Julia Keller is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer from Huntington, West Virginia. She holds a PhD in English Literature from The Ohio State University and has taught at Princeton University, the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. Before writing books, Keller was a distinguished journalist. For more information on her work, check out Keller’s website.
The following interview was conducted by Professor Frank Donoghue.
You wrote a fascinating tribute to your father, who was a math professor at Marshall University. As you describe, he was guided by intellectual curiosity. How did your childhood shape your interests and ambitions, which from early on it seems, were sometimes literary and sometimes journalistic?
Some years ago, I came across a phrase in an essay collection by the Kentucky writer Chris Offutt – “Appalachian fatalism” – that I found striking because it applies so well to my late father, James Richard Keller. He was a brilliant mathematics professor, with a great gift for making a difficult subject comprehensible to even the most math-resistant mind. Yet he never escaped the shadow of Appalachia – a place often ridiculed and, when it’s not being ridiculed, is largely forgotten. My father had ambitions to live and work beyond the mountains of his birth but was never able to shake off the sense of doom that pervades that region, a pessimism that’s like an ironed-in wrinkle on a shirt. And pessimism is the most effective dream-killer that ever was. So yes, my childhood was filled with the wonder of books and ideas, and a lot of that came from my father, but it was also marked by the sense that things were never going to change, no matter how hard you tried or how passionately you dreamed. Each one of us has tensions rippling through our formative years, and maybe that’s not so bad; maybe that tension creates the energy and the friction that generates light. Anyway, yes – as a young reader and writer I was drawn to both fiction and nonfiction. Initially I didn’t think of journalism as a possible profession, but I loved the idea of trying to capture the look and feel of life – gritty, grubby, messy, complicated life – on the page, to fulfill Joseph Conrad’s dictum that the purpose of literature is to “render the highest possible justice to the visible universe.” That’s a pretty heady ideal for journalism, a job that’s typically about covering a sewer commission meeting, but I was nothing if not grandiose.
What are some of the memories that stand out about your time at Ohio State, where you received your PhD in English in 1996? I certainly remember your dissertation about the creation of “Virginia Woolf,” in which you analyzed several biographies of the author. You started with the simple question of how biographers represented key moments in Woolf’s life, and went from there to describe a poetics of biography.
My graduate school career at Ohio State was one of the happiest and most fulfilling times of my life, although I was simultaneously working full time at the local Columbus newspaper and thus always felt as if I were running – and falling – behind. I was very fortunate to find first-rate intellectual mentors at Ohio State, professors who challenged and inspired me. (Take a bow, Frank Donoghue!) The great advantage of a university as large as OSU is just that: You are likely to find professors whose research interests overlap with your own. I didn’t especially dream of a teaching career - which ended up being fortunate, I suppose, because the job market was going through a contraction at the time and has never truly recovered. But the rigors of a graduate program were just what I was looking for. I considered quitting my pursuit of the doctoral degree many, many times, when logistics became ever more daunting and complex – yet I stuck with it. Frankly, I just really enjoyed the intellectual engagement with professors and fellow students, in a place where ideas matter.
Your writing career defies concise summary because it is composed of many arcs. First there was a journalistic period, part of which overlapped with your graduate study in the English department. Is it fair to say that your decision to become a full-time author went hand in hand with your winning a Pulitzer Prize for a three-part feature for The Chicago Tribune on a deadly tornado in Utica, Illinois?
Well, that timeline requires a bit of elucidation. I had always intended to write books, and certainly winning the Pulitzer Prize brought attention from agents and editors. But several years passed after the Pulitzer – an interval during which I published two books, a biography of Richard Jordan Gatling, inventor of the Gatling Gun, and a young adult novel about a young girl whose father suffers a traumatic brain injury in the Iraq war – before I felt able to leave daily journalism. Making a living by one’s pen is a precarious proposition. I wasn’t at all certain that I could do it. But I had managed to find a good agent, and we were able to nail down a two-book deal with a major publisher, and it was on the basis of that development that I felt able to quit the day job, as it were. I resigned from The Chicago Tribune in late 2012, and by that time, journalism was already in the process of its tragic decline. (I don’t use the word “tragic” hyperbolically; newspapers are disappearing right and left, with terrible consequences for a democracy that relies upon a well-informed citizenry.) But to your point: Certainly, it was the boost provided by winning a Pulitzer Prize that gave me the confidence to change my professional life.
After a fascinating book on inventor Richard Gatling and his “terrible marvel” you embarked on a series of very successful crime fiction novels set in rural West Virginia. What led you to return to your home region, and how did you come to create Bell Elkins?
Until I left West Virginia in my early 20s, I had no idea how the rest of the world viewed it: with curiosity, with wariness, and often, with disrespect and even disgust. When I first moved to Chicago, a colleague came by my desk one day and said, “I’ve heard a rumor that you’re from West Virginia. Is that true?” When I said, yes, he shook his head and replied, “Well, all I’ve got to say is – you’re doing wonders for the reputation of THAT state.” That offended me, but of course I never let on; I just swallowed my annoyance and smiled, as if it was a joke. It wasn’t. When it came time to write a mystery series, I realized I had a ready-made locale in my back pocket: my homeplace. People are, in equal measure, fascinated and repelled by Appalachia. It’s a region where extraordinary natural beauty is juxtaposed with stubbornly intractable social problems: poverty, isolation, lack of educational opportunity and health care options, high rates of drug addiction, an inept and often corrupt state government. My character, Belfa Elkins - the first name is the name of my late aunt, Belfa Harshbarger, and I’ve never seen it anywhere else – is a West Virginia native who gets out but comes back. Those are the people by whom I’m most intrigued: those who leave and then come back. They come back! Knowing all the problems and issues, all the despair, all the darkness – they come back.
From there you turned to young adult science fiction, writing a trilogy that was also very well received. What led you to make that transition? Is there a backstory here?
I’m one of those kids who read every science fiction and fantasy book I could get my hands on. Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Robert Heinlein, Madeline L’Engle, J.R.R. Tolkien – those were my heroes. I can still remember the goosebumps running up and down my arms when I first read A Wrinkle in Time. I couldn’t sleep until I finished it. Nowadays, I’m just as excited about the work of Alastair Reynolds and Terry Pratchett. I’d always dreamed of creating my own science fiction series, hence The Dark Intercept Trilogy. I envisioned a future world in which our emotions can be harvested and weaponized by a vast government-run system.
Finally, your forthcoming book, Quitting: A Life Strategy, out in April of this year, marks your return to nonfiction and your foray (as a writer of books) into a topic that is both currently of great interest and has a history that dates back more that 150 years, to Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help (1859). It’s hard for me to frame just one question, but I’ll try. I would describe Quitting as a convincing rebuttal to Angela Duckworth’s Grit (2016) a celebration of perseverance. You point out, with the backing of experts, that perseverance is often a recipe for misery. Is that fair?
Absolutely. And not only personal misery, but bad things for society. Our worship of perseverance is strongly implicated in social injustice, income inequality, and a dangerously misbegotten reverence for those at the very top of the economic ladder who have simply gotten lucky. The ideal of grit and perseverance, especially as presented in self-help books, enables those with vast fortunes to maintain their grip on power. As long as we’re persuaded to believe that billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos achieved their success because they’re smarter and they worked harder than other people, we’ll never be able to rectify some of the issues that bedevil those at the lower end of the economic scale. I’m glad you mentioned the Duckworth book, because when I read it, I spent the entire time muttering to myself. She identifies people who “give up” – who drop out of West Point, say, or leave a job – as lacking grit. But wait: What if an Army career isn’t right for them? Maybe the truly gritty thing is not to stick with a bad situation – but to have the courage and imagination to find a better one.
My publisher is marketing Quitting as a self-help book, but in reality, of course, it’s an anti-self-help book. I’m trying to banish the whole rationale for self-help books: the idea that your destiny is in your own hands, and so if you follow a certain set of rules, then you, too, will be as rich as Bill Gates. (Hint: You won’t.) Accepting the vicissitudes of life, and the randomness, brings solace and ultimately joy. Constantly feeling bad about quitting things that weren’t right for us in the first place brings only frustration and shame.
I also describe recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, as researchers discover what happens inside our brains when we shift and pivot, when we abandon one path for another. Quitting, it turns out, keeps our brains nimble and sharp.