Interview: Valerie Geary, Author of Crooked River, on Raising the Stakes, Ghosts, and Celebrating Her Debut Novel

crooked riverValerie Geary’s impressive debut novel, Crooked River, will be released tomorrow by William Morrow. A twisty literary thriller, peopled with eccentrics and ghosts, Crooked River delves into grief, suspicion, and what it means to be a family.

Protagonists Sam and Ollie take turns narrating this tale of going to live with their recluse father after their mother’s death and discovering a dead body in the river. While a fast-paced tale with a murder at its heart, it’s just as much a novel about sisters and small-town life. Valerie pulls all these threads together with expert timing, delivering a breathless read and a shatteringly evocative conclusion.

I met Valerie recently, at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association tradeshow in Tacoma, Washington, where she signed copies of Crooked River. Her book launches officially at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15, at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing in Beaverton. If you live nearby, come out to support an Oregon author—and a book set in Oregon.

Welcome, Valerie!

  1. Tell us about Crooked River.

Still grieving the sudden death of their mother, Sam McAlister and her younger sister Ollie move from the comforts of Eugene to rural Oregon to live in a meadow in a teepee under the stars with Bear, their beekeeper father. But soon after their arrival, a woman is found dead floating in Crooked River, and the police arrest their eccentric father for the murder.

Unwilling to accept that her father could have hurt anyone, fifteen-year-old Sam embarks on a desperate hunt to save him and keep her damaged family together. Ollie, too, believes Bear is innocent. The Shimmering have told her so. One followed her home from her mom’s funeral and refuses to leave. Now, another is following Sam. Both spirits warn Ollie: the real killer is out there, closer and more dangerous than either girl can imagine.

Crooked River is my first novel, a coming of age story and a page-turning mystery that I hope will touch readers’ hearts and keep them up past their bedtime.

  1. Can you talk a bit about your decision to tell the story from both sisters’ perspectives? What was it like giving an internal voice to a character who does not speak?

valerie headshotOriginally, I planned to tell this story from Sam’s perspective only. I wrote her chapters first, but when I reached the end, it felt like something was missing. That’s when I decided both girls needed to have their say, and the next day I sat down and started writing Ollie’s chapters. Her voice is so much different than Sam’s, and her unique perspective opened up a lot of the story I had yet to examine; she helped me understand Sam better, too.

Writing Ollie’s internal voice was the easy part–not much different than writing the internal voice of a character who does speak. The more challenging part was figuring out how she would communicate with her sister without talking. I didn’t want her to disappear into the background just because she’s not vocal. Plus she has information Sam needs to know. The challenge, then, was getting Sam to pay attention.

  1. Place is its own, strong character in Crooked River. Is your Terrebonne based on the actual Terrebonne, Oregon? How much research did you do in terms of setting, and how much did you invent? And why Terrebonne?

The Terrebonne in Crooked River is loosely based on the real Terrebonne. By that I mean, they are both located on the same spot on the map and they are both called Terrebonne. Otherwise, the Terrebonne in Crooked River is entirely of my imagination. I picked it for two reasons: (1) it is close to Crooked River and (2) it means “good earth” in French. When people read this book, I want them to feel like they’re in Central Oregon; I wanted that atmosphere. For that, I drew from my own memories and time spent in the area. I also consulted field guides and flipped through a lot of pictures. But all the rest–the businesses and store fronts-is made up. I like the freedom a fictitious town offers. I didn’t have to worry about “getting it right,” I could just focus on the story.

  1. Your novel is a perfect mix of literary language and plot. Do you have any advice to share about writing something with page-turning appeal? What are some literary thrillers or plot-filled novels that have inspired you, and why?

In short my advice is: Delete the boring parts and add a dead body.

To explain a little further: Jump into a scene late and get out early. Cut out anything that sounds like an introduction or summary ending. Explain as little as possible and let the scene speak for itself. Readers are smart; let them fill in some of the blanks.

As for adding a dead body, it doesn’t have to be an actual dead body. Simply, raise the stakes. Make it hard for your character to get what they want. Take away the things they love. Let them lose. Let them fight. Just never make it easy. In every stage of the process, I’m always asking myself, What else could happen? What if she made this choice instead of that one? Where would that lead? I’m rarely satisified with the first answer that comes to mind.

I am a huge Gillian Flynn fan. Also, Tana French and Kate Atkinson. All of these writers get my heart pounding and my brain churning. I love the way they balance plot with character with language. All three do really interesting things with their writing that satisfies me as a reader and inspires me as a writer.

  1. One of the things that impressed me most about Crooked River is how your ghosts are fully developed and organic to the story, not a product of pop culture or other people’s ideas of ghosts. I’d love to hear a bit about your decision to make them so prominent, and any challenges you had to overcome to make ghosts such an important part of the plot.

The decision to add the ghosts came after a friend who had read part of the manuscript asked, “Why isn’t Ollie talking?” My answer for that was, “She’s grieving.”

Seven Questions LogoSo I think maybe the Shimmering were my way of exploring that grief more, opening it up into something physical. Here’s Ollie, this little girl, and she’s just lost her mother. She’s been through the worst trauma of her young life, and now there is this Shimmering following her around. And Ollie’s afraid of the Shimmering. She hates that they follow her. She doesn’t know how to be herself when they’re around. She doesn’t know how to communicate or connect with the people she loves. From my own experience, this is how grief can feel too. Like if you let it in, you’ll be consumed by it–which is Ollie’s fear when it comes to the Shimmering. I wanted these ghosts, apparitions, Shimmering–whatever you want to call them–I wanted it to be less about a haunting and more about a young girl coming to terms with her own loss.

The biggest challenge when I decided the Shimmering were going to play such a prominent role in this book was quieting my own self-doubt long enough to finish writing. I’ve always loved stories with ghosts–whatever form they take–but I worried that what I was writing wasn’t serious, wasn’t “literary” enough. Whatever that means. Ultimately, I just had to stop worrying about other people might think. I had to stop trying to write for everyone else, and just write for myself.

  1. A debut novelist with a major publisher—that’s what all of us dream about! Can you tell us about your path from starting Crooked River to having it released by William Morrow?

I started working on Crooked River as a way to distract myself. I was trying and failing to find an agent for another manuscript, and the best way I knew how to deal with that kind of rejection was to write another book.

Once I found Sam and Ollie’s voices–or once they found me–the writing went pretty smoothly. I was working for an insurance company for a while, but thanks to some smart budgeting and a very supportive spouse, I was able to quit and write full time. Every week day, I turned off the internet and wrote for as long as my brain could handle. In the summer, I wrote outside in the garden. I took the weekends off. After a year of writing, getting feedback from writer friends, and revising, revising, revising, I finally felt the manuscript was ready.

Valerie Geary signs copies of her debut novel at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association's Sweet and Greet, held recently in Tacoma, Washington.

Valerie Geary signs copies of her debut novel at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s Sweet and Greet, held recently in Tacoma, Washington.

I sent off a handful of query letters and within a few days I was getting requests to see the full manuscript. By the next week I had multiple agents wanting to represent me and my book. This wasn’t my first manuscript or my first time querying, so all of this felt very surreal. After much consideration, I chose to work with Julia Kenny who’s currently at Dunow, Carlson, & Lerner Agency. She asked me to do a few more revisions, which I did, and then the book went out on submission and things were quiet for a long time.

(Cue crickets.)

One thing the publishing industry has taught me is patience. Nothing happens and nothing happens and then all of a sudden everything happens at once, and the best thing for a writer to do is just keep her head down, keep writing. That’s been my experience at least. Like I said, things were quiet for a long time, and then one day Julia called to tell me the book was going to auction, we were getting multiple offers. I laughed a lot and danced, and I think I probably cried too. I drank champagne at eight o’clock in the morning. It’s a day I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

My editor at William Morrow, Emily Krump, brought a fresh perspective to Crooked River and drew out a lot of the best parts. She stayed true to the heart of my story, but every one of her suggestions resonated with me, and it was wonderful to work with her to shape this book into what it is today.

I still consider myself a “young” writer. I’m new at this. Working with Emily and the rest of the team at William Morrow has been a great experience and a wonderful opportunity for me. I’ve learned a lot this past year, I’ve grown as a writer and as a person, I’m still growing, still learning. There are definitely days where I feel like I don’t know what the heck I’m doing, but now I have people I can go to with questions, people who are helping me succeed. I am incredibly grateful for that.

  1. What are you most looking forward to, in terms of the next few months of book launch joy?

Champagne, and an excuse to eat dessert every night if I want, for as long as I feel like celebrating. I published a book! Now, bring me cake! But seriously, even more exciting to me than cake, is that readers are finally getting a chance to spend time in the meadow with Sam and Ollie. Crooked River has been mine for so long, it’s feels good to be passing it on to other people now.

Thanks so much for your time, Valerie, and all these great answers!

Crooked River is available wherever books are sold; find it at your local bookstore or online. Learn more about Valerie at or follow her on Twitter, @valeriegeary.

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Book People Have More Fun…

One of my favorite things about being a publisher is having a reason to network with booksellers, librarians, authors, and fellow publishers. My people! Readers!

We had a booth at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association tradeshow this weekend in Tacoma, Washington, and my authors Dan Berne, Kate Gray, and Ellen Urbani came to speak, sign, and visit with people. Here are some photos.

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Guest Post: Alisha Churbe on “Sometimes Lies Must Be Told”

This is the third guest post on the craft of writing in our series by authors of The Night, and the Rain, and the River, a short story anthology edited by Liz Prato, and published by my press, Forest Avenue Press, following pieces by Trevor Dodge and Steve Denniston.

Alisha Churbe’s story, “All Is Not Lost,” is a remarkable story told in letters by a woman who has found a man’s wallet behind a toilet in the women’s restroom at Darryl’s Pit Stop. It’s one of twenty-two pieces in the short story anthology, featuring writers from all across Oregon, and its aching mix of hope and humor and heartbreak won our hearts.

You can find The Night, and the Rain, and the River at your local bookstore, especially if you live in Oregon, or online as a paperback or ebook.

Welcome, Alisha!

Sometimes Lies Must Be Told

By Alisha Churbe
Alisha Churbe

Alisha Churbe

A friend told me that she forgets fiction doesn’t always have to be 100 percent untrue and inversely non-fiction must be 100 percent true. Black and white. But there are many shades of gray (perhaps fifty). As a writer on either side of the fiction fence, I get to choose my elements and include whatever I decide. If I continue with this metaphor, black could be absolute truth and white as absolute untruth. Fiction may give less boundaries, but there are still rules. Fiction writing will most likely reside in the lighter shades of gray, nearer to white. Nonfiction will fall into the darker shades of gray, closer to black. Know the rules, but also how to break them. Fiction could reside near black by including very true elements (setting, plot, character, etc.) but could have elements of white added (time, character, setting, etc.)

The most successful fiction is true, or at least true enough. Characters can’t be 100 percent lies. Characters need to have mannerisms, flaws, ambitions and speech patterns that are believable and relatable. If the reader can’t relate to the character, they find it tough to care about them. Your character may be blessed with your sister’s style of dress, a co-worker’s voice and your ex-boyfriend’s affection for mayonnaise on everything. Is that character “untrue”? No, but they don’t actually exist. One of my favorite writing exercises begins with, “they are the type of person who ….” I am always amazed at the interesting characters I create in this way. Or I’ll use it as a way to find myself out of or into a new story by getting to know my character better.

TNATRATR Promo Alisha 01Conversely, nonfiction has moments of untruth or grays, despite our best efforts. Put ten people who witnessed an event in a room and ask them to write down what they saw and experienced. You’ll have ten different stories as everyone saw and experienced the event differently; none of the accounts will be all truth, but will vary in shades of darker grays. In writing a story of your grandmother at a specific time, you may mention that your grandmother was wearing a green dress that day. Maybe she wasn’t, but maybe she did have a green dress you particularly remembered. If you said, Nana was in a green dress that day, no one will argue with you. No one was there with you. The only way you’d run into trouble is if you were describing my Gram who happened to hate the color green.  In that case, no one is going to believe you when you say it. I hereby freely admit that I steal things from people I know, meet, and encounter.

When you write non-fiction, they are your memories of your experience.  No one has these same memories–others may share similar memories but not yours specifically.  Even with things like an object or a specific event, others may remember it, but not the same way you do. They may not even have the same feelings you do toward the object or event. They may not even remember it at all. Does that make yours or their story any less true? Nope. In a piece I’m writing about my grandmother, I imagine her telling me about the Great Wall of China and that she wanted to “dance on that wall someday.” I don’t know if she ever truly said that or if I just imagined it as something she would say. I tell my mom and uncle that she said it and it sounds so much like her, they believe it as well.  I don’t remember the time she said it to me, but in my memory, she definitely did so.

As writers, we have certain shades of gray truth that we must follow. There is no rule that says it must be either black or white or else. The beauty resides in the grays. Steal and pillage for character traits, settings, objects, structure, and make it all your own. No one will argue with you.

Thanks so much for this wonderful essay, Alisha!

Alisha Churbe lives in Portland, Oregon, but is always planning her next international escape. If you can pry the pen from her hand, she can be found with her splendid husband, their amusing friends, and a delicious meal with wine. Learn more about her at

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The Handmade Approach to Publishing

When we started talking about making origami cranes for the cover of Kate Gray’s Carry the Sky, our fall release from Forest Avenue Press, I piped up to say I knew how. The designer, Gigi Little, asked me to make some. So I did. And then I made more. And then she crafted them artfully, with lots of time and love and Photoshop effort, into this breathtaking cover:

Carry the Sky Front Cover

An essay I wrote about these cranes, and where the paper came from, is being featured today on Gigi’s blog. Read the whole thing here. Or just read this bit about my beloved paper toilet that met a soggy end, despite how I carefully lined the bowl with Saran Wrap. (I’ve always meant to write an essay about that paper toilet.)

Before that, I made things. At home. An only child, not lonely at all, with popsicle sticks and glitter and pompoms, staples binding my own handwritten books. I made vending machines. I made a paper toilet that one of the neighbor kids used for real. I made cities. It fit that, when offered an array of after-school activities that fifth-grade year, I chose origami over soccer, and began folding neat squares of thin paper into neater, smaller, intricate objects. 

It’s pretty amazing to be involved to this degree in the actual making of a commercial object that is being released on Monday, September 1. I can’t thank Gigi enough for encouraging me to pull out my rusty paper-folding skills and then doing something so lovely with what I made.

And also on the good news front, for this new book that I’ve been working on for fifteen months, and that author Kate worked on for ten years:

hot new release for twitter


It’s a hot new release, according to Amazon, ranked #26 last time I checked, in literary gay and lesbian fiction. It’s about boarding school bullying. Not fitting in. An adult book written with crystalline prose and a mix of heartbreak and humor by an award-winning poet, who I’ve admired for many years from afar and now have the pleasure of publishing.

There’s interior art, too, a series of sixty original illustrations of a crane being folded from a blank piece of paper, illustrations Gigi did based on photographs of mine. Even the ebook features these beautiful pieces thanks to the hard work and patience of our ebook maker Cyrus

Actually, the way the book works matches the process of folding cranes. One chapter builds on the next. There are two teacher protagonists, one female questioning her sexuality and one Asian American male questioning his own sense of ethics, and their stories weave around each other, circling two students who don’t fit in, and taking concepts and phrases and echoing them, embroidering them, always raising the stakes.

We’re also doing a paperback giveaway on Goodreads right nowIf you read it, let me know! 

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Interviews and List Love

I’ve had a big week or two!

Kate Gray’s new novel, Carry the Sky, which I’m publishing Sept. 1 (hint, it’s available online already), tops a recent list of 11 high school books on Bustle.

Read “11 High School Books That Will Take You Back to Your Days in the Schoolyard.”

The article’s author, Melissa Duclos, wrote:

Narrated in alternating chapters by veteran physics teacher Jack Song and first-year rowing coach Taylor Alta, Carry the Sky, which will be released next month by indie publisher Forest Avenue Press (hooray for indies!), offers a gut-wrenching look at life at a prestigious Delaware boarding school from the teachers’ perspectives. At the start of the school year, Song and Alta are both reeling from tragedy: Song’s sister Kim has died of a rare blood disease while Alta’s best friend and fellow rower has recently drowned in the Schuylkill River. But there are more tragedies for them to face from the students they care for, and subsequently let down. The beauty of the language as the novel grapples with layers of grief is one of the best parts of this book — not surprising from an award-winning author of three collections of poetry. Many books about high school deal with bullying, but few explore the ramifications as deeply as Carry the Sky.   

I was interviewed for a piece on the national website Drive the District, by local freelance writer Jon Bell.

Read “Small Shops Keeping Publishing Alive.” Here’s an excerpt:

“As much as Forest Avenue is about innovative publishing and distribution methods, it’s also got one foot planted firmly in the more traditional world of books: real paper books, author events in local bookstores, titles that steer clear of trendy vampires or the next passing craze. Stanfill said she sees the press growing over the next five years, releasing a few titles each year while continuing to support the authors and titles already in its library.”

Finally, I was interviewed by Trista Cornelius for the Writer’s Craft column in VoiceCatcher, a Portland-area women’s literary magazine, about grammar, and I had the chance to talk about whether an apostrophe could show a character’s misogyny. There are great quotes from many other women writers answering these questions from Trista:

When do grammar rules and “correctness” matter in the writing process? Should first drafts be wild and free, or should you craft one sentence at a time letting subject-verb combinations direct your story?




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The Woods, the Words

I spent a week in southern Oregon, with no Internet, no cell phone reception. Just words. And seven other women.

Here are the woods:

DSC09473Here are the women:


Here is a truck that gets moved around the property:


And here is the sign on the door of the cabin I picked:


Here is my workspace:


I made some big changes, made some new friends, and found what I needed most: quiet.


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Quick Update on Being a Publisher

Carry the Sky Front CoverI’ve been absent on and off here, especially this summer, with both kids home and lots of publishing priorities as we gear up to launch Kate Gray’s Carry the Sky, an unblinking look at bullying told from the perspectives of two teachers reeling from their own losses.

It’s been blurbed by a veritable who’s who of impressive authors, including Hannah Tinti, Ron Carlson, Carter Sickels, Christopher Buckley, and Cari Luna, who I featured earlier this year on the Seven Questions Series.

Read all the blurbs, and learn more about the book, at our Carry the Sky catalog page. You’ll hear more as we get closer to our Sept. 1 pub date, but I have another announcement to share.

I fell in love with a book. Okay, another book. This one, in my slush pile, a Hurricane Katrina novel. And today I got to announce that Forest Avenue Press, my press, has acquired it. Today, after lots of reading, and a two-hour walk in the park (literally) with the author, making sure we were on the same so-called page, it’s official.

There are thousands of tiny pieces to putting out a professional trade paperback–miscellaneous decisions, emails to and from the author and reviewers and bookstores, events to plan, blurbs to share–but there are two really big moments in the journey.

One: announcing that a book has been accepted.

And two: the official pub date.

And right now, I’m doing both. We’re less than a month away from the launch of Carry the Sky, with books on their way to my doorstep right this moment, and we’re announcing our 2015 title, Landfall by Ellen Urbani. Ellen’s well-respected memoir, When I Was Elena, came out from The Permanent Press in 2006. I’m so excited to work with her on Landfall.

You can read more about it here.

And psst, I’m going from acquisition straight into looking for potential blurbers, reviewers, and bloggers, so if you have any suggestions about Katrina novels or nonfiction I should read, or New Orleans authors I should reach out to, please let me know! As an Oregon press, with lots of connections here, I’d love any ideas, because I don’t want to miss someone, or some opportunity, that might end up being crucial to this beautiful, heart-wrenching (and yet still funny, in a mannered, polite, southern sort of way) novel.

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