own books when I was in fourth grade. I wrote a sci-fi novel called "Trapped in a Glacier," and a mystery series with titles like, "The Clue of the Card Tip" and "The Clue of the Caller's Whistle." (I believe the Nancy Drew influence on these titles is fairly apparent.) As long as I can remember, I've been in love with language; certain words give me that fizzy feeling all over again. Words like "luminous" and "capacious" and "restitution" and "trajectory" and "preponderance" still make me shiver and swoon. So I write because I love words. I love the sound of sentences, whether they're written on a page or spoken aloud. I love stories – telling them as well as listening to them. To this day, a stroll through a library gives me heart palpitations (another great word – "palpitations"!) and the sight of a stack of blank paper sends me into flights of ecstasy.
You worked at the Chicago Tribune for years and won a Pulitzer while you were there. Were you there in the "good old days"? Tell me what that was like and for what did you win the Pulitzer?
The Pulitzer Prize was awarded to my three-part series about the small town of Utica, Ill., that had been decimated by a tornado. I wanted to explore how each of the victims of that terrifying storm had come to be where they were at the crucial moment. So much randomness is involved in our fates. How, I wondered, do we come to terms with that tragic capriciousness? The victims had done precisely what you are supposed to do, when a tornado threatens; they went to the oldest, sturdiest building in town and they went into the cellar, the lowest point. And then the building collapsed. I interviewed hundreds of survivors, over a four-month period, and then I tried to describe the storm and its aftermath.
I worked for the Tribune for a dozen years, mainly as the paper's chief book critic. (The Utica series was reported and written mainly on my own time.) It was a glorious time to be at the Tribune. Certainly things have changed a great deal in the newspaper business. I resigned in 2012 – not because I was disenchanted with journalism, but because I wanted to write novels. And I knew I couldn't do a good job at both. I had to choose. I chose fiction.
You now live in Chicago and Ohio and yet your books are set in West Virginia. What drew you to this setting?
I was born and raised in Huntington, West Virginia. I've long maintained that West Virginia is the most unique state in the union. Many states are beautiful, and many states have grievous social and economic problems. But only West Virginia has both – that stunning natural beauty, and those desperate problems that bedevil its people. That juxtaposition – beauty and sorrow – creates a place where stories matter inordinately, and live in the very air.
You've written four books in this series, Killing in the Hills (winner of the Barry Award for best debut novel), Bitter River, Summer of the Dead and now Last Ragged Breath, all featuring county prosecutor Bell Elkins. Bell is feisty with a chip on her shoulder. Tell us about her and why she came back to West Virginia.
She wants to do right by her people. She knows it sounds corny, but she doesn't care – she wants to do what she can for a state that has often been ill-served by its public officials. Bell has a law degree now, and she wants to put that to good use as a prosecutor. The prescription drug abuse epidemic is tearing Appalachia apart – in real life, as well as in my novels – and Bell wants to fight back. As you say, she has a chip on her shoulder, and she has an anger management problem – but sometimes, anger is fuel.
I find the relationship between Bell and her sister an interesting, strained one and one that provides an intriguing backstory. Would you elaborate?
Shirley, Bell's older sister, served a long prison sentence for killing their father, an abusive parent and generally wretched human being. Now released from prison, Shirley comes back to Acker's Gap (this occurs in Bitter River, second book in the series) and must start her relationship with Bell all over again. I have two sisters myself, and the older I get, the more I realize how crucial they are to my own sense of myself. They are the witnesses to our shared past. I can't imagine life without them. I wanted to create a sister duo that would reflect this bond, this unbreakable connection. I've read a lot of books about brothers, but not enough about sisters and that very special link.
Your depiction of Acker's Gap and the level of poverty in the area is heartbreaking. How do you balance depicting this and still leave the reader with a glimmer of hope? Mostly...
Oh, you've put your finger on the central dilemma I face with each book! I want the books to be authentic representations of the terrible, grinding pressure of poverty on human souls – but I also don't want readers to go kill themselves in despair after reading the novels. There IS hope, but it is a hope that must be earned, worked at, struggled for. I think that's the overall message of Bell and her mission: Yes, the light exists, but you have to keep your head up and your eyes open in order to see it.
In the Acknowledgements of Last Ragged Breath, you say that Homer Hickman's Rocket Boys and the 1999 film October Sky, based on the book are national treasurers. Why?
History is so important in a place like West Virginia. The people live with a sense of history inside them; the events, both dark and light, settle in your bones and influence every day of your life. I loved Homer Hickam's inspirational memoir because it recognized the way history infiltrates a young West Virginian, and can be both a positive and negative force. Hickam left the small coal-mining town in which he was born and became a NASA engineer – but he never lost his love for his home state.
In my own childhood, the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood – a real-life event – was frightening to read about, and it haunted me and my childhood friends for many years. The idea that you can be sitting in your house on a Saturday morning when, out of the blue, millions of gallons of nasty black water – waste material from coal mines – can come hurtling down on your head, sweeping away homes and cars and lives, is terrifying. But it happened. And it's a central event in Last Ragged Breath.
Midst the tension of the story in Last Ragged Breath, you've dropped these almost poetic jewels. For instance, in describing turkey vultures overhead, Bell observes "The sound was like the sexy rustle of silk or the preliminary shifting of a heavy velvet theater curtain just before the show commences..." Or one character says "To walk each day on ground that had given rise to you: that was a privilege. Not a curse." They give you breathing space. Do you plan these for a reason or do they just appear?
I love this question, because I used to argue with a writer friend of mine about his habit of going back to a story and "putting in" a bunch of poetic metaphors. No, no, no – that's what I'd say to him, with a groan. Metaphors and analogies should never be "tacked on" to an existing story. They should rise organically from the story you're writing. My rule is: any imagery that you have to sweat over should be left out. Period. If it's not right there, on the tip of your tongue (or the tip of your pen), then dump it. Don't go back and "tart up" the story with some pretty language. The lines you mention from Last Ragged Breath all came during the first draft. Yes, I re-write; every writer does. But the re-writing is NOT to add flowery imagery. It's to assure coherence and to get rid of repetition. I can generally always tell when a writer has gone back and crammed in a bunch of metaphors.
Bell's description of the sound of turkey vultures flying overhead comes from a real moment I experienced, when I was standing in the woods one day and, in the midst of absolute silence, I heard those wing-flaps overhead. A cauldron of vultures was on its way somewhere – to carrion, no doubt. I was transfixed. And when I was writing about Bell's thoughts at that moment in the book, the sound and the image arose, unbidden, from the crucible of my imagination. It wasn't grafted on or trumped up. It was there, waiting patiently inside my imagination for the moment when it found its perfect home.
Are you writing another book in the series now? If so, would you tell us something about it?
I am indeed. It is tentatively titled Sorrow Road, and it involves a series of mysterious deaths at an Alzheimers care facility near Acker's Gap. I wanted to explore the issue of memory – how it can be a comfort as well as a crippling force. Life is a journey, and as we move along that road, it can sometimes seem to be all about loss – but of course it is not just that. It's also about the wisdom gained in the face of these inevitable losses. We are stronger because of the ordeals we endure.
Let's talk process... When and where do you write? Computer, pen and ink? Do you outline?
I love writing by hand, but all those years in journalism (and all those deadlines!) required me to become accustomed to writing on a computer. I still miss paper and pen. I've thought of going back, as an experiment, and writing a novel by hand, just as a carpenter might eschew power tools and build his next house with just hammer and handsaw. Perhaps I will.
No, I don't outline. I like to let the story lead me, rather than me leading the story. I'm often surprised by plot developments that I didn't see coming – but once they do, they seem totally inevitable.
Describe the place you write.
After many years of writing wherever I could find space and time – kitchen table, armchair, unmade bed, upended pickle bucket – I finally treated myself to a desk and a chair, and I gave myself the gift of time. Leaving journalism was all about that gift. There is an Irish anecdote I've long loved: When you come to a high wall that you're afraid to climb, the trick is to throw your cap over the wall – forcing yourself to climb it. That's what I did when I left the Tribune to write fiction full-time: I tossed my cap over the wall.
My desk is in a small room in my basement. I'm surrounded by full-to-the-brim bookcases on three sides. In effect, I'm hemmed in by words. I work in a thicket of sentences. And it's wonderful.
What are you reading right now? Your favorite authors/books?
I'm like Sheriff Nick Fogelsong in my series: Unless I have a book in my hand, I feel naked. I always have at least four or five books going at once. I just finished H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald's beautiful memoir about training a hawk as a sort of grief therapy after her father's sudden death, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, the Man Booker Prize-winning novel about prisoners in a Japanese work camp in World War II and the atrocious conditions therein. It's lyrical and harrowing, an immense achievement.
I'm halfway through Aurora, the new novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, and it is exquisite; to call him a science-fiction author is ludicrously inadequate. Yes, he writes about the future, but it's so much more than that. I treated myself to some re-reading this summer and went back to Virginia Woolf's Night and Day, one of her earliest novels. Lovely stuff! Woolf was much wittier than she's given credit for. The image of this depressed, brooding writer lugging around all these heavy, serious books is a myth. Her prose is very light, very playful. The big ideas are all under the surface.
Favorite writers? Woolf, certainly; I wrote my doctoral dissertation on her, and can't imagine a world without To the Lighthouse. Also, Iris Murdoch, John Banville, Joyce Carol Oates, Willa Cather, Margaret Atwood. Among mystery and thriller writers, I love Ruth Rendell, Henning Mankell, Alan Furst, John LeCarre (but of course!), Denise Mina, Val McDermid and Louise Welch.
Tell us something about yourself that your readers don't know.
Is this where I'm supposed to confess to some heinous crime for which I was never caught or punished? Alas, as an adult, I'm a notorious rule-follower and goody-two-shoes. I did shoplift once, when I was in second grade; I swiped some Bazooka bubble gum from our local grocery store. I remember plotting my theft, then doing it, and then bragging about it to my sisters, who promptly ratted me out to my mother. She forced me to go back to the store and confess to the clerk. A lesson was learned that day: If you sin, for heaven's sake keep it to yourself.
And so I shall.
Thank you, again, Lynn and Julia.
Julia Keller's website is www.juliakeller.net
Last Ragged Breath by Julia Keller. St. Martin's Press. 2015. ISBN 9781250044747 (hardcover), 384p.