Valerie Geary's gorgeous debut novel, "Crooked River," is a haunting coming of age ghost story that follows sisters Ollie and Sam, set in Central Oregon. The Source recently sat down with Valerie to explore how "Crooked River" came to life.
Source Weekly: In "Crooked River," the Central Oregon landscape almost serves as a secondary character and is drawn with gorgeous details throughout the book. How did you decide on the setting, and what significance does it have for you as an Oregonian author?
Valerie Geary: I wanted to set "Crooked River" in a place that was special to Sam, a place she loved dearly so when it came time to take it all away from her, she'd fight hard to get it back. I grew up in Oregon, in Albany, and I spent much of my early years outside, tromping through the woods beside my house, camping with my family (often in the Cascades and Central Oregon). The woods were my safe place growing up. Even as an adult, I still find comfort there. It seemed natural, then, to make Sam's special place the meadow, the woods, the river.
I picked Central Oregon because, to me, there's a remoteness here that the Willamette Valley doesn't have. Miles of open space interspersed with small towns. I love the feel of it, the nostalgia, the way it reminds me of being young and running wild. I love the stars. I took liberties with some of the details, of course, to better serve the story, but I hope residents will understand: I reshaped the landscape with love in my heart and a little bit of longing, too.
SW: Your two central narrators, sisters Ollie and Sam, have two very distinct voices. How did you negotiate the challenges of embodying two very different personalities, and manage to weave their perspectives so seamlessly?
VG: I planned on writing "Crooked River" only in Sam's voice. I wrote her chapters first, but when I got to the end, I realized something was missing. This is a story about sisters, and both needed to have their say. The next day I sat down and started writing Ollie's chapters. Eventually, and with a lot of revisions, I was able to weave them together.
Both perspectives were exciting to write, but Ollie's chapters were easier for me. Partly because I had already told one sister's story and knew where we were headed, but I also think this was the case because she and I are both little sisters. I drew a lot from mine and my older sister's experiences growing up. This is not to say that Sam is my sister and Ollie is me—they took on lives of their own as I was writing—but there are shades of us inside both of them.
SW: In the novel, Ollie and Sam's father, Bear, is arrested for the murder of the woman described in the first gripping scene. Both girls believe he is innocent, though Sam admits, "He is not evil. I am not good." This complicated relationship with the concept of good and evil seems to preoccupy your narrative, and coming of age stories in general. Where did your inspiration for the story and its themes originate?
VG: The inspiration for "Crooked River" came after reading an article about a man who left his family, his suburban life, and high-powered job to live in the woods and create art. I couldn't stop thinking about his kids—What were they thinking through all of this? How were they feeling? Ultimately, the book developed into something much more complicated than that, but that article was the spark.
The themes developed more slowly and were something I focused on during revisions, after I understood what kind of story I was trying to tell. I write, in part, to try and make sense of the world, to understand what makes us human and why people act the way they do. I suppose I was interested in examining and pushing back against this idea that we are either one or the other—good or evil. Humans are so much more complicated than that. We are many-layered, and perhaps embody both good and evil. Or maybe we are neither. Maybe we are simply human. Complexly, beautifully human.
SW: What's next for you? Is there a new novel on the horizon?
VG: I am working on a new novel, but it's a work-in-progress, so I'm keeping pretty quiet about the details right now. I will say it's another suspense novel with a broken family at its center, only this time set in a small town in California, and there are no ghosts. Though there's definitely something strange going on. And that's all I'm going to say about that!
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