The Julia Keller Interview

Today I chat with the author of Back Home, a Young Adult novel that tells the story Rachel, a 15 year old girl whose father returns from the Iraq War with wounds that affect the whole family. Julia Keller is also the author of Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It (Viking, 2008), which will be published in paperback by Penguin in May 2009. She's a cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune, an essayist for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS and in 2005, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.

How did you decide to write Back Home as a YA book?
I didn't, really. I wanted to tell this story, and the story I wanted to tell happened to be Rachel's. She's 15. It wasn't a conscious decision as much as it was an acknowledgment that the story was there, right there, waiting for me to come along and tell it.

How did you reach the right tone for Rachel?

I hope it's the right tone. Her voice was so present to me, such a part of me. I never had to stop while writing and wonder, "WWRD" (What Would Rachel Do)? I knew. To borrow a phrase from Flaubert, "Rachel, c'est moi."

What type of research did you do on veterans of recent wars?

I read several books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the many superb works of journalism that have come out of these wars. But I want to emphasize that "Back Home" is fiction, not fact. (Because I've worked as a journalist, I often have to remind people of that. A friend asked me what the Brownings thought about how I'd portrayed them. I said, "Um -- they don't exist. I made them up." And she said, "Yeah, yeah, sure -- but did they like the book? Did you call and tell them it was out?")

What are your favorite Young Adult books?
My life was never the same after reading "A Wrinkle in Time" as a kid. "The Hobbit" might not be officially classified as a YA book, but it is. Plus some books that nobody else seems to have read, but that haunt me (in a good way): "The Forgotten Door," "The Artificial Man," "The Five-Dollar-Watch Mystery." I love sports fiction; the great novels by John R. Tunis, such as "Go, Team, Go!" and "Schoolboy Johnson" really resonate. Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" is an aquifer that never runs dry.

Among my contemporaries, I'm a Neil Gaiman fan; my favorite of his books is the story collection, "M is for Magic." Laurie Halse Anderson is another brilliant writer whose works are officially classified as YA -- but which have meaning for anyone of any age. And I'll go to my grave insisting that J.K. Rowling is one of the greatest writers of our generation: she created and populated a fictional world of elegant beauty and impossible authenticity and profound intellectual heft. And her books are fun to read, too; that's no small thing.

The current vampire stuff leaves me cold. There. I said it.

For Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel, how'd you come to choose Gatling as a subject?
I came across his life story in the course of research on another topic, was astonished to find there was no major biography, and set to work. Gatling was a brilliant inventor and a thoughtful individual, a man who embodied the American Dream as it was manifested in the 19th Century: One worked hard, dreamed big, and one's fortunes rose or fell according to one's own talents and efforts -- not charity, not handouts, not shortcuts or good PR. The Gatling Gun represented an intellectual shift as well as a change in armaments. For the first time, one could kill an enemy en masse, not one at a time. The Gatling ushered in a period of terrible destructiveness -- but also signaled to the world that the United States was a new world force to be reckoned with. And it all began in the mind of a man with no formal education, no training, a farmer's son who stepped forth into the world in the 1840s, determined to make his mark. And did.

Did your research for the book change how you view firearms when you set out to write it?

I learned a great deal about the immense significance of firearms to American history. In terms of firearms owned by individuals, I come from a state --West Virginia--that respects the rights of law-abiding gun owners and hunters and sportsmen, and I've always been proud of that. Hunters and sportsmen began the tradition of nature conservation in this country; without them, we very likely wouldn't have the great national park system that we do. And to return to my first point: Without a strong military, which Gatling's invention helped to support and fortify, we wouldn't be the force for tolerance and justice that we are in the world today, and a beacon for democracy I admire our gunmakers and firearms innovators very much.

Did you ever shoot a Gatling gun? What was it like?

I did! And I loved it. I went to several gun shows and Civil War reenactments and was able to fire Gatlings. They are beautifully crafted machines that work exquisitely well. One must be very strong to be proficient at operating a Gatling Gun, but even with my weak-armed pathetic attempt, I could feel and appreciate the gun's tremendous power.

Which of these two books was harder to write?
Interesting question. Hard to say. I think all writing is difficult; it's perfectionism that must be cleverly disguised as effortlessness.

When you won your Pulitzer Prize, what did you do to celebrate?
I went out to dinner that night with the Tribune colleagues who were involved with the series. One always feels a little odd at such times; I mean, winning is wonderful, but so many journalism awards are won for chronicling terrible disasters in which people have suffered and died. My series was about a tornado that ripped apart a small Illinois town. So it's peculiar to be toasting oneself and pasting "I am the greatest!" stickers on one's school locker.

What do you do for column ideas when you're feeling stuck?
Hardly ever happens, to tell you the truth. Keep in mind that I receive dozens of new books each week from publishers, and my problem is usually the opposite: deciding what I have space and time for. So many good books go unremarked upon, which is a pity.

Sometimes I'm astounded by the ridiculous comments people post on newspaper websites. Do you read your comments or interact with your readers?
Two different questions, certainly, because I don't think of reading comments on to be "interacting" with readers. If readers want to reach me, they know where to find me -- and they do! The comments on web sites are too often anonymous; to me, if you won't sign your name, why should anybody listen to you? I sign my name to what I write.

But I do respond to virtually every email sent to me. (The slight hedge is because if the writer is offensive or profane, I don't reply.) I received hundreds of emails after a column I wrote during the presidential primary about the sexist and unseemly media treatment of Sen. Clinton; I replied to every one.

How does it feel to be the 246th person interviewed for
Fabulous! Although I'm secretly jealous of Nos. 1-245.