Crooked River, a debut novel by Valerie Geary, is the story of two sisters who go to great lengths to save their father. Fifteen-year-old Sam and her ten-year-old sister, Ollie, don’t know everything about Bear, their beekeeper father. But both girls are certain that he is innocent of murder. Crooked River is a poignant tale of grief, ghosts, crime, and above all, family. I spoke with author Valerie Geary and her editor Emily Krump about the editorial process, what surprises authors after they land a book deal, and more.
Valerie, what inspired you to write Crooked River?
VG I’d been reading a lot about minimalists and people living off the grid, and I came across this article about a man who left his kids to live in the woods where he read books and made art. I kept wondering about those kids, what that must have been like for them. So I started to play around with a story idea about two young girls visiting their reclusive, teepee-dwelling father. The first time I sat down to write, things didn’t go so well. Nothing was really happening; I was bored. So I took a long walk and along the way the question popped into my head: What if the girls find a dead body in the river? And then: What if their father is blamed for the murder? That’s when the story really began to unfold.
Emily, what drew you to this manuscript?
EK There were many things that drew me to Crooked River. The writing is beautiful; the dual narrative felt particularly dynamic because both Ollie and Sam’s voices are so clearly developed; and the characters—big and small—reminded me of people we might know in our own lives. There is a humanity and truth to this story that resonated with me and is captured succinctly in one of Ollie’s lines, “He is not evil. I am not good. We are the same; broken and put back together again.” I think that observation is probably true of everyone. But more than any of these individual elements, I love the way that they all blend together to create a story that really stuck with me and I hope sticks with other readers, too.
Valerie, how did your creative process differ between the short story collection and your novel?
VG Most of my short story ideas seem to come to me fully formed. I know how I want things to start and end and what kind of hoops I want my characters to jump through. This is not to say that the first drafts are perfect. I still go through several revisions, but because short stories are short, they are usually easier to wrangle into something readable. It’s easier to see what’s working and what isn’t and how to fix it. The challenge comes in figuring out the most effective way to tell a great story with a limited number of pages.
Writing a novel, on the other hand, is a huge undertaking. It’s a different kind of commitment. When I get an idea for a novel, it’s just a spark and it takes me a long time and many false starts and practice words to understand the characters and the heart of the story. I give myself a lot of space when I write novels. Meaning: I turn off the inner editor and allow the writing to be bad for a while. Ultimately, I think novel writing requires more faith than short story writing. You spend an enormous amount of time wandering around in the dark, not sure where you’re going exactly, not sure if you’ll ever get there, and even if you do, if it will be worth your while. But you know, you just keep going, keep wandering and poking around in the dark. You trust your process, you trust your instincts, and that’s when amazing things start to happen.
Did you write from alternating perspectives from the outset?
VG Originally my plan was to write Crooked River entirely from Sam’s perspective. When I finished the first draft there were no Ollie chapters, but the book felt lopsided. I decided to try a few chapters in Ollie’s voice and that took everything in a new and very interesting direction. The book really started to come alive. Ollie added such a unique perspective of the events. Working with the first draft as a guide, I plotted carefully and rewrote all of Sam’s chapters. Then I went back to the beginning and wrote all of Ollie’s chapters. It was easier for me to maintain the individuality of each girl’s voice doing it this way. After both girl’s chapters were finished, I cut them together and then went back through and smoothed out the transitions and timing between the two.
Emily, which character fascinated you most in this novel?
EK I love all of these characters, but Bear’s pain and struggle has clung to my subconscious the most. He has tried so hard to be a good father, but in many ways he has failed. We are often taught as young children that if we work hard and do our best that everything will be OK. That is not the case for Bear and yet despite all of this, his daughters still love him fiercely—that is beautiful. And, the idea that a person’s life can go very wrong despite best efforts and good intentions is complicated and fascinating.
Valerie, what about the publishing process has made you cringe most? And what have you enjoyed most?
VG For me, the hardest part of publishing a book is the waiting and uncertainty. When the book is out on submission, the wait is agonizing. But things don’t necessarily get easier after a contract’s signed. There’s still a lot of waiting, a lot of unknowns. This was my first time going through the publishing process. So there were times when–despite an incredibly supportive team of people who answered all my questions (even the stupid ones)–I felt lost and completely unprepared. Times when I found it difficult to manage expectations simply because I’d never gone through anything like this before. I’ve learned a lot about myself this year–a lot about perseverance and patience, about resilience, about letting go of trying to make everything happen at once and just enjoying the journey.
My favorite part was revising the book with Emily. She really drew out some of the best parts of Crooked River, some of my favorite scenes. She brought fresh eyes to the manuscript and was able to see connections that I had let slip. I’m still surprised at the amount of changes the story went through during the revision process. Emily asked great questions and nudged me in directions I wasn’t expecting, but she never explicitly said “You must change this!” I think this allowed me the creative space I needed to shape Crooked River into the book it is today. She really helped show me what I was capable of as a writer and the ways I could push a story. I’m incredibly grateful for that experience!
Emily, what do you find that authors are most surprised by, when it comes to the publishing process?
EK I think most authors are surprised by the large number of people who work on every book we publish at HarperCollins. The last count I heard was that more than 78 people will work on a book from the time it is acquired to publication.
Valerie and Emily, who are some of your favorite contemporary writers?
VG Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Margaret Atwood, Benjamin Percy, Patrick Ness, and Megan Abbott.
EK Excluding authors that I work with some of my favorites are Ann Patchett, Jennifer Haigh, Kate Atkinson, JoJo Moyes, Tom Franklin, Lisa O’Donnell, Gregg Isles, but I could go on and on.
Valerie Geary is the author of Crooked River, a November 2014 Indie Next Great Read. Available now! Her short stories have appeared in Weekly Rumpus, Day One, Menda City Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Foundling Review, the UK publication Litro, and others.
Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice and author of two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway.
Emily Krump has been with William Morrow since 2006, and edits both fiction and nonfiction. She works on a wide range of projects, but is particularly interested in acquiring psychological thrillers, suspense, and smart crime fiction that makes readers think for the Witness list. She is, also, a sucker for well-drawn characters and witty dialogue. Emily lives in Manhattan with her husband.