'Crooked River': A Talk with Valerie Geary

, Valerie Geary's debut novel, is a coming-of-age-story, a ghost story, and a literary tale of psychological suspense told in the alternating voices of 15-year-old Sam and her 10-year-old sister Ollie.
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Crooked River, Valerie Geary's debut novel, is a coming-of-age-story, a ghost story, and a literary tale of psychological suspense. Told in the alternating voices of 15-year-old Sam and her 10-year-old sister Ollie, the novel opens with them grieving the sudden death of their mother. They move to rural Oregon to live with their eccentric, teepee-dwelling, beekeeper father. When a young woman's body is discovered in a nearby river, their father becomes the prime suspect and the sisters find themselves in the center of a suspense-filled storm.

Photo: Brian Moore Photography

Did you always want to be a writer?

I did. I think I wrote my first story in kindergarten. It was about a girl who lost a red balloon and chased after it. I don't remember how it ended. I started reading fairly young and loved getting lost in the imaginary world of books. When I was in the third grade, a writer came to my school and talked to us. That was the moment I decided it was what I wanted to do, and that resolve remained with me the rest of my childhood, and throughout high school and college. Whenever I tried finding something else to do, it never felt right. It didn't fit with who I felt I was.

In Crooked River you combine paranormal phenomena with suspense. What are your thoughts about these separate writing genres?

I read a lot of suspense novels. It's probably my favorite genre. When I was younger, I read more paranormal books. I do think the combination of paranormal and suspense go well together. There's an element of suspense in paranormal novels because you never know what's going to happen with the supernatural.

The axiom "Write what you know" seems applicable to you. I understand there are some parallels between the lives of Sam and Ollie, and your own life.

Yes. I have a sister. We're 22 months apart, closer in age than Sam and Ollie are in the novel. When I started writing this book, I drew inspiration from my own relationship with my sister and the things we did as children. There are similarities, but as I wrote about Sam and Ollie, they developed their own personalities. Another important parallel is that I lost my mother when I was 19. I was old enough to be able to move forward, yet young enough to feel a significant loss. It was an unexpected death, as is the death of Sam and Ollie's mother in the book. The decision to include their mother's death came a bit later on in drafting the novel. I wasn't sure it was territory I was ready to explore. But I went ahead, and it ended up being a catharsis for me. The process of writing about these sisters and their grief was a way to explore my own grief process.

Before Crooked River, you published short stories in literary journals and magazines. What challenges did you face in going from writing short stories to penning a full-length novel?

Probably, the biggest challenge was that of being more patient with the process. A short story is at most, five-thousand words. It's compact. You get it done, and can feel proud of what you've accomplished. Writing a novel reminds me of the old joke, 'How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.' If you visualize the big picture, a novel can be intimidating. The biggest challenge for me was to push myself and have enough patience to finish the manuscript.

You once said, "I feel the most me when I'm writing, and it's been like this as far back as I can remember." Will you talk about that?

I've always had trouble expressing myself verbally. I never know if what I'm trying to say is really getting across to other people. Sometimes, the words seem to just fall out of my mouth. I think I have a bit of social anxiety, and I also see the world a bit differently than most people do. When I talk, people may not understand my perspective. But with writing, I'm able to explore different parts of me that I'm not able to share in a one-on-one setting.

In an online guest post, you once described using a stopwatch to time your writing. Will you discuss that?

I started using a stopwatch when I quit my day job to start writing full-time. I struggled with discipline. It was easier to read, or look at email, or think up clever tweets. Setting a timer helped me maintain concentrated periods, focused on my writing. I still use the stopwatch if I'm feeling distracted, or not really wanting to work. I'll set the timer for an hour. The minute I start writing, I get into it; but it's the getting started that can be difficult. The timer also reminds me to take breaks, and helps me construct my day without feeling I'm working either too much or too little.

Your writing style has been compared to those of Tana French and Laura McHugh. Any thoughts?

I'm speechless. That's an honor. Those women write great fiction, books that are both suspenseful and literary.

You've said you're a huge fan of Gillian Flynn and Kate Atkinson. What about their work inspires you?

I like how their books are readable, but challenging. They maintain a delicate balance between being page-turners while also making you think. It's the combination of their storytelling abilities and the inspirational way they use language.

If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, from literature or all of history, who would they be?

I'd love to have Margaret Atwood over for dinner. Ever since I read The Handmaid's Tale in college, I've been a big fan. I would love to pick her brain about writing and her career. I'd like to have Jennifer Lawrence, too. She's been so successful at such a young age, it would be interesting to learn how she processes that. I'd invite Amelia Earhart, and ask her about her life in an era when women mostly stayed home. I would love to have Malala Yousafzei, the Afghan winner of the Novel Peace Prize. Another great guest would be Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who interpreted and guided Lewis and Clark on their expedition.

What's coming next from Valerie Geary?

I'm writing a new book, but it's still in the drafting process. It will be another suspense novel with a bit of the supernatural, too.

Congratulations on writing Crooked River, which has been described as a literary thriller and psychological study of the effects of loss.

Mark Rubinstein is the author of Mad Dog House, Mad Dog Justice and Love Gone Mad.

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