Welcome to the Literary Road Trip and my Spotlight on . . . Kristin Bair O'Keeffe. Kristin's debut novel, Thirsty, begins in the 1880s in Croatia with Klara's teenage dreams of getting out of her father's house to find a better life. When the teenager meets Drago, a traveler looking for a night's lodging, she decides to take a chance. Klara, however, is ill-prepared for the reality of married life in Thirsty, Pennsylvania, on the hillsides outside of Pittsburgh.
This historical novel may start off sounding liking like a romance, but Thirsty is a story about self-preservation, family violence, and the hope that's found in friendships and motherhood. I have only just begun the book, but I am already drawn into the story.
You might wonder why Kristin set her immigration story in a small town in western Pennsylvania instead of, say, New York City. Let's find out.
As a writer, I’m deeply inspired by place. Certain towns, geographic nooks and crannies, countries . . . places where as soon as I step a single toe for the very first time, I feel something. A kind of magical, mystical roaring in my soul. A roaring so insistent that once it starts, the only way for me to quiet it is to write about the place that triggered it.
Are there other things in the world that inspire me?
Of course, but not in the big, knock-you-silly, bowl-you-over kind of way that a place does.
China—where I’ve been living for the last four years—gets my soul roaring.
New Mexico—especially the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where the bears ramble around the woods like great huffing boxes of muscle—gets my soul roaring.
And Pittsburgh—my hometown and the setting of my debut novel Thirsty—well, heck yeah, that city and its steel-making history gets my soul roaring, too. So much so that in 1987 when I was an undergraduate at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, I wrote a poem called “Crumbling Steeples” about the crash of the steel industry, Pittsburgh, and my grandfather. Once the poem got published, I figured I was done telling stories about steel in Pittsburgh.
Well, obviously I was not.
Because when Klara Bozic—the main character in Thirsty—started floating around in my head in the early 1990s, I quickly discovered that she lived in a small steel community in Pittsburgh.
The good thing was that I was already familiar with the geography of Pittsburgh. After all, I’d grown up there. My maternal grandparents lived in Clairton, one of Pittsburgh’s most dynamic steel towns, and my grandfather worked in a steel mill. As a kid in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house, and from their back porch, I could see the smokestacks of the mills puffing away, shooting steam and flames into the polluted, marbled sky. The air was gritty and stunk like rotten eggs, and when my sisters and I walked to the end of the road, we could watch the barges pulling steel up the Monongahela River.
So I set to work, and as I wrote Thirsty, I used the geography of Pittsburgh to mirror the emotional challenges Klara faces in her marriage to Drago: the wending Monongahela River, the rocky outcrops, the sheer hillsides. If you’ve ever visited the Pittsburgh area, you know that it has many very steep, very long hills. (And I mean, very steep, very long.) Klara spends a good bit of time ascending and descending these hills; she spends a good bit of time doing the same in her marriage.
I’m not sure I was conscious of all this while writing the first or second draft of the book, but I sure was by the time I reached the serious rewriting stage. In fact, when I was working on the scene in which Klara goes into town to get her hair cut, I made sure she took the steepest, longest route . . . because this was a significant decision for her. She couldn’t get there easily either emotionally or physically.
By the time I finished writing Thirsty, I was satisfied that the physical geography and the emotional geography were well matched. I was also exhausted . . . all those hills are tiring.
Because I can be drawn to a book based purely on the setting, I was fascinated to learn some of the ways a particular place can influence and inform the writing process. Thanks so much for sharing this with us, Kristin.
I was unable to find a really great (free) photo of just how steep the hills around Pittsburgh can be, but if you're interested, check out this link from Pittsburgh Skyline. Scroll down a bit and you'll start to see just how exhausting it could be to walk the streets of Thirsty, Pennsylvania.
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of Thirsty, an American living in China, and a native Pittsburgher. Her debut novel tells the story of a Croatian immigrant woman’s journey through an abusive marriage, set against the backdrop of a Pittsburgh steel community at the turn of the twentieth century. To find out more, visit the novel's website or Kristin’s blog. Be sure to follow her on Twitter (@kbairokeeffe).
For more posts in the Literary Road Trip project, visit the LRT link page. Thanks to Michelle of GalleySmith for hosting this fabulous project.