Norman Maclean (American Author Series), edited by Ron McFarland and Hugh Nichols

norman macleanI believe Norman Maclean is the finest writer I know of. This book helped me to recall & develop that idea. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and highly recommended, but with one qualification: I advice any reader to start with Maclean’s masterpieces, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories and Young Men and Fire. This collection makes sense with those works as background, and most appeals to readers whose appreciation has been developed by enjoying them.

Norman Maclean includes 10 short pieces by Maclean himself (essays, and texts of talks given), two “interviews” (one really a profile piece), and 7 critical essays about his work. Maclean is as good as ever. As I said when I read The Norman Maclean Reader, “Retrievers Good and Bad” is still a delight. I liked his discussions of his own work, which a person might find slightly self-congratulatory if we weren’t talking about A River Runs Through It, a story entirely deserving of all praise. His comments about college students – how they seem to want to be coddled, but really need their professors to be tough with them – sound absolutely contemporary today. His favorite phrases begin to echo in refrain as I read (& sometimes reread) his collected works; but they do not lessen by repetition. As driven home in some of the writings about his writing, Maclean’s art was meticulous on every level, including (as he points out himself) in the rhythms of his language. “Teaching and Storytelling” is a real gem; I loved the extended metaphor coming from his youth, “playing games with garbage cans, although in the morning they have to be fished out of the creek.”

And then I got to the section of “essays in appreciation and criticism,” and confess I sighed a moment, because Maclean’s voice would now be silent and others would speak; but the first essay was by Wallace Stegner, and if someone has to follow Maclean it should be Stegner. Actually, that is to skip over Pete Dexter’s preceding essay, “The Old Man and the River,” which is the one I mentioned, listed under interviews but really more of a personal profile piece, and is lovely: it captures the feeling of admiration that I feel in a tone of some humor, and evokes Maclean perhaps more even than his own voice does. This is Maclean the man, which is often a little less visible when Maclean the writer is present, even though so much of his writing is autobiographical.

Some of the critical essays approach from the decidedly academic side, and these were sometimes a little dry and effortful reading, but they also enlightened me and expanded my appreciation. Both of these points are true, for example, of Harold P. Simonson’s essay “Norman Maclean’s Big Two-Hearted River”, which examines A River Runs Through It in theological terms – a very rational lens, and one invited by Maclean, but not one I was well-prepared for, so I had a lot to learn.

It occurred to me on this reading of Maclean that one thing that distinguishes him from other extraordinary writers like Hemingway is that he refuses to be cynical. He can be humorous, but not cynical; he retains a sense of wonder and awe that Hemingway, for example, did not always manage to retain. (Contrast the narrator of A River Runs Through It with Jake’s answer to Lady Brett Ashley, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”) I have thought before, in other contexts, that we often confuse an absence of cynicism with a lack of sophistication, but that this is sometimes a mistake. There is much made throughout this lovely collection of the beautiful, the sublime, and of grace. Maclean writes of a “slowness of movement that turned out not to be slowness but the shortest distance between two points, which is one definition of grace.” For me, another definition will be his continuing sense of wonder.

Norman Maclean is a new favorite, and will certainly be one of the best of this year. Again, please take my recommendation with the understanding that you should read his two masterpieces first, before continuing to appreciate him here.

Rating: 10 timeless raindrops.

Teaser Tuesdays: Norman Maclean, edited by Ron McFarland and Hugh Nichols

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Returning to Norman Maclean has been an epiphany, all over again: his writing may well be perfect. I’m not sure I’ve read anyone better.

norman maclean

This edition in the “American Author Series” includes essays by Maclean (some developed from talks he gave), two interviews with him, and essays in appreciation and criticism of his work. There are no sizable excerpts from A River Runs Through It or its accompanying stories, because as the editors rightfully point out, we already have access to those; their goal here (among others) is to bring us Maclean works that are less accessible.

Nevertheless, I had read some of these pieces before – I could not say where – but nevertheless they are so good I am boggled every time I read them.

Today’s teaser comes from “Retrievers Good and Bad”, which is among other things a catalog of duck dogs in Maclean’s family.

The Missouri is one of the main flyways for ducks in America, and when the autumn storms begin in the north, the ducks come whistling out of Canada, hit the Missouri River, follow it to the Mississippi and coast the rest of the way to Louisiana. When they go around those big bends on the upper Missouri, the air is left hurt and shaking, and if you are a duck hunter, the place to be is behind a rock on the cliffside of the bends, because the ducks’ speed on the turns almost drives them into the cliffs and into your bun barrel. That is just where my father and I were.

Of course “the air left hurt and shaking” is an extraordinary phrase, but there is a rhythm to the whole, and an awareness of scope and scale; and then it finishes with family and immediacy. To me, this simple couple of sentences is a fine example of what Maclean can do with words.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Paul R. Ehrlich

Following Thursday’s review of The Annihilation of Nature, here’s Paul Ehrlich: Stories of Extinction.

Paul R. Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies and the president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University. Among his more than 40 books are The Population Bomb and Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. He is one of three authors of The Annihilation of Nature, along with Gerardo Ceballos, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a professor at the Institute of Ecology at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and Anne H. Ehrlich, a senior research scientist emeritus at Stanford University. Anne Ehrlich is the coauthor of Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species and The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment. Ceballos is the author of Mammals of Mexico and Diversity of Mexican Fauna.

What is meant in your subtitle by the phrase “human extinction”?

There’s not the slightest question in anybody’s mind of why we’re facing an extinction crisis, both of populations and of species, and that’s human activities. It’s not extinction of humans, it’s humans forcing birds and mammals to extinction.

How does the three-author cooperative process work?

First of all, Gerardo’s first language is Spanish, mine is bad English and Anne’s is excellent English. Usually Gerardo, or I, or Anne will sketch out a chapter, depending on where our expertise lies. I will edit it the first time around and ask Gerardo to explain some things–his English is excellent, by the way; no one has any trouble understanding him or understanding what he writes–but it’s not colloquial enough in places. Then Anne goes through and replaces all my split infinitives and stuff like that. It’s really an ongoing process. Gerardo is more in charge of the photographs in this particular book–he’s a wonderful photographer on his own, he’s published many books of photographs. We all have students and others who’ve helped us. None of us publishes anything in areas that are even slightly controversial without having a lot of colleagues go over it, and of course we had that done for this book, too.

Anne Ehrlich

Anne Ehrlich

The cooperative writing process is three equal parts. The effort is equal, but we all have somewhat different talents and do somewhat different things.

Who is your target audience for this book?

Our target audience is intelligent people who read books. It’s not highly technical, but it’s not dumbed down in any way. We hope to make it both an attractive book and one that’s good reading. The whole idea is to introduce people to what we’re losing. The average person on Wall Street has never seen a natural ecosystem or, say, the animals on the plains of Africa, and can’t really picture what’s going on. We hope to get people to picture what we’re losing and get them to do something about it.

What does “climate disruption” mean, and why use that phrase rather than the more familiar “climate change”?

Gerardo Ceballos

Gerardo Ceballos

We adopted that phrase from the one used by Obama’s science adviser John Holdren, who’s a close friend of ours. He pointed out that it isn’t just warming–that we are changing the entire climate. Things like the frequency of hideous storms are going to increase, and not every place may get warmer: some places may get cooler. “Disruption” is more accurate than “global warming,” and even “climate change” doesn’t carry the implication of speed. We know the climate has always changed, and most people, certainly the people who will read this book, would know that there were ice ages and things like that. So one of the big issues that’s highlighted by using “climate disruption” is that the change is rapid. Getting older does not disrupt your life, but if you get married or divorced, that’s disruptive. That’s the main reason for using “disruption.”

Presumably many endangered species of birds and mammals didn’t fit into this book. How did you choose which species to discuss?

We chose the ones, first of all, that we know best. One of the problems, covered by a paper I was just involved in that got a lot of publicity, is trying to figure out whether or not we can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we’re experiencing a mass extinction. One issue is that there are not enough biologists to track all the species we think may be endangered or, in fact, gone. For this book we wanted a good variety of birds and mammals–the organisms most people relate to and certainly the ones we know most about in these terms. For instance, I’ve spent a lot of my life working with butterflies, but there are very few butterfly populations where we know enough about what’s happening to say anything statistical about the rate of extinction. But birds and mammals we know. We know which ones we know interesting stories about, and there are a wide variety of them in a wide variety of circumstances. So this isn’t an attempt to analyze what’s happening to all birds and mammals, but rather to take a bunch of interesting examples and tie them into why it really counts.

What about animal species beyond birds and mammals, and extending into plants–what is the scope of mass extinction relative to the story told in your book?

The scope of the mass extinction is vast, but population extinctions are the absolutely critical thing. There are a whole series of reasons not to wipe out the only other living things we know about in the universe: one, of course, is just that they’re interesting, fascinating and beautiful, but many people would consider it more important that they’re working parts of our life-support systems. The importance of population extinctions is easily illustrated. If we could somehow miraculously preserve one population of every species on the planet, just one, permanently, we would lose no species diversity–but we’d all be dead in a few weeks, because we utterly depend on having lots of populations to provide us with what are called ecosystem or natural services. For example, honeybees are involved in producing something like $18 billion of agricultural produce in the United States–critical to giving us a much more varied and nutritious diet. If they all died out, we’d be in deep trouble, even though they could persist in, say, Italy and Africa and we would not have lost a species, but we would have lost a vast number of populations. And population extinctions necessarily go on at a much higher rate than species extinctions, because no species goes extinct until every one of its populations has been driven to extinction.

The stories that we tell in this book make up maybe 5% of the relatively well-known stories of species extinctions. But there are many more: for instance, we didn’t look at most of the so-called threatened species, the ones that the International Union of Conservation of Nature considers to be in great danger but they’re not sure exactly how much. In other words, we’ve taken the ones where we know a lot about the endangerment, we know a lot about the distribution, and where they have really interesting stories. If you look at mouse lemurs in Madagascar, we’ve discovered that there are many more different ones than people thought 25 years ago. I think it went from something like two species to 12. That also means that it added substantial endangerment. If there were only two species, the chances of losing either one were relatively small. When we discover there are really 12, all of a sudden there’s more endangerment. But the danger there is the same as the danger everywhere–destruction of habitat is the main thing–so it wouldn’t be interesting to tell the stories of 12 mouse lemurs. We felt it was better to find the most interesting stories to tell.

This interview originally ran on September 23, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Author photos: Gerardo Ceballos courtesy Instituto de Ecología, UNAM; Anne Ehrlich by Anne Hammersky; Paul Ehrlich courtesy of the author.

author interview: John Norris

John Norris: Taking Pleasure in the Right Subject

John Norris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. He has a graduate degree in public administration and has served in senior roles in government, international institutions and nonprofits, including with the United Nations, the State Department and the International Crisis Group. Norris has written for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy and many other publications. He is the author of The Disaster Gypsies, a memoir of his work in the field of emergency relief, and Collision Course: NATO, Russia and Kosovo. His new book is Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism.

photo: Rebecca Hale

photo: Rebecca Hale

When did you first learn about Mary McGrory, and when did you know you would write a book about her?

I knew Mary personally a little bit. I was working in the State Department [during the Clinton administration] and she would call to pick my brains some. I also, like so many others, got dragooned into volunteering at St. Ann’s [Infant and Maternity Home] and helping out with the Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day parties. I got invited to a couple of social gatherings at her house, so I got to experience both her organizing touch and her parties and bad cooking. At one party, Roger Mudd and I were in charge of fixing drinks for people. I was pretty young and fairly new to Washington, so the idea of serving cocktails with a legendary CBS anchorman was something. But at one point we looked and the ginger ale had gone quite bad. There was kind of a mossy substance growing on top of it. And Roger Mudd turned to me and said, you have to tell Mary. And I said, I’m not going to tell Mary! You tell Mary! So we argued like 5th graders about it… and then we decided we would just tell everybody there was no ginger ale.

But as I got to know Mary, I appreciated that there was a really good story there. It was kind of a Horatio Alger story, of somebody who worked her way up from not an awful lot to be very successful in what she did, but also that she had a fabulous, unique flair. After she had died, I started thinking about doing the book and poked around; it was probably about five years ago that I really began in earnest. It was much harder than I thought it would be to write, in some ways.

How long did that process take, from conception to a finished manuscript?

About five years. I’ve got three little kids–the oldest is seven and the youngest is a year old–so I was busy with them. I had just finished working in Nepal with my wife. And this was kind of a busman’s holiday, because I’ve got a full-time job that doesn’t deal with Mary McGrory or journalism particularly, as an international affairs expert. So there were a lot of competing challenges to juggle at the same time. I just chewed away on it, and by the time I’d sorted out a publisher, I had a finished book.

What were the research and writing phases like, and how did they play together?

You know, I imagine this is an experience that a lot of people have when they take on a biography or a historical project. At first, I was terrified that I wouldn’t have enough material, that it would seem thin. And then suddenly I woke up one day and said, I’ve got way too many words, I’ve got way too much, how do I condense all this down and make sense of it?

It was very helpful that Mary donated her papers to the Library of Congress. There are 164 boxes of her material there: notebooks, articles, clippings and correspondence. Her family was quite good about sharing some other things they hadn’t given to the library. I’d love to be one of those writers who, in a fit of passion, starts at sundown and hands the manuscript over as the sun comes up. But I nibbled away, stringing together passages, and the research and writing mixed together.

One of the really interesting things for me, having never written a biography, was being able to find data points, putting together three or four different things and then suddenly finding that there was a really interesting story there once you lined up all the dates and characters. My research style was to create a monstrously large chronology. I took everything in chronological order–interesting stuff from the columns, interesting stuff from interviews–and it started to make much more sense for me. For example, there had been a Time magazine profile on her not long after the Army-McCarthy hearings, and she got a ton of correspondence. But it was only after I had lined up some dates that I realized she had gotten four book offers from major publishers on the same day. She had never mentioned this to anybody, and nobody would have ever remarked or known it, without actually looking at her correspondence in a chronological fashion and jotting it down. Finding those kind of hidden nuggets was maybe the most rewarding part.

You seamlessly tie in the narrative of United States political history with the narrative of Mary’s life.

As I was writing, I realized at some point that there were three books that I was trying to do at the same time. One was a history of Mary as a person, which obviously was the core that I really needed to get right. Second was a big swath of contemporary American history that I needed to weave in. And then the third strand was, what does this say about journalism? What does it say about women in journalism, and how that’s evolved, and in some cases how it’s not evolved a whole lot?

What part of Mary’s story do you most identify with?

It would be easy to say that she wrote beautifully but it didn’t come easy to her, she fretted and noodled and kept revising and rewriting and redoing her work. The other lesson that she really carried for me was, there weren’t a lot of people who had faith in Mary. But she put her head down and kept at it. Even though she did have a big breakthrough with Army-McCarthy, she really had been toiling in near obscurity, wanting to cover politics for a long time by that point, and being politely but firmly being told no by a lot of people. But she kept at it, and she got a couple of stories, and when she had her chance, she really took it. I think that the persistence side of the story is one that is encouraging for any writer.

At the start of the book, it feels like you take an impartial outsider’s perspective, but by the end, it feels more intimately connected to Mary’s story. Was this intentional?

That’s an interesting question. I think that part of that might be because I knew her later in life, and I got to talk to her contemporaries and people who had been around her. Interviewing them was an advantage for the later material. Writing about her childhood and those early parts, that probably always feels more removed in some ways. But I think it’s also that you gain steam as you begin to explore a person and get to know them.

What in your background as a writer and as a political actor prepared you to tell this story well?

A couple different things. I’ve got three sisters, a strong-willed mother, a feisty wife and two very independent-minded young daughters, so that side of things certainly prepared me well. I’ve always been a bit of a political junkie. I write politics, I think it’s interesting, and I understand people who think it’s interesting, even when it’s a guilty pleasure, whether that’s Donald Trump or anything else. There are times when it is a noble calling, and then there are other times when it’s like watching an entertaining car crash. I think that ability to talk about politics, and understand people who think and write about politics, served me well both in trying to decode Mary and in interacting with her fellow reporters and other people I interviewed as part of the research.

Getting to talk with the people in Mary’s life was a great pleasure, just sitting down and talking to people and puzzling it through. You know, they say about fiction, and I think it’s equally true of nonfiction, that you want to pick characters that you’re not going to get bored with or tired of or angry at by the end of a project, and I never did with this one. I still have a bunch of questions I would love to ask her if I had a chance. It’s been a great ride.

This interview originally ran on September 22, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature by Margaret Eby

A selective survey of Southern literature and its value to the South and the world.

south toward home

In her introduction to South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature, Margaret Eby points out that “there is no popular category known as Northern literature.” The South and its literary products have been admired and maligned; it is a region and a body of work that are considered sometimes inspired and sometimes devoid of culture and intelligence. But for a Southerner, it is simply (or complexly) home. Raised in Alabama, Eby undertakes a tour of the literary sites that speak to her, acknowledging that the authors whose legacies she ponders make a less than comprehensive list.

Eby visits the well-preserved homes of Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, along with the sadly less appreciated (or appreciative) areas in which Richard Wright and Harry Crews grew up. She contemplates the complicated relationship of Harper Lee with her birthplace; John Kennedy Toole’s mysterious life story; and the recent marks left by Barry Hannah and Larry Brown in Faulkner’s hometown. In making a physical journey, Eby breathes the air of these literary greats, and takes the time to share their histories in coming to tentative conclusions about what their work contributes. She also includes a list of recommended reading. As its title (a reference to Willie Morris’s North Toward Home) suggests, this study pursues a sense of Southern identity through its literature, and along the way helps to elucidate what makes Faulkner’s challenging writing so rewarding and why Toole’s New Orleans lives and breathes. South Toward Home is a thoughtful, well-informed evocation of both South and home.

This review originally ran in the September 18, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 peacock feathers.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Dan Marshall

Following yesterday’s review of Home is Burning, here’s Dan Marshall: Self-Deprecation and Happiness.

Dan Marshall grew up in a nice home with nice parents in Salt Lake City, Utah, before attending UC Berkeley. After college, Marshall went to work at a strategic communications public relations firm in Los Angeles. At 25, he left work and returned to Salt Lake City to take care of his sick parents. While caring for them, he started writing detailed accounts about many of their weird, sad, funny adventures. Home is Burning is his first book. He is currently working on adapting it into a screenplay.

Your Facebook notes and blog posts fed into what became the book. What does the writing process look like when you have all that material to start with?

photo: Sharon Suh

photo: Sharon Suh

It was a fairly unique process. The blog was mainly shorter posts: funny conversations, short stories and a lot of lists. When I decided to write the book, I aggregated all the blog posts, and then read through them. The blog was a lot cruder than the book (if you can believe it), and was focused more on trying to make people laugh than on the sentimental moments from the story. So a lot had to change.

The blog also didn’t really have a theme other than, “S**t is bad.” So in reviewing all the material (about 900 pages worth), I had to figure out first what I was trying to say with all this writing–what theme or message I was trying to get across. I started to realize that it’s really a story about a selfish, spoiled kid finally facing something real, and thus being forced to sort of grow up. Once I realized that, it was a little easier to know what should stay from the blog and what should go. So I started trimming it down, cutting parts that didn’t push the story forward or relate to the theme, and adding a few parts that helped to fill in some of the gaps that I didn’t cover in the blog.

Overall, it was a tedious process.

Was writing this book terribly painful, or cathartic?

Certain things–like when my dad announced his desire to die, the Abby break-up, my dad’s eventual death–are always painful to relive and write about. I usually had to take a lot of walks while working on those sections to calm myself down.

Also, the voice I write in is rather dark and sad. So, getting into that morbid headspace is always painful. Whenever I was jumping into a rewrite or going through the book again, I would tell myself, “Okay, you’re going to be sad and feel like shit for a couple of months,” then start writing.

However, writing the book was also really cathartic, especially when I discovered the themes of the book. It was like, “Wow, that was horrible, but I learned a lot.” You learn more from pain than pleasure, so I think writing the book made me wiser. I’m a lot smarter than my friends with living parents.

This is going to sound sappy, but the book was also an opportunity to hang out with my dad again. I could bring him back to life and relive some happy memories. So, that aspect of it brought me a lot of joy. Then, each time I’d finish writing, I’d miss my dad even more. So, I’d fall into a bit of a depression for a few weeks. Nothing that a few burritos can’t cure, though.

Are you this amazingly self-deprecating in real life?

I start everyday by looking in the mirror and booing. Just kidding. I don’t do that.

But I do have a genuine hatred for myself that runs deep. I feel like a little self-hatred is healthy, but I probably overdo it. I’m pretty hard on myself, which is funny on the page, but sort of a drag to live with. I feel really worn down by myself all the time. Sometimes I want to yell, “Leave me alone!” at myself.

I think self-deprecating humor is a defense mechanism because I figure if I think the worst about myself, then I can’t be shocked by anything bad anyone says about me. I do need to work on being nicer to myself. Whenever I’m going on a self-deprecating tangent, my mom always says, “Stop saying so many mean and hurtful things about someone I love.” I should follow her advice.

You share an awful lot of painful personal detail here, both your own and others’. How do you decide where to draw the line? Do you draw a line? Was your family involved in those decisions?

In writing this, I made a commitment to revealing everything and being as open and honest about the experience and my life as possible. I don’t think it’d be that entertaining to read if I were holding back.

Also, I wanted people to know what it was actually like to care for a person with Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s such a horrible disease, and I think if people were aware of what actually goes into caring for someone with the illness, then more people would donate money toward trying to solve the ALS puzzle. You wouldn’t think it, but like 60% of the care you do for someone who is bedridden is bathroom stuff. So I figured I needed to address all that to give readers the full experience.

When it comes to stuff about me, nothing is off-limits. When it comes to stuff about others, I try to be a little more selective. It’s so hard to have some a**hole write about you, so if someone asks me to take something out of the book, I usually do. But I do try to push it. I often ask, “How much can I reveal about this person and still have them love me?” It varies from person to person. My brother Greg is a writer, so he’s basically okay with anything about him.

My sisters and mom, however, were a little taken aback when they first read the book. My mom’s initial reaction was, “F**k you Danny and f**k your book.” She’s since forgiven me and has been incredibly supportive of the book.

Generally, though, my family has been really good sports about this. They realize that this is a story about our dad more than anything. And they realize that I’m as hard on myself as I am them.

You relate some shocked reactions to your off-color and morbid sense of humor generally. What reactions do you anticipate to the book?

I think the book will get a mixed reaction. Some people will probably really enjoy it. And some people will absolutely hate it. I find that people over 80 tend to not get my sense of humor, so I doubt I’ll be asked to do readings at retirement communities or in Florida.

I’m prepared for all of my Mormon friends to hate me when the book comes out. In fact, I probably won’t be allowed in the state of Utah anymore. I always get a little nervous when a Mormon friend tells me they’ve pre-ordered the book. I try to be especially nice to them so we can hopefully remain friends. I actually really love Mormons now. I didn’t for a long time, but I realized through this that they’re also just trying to get through life.

But I hope people see what I was going for. I know it’s crass, and crude, and contains South Park humor, but I hope they see past all the language and realize that at the core of it, this is a story about a guy learning to love his family and learning how to grow up.

As a screenwriter, can you tell us what rating this book will receive onscreen?

It will receive an R-rating for sure.

What’s next?

I try to keep busy because I’m not good at having hobbies so I get really anxious and bored when I’m not working. I’m working on the Home Is Burning adaptation for New Line Cinema now. Miles Teller is attached to play me and Jonathan Levine is directing.

I have a few other film projects I’m working on. One is a script called F**k Me, I’m Paralyzed (inspired by a true story) about a friend helping his paralyzed friend try to get laid for the first time since his accident. We’re hoping to film in early 2016.

I’m also planning on writing another book that focuses on what life has been like after my dad passed, sort of an exploration about how to deal with moving on from loss and rebuilding yourself–trying to find happiness without the people who made you happy.

This interview originally ran on September 2, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

author interview: Julia Keller

Julia Keller: Memory and Place

Julia Keller was born and raised in Huntington, W.Va, the daughter of a college mathematics professor and a high school English teacher. As a journalist, she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for a three-part narrative series on a deadly tornado that struck a small town in Illinois; she has also taught writing at several universities. She currently divides her time between Chicago and a small town in Ohio.

Keller’s detective series starring prosecutor Bell Elkins is set in the fictional town of Acker’s Gap, W.Va. The fourth novel in the series, Last Ragged Breath (Minotaur Books, August 25, 2015), refers to a real event, the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood. Years after this tragedy, a fresh murder challenges Bell to consider the waning coal industry and burgeoning tourism investments. It’s a complex case concerning the nature of memory and revenge.

I reviewed Last Ragged Breath here.

photo: Mike Zajakowski

photo: Mike Zajakowski

You have established a successful series with a well-developed character. Your readers presumably have certain expectations from new installments. Does this make the writing process easier or harder?

Harder–but it ought to be harder, right? I mean, based on the response I get from readers, they know these characters well and they have certain expectations for them, much as our friends have expectations for us and tend to call us out when we veer away from our essential natures. People know Bell Elkins and Nick Fogelsong, and they have an idea about how they’d behave in particular situations. If Bell suddenly became meek and timid, I think I’d hear a lot of outrage from readers because that’s not who she is. Her mistakes are always going to be mistakes of commission, not omission.

Your question reminds me of an aphorism about life choices that I’ve always liked: “Be careful when you choose your rut–because you’re going to be in it for a long time!” It’s the same with creating a series: Be careful when you dream up your characters and their peccadilloes, because you’ll be living with them for a long time–if you are fortunate, that is, and if your series strikes the fancy of enough readers.

In Last Ragged Breath, Acker’s Gap is described as a “beautiful, beleaguered patch of West Virginia.” Could these novels have been set anywhere else?

Absolutely not! I’ve always said that my home state of West Virginia is the most singular state in the country, because it combines stunning natural beauty with so many intractable social problems. Many states are beautiful, and many states have social and economic woes–but only West Virginia combines beauty and sorrow in just this particular and poignant way.

I sometimes gnash my teeth when people mistake West Virginia for “western Virginia” (believe it or not, this is a common error) or lump together all novels set anywhere outside New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. Every place has a specific character and texture–just as every person does. There may be superficial similarities, but the deep essence of a region–its history, the stamp it leaves on those who live there–is unique. One of my favorite lines in Last Ragged Breath comes when Nick Fogelsong contemplates his life in Acker’s Gap: “To walk each day on ground that had given rise to you” is, he decides, pretty darn cool. And so it is.

Did researching the Buffalo Creek Flood take you back to your career in journalism? Was that a comfort or a chore?

You know, journalism used to be the automatic career choice for aspiring writers–everyone from Ernest Hemingway and Katharine Anne Porter to Thornton Wilder and Willa Cather. It enables you to have experiences that you’d otherwise never have. It certainly did for me. I got to go to murder scenes, fly a plane, tour a coal mine–and so much more. That’s not as true today as it used to be–a lot of fledgling novelists end up in creative writing programs in grad schools instead of newsrooms–but for me, journalism was a great education, and I constantly use what I learned there in my fiction.

Many of the cases in the Bell Elkins series have roots in stories I covered. The death of a young boy in A Killing in the Hills is based on a crime story I wrote about. The opening scene in Bitter River–a car being pulled out of a river, with a body inside–is based on a similar moment I had as a reporter at a riverbank. And the retired coal miner in Summer of the Dead whose daughter rigs up a coal mine in the basement so that he’ll feel at home is also based on a real-life situation I came across as a journalist. The coal mine scene in Last Ragged Breath is informed by my own very harrowing journey down into a working coal mine, while researching a story on coal production.

The series for which I won the Pulitzer Prize is set in a small town about the size of Acker’s Gap. Hanging out in that town was a great way to sort of road-test my ideas about small towns in which, as the song says, “everybody knows your name.” That can be wonderful–or it can be stifling.

I like the way you phrased the question–“comfort or chore”–because it’s really a bit of both. I have the comfort of knowing that I’m writing about something I’ve seen and felt, but it’s a chore in the sense that, as a reporter, you are often coming into people’s lives in the wake of tragedy. I grew up hearing stories about the Buffalo Creek tragedy–every West Virginian does–and to return to a time of such heartbreak and loss is difficult, even if necessary.

At the center of the story in Last Ragged Breath is a child survivor of the flood, now a grown man accused of murder. Does Royce Dillard have a historical counterpart, or is he entirely your creation?

Royce Dillard is entirely fictional, but there were certainly flesh-and-blood children who survived the Buffalo Creek flood. Some lost one or both parents. As far as I know, none of these children has ever faced a murder charge as an adult–thank goodness!–but the psychological scars left by the flood are well-documented. Royce’s emotional issues are very loosely based on published accounts of the travails of real-life survivors. So he is fictional, yes–but he represents many people who suffered then, and who suffer still.

You told NPR’s Crime in the City series that you read most literary fiction as crime fiction. You cited Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird and the Oedipus stories. Is there a distinction between “genre” crime fiction and these classics? Where do your books fall?

I try to write books that will be accessible and entertaining, yes, but that also give readers something extra–perhaps a way to reflect upon life’s deepest questions, and a way to think about the catastrophes that can befall those who have done nothing to deserve them. To me, any novel–whether it’s categorized as “crime fiction” or “literary fiction” or whatever–is a window into how another human being works out her or his destiny.

I fight against the idea of genre because it’s so limiting. It’s an artificial distinction. It puts novels into boxes and closes the lid–and novels need to breathe! Dorothy Parker once divided her bookcases into two categories: Good and Crap. That’s the only division that really matters.

Will my books turn out to be classics–that is, novels that are read by multiple generations? I’d certainly like to think so.

Last Ragged Breath pulls together strings from past Bell Elkins novels. It appears that the series will continue. What’s next? Do you already have the next book underway?

Oh, yes, indeed. I’m well embarked upon the fifth book in the series. It’s set in an Alzheimer’s care facility near Acker’s Gap. I am intrigued by questions about memory, and by an awareness of how central our memories are to our very essence. When memory begins to fail, what happens to that core self? The basic plot in The Disremembering–that’s the tentative title–is about a series of mysterious deaths at the facility, but the deeper theme is this issue of memory. As more and more people live longer and longer, our culture will be struggling with the problems of Alzheimer’s and its long reach. It is a great springboard for a novel–and a touchstone for contemplation about how the past constantly interacts with the present, in ways both good and bad.

This interview originally ran on September 1, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


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