Home was a theme in full operating mode when Julia Keller came calling for a recent Printers Row Live event.
The occasion was a discussion with Tribune Literary Editor Elizabeth Taylor of Julia’s new book, “A Killing in the Hills,” set in a fictional town in West Virginia, Julia’s childhood home and place of longing when thoughts of roots and place prevail. Happily, too, it was a homecoming at the Tribune, where Julia was our cultural critic and, along the way, earned a Pulitzer Prize for her three-part series about Utica, a town ripped up by a deadly tornado in 2004.
This is her debut novel, the first in a mystery series she plans. Many of us who attended bought copies and, I’m guessing, spent the weekend turning pages. That meant, however, that reader questions tilted more toward the notion of home – and shout-outs from several West Virginia expatriates who carry with them memories of the state’s great, mountainous beauty that co-exists with enormous poverty and social problems.
Here, then, are some of the topics readers called on Julia to talk about:
–Was her imagination stimulated by being from a small town? Perhaps was the reply. Julia described how she retreated to her hometown’s small public library, where reading was an escape. Later, she returned to that point. The library gave her “a vision of how to be in the world,” Julia explained.
–What, a man asked, does writing fiction offer you that reporting does not? Actually, the journalism was a detour before she was able to pursue a dream of writing fiction, Julia said. “We (journalists) find people where they live, and I loved that” about newspapers. But her passion is for fiction, a form she believes allows writers to tell more stories that tell us all more about truth in the world than non-fiction can.
(Julia’s last article as a staff member for the Chicago Tribune was on July 1. She allowed herself a final note at the conclusion of that article to explain that she will be writing fiction and teaching at Ohio University. But she will continue her close ties to the Tribune.)
–Since “A Killing in the Hills” is part of a series, a woman asked, how much plotting is she doing as the stories unfold? “It’s the act of the plan,” Julia conceded, and yet as the characters take shape and the story appears, she makes adjustments and follows new paths that hadn’t occurred to her in advance but feel right for the story and the characters.
–A man asked her to talk about storytelling, noting that as he has grown older, he is less sure about what he knows. “The things I think I know for certain get in my way,” he said. That concept captured Julia’s interest as she repeated the idea a couple of times, as though trying it on for size.
–Another reader thanked Julia for acknowledging that Chicago is a great literary city.
–Hot dogs. Yes, hot dogs. Somehow, we got off on this tangent when, in an aside, Julia mentioned being in Chicago and adapting to the Chicago-style hot dogs, which she called “a rude awakening.” One woman said the West Virginia approach is chili and slaw as toppings. Be warned: Even among West Virginians, there was not agreement on what constitutes a West Virginia dog.
As is our Trib Nation wont with these blog posts from events, we will have some photographs posted on Facebook soon, so please come back and watch for it. When we get them, take a look and tag yourself. More than 50 people attended this program on Friday evening at Tribune Tower.
We welcome comments, so I invite you to add your thoughts about the event and other elements of the evening that stirred your imagination and interest.
–Margaret Holt, standards editor