Poet and fiction writer Jennifer Keith finished her novel The Blurred Girl last December in a blurry, extra-busy life mode, amid working her full-time job and caring for her terminally ill mom. Unfamiliar with the process of shopping a book-length narrative — and woefully short on spare time — she decided to publish her entire novel via an artfully designed author’s website, and hope that an agent and/or contract for book two would follow. I talked to her about the story, the publishing project, and the results.
I’ve only just begun the pleasantly disturbing book. Tell me what happens in The Blurred Girl without telling me everything that happens?
The novel takes place in 1977, and it’s about Iris Beck and her friends who are getting ready to graduate high school. They’re discovering all this new stuff — punk rock music, falling in love, getting high. A neighbor gets killed, and Iris gets the feeling that the accident is somehow tied to something that happened in the town back in 1939 — a family disappeared from their house and were never found. So the story is about growing up in that late 1970’s era, but also about the kids’ parents, those Depression-era folks who were so, so good at keeping secrets.
How did the website concept become a reality?
I started talking to two of my best longtime friends, Louis Maistros, author of The Sound of Building Coffins, and Karen Klinedinst, the most talented designer I know. The more I talked to them, the more I realized I could make a place online where the novel could just live and be, and that place could also hold some poems and eventually some music, too.
Have you found other (unpublished) author sites you admire?
I love the whole idea of blogs, because I think that’s where some of the purest, best writing is these days. You can discover them, and they’re just crackling with energy, because the writing isn’t being put through the veal-fattening process of manufacturing “product.”
How will you continue to make use of the literary site long-term?
It’s a handy way to make a portfolio of all the things I like to do — if someone wants to know what I’m up to artistically, it’ll be there. In a way, there’s a common feel to a lot of stuff that I write — this kind of American Gothic sensibility with a big dollop of poetry and romance. So I would hope that people who like that kind of feeling can go there.
How did you put it together so beautifully?
That’s Karen’s genius, and I’m not saying that because she’s my bestie. It’s just that she knows me so well, and she has been so supportive of my writing for almost 25 years. She does these amazing landscape photographs that are just perfect for the feel of what I try to write: her images feel very old, mysterious, haunting, and just achingly beautiful. And she’s really good at making what’s essentially a blog site into something a lot more. Best of all, she was patient and taught me how to control the content, make edits, and run the site myself. At 52, I’m a little behind the curve on this stuff.
What has been the reaction so far?
Honestly, it’s been pretty low-key. A few friends have finished the novel, but not many. I’m hoping to load up some more poems…since I’m writing them again. I kind of did this as an experiment — I figured if the novel is good, people will read it, and if someone wants me to write another one, I already have it in my head. I had been thinking of publishing through an online distributor like Amazon, but only if it kind of caught fire on the site, which it hasn’t, so I’m not sure if I’m going to follow through with that…
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m back into the poems and playing bass. I write formal poems and they take a long time to make. My mother died in March, and I’m grieving her like crazy, but I also cannot deny that suddenly I have this amazing wealth of time on my evenings and weekends. So I’m looking to get very busy and start producing the stacks of stuff in my mind that I have put on hold.
Here’s the link to The Blurred Girl’s Chapter 10. Iris is at her new boyfriend Curtis’s house having a snack in the kitchen while Dory, Curtis’s affable mom, is doing dishes. Iris finds her way into the dining room and notices a photograph of Curtis’s family, which looks perfectly normal except for one very strange detail.
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