Book Series Binge: Introduction from A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller

When Julia Keller was blindsided by how the drug crisis had drastically affected her hometown along the Ohio River, she was at a loss for what she could do to help at first... and then she turned to fiction.

Read on for Julia Keller's introduction to A Killing in the Hills, the first book of the Bell Elkins novels, and find out why Julia started writing the series.

Stories to the Rescue
Why I Wrote A Killing in the Hills

A few years ago I was sitting at my desk in the newsroom of the Chicago Tribune, armed with the two essentials of my craft, in order of importance: a cup of coffee and a computer. I was checking out the competition, clicking through the digital front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times. The news was unfortunate, but also predictable and familiar: natural disaster, political scandal, weather anomaly.

And then I saw it.

That day, the Los Angeles Times published the second part of a series it called “The Heroin Road.” The headline read, “Black tar moves in, and death follows.” The dateline was “Huntington, W.V.”

My hometown.

Somehow, in the decades since I had left what Times reporter Sam Quinones dubbed in the article “a struggling former railroad depot,” Huntington had become home to what he called “a flourishing trade in crack cocaine and other drugs.”

I was shocked. How had the chipper, happy-go-lucky Ohio River town of my youth—the kind of place where my friends and I would ride our bikes on unpaved roads long after dark and catch crawdads in the creek that threaded through the woods—become squalid and menacing, pockmarked by abandoned houses in which addicts slumped and drowsed?

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Since my gut punch of an epiphany that day, the nation as a whole has gone through something similar: a realization that the drug crisis in Appalachia is a catastrophe. The Los Angeles Times has been joined in its coverage by The New York Times, The New Yorker, USA Today, and National Public Radio, among many, many others. Name your news outlet and chances are, it has sent a reporter to Huntington, or a town very like it, to chronicle this ongoing public health emergency.

So everybody knows the problem. They likely know the putative causes, too: Job losses brought on by the slow death of the coal industry. Isolation. Poverty. An initial unwillingness to acknowledge how ferociously addictive even legitimately prescribed opioids can be.

The real question is: What can we do about it?

For a short while, I thought I knew. I entertained do-gooder fantasies about moving back to Huntington. I’d run for mayor. I’d raise funds for rehab facilities. I’d persuade Oprah Winfrey to do a show from Ritter Park, the town’s crown jewel, to lift our spirits.

I quickly realized, however, the arrogance and impracticality of my high-minded scheme. I’m not a politician or an addiction counselor. And I don’t have Oprah’s cell number.

But maybe there was something I could do, after all.

I’m a novelist. While many, many words have gone toward describing and quantifying the Appalachian virus—drug addiction—most of those words have been nonfiction. And fiction has a special role to play in times of urgent social, moral, and political reckoning.

Fiction has a unique responsibility—a responsibility to resist easy answers and to reject stereotypes. It calls upon readers to imagine themselves into other peoples’ lives, to put on another person’s skin, as it were, and to see the world another way.

Because fiction provides a sort of side door into momentous topics. There are superb historical accounts of the Great Depression— but it is The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck that gives us a powerfully visceral sense of the spiritual and physical tumult of economic dislocation. Factual recapitulations of World War I abound—but to get to the emotional truth of it, we turn to works such as A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, with its lilting insistence on the improbable significance of a single human life.

So I began to write A Killing in the Hills. I wanted readers to understand what it feels like to live in the shadow of the mountains, in a place where, as a friend from my hometown puts it, “the only way out is up.”

Fiction has a unique responsibility—a responsibility to resist easy answers and to reject stereotypes. It calls upon readers to imagine themselves into other peoples’ lives, to put on another person’s skin, as it were, and to see the world another way.

I still cannot quite believe what has happened to my hometown. Huntington is filled, for the most part, with decent, hardworking, and now heartbroken people, people who look around and wonder how we got here.

And so I have continued to add novels to my series: After A Killing in the Hills, there are Bitter River, Summer of the Dead, Last Ragged Breath, Sorrow Road, Fast Falls the Night, and soon, Bone on Bone. They are mysteries, and I hope they are entertaining, but I also hope they provide some small insight into the greatest mystery of all: other people.

Against the steep gray rock face of the vast and towering problems that afflict my hometown, I aim the tiny pickax of my words. I strike that flinty surface over and over again, hoping to see a spark.

At times they can seem pointless, these made-up stories reflecting the wounded humanity of the people I grew up with. Indeed, words alone can’t change anything. But no change is possible without them, without the narratives that remind us that no matter what terrible thing we have done, we are all worthy of one more chance.

—Julia Keller

Get the eBook of A Killing in the Hills for only $6.99.

Get the latest Bell Elkins novel—The Cold Way Home—right here.


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