Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, visitors see only its stunning natural beauty. But for those living there it’s a different story. The mountain roads harbour secret places, perfect for making the prescription drugs that tempt its desperately poor.Bell Elkins left a broken teenager, savaged by a past she couldn’t forget. But, as prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, Bell is back and determined to help clean up the only home she has ever known.
As winter sets in and her daughter is witness to a shocking triple murder, Bell finds her family in danger. Can she uncover the truth before her world is destroyed again?
Are you a bookgeek?
Lord, yes. I look around my desk right this second, and I see that I am surrounded by towering stacks of books; by shelves so crammed with books that they threaten to fly apart in a dangerous spray of wood, nails and words; by random clumps of books spread across every horizontal surface. So yes. Yes! I am a book geek.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?
My favorite line about creativity — with writing as a subset — comes from Bruce Springsteen, who once wrote: “Keep an ear to the ground, and an ear to your heart.” I love that because it addresses both sides of the creative equation: You must have some idea of literary fashion, of who’s buying what, of what’s going on in the world; yet you also must pay close heed to your own unique voice. I try to follow this — but it is all too easy, of course, to become distracted by the whims of the marketplace, and to forget that the individual vision will always show the way.
Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
There was a time in my life when I was a little bit lost — that is, I had no idea what I would do for a living, or how I would be in the world. I had abruptly quit a job. I spent my days at the local college library. I was not enrolled, however, and had no borrowing privileges, and so I would arrive each day, pull a certain book off the shelf, and read until closing time, at which point I would replace that book in its spot. The next day, I would return, pull the book off the shelf once again, and plunge back into the story. The novel was “The Song of the Lark” by Willa Cather. It changed my life. I worked my way through all of Cather’s novels that summer — the famous ones such as “My Antonia” and ”O! Pioneers,” and the not-so-famous ones such as “Lucy Gayheart” and ”My Mortal Enemy.” Before reading Cather, I thought writing had to be showy and flashy to be taken seriously; I thought it had to be about big, important things such as money, men and politics. Cather’s work, however, is simple and graceful and profound, as succinct and satisfying as an epitaph, and she mostly wrote about young girls in small towns who dream of becoming artists of one sort or another. She remains the greatest inspiration for me.
Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?
I think I start out with readers in mind — not specific ones, but just a hazy notion of attentive-looking faces — then swiftly forget about all that and just surrender to the imperatives of the story.
Where do you write, and why?
I write at a big wooden desk — it’s really an old dining room table — in a walkout basement, surrounded on three sides by burgeoning bookshelves. I like to have a thick forest of books rising up all around me as I work. Thomas Wolfe said that he wrote in libraries in order to feel as if he were “up against all print”: I suppose I do, as well. Having books around me imbues the very air with a sense of possibility. There is no view from my desk — just a drab concrete slab outside the double doors, across which a chipmunk occasionally scampers. This chipmunk seems spectacularly indifferent to my work.
Tell us the book you most wish you had written.
Oh, heavens. What an infuriating, beautiful question! “The Grapes of Wrath,” maybe. I admire the fierceness of Steinbeck’s vision of social justice, and his refusal to shy away from sentimentality. It is one of those novels that suffers a bit from having inspired a great film; everyone remembers the film and forgets the novel — a great, sprawling, sweating, experimental beast of a book. Shall I name another? “The Heart of the Matter” by Graham Greene. Every word is perfectly chosen.
At the heart of A Killing in the Hills is the very real issue of drug-induced social decay. Did you approach that as a novelist looking for a theme, or was that your journalistic side talking?
Definitely the journalistic side. I wanted to write mysteries, to be sure, but when I came across non-fiction accounts of the tragic rise of prescription drug abuse in rural areas, my first inclination was to research it thoroughly and then craft it as a series for my employer, The Chicago Tribune. The more I ruminated, however, the more I realized that the story was a deeper one than mere facts could convey. I was born and raised in one of the regions hardest-hit by the illegal prescription drug trade, and I felt I understood the tormented crucible from which it had arisen.
The future of Acker’s Gap seems very bleak. Is the town doomed? If not, what could bring about such a colossal revival of its fortunes?
I was determined not to sugar-coat the very real problems that burden an isolated, poverty-struck town such as Acker’s Gap. But on the other hand, the very fact that a Belfa Elkins would bother to come back – and to make her life there — is cause for optimism. Individual acts — not platitudes, not fancy government programs — are, to my mind, the greatest catalysts for the change. Just the simple daily heroism of determined people — plus a few new factories with decent-paying jobs, of course!
There are plenty of villains in the book, and with very few redeeming qualities between them. Would you describe any of them as evil?
Fascinating question. I find myself arguing about the “evil” tag quite a bit with friends who tend to apply it so quickly to aberrant behavior. Yet the experts — the law enforcement personnel I’ve interviewed over the years — tell me that you don’t really need to pull out the “evil” label; most criminals, they say, are lazy and opportunistic and selfish. They don’t rise to the level of “evil.” I agree. I reserve the adjective “evil” for allegories and epic poems. Satan in “Paradise Lost” is “evil” — but Chill, the bad guy in “A Killing in the Hills”? Nope. He’s narcissistic and uneducated and impulsive and greedy, but not evil. He’s a pathetic loser –not a criminal mastermind, not a cackling fiend. And the other bad guys in the book, which I’m not naming in hopes that your readers may one day read the novel, and may want to be surprised? Same. Pitiful and doomed, perhaps — but evil? Ah, no.
The book opens with a shooting tragedy that has been echoed in reality more than once this year. As an artist, how does working with such subject matter affect you psychologically?
I wrote that scene fairly cold-bloodedly — that is, I wanted to get the details and the pacing right — but when I went back to revise it, I was overwhelmed with sorrow. It was as if I suddenly understood what I had done: By the end of the chapter, these three men would die. There was no escape for them. And their blood was, in effect, on my hands. It was a curious and devastating realization. The same thing occurred as I read later episodes of violence in “A Killing in the Hills.” Crime novels require writers to spotlight the most heinous and horrific acts of human behavior, and to describe the consequences of those acts with chilly precision and graphic detail.And even though it is fiction, it is — at least for me — a fairly traumatic experience. The three old men in Chapter One are doomed to die over and over again, each time someone opens the novel and begins reading it. These men are trapped in a story I created. Their deaths may be necessary to my plot, but I am nonetheless haunted by their endlessly replicated fate — a fate I crafted.
Your love of West Virginia shines through, despite the often grim subject matter. Why do you think crime fiction provides such a strong vehicle for love letters to one’s homeland?
I love that phrase: “love letters to one’s homeland”! How true. I think that with crime fiction, writers don’t have to worry about being called sentimental or soft about our hometowns. So we can indulge our emotions about a place — without fearing that somebody will come along and call us sissies or misty-eyed old coots. The rough, tough crime element gives us cover, as it were, to come home.
Questions by Mike Stafford