Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Julia Keller

Julia Keller was born and raised in West Virginia, and now lives in Chicago and Ohio. In her career as a journalist, she won the Pulitzer Prize for a three-part series she wrote for the Chicago Tribune about a small town in Illinois rocked by a deadly tornado.

Her new novel, Summer of the Dead, is the third book in the Bell Elkins Series; it follows A Killing in the Hills and Bitter River.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what she was reading.  Keller's reply:
It’s a sickness. Really, it is. I can’t seem to read only one book at a time. I well know how philandering spouses feel: What’s right in front of me just can’t measure up to what’s across the room, batting its eyelashes and giving me a lascivious, come-hither glance. I’ve tried, but I simply can’t be a one-book woman.

Spying the motley stack of reading matter that follows me from room to room—almost of its own volition, I swear—friends often ask, “How do you decide which book to read at which time?” I have no rational answer. I am guided by some mysterious, ineffable force that wills the hand toward one book and not another, and later, toward yet another. My religious-minded friends often attest to hearing a “still, small voice within” that directs their moral choices; I hear it, too, only the voice says, “No, you chucklehead! Not the mystery right now—the Tennyson biography!”

And speaking of Tennyson biographies, I’m reading a dandy: Tennyson (1993) by Peter Levi. It’s not new, but I so love the late Levi’s voice as he undertakes the daunting task of writing about an oft-written-about writer: “I think having written this book that I do now understand this great poet,” he says in the introduction. “The long series of problems solved has left him much clearer, and yet because of his genuine greatness just as mysterious as before.”

I’m also reading another book with some high numbers on the odometer: Julian (1965) by Gore Vidal. No one does historical fiction the way Vidal did; I’d argue that any American history course worth its tricorn hat ought to have Burr, Lincoln and Empire on the syllabus, just for starters, if only to provide a counterpoint to the narratives that make the outcomes of history seem inevitable. History, as Vidal tells it, is a combination of selfishness and coincidence, with a finishing sauce of hypocrisy and self-delusion. And yet cynicism is too cheap and easy a tone, hence Vidal mostly avoids it. For some reason I’d missed Julian, a faux-memoir of the deeply learned Roman emperor who resisted the surge of Christianity, and now am relishing it. Among the gems: “Never offend an enemy in a small way”; “In a good cause hypocrisy becomes virtue”; “The folly of the clever is always greater than that of the dull.” And this: “History is idle gossip about a happening whose truth is lost the instant it has taken place.”

I’m also reading The Buffalo Creek Disaster (1976) by Gerald M. Stern, a non-fiction account of the aftermath of the terrible 1972 flood that decimated a small West Virginia mining community. It’s an essential part of my research for my next novel.

Among the more recently published books on my dance card are Big Brother (2013) by the clever, inimitable Lionel Shriver and Poppet (2013) by Mo Hayder. Hayder is my guilty pleasure. Her mystery novels are extremely creepy, and there are times when you want nothing more than to have the bejesus scared out of you. (Opening the gas bill can accomplish the same thing, of course, but without the captivating characters.)

Also here at my elbow is the 1984 Penguin Classics edition of A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, respectively—with an introduction by our old friend Peter Levi of Tennyson fame. These travel chronicles may have been written and published in the eighteenth century, but they have a droll freshness to them that somehow dissolves the intervening centuries. “That which is strange is delightful,” Johnson writes, and who can argue?
Learn more about the book and author at Julia Keller's website.

Writers Read: Julia Keller (September 2012).

Writers Read: Julia Keller (September 2013).

--Marshal Zeringue