Q&A: Julia Keller on Hard Times in Appalachia, Mystery Writing, and Not Moving Back Home

The newest installment in Julia Keller’s Ackers Gap, West Virginia mystery series is out and it is a return to the hardscrabble world she drew so powerfully in the first four books. The series draws on Keller’s own experience in West Virginia, and her understanding of the toughness required to live in a beautiful place marked by poverty and despair.  Keller, who has a Ph.D. in English (with a focus on Virginia Woolf), won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for her three-part series in the Chicago Tribune about a deadly tornado and its aftermath.  Keller has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, and has taught at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and the University of Notre Dame.  Before embarking on her book tour, she answered questions from The National.

Q: Sorrow Road is the fifth book in your series set in Ackers Gap, with county prosecutor Bell Elkins as protagonist. How have Ackers Gap and Bell evolved over time?

A: I hope they have changed a great deal – just as people and places change in real life. With each book, I explore a different aspect of life in a small, broken town in a forgotten state, and I do have to make an effort to let people grow and change – and not always in positive ways. I always wanted to write a series – because I love them as a reader – but I had not anticipated the daunting creative challenge of letting characters do as they will, regardless of my idea of what they SHOULD be doing. Now I know how God feels.

Q: You’ve spoken about “Appalachian fatalism.” Can you explain the meaning of the phrase, and how you’ve come to understand it.

A: I first read that phrase in an essay by Kentucky-born writer Chris Offutt, and it resonated instantly for me. It explained so much. It explained why my father, a brilliant mathematics professor, was steeped in a melancholy that sort of twisted around him like the smoke from his ever-present cigarette; it explained why so many of my relatives seemed to never quite take hold in their lives. Appalachia can breed a kind of resignation, a soft folding-in of the spirit.

This is not Thoreau’s idea of the great mass of humanity leading “lives of quiet desperation.” It is less furious that all that. It’s a steady diminution of hope. A wearing-away of optimism. Sometimes I think it comes from the presence of the mountains, which makes travel difficult. Other times, I think it comes from the economic exploitation that has long been a tragic feature of the region. But no matter what the source is, you can see it in the eyes of Appalachians: a sense that circumstances aren’t likely to get much better, and that the odds don’t look good. So you do your best and you just keep going. You weather the storm. And that storm is called life.

Q: Your novels are very much rooted in West Virginia, and there’s a nice ripped-from-the headlines-feel. You’ve taken on social issues -- the opiate epidemic, Alzheimer’s Disease, and most recently post-war trauma. How do those themes emerge for you, and how much research do you do?

A: As I was writing the first book in the series, A Killing in the Hills, I would drive over to West Virginia quite often. I’d walk through cemeteries. I’d make sure I looked at the sky. There is a universality about human experience – pain, loss, death, joy, fear – that I wanted to capture in the books, but I also wanted to capture the specifics of this time, this place, these people.

And the issues you list – the prescription drug epidemic that now has widened out to be a heroin epidemic as well, the challenges of an aging, ailing population, and the needs of our military veterans – all are grievous problems in contemporary West Virginia. I keep up on the social and economic issues that bedevil Appalachia through newspapers – The New York Times has done a particularly fine job of chronicling the changes to the region as the coal industry bows out – and by talking with friends and relatives who have stayed.

Q: In A Killing in the Hills, Bell Elkins moved back to West Virginia. Were you ever tempted to do that?

 A: All the time. I still consider it. But I’m afraid that the West Virginia I remember is not the one that exists now; most of the people from my childhood, frankly, are dead, and if I returned now, I’d be living amongst ghosts. As Heraclitus said, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” I am sure he meant the Ohio River.

Q: Let’s talk genre. Can you explain why some crime books land on mystery-thriller-suspense shelves while others find their way to literary fiction? At some level, aren’t all novels really mysteries of some sort?

A: They are! And I dearly wish I had a magic spell with which I could wipe out those imprisoning categories of genre. I often remind people that Dorothy Parker divided her books into only two groups: Good and Crap. Works for me.

Q: You’ve written several novellas centering on Bell Elkins, and they were released electronically. Can you explain the appeal of the novella form, and the electronic format?

A: Those novellas weren’t my idea at all – but I ended up really enjoying the writing, and now I believe they constitute an essential part of Bell’s story. My publisher wanted some stories to come out between the novels, during the yearlong lull between annual publication of the hardcovers. Publishing these four shorter works exclusively as e-stories was a financial decision. However, as I said, I’m very glad they exist.

As far as electronic forms of access to stories – it’s not a format I particularly enjoy for my own reading, but I can see the appeal, especially during travel. I’m an old-fashioned girl; I like to hold a book in my hand, and smell the pages, and run my hand over the cover. I have a Nook, and thought I would use it more often, but I’m irretrievably drawn to “real” books.

Q: Do you see yourself returning to non-fiction at some point?

A: Yes, indeed! In fact, I’m working on a proposal right now for a dual biography of two 20th century women who, although ignored and even ridiculed by those who could not see women as visionaries and innovators, achieved remarkable things. Non-fiction requires an entirely different set of writerly muscles. And at their best, both fiction and non-fiction aspire to the goal set forth by Joseph Conrad: “To apply the highest possible justice to the visible universe.”