Q&A: Julia Keller on the Craft of Mystery-Writing (Pro-Tip: Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee)


Fast Falls the Night is the newest of in Julia Keller’s Acker’s Gap, West Virginia mystery series. The mysteries are set hardscrabble West Virginia and feature fierce county prosecutor Bell Elkins, who has sharp instincts and a strong sense of justice. Keller, a native West Virginian like Bell, has a feel for the state’s beautiful landscape, as well as its history of poverty, despair, and hardship. Keller’s West Virginia roots allow her to access the concerns of its citizens – the opioid epidemic, the beleaguered mining industry, among others – and these play into the twists and turns of her fiction.

Keller, who has a Ph.D. in English (with a focus on Virginia Woolf), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for her three-part series in the Chicago Tribune about a deadly tornado and its aftermath.  She has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, and has taught at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and the University of Notre Dame.  Keller intended Fast Falls the Night, her sixth novel in the series, to be the last, but she discovered last summer she had more stories to tell. The seventh book, Bone on Bone, the eighth, Facedown in the Rain, will appear in 2018 and 2019.

Keller took a break from her work to talk with the National about the craft of mystery writing.

Q: You’ve written essays of cultural and literary criticism, news stories, novels for young adults, deeply-researched books of history. Are there special techniques you’ve developed in these forms that you bring to writing mystery?

A: I wish it were so! Frankly, of all the genres in which I've written, I find mystery-writing to be the most challenging, and the one for which my earlier work has prepared me the least. Fiction in general must be entertaining and, if one has literary aspirations, it must offer something beyond a mere description of reality. In the writing of mysteries, however, the ante is upped even more: in addition to being beguiling, and quasi-profound, the work must ALSO be tricky and surprising! It's an impossible burden -- and not for the faint of heart.

I often say that the ending of a mystery, when the culprit is revealed, must provoke two emotions, absolutely simultaneously: "I didn't see that coming!” and "But of course!'" Agatha Christie was especially good at this. And by the way, I think she's underrated as a writer, if that's possible to say about someone so popular. Reading her today, when often you know the outcome of the case in question, reveals just what a superior craftswoman she was, and how skilled in the creation of fetching characters and unforgettable scenes.

Q: I’m curious about how you approach writing mystery. When you began with your first Bell Elkins novel, A Killing in the Hills, did you know that you wanted to do a series? How does writing a novel in a series shape each part?

A: Oh, yes, I conceived of it as a series from the get-go. I've always admired series, from childhood days when I'd gaze at my collection of Tom Swift and Hardy Boys novels (yellow for the Swifts, blue for the Boys), and some lesser series, too, such as Brains Benton, who’s best thought of as a sort of early version of Sheldon Cooper of TV's "Big Bang Theory," and a spy series with titles such as "X Marks the Spy." I'd walk to Arlen's, a department store in my neighborhood in Huntington, West Virginia, and spend my allowance on additional volumes of whatever series had caught my fancy that month.

In the case of my own series, I wanted to follow the arc of the life of my main character, Belfa Elkins, as she moves through her days -- not only forwards, but also backwards, into her past. Stories are the greatest time machines ever invented.

Q: How do you begin each novel?  I’ve read that Dan Brown advises writing the plot by doing first and last chapter simultaneously – likening it to burning a candle at both ends. Do you know where each novel is going to go?

A: I don't. Surely my life -- and my book-writing -- would be a great deal simpler and more efficient if I DID have such a sense of where each is going to wind up, but I've never been able to write that way. I've always trusted the universe to lead me on toward some interesting outcome – even though the universe, alas, often lets me down. Typically, about three-quarters of the way through the writing of a book, I'll realize what the ending is, and I do admit to skipping ahead sometimes to write it -- just out of the sheer joy of doing it. Telling me to hold back and write in sequence would be, at that point, like telling my six-year-old self not to come down the stairs on Christmas morning, when I can clearly see, from a cursory peek, that there are TOYS down there, by golly.

I remember leaping ahead that way with Last Ragged Breath, the fourth book in the series, which is based on the Buffalo Creek disaster, a real-life catastrophe in southern West Virginia, near my hometown. I knew that a certain dog would figure in the ending. Once I knew that, I HAD to write it. So I treated myself and wrote the scene in which a character is reunited with his beloved pooch.

Q: Do you do an outline, and a chapter-by-chapter structure?  

A: No. I never did that with news stories, either, although I had an editor some years ago -- at a newspaper in Columbus, Ohio -- who had read somewhere that all good reporters work from an outline and so she demanded that we all do so. Period. No exceptions. We'd have to show her our outlines if she stopped by our desks. Ornery scamp that I am, I constructed an all-purpose, one-size-fits-all outline that would work for any story, and I would brandish this if she happened to come by my desk.

To this day, I despise the notion of "tips" and "strategies" for writers. I enjoy hearing how writers work -- morning vs. night, tea vs. coffee -- but the idea of being able to transfer a game plan from one imagination to another seems ludicrous and even rather demeaning. Journalism is particularly enamored of these prescriptive lists; I recently read a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review that solicited "tips" from reporters about how they do what they do. Somewhere, an editor is reading that article, and getting ready to demand that her employees follow the tips to the letter.

Q: So, morning coffee, or afternoon tea?  Let’s hear it! How do you work?

A: Coffee, coffee, and more coffee. Balzac allegedly drank at least fourteen cups each night; that sounds about right for me, too, as long as you double it. Tea belongs with more leisurely pursuits. Coffee is for hard work. I rise early – 4 a.m. or so – and persuade my dog, Edward, that it really IS morning, despite all evidence to the contrary. He goes outside, barks at the darkness, and I sit down at my computer and do my own kind of barking: I write. When I’m immersed in a novel, I can sit for shocking amounts of time, racking up sentences and paragraphs. I’ve never been much of a nighttime writer. For me, morning is golden. As Edna O’Brien once said, writing in the morning is best – because that’s when we are closest to our dreams.

Q: How aware of you are leaving clues in your mysteries, possibly leading readers to anticipate that the novel will go one way, and then twist another?

A: As a reader, I love twists and red herrings and all of the trappings of a great mystery. The late Ruth Rendell was a master of that; her plot twists are gasp-worthy and yet always plausible. Mo Hayder, Elizabeth George, and Michael Marshall are also wonderfully adept at leading us up the garden path, so to speak, and then tripping us up. But I do think that plot twists are sometimes overrated in mysteries. Some mystery writers don't ever surprise you with a monumental twist -- but you keep reading, because the creation of the atmosphere is accomplished with such consummate skill. Benjamin Black -- the mystery author persona of the great John Banville -- writes somewhat pedestrian and even lackluster plots, but the moody bleakness of a black-and-white Ireland is so penetrating that you don't really care about the plot. I'd say the same about Ian Rankin and Denise Mina: "Meh" plots but fabulously atmospheric writing.

Q: What’s the key to building – and sustaining momentum in a mystery?

A: I wish I knew! I regard with awe the work of writers whose gripping novels build in steady increments, so much so that you can barely breathe until you've come to the end: Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, for instance, or the novels of Tana French. French's Broken Harbor kept me totally spellbound. As a writer, I try to build that kind of gradual but increasingly intense pacing through character. If we care about the characters, then we care about what happens to them, bit by horrific bit. To me, no plot -- no matter how intricate or complex or twisty -- can make up for a character who is indifferently drawn.

Q:  Let me ask you how you see the difference between a ‘mystery’ and a ‘thriller.’ Do you believe the cliché that in a thriller, a villain drives the story and that in a mystery, the story is driven by the protagonist?

A.: I used to sneer at labels, and note that Dorothy Parker often claimed there are only two categories of books: Good and Crap. However, now that I write my own books, I understand why genres are important. Genres are about expectations. People don't have much time these days, and they want to find the books they know they'll enjoy. Thus I have officially withdrawn my objection to genres. And to me, the difference between a mystery and a thriller is a matter of nuance: Tell me that a book is a "mystery" and I think of an exploration of good vs. evil, and of the elucidation of a moral conundrum, heavy on characterization. Tell me that a book is a "thriller" and I think of an international setting, liberally seasoned with worldly cynicism and a lot of high-speed car chases. There is a great deal of crossover between these genres, of course, but in general, the word "mystery" makes me think of Sue Grafton and Val McDermid, while the world "thriller" makes me think of Phillip Kerr and John LeCarre and Robert Wilson.