Julia Keller talks about SORROW ROAD

Sorrow Road
Julia Keller
Minotaur Books
Aug 23, 2016

This series started when Bell Elkins abandoned her husband and high stress job in Washington DC to become the prosecutor of a made up town of Ackers Gap, Raythune County, West Virginia. In Sorrow Road, one of her high school classmates, Darlene, returns to her home town, to ask Bell to look into her father’s suspicious death at an old age home. After a worker at Thornapple Terrace Senior Citizen Home is murdered along with her best friend, Bell suspects another connection. Her investigation unravels a relationship and secrets kept between Darlene’s father and his two childhood friends who fought in World War II together to the present day of having their children facing parents with Alzheimer’s.

Elise Cooper: What did you want readers to understand about West Virginia?

Julia Keller: I was born and raised there. I do think West Virginia and the Appalachian region are in the grip of some really devastating social problems: lack of economic progress, some of the isolation, the waning of the coal industry, the educational opportunity is not good. And then right at the center is the prescription drug abuse. But with all that there is a resiliency that is a match for the great natural beauty of the state. The people there have a great heart and spirit.

EC: How did you choose names for your characters that fit in with the West Virginia setting?

JK: A lot of the names chosen were of people I knew in my childhood. The Sherriff’s name was not Nick Fogelsong when I started writing the series. It was Oliver Wingate. I rolled it around in my head a little bit and knew that name did not fit in and was wrong. Other names I got off head stones in cemeteries. I traced through small ones in West Virginia. I know people might think this weird, but I did not find them depressing at all, but consider them wonderful quiet places for contemplation. For me, it is a reminder we have a limited time here so get done what you want to get done.

EC: Why the Alzheimer’s theme?

JK: I have been obsessed with memory. Someone once told me this quote, ‘Memories are the bones of thought.’ There are just so many variables about it we do not understand. I am one of those people who believe the past lives within us and we never leave it behind. I wanted to explore what happens when a person has lost their memory; can they be blamed for whatever grievance was inflicted by them? BTW: I don’t have any family members with Alzheimer’s, but some good friends have it in their family.

EC: Do you think your characters are dysfunctional?

JK: It is a word I try to avoid in my thinking and writing. People function as best they can. To say someone is dysfunctional means there is a functional aspect. Using this word means we are judging someone. Remember no one has it all together. I was told to ‘be kind to everyone you meet because they could be carrying a great burden.’

EC: Why use ‘the three boys?”

JK: I consider them the three boys from West Virginia. America’s wars were fought and won by boys and girls from small towns in our heartland. They sacrificed the rich part of their lives for our country. The photo I used in the book was from my mother’s husband who fought in World War II. He told the story of how he and his friends were on a battleship in Normandy, but the day after the battle. I found it fascinating they were there, but the day following the big event.

EC: There are a lot of powerful quotes in the book. Any parent can relate to this one, “Just as she had done when Carla was an infant…She was able to keep her daughter safe, even for just a few hushed hours, deep in a winter’s night.” Please explain.

JK: The scene came out of my watching my sister and her daughter react toward one another. The mother never goes out of you. They never lose that feeling of keeping a child safe even when they are grown and out of your control. This is one of my favorite scenes. Beth was holding her daughter Carla and at that moment she is safe in her mom’s arms.

EC: Can you explain where this quote came from, “Grief was brutal, and it was cruel, and it lasted as long as it lasted.”

JK: Grief is like a fingerprint that is absolutely individual with each person. There is no time period of mourning. Our experiences could not be more completely different after losing a loved one. It could be a parent, grandparent, friend, or teacher. We can grieve for someone who made a difference in our lives; someone who had said ‘yes you can’ in a world filled with closed doors. I am reminded of the Mister Rogers’ line, ‘I like you just the way you are.’

EC: You also speak of guilt with this quote, “The guilt that burned and surged and twisted inside you because you so futilely wished you’d done more for your loved one…wished you stopped in more often and paid better attention when you did, wished you hugged him just once more during that last visit, and told him just one more time that you loved him.” Please explain.

JK: I am personally ridden with this anticipatory guilt of my mom dying. I can’t leave my mom’s visits early because I don’t want to look back and regret something. Although, I do think most people will look back with some kind of regret or guilt.

EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book?

JK: We have older people in the world to teach us patience. Making sure they are cared for takes the spotlight away from us. Anyone with an older parent understands how it is a whole different way of looking at the world. Alzheimer’s is such a national part of our landscape and is a national issue on how we will take care of people inflicted with it.

EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?

JK: The themes are G-d, truth, and morality. One part deals with an Iraqi war veteran who lives in this Minister’s basement. Another piece reaches back into Beth’s past and how it will affect her possible future. The working title is Fast Falls The Night from the hymn, Abide with Me. I hope readers realize that every great work of fiction has a mystery, and consider them the great literature of our time.