According to Cincinnati author Jessica Strawser, the most important aspect of creating a story is writing from a central question. But her forthcoming novel, Not That I Could Tell, reveals that the answer may be just as important — and sometimes just as dangerous — as the different perspectives that uncover it.
This enthralling thriller, in stores Tuesday, follows a circle of neighbors in small-town Yellow Springs, Ohio, as one of their own, Kristin, and her twin children unexpectedly disappear.
“When I decided on a small town as the best frame for the story, Yellow Springs immediately came to mind, at first simply because it’s one of my favorites and I know it fairly well,” Strawser says.
Not That I Could Tell comes one year after the release of her debut, Almost Missed You, a story in the same mystery-thriller vein and with a Cincinnati setting. The book has won early praise: This month’s Barnes & Noble Best New Fiction list boasts her name along with Danielle Steel, subscription site The Book of the Month compares Not That I Could Tell to Big Little Lies and Publisher’s Weekly bills it as an “engrossing domestic thriller.”
The 38-year-old writer, originally from Pittsburgh, started her career in a much different manner of writing. After graduating from Ohio University in 2001 with a degree in journalism, she began at Cincinnati-based Writer’s Digest magazine, where she worked her way up to editor-in-chief and still contributes as editor-at-large while living in Loveland with her family.
“All of a sudden I was interviewing my favorite novelists and working with some really talented novelists as contributors, and also editing articles on fiction-writing techniques,” Strawser says of her time at the magazine. “I think it would be hard to love it as much as I did and not eventually want to try it for yourself when you’re in that role.”
When interviewing well-seasoned writers, she particularly likes to inquire about their growth and change as professionals. “It’s very interesting. No one ever says they haven’t (changed),” she says.
Strawser admits that she isn’t far enough into her career as a fiction writer to claim significant growth or change. But she hopes to gain more confidence that her ideas will pan out, noting that pulling off a sudden plot twist in Not That I Could Tell is what surprised her most about the writing process.
“I think I still write with a healthy amount of fear that the story is not going to come together,” she says.
The early response seems satisfyingly strong, Strawser says, which is a good sign she’s headed toward the growth she seeks. As far as change goes, she will continue to release work within the genres of suspense and women’s fiction, an intersection under which she is happily categorized — though she wishes the latter title was more relatable.
“I don’t believe that these stories are exclusively of interest to women,” she says. “If it has to do with marriage and family and parenthood, those are all things that 50 percent of those who are engaged in it are men.”
The catalyst for Not That I Could Tell’s multi-layered story is the disappearance of the character Kristin and her children. As a link in the neighborly chain of friends, Kristin plays a small part in the tale but brings the individuals together in a complicated struggle of speculation and doubt.
Among the other characters is Izzy, an independent woman trying to overcome romantic feelings toward her brother-in-law; Clara, a stay-at-home mom who often looks after Hallie, a young aspiring journalist who plays an important role in the evolution of the story; and Rhoda and Randi, a lesbian couple who own a local boutique and often host healing circles and meditation ceremonies for the neighborhood.
Strawser delicately intertwines the lives of these friends, making every detail matter. The story deserves to be absorbed slowly — that way the truly surprising ending can be met with the emotion it’s worth. The setting is equally as important as the characters and plot. Word travels fast in a town that is just over two square miles (in reality and in the book).
“As I focused more intently on the setting, I found wonderful, subtle synergies: For instance, the springs (in Yellow Springs) were historically thought of as healing and the town a place for new beginnings, and some of my characters come to the forefront of the story yearning for exactly that,” Strawser says.
She said the town became a character of its own; a place she got to live at, inside her head, for the year it took to write about it. Throughout the book, she uses actual places and parts of Yellow Springs, where she and her family go for weekend trips.
Readers who have visited Yellow Springs can look forward to familiar places in the book, and those who haven’t should probably go and see why it is such a beloved local destination. Looking ahead, Strawser is under contract for another book, tentatively titled Forget You Know Me, set right here in Cincinnati.
“I think the places I know best will always pull me to write more about them,” she says. “And Cincinnati readers have responded so warmly to Almost Missed You — especially its familiar backdrops around town.”
Jessica Strawser will appear at Joseph-Beth Booksellers (2692 Madison Road, Rookwood Pavilion) for a book-release signing at 7 p.m. Tuesday. More info: josephbeth.com.