Ask the Author | Rebecca Keller

Internationally exhibited artist and Fulbright Scholar Rebecca Keller discusses her work and her debut novel, “You Should Have Known.” Keller was in conversation with Abby Geni about her book at Prairie Lights on April 23.


Photo contributed by Julia Borcherts

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

Rebecca Keller is an internationally exhibited artist from Chicago, a professor of art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and most recently an author. She has been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and has hosted a TED talk in Chicago on her exhibit, “Excavating History.” Her debut novel, a suspense and thriller story titled “You Should Have Known,” was published on April 4, 2023. She was in conversation with fellow author Abby Geni about her book at Prairie Lights on April 23.

The Daily Iowan: Do you think your background in art and passion for art has influenced this novel in any way?

Rebecca Keller: Not so much the novel as much as it influenced me as a writer because, I mean, I started writing after years. I’d never had any formal education until way later in the game. But there are certain things that I realized as I was teaching myself, so I was trying to figure this out, certain things I realized that were analogous to art making, or to learning how to be an artist. And one was about understanding how to take in feedback and critique. Because you have to have kind of a dual thing: you have to be open to it and take it in without being defensive and try to figure out what it is they’re saying, good or bad, but at the same time, you have to be able to recognize when something is going to be helpful to you and when something just is not really central to what you’re trying to do. Not that it’s illegitimate, but not everybody’s reader is your reader.  And so, there were certain aspects about learning that and also a kind of stubbornness of just not throwing in the towel. I mean, I joke with my students that I took up writing because I wasn’t getting enough rejection and working for no money as an artist. You have to be pretty stubborn and committed and just willing to just do the work without any guarantee that you’ll find anybody to support it.

DI: As a new fiction writer, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Keller: I think it’s the thing about giving and receiving feedback, learning to do it without defensiveness but to just take it in and sit with it. And also slowly develop a sense of when feedback is helpful, when it’s something to be able to use, when you maybe put it in your back pocket, when you think “That’s just not something that is helpful for me in my process.” So that’s one thing, I think. I read differently now than I used to, for better or worse. I often will come upon a passage and say, “Well, that’s interesting. That’s an interesting choice that the writer made.”  And thinking “Why is this here?” and paying attention to structure, like “How is this narrative structured?” So those kinds of things I read differently, and someone gave me a piece of advice that I thought was just really interesting and smart. They said to read the first books of people that you like, of authors that you’d like and the reason that they gave was that they said the seams show a little bit more in earlier work, and I don’t know if that’s always true, but some people’s first novels are my favorite novels of theirs. I thought that was a really interesting approach to get a read of the earlier work of people that maybe you came to know because of later work and to kind of see how they developed. I thought that was pretty interesting advice. So, I’ve tried to do that inconsistently.

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DI: Are there any other projects you are working on or looking to work on in the future?

Keller: Well, good question. Before I was offered a contract for this book, I had been quite deeply into another one and into writing another one. And I think it will be good when I finish it. Because this publication came up and life has been very crazy, I’m feeling a little bit distant from it, like I need to reconnect with it, which I think I will do this summer — that’s my hope. It is definitely not easy in any genre. I mean, maybe family drama, if that’s even a genre. There’s a difference between genre and marketing category. Or maybe there’s a difference between them, anyway. And so, this book is definitely not a mystery in any way. But it is character and language-driven just as You Should Have Known is character and language-driven as well as plot-driven, so I don’t know what will happen. The publisher, Crooked Lane, tends to focus on more mysteries, so I don’t know if they’ll be interested in this one. I may be back to square one trying to find somebody to publish the book. But coming off of your question, circling back around to it, I have also had a number of people say to me, “I hope you write more about Fanny or about the other residents that she gets to know and that populate ‘You Should Have Known,’” and it had occurred to me several times that some of the other characters — you know, when you’re writing, you have your main character, but then with other characters, you are like, “Wow, they’re an interesting person.” And so, there’s a few of those. So, it has occurred to me that I might circle back around and pick up another story in Ridgewood, which is the name of the assisted living facility, and do sort of a book cycle with this place as a unifying of the cast of characters and the place kind of connecting them.