Cincinnati native David Bell’s latest thriller, The Forgotten Girl, centers on Jason Danvers, a 45-year-old graphic designer in small-town Ohio whose comfortable existence is seriously altered when his wayward younger sister re-enters his life.
Bell’s taut, stripped-down prose propels a story that keeps one guessing until The Forgotten Girl’s final pages, along the way exploring the universal themes of family and community and the inevitable influence each has on Jason as he navigates the increasingly more dangerous situation in which he finds himself.It’s an approach the author has used to churn out six mystery novels in six years, the most notable of which, 2011’s Cemetery Girl, is a haunting, thoroughly engrossing piece of writing that often transcends its prescribed genre.
“My goal as a writer is to entertain people,” Bell says by phone from Bowling Green, Ky., where he teaches creative writing at Western Kentucky University.
“My goal is to write a book that someone will not be able to put down, that someone will be reading at 1 o’clock in the morning, and they have to get up at 7 o’clock in the morning to go to work but they’re saying, ‘I have to read one more chapter even though I have to get up early tomorrow.’ ”
Jason is an easily identifiable Midwesterner, a guy whose seemingly everyday troubles — should he and his wife have kids, is he happy living outside a more exciting and cultured big city? — ground the story’s more heightened genre twists: His childhood best friend disappears on their high school graduation night, a mystery that becomes a big part of the book’s narrative.
“I’m interested in characters who have to make the choice between, ‘Do I do the thing that makes me happy, do I pursue my life, do I pursue my dreams out there in the bigger world or do I honor my commitments to my family and the people closest to me and the people who need the most from me?’ ” Bell says.
“Is it possible to do both? I think that’s one of the struggles Jason’s going through in the book. Can he be content, can he be there for his family and still get the things he wants in life?”
It seems the 44-year-old Bell, who grew up on Cincinnati’s West Side, is doing exactly what he envisioned after studying English at Indiana University; he followed that with an M.A. from Miami University and a Ph.D. from University of Cincinnati in creative writing.
“I’m lucky that at my day job I spend all my time talking about reading and writing,” he says. “The truth is that the more I talk about reading and writing, the more I read my students’ work and talk about their work and read published work and unpublished work, the better I am as a writer, because I have to think about what other people’s writing is doing. And, inevitably by osmosis, I’m learning about my own writing. I feel very fortunate that the two go hand in hand in that way and that I really enjoy my day job.”
Bell is also quick to pinpoint the importance his Cincinnati upbringing has had on his writing.
“I grew up Catholic on the West Side,” he says. “I had tons and tons of relatives and I knew a lot of people, so I think there was this strong sense of community. There was this sense that if something happened to one person a lot of people knew about it, a lot of people could be affected by it. I write about that a lot. I write about communities where when something happens there are ripple effects through a lot of people’s lives.”
And while he has written six books in as many years, along the way picking up a considerable following, don’t think the process of writing them has gotten any easier.
“It’s not like it was for me 15 years ago, when I might have said, ‘Well, shit, I’ve never written a book before, so I don’t even know if I can do this,’ ” Bell says. “I know I can do it, so there is that little bit of confidence, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easier to sit down and stare at a blank screen and say, ‘I’ve got to come up with an idea that’s original and fill 400 pages with it.’ ”
DAVID BELL appears as part of Books by the Banks, which takes over the Duke Energy Center 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. More info: booksbythebanks.org.