Valerie 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.
- 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.
- 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?
Originally, 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
So 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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!