Paint it Noir
By Dr. Derek Nikitas, Director, Bluegrass Writers Studio
I met Kelly Braffet a couple years ago when we were both guest “thriller” authors at the Southern Kentucky Book Festival. We were almost seated together, if not for the incongruous wedge of a perfectly pleasant “inspirational” writer. I don’t remember that author’s name, but she’d churned out about ten books in a couple years.
Ms. Inspiration asked me, “What do you write?”
“Noir,” I said, and she asked, “What’s that?”
“Sort of the opposite of yours,” I quipped.
Kelly Braffet might’ve given the same answer. Turns out, we’re sort of kindred spirits in that regard. I bought a copy of Braffet’s release at the time, Last Seen Leaving, and promptly devoured the tense, danger-laden, dueling POV tale of a mother and her “missing” daughter.
This was my kind of story—not a thriller in the Lee Child sense, not even a whodunit mystery, per se. Rather, the thrills arose from characters who are always on the edge of irredeemable behavior, who are trying to maintain the pilot light of humanity inside themselves, even as the world tries to snuff it. The mystery of what drives them and what they’re capable of—that’s what keeps you reading.
I invoke Ms. Inspirational for another reason. One of her books, she told me, was about a goth girl who leads a devil-marked life before turning to Jesus. I don’t think Kelly overheard that conversation, but I had to smile (devilishly) when I opened Kelly’s new novel, Save Yourself (which title sounds suspiciously like a kiss-off response to someone’s evangelical efforts).
There in those grungy pages I found the former-fundamentalist-darling-turned-gothic-teenage-nightmare, Layla Elshere. Here she was, Ms. Desperation.
Layla is the novel’s enthralling linchpin for the major players Patrick Cusimano (the damaged love-interest of sorts) and Verna Elshere (Layla’s as-yet-uncorrupted little sister). But Layla is also a total wildcard, confident in herself even as her life spins out of control, her motives hardly clear to anyone. Does she have a plan to ruin these people’s lives out of spite, is she trying to save them, or is she oblivious to the consequences of her actions? Braffet isn’t afraid to seek out the tension and dread inside moments of silence and horrifying routine. The momentum—the gradual unwinding of character—is what drives the novel to its outwardly thrilling climax.
Needless to say, I’m just the audience for a book like Save Yourself. It’s rife with characters essentially good but emotionally crippled. They’re walking into a war virtually unarmed, and you just want to see how (if) they’ll survive. It’s all perfectly complemented by its suburban Pittsburgh, Rust-Belt backdrop, where time stopped in roughly 1989, there’s still a winter overcast in June, and extras from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead continue to prop up the bar after fifty years.
No, this is not “inspirational” fiction, per se—though it does speak truth about the human spirit. It also speaks to Kelly Braffet’s literary gift: her stark, gritty realism and her command of the emotional landscape of pain and longing. Sure, she kinda might be the Kay Adams of the American literary Corleone family (she might also have me killed for that crack…) but she wields a unique power all her own.
Kelly Braffet will be joining the Bluegrass Writers Studio’s Winter Residency 2014 at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 8th. Her reading, in the Triple Crown Room (second floor) at the Lexington Downtown Hilton) is free and open to the public.
To learn more about Kelly Braffet, visit her website here.
To see the Bluegrass Writers Studio’s full Winter Residency lineup, visit our site here.
If you’d like to know more about our low-residency MFA program, contact us here.
Published on December 23, 2013