Literary Indiana: Fiction

From Green to Gulley, check out Indiana’s current novelist greats.
Frank Bill

Frank Bill

A kind of sucker punch to the literary world, Frank Bill’s 2011 debut Crimes in Southern Indiana was a grim romp through the state’s trailer parks and meth labs. Bill, then a self-taught newcomer, wrote the collection of violent short stories in the early-morning hours before leaving for his day job as a forklift driver at a paint-additives factory. Crimes came out of nowhere and dazed the establishment. Playboy excerpted it. GQ made it one of the magazine’s favorite books of 2011. The Daily Beast dubbed it one of the year’s best. Bill’s 2013 follow-up, Donnybrook, left a mark as well. The novel, which details a 20-man bare-knuckle brawl set in the Hoosier sticks, lived up to its billing: “a nightmare vision of the American Heartland.”

First Story: “When I was a kid, I had this small notebook my mother and father bought me. For whatever reason, I decided to use it to write a story about a fighter jet. So I filled the entire notebook with the story, really working it out so that it ended exactly on the last page.”

Excerpt: “Josephine stood in the kitchen, wishing she’d stopped Able before it got this far. Thinking of how she lay in bed, night after night, listening to him worm from beneath the cloth, cross the floor, the squeak of hinges to the bedroom where their granddaughter slept.” (from Crimes in Southern Indiana)

On His Nightstand: The Exiled, by Chris Narozny. “One of the best stories I’ve read in a long while. It crosses the boundaries between literary, crime, mystery, and noir. I can’t say enough about it. It’s dark. Lyrical. Excellent pacing. And it keeps you guessing.”

Susan CrandallSusan Crandall

There are a lot of romance novelists out there, but Crandall established herself as the gifted kind in 2003 with Back Roads, which won the Romance Writers of America award for best first book. After a string of tawdry bestsellers, she branched out in 2013 with Whistling Past the Graveyard, a piece of historical fiction that Publishers Weekly praised. That encouraged her to revisit the genre in this year’s The Flying Circus, set in 1923 and featuring three lost souls on the run—a troubled WWI veteran pilot, a woman of privilege whose family has lost its for-tune, and a farm boy.

First Story: “When I’m asked this, I always wish I could say it was written in crayon by my 5-year-old hand. Alas, I didn’t begin writing until I was in my 30s. The first story was an adventure/love story set on the American frontier.”

Excerpt: “Disaster lived by its own rules. Most times it crept up from behind, wiping out everything with a single blow, a bully and a coward. Lightning strikes. Train wrecks. Someone shoots an archduke and starts a bloody war. But disaster had veered from its sneaky, obliterating path with the Schuler family. It had taken them down one finger flick at a time. First baby Marie. Then Ma. Then Peter. Finally, Pa. For the past five years, Henry had been the last Schuler standing.” (from The Flying Circus)

On Her Nightstand: Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes. “I tell people it’s about a floundering young woman employed to assist a quadriplegic who is desperate to end his own life, and I get a ‘Why would you want to read that?’ look. Here’s why: It’s an incredible story of impossible choices and an examination of humanity. It lifts you up.”

 Michael DahlieMichael Dahlie

Winning the PEN/Hemingway Award for your first novel is a good way to start a writing career. Dahlie managed that and more. After the success of 2008’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living—the tale of a self-doubting Manhattan socialite’s comical unraveling—the author followed it up with The Best of Youth, which drew praise from The Wall Street Journal and Pulitzer Prize–winner Richard Russo. And the Butler creative-writing professor recently founded a summer writing workshop in the French Alps that employs such bestsellers as Cheryl Strayed to teach.

First Story: “I took a creative-writing class at age 22, and wrote a story about being a caddy in New Jersey when I was young. It was kind of sad. The main character had big hopes, but they weren’t going to work out.”

Excerpt: “After escaping from the Nationalist’s prison camp in Sevilla in 1937, I spent three months living in the warehouse of a brush factory, owned by the then prominent Calatrava family. Luis de Calatrava was a rabid Falangist and off killing anarchists in Catalonia when I first sought refuge on his property, and certainly if he caught me there he would have cut out my liver, as was the custom in those days.” (from his upcoming, as-yet-unnamed novel)

On His Nightstand: Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag. “I’m teaching a course on it this fall. One of the questions that always comes up in my writing classes is, ‘How can we understand the experience of others?’ This book may help answer that.”

 Cathy DayCathy Day

How do you follow a successful first book of fiction and a second of nonfiction? For Ball State professor Cathy Day, the answer is a bit of both. Her latest tale combines fact and fantasy, reimagining the lives of real people. The as-yet-untitled book is about Linda Lee, whose second marriage was to a talented but then-unknown gay composer named Cole Porter. It follows Day’s acclaimed story collection–turned–award-winning musical, The Circus in Winter, and her memoir of heartbreak, Comeback Season.

First Story: “In fifth grade, I wrote a story called ‘Superfrog.’ It was basically the plot of Superman—with frogs instead of people. So, like a lot of writers, my first story was fan fiction.”

Excerpt: “There are two kinds of books about marriage: the kind that ends with a wedding, and the kind that begins with one. You need to understand that this is the latter.” (from her upcoming, as-yet-unnamed book)

On Her Nightstand: Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie. “I’m writing a chapter in my novel where Linda and her first husband travel up the Nile, so I’m reading it for research. Also for fun.”

John GreenJohn Green

It’s easy to forget that just a few years ago, Green would have been one of the least-known authors on this list. In 2006, his first novel, Looking for Alaska (currently being adapted by Paramount Studios), won the Printz Award for young adult fiction, but follow-ups An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns were only modest successes. Then came 2012’s The Fault in Our Stars, a teenage cancer drama that dominated the New York Times bestseller list and became a $300 million movie. Not since Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has an Indiana author made such a splash.

First Story: “In third grade, I wrote a story called ‘It Just Isn’t Fair’ about a nerdy third-grader who learns to be popular after his friend tells him what kind of Swatch watch to buy. Considering how terrible it is, it was received very positively by my family and my teacher.”

Excerpt: “‘I’m in love with you,’ he said quietly. He was staring at me, and I could see the corners of his eyes crinkling. ‘I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.’” (from The Fault in Our Stars)

On His Nightstand: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “I’ve actually read the thing twice in the past month. It has been a long time since any nonfiction book felt so revelatory and exciting to me.”

Phil Gulley fiction authorPhilip Gulley

Although he’s well known for his controversial theological books (and charming Back Home Again column in IM), Gulley made a name for himself writing the Harmony novels. You can almost hear Garrison Keillor narrating the folksy series that began in 2002 with Home to Harmony. Set in a fictional Indiana hamlet and following the adventures of Quaker pastor Sam Gardner, the stories clearly evoke Gulley in his hometown of Danville. After finishing eight of the novels (and selling millions of copies), Gulley recently reintroduced the character in a new series that continues with this fall’s A Lesson in Hope.

First Story: “It was the first essay in my first book, Front Porch Tales. The story was about a farmer who beat his trees with a newspaper to make them grow. Apparently, it stimulates sap production, which in turn stimulates growth. Ever since, I’ve gotten hate mail from kids whose parents thought it might work on them.”

Excerpt: “When I was in the second grade, my teacher, Miss Maxwell, read from The Harmony Herald that one of every four children lived in China. I remember looking over the room, guessing which children they might be. I wasn’t sure where China was, but suspected it was on bus route three. I recollect being grateful I didn’t live in China. I didn’t care for Chinese food and couldn’t speak the language.” (from Home to Harmony)

On His Nightstand: The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough. “It’s a popular book,” Gulley says with a grin. “Flying off the shelves.”

Koryta fiction authorMichael Koryta

As fans go, Stephen King is a good one for a crime novelist to have. Koryta’s dark thrillers impressed King so much that the master of suspense now reviews and endorses some of the Bloomingtonian’s books. Beginning with Tonight I Said Goodbye in 2004, Koryta strung together 11 New York Times bestselling novels, almost all of which have been optioned for films. Some, like the French Lick–set So Cold the River, draw heavily on his Hoosier roots. This year’s Last Words explores another familiar landscape as a girl dies in a Southern Indiana cave and investigators clash with the eccentric they believe is responsible. Like the caverns themselves, it’s easy to lose yourself in these narratives.

First Story: “When I was 7, I attended the Young Author’s Conference with a story, and began reading by saying ‘Chapter One: The Ambush.’ The teacher laughed, and I remember looking up at her with real confusion, thinking, ‘This lady does not understand the material. There’s nothing funny about an ambush.’”

Excerpt: “‘What do you think the odds of Ethan’s being struck by lightning are?’
‘Slim. It’s a possibility in our current environment, certainly, but still slim.’
‘And his odds of dying if he decides to delay us needlessly?’
‘Oh, I’d say they’re substantial.’” (from Those Who Wish Me Dead)

On His Nightstand: Paradise Sky, by Joe Lansdale. “He has an ear for dialogue and such an incredible wit that the stories just hum.”

 Margaret McMullanMargaret McMullan

It has been a busy year for McMullan, who released two books in 2015, and now writes full-time after retiring from a 25-year career at the University of Evansville. The most recent titles are her seventh novel, Aftermath Lounge, and Every Father’s Daughter, an anthology of essays she edited by female writers such as Jane Smiley and Alice Munro. The former Fulbright Scholar and Indiana Authors Award winner has been particularly successful writing YA novels, including the Civil War–era drama How I Found the Strong.

First Story: “When I was in high school, Mrs. Alva Lowey was my English teacher. She was the first reader I really tried to please. I wrote a story called ‘Bees,’ and she submitted it to the National Scholastic Contest. I won $50, a gold pen, and a hug from Mrs. Lowey. I knew then writing would be my life’s work.”

Excerpt: “They rolled down the truck’s windows on the drive back toward the gulf. The air was cool and perfect, and the sun had just finished setting. Catch pointed out a light near the shore, a lone fisherman spearing flounder. The evening was beautiful and calm, the sky already full up with stars the size of prawns … How could it have ever been anything but this? It was hard to imagine all that water coming up so high and so far. Twenty-two dead in Pass Christian, and they were still finding bodies.” (from Aftermath Lounge)

On Her Nightstand: Times Square and Other Stories, by William Baer, Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, Independence Lost by Kathleen Duval. “Even though I’ve finished reading most of these books, some of the authors are friends. So it’s special to keep them nearby, read a passage from one, and remind myself of how lucky I am to know such smart people.”

Barbara ShoupBarbara Shoup

As successful as her three adult novels were (she won the Indiana Authors Award in 2012), Shoup’s YA titles put her on the map. Last year’s Looking for Jack Kerouac earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and she counts John Green among her fans. When she’s not dreaming up misadventures for adolescents, she’s bringing in speakers and leading workshops as the executive director of the Indiana Writers Center.

First Story: “I wrote my first novel, Slave Girl, when I was 11—the story of an African-American girl escaping from a Southern plantation by way of the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, I thought the Underground Railroad was a subway, and had her sneaking onto it in Atlanta and emerging free in New York City.”

Excerpt: “‘Jim Morrison was twenty-seven, Jax. A baby. Joplin, Hendrix. Babies. Mama Cass, stoned, choking on a goddamn ham sandwich. Belushi, even. Babies, all of them. But let’s talk about Elvis! Elvis made it to 42, a fat, pill-popping slob. A spoiled brat. “Bring me girls! Bring me cheeseburgers!” This guy made fucking up an art form … He was the king, all right! Of fucking up.’” (from Wish You Were Here, which was on a 100 Most Banned Books list)

On Her Nightstand: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs. “The true, heartbreaking story of a brilliant African-American kid who, despite his Yale education, was incapable of making a life beyond the neighborhood that both nurtured and destroyed him.”

James ALexander ThomJames Alexander Thom

Thom wrote contemporary fiction until he penned a book about George Rogers Clark for the Indiana Historical Society in 1979. The rest has been history. His 10 historical novels have sold more than 2 million copies and immersed readers in our forgotten frontier past, whether it’s Mary Draper Ingles’s 1755 abduction in Follow the River or a Civil War steamboat explosion in Fire in the Water, published last month. A former magazine writer, Thom was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame. He also received the first Indiana Authors Award. Perhaps his biggest honor: Members of the Shawnee Nation adopted him in 1989.

First Story: A short one about an orphan he saw sitting by the road when he was a Marine in Korea. He submitted it to The Saturday Review of Literature, which declined it but praised Thom’s prose. “That rejection slip kept me going for a long time.”

Excerpt: “It is woman who carries most of the burden of the People … in her heart, in her womb, in the cradleboard on her back, in the slain body of her son across her lap. It is woman who carries most of it.” (from Panther in the Sky)

On His Nightstand: Archy and Mehitabel, by Don Marquis. “It’s just some of the best poetry and the most imaginative, funny stuff ever written.”

Dan WakefieldDan Wakefield

Name a kind of writing, and Wakefield has done it. Journalism. TV. Fiction. Nonfiction. Memoir. Even spiritual autobiography. He’s best known for his 1970 Indy-set novel Going All the Way, about two young, oversexed Korean War vets. (He also wrote the screenplay for the 1997 movie.) His buddy Kurt Vonnegut predicted that Wakefield’s candid portrayal of their hometown would turn the city against him, and it did for a while. But the grudge faded, and Wakefield—who had lived out of state for nearly 50 years—moved back in 2011. His novel about the World War II home front, Under the Apple Tree, was reissued in September, and he’s working on another.

First Story: As a kid at School 80, he wrote a story called “Lateral Pass.” “I had read a lot of boys’ books about football and basketball, so I wanted to try one myself.”

Excerpt: “World War II had been a fun war, full of glamour and glory, but Korea was just a bore, a national nuisance, drab as olive. His whole generation had been stuck with it, but somehow the young man took it as a personal piece of bad luck. Just the sort of thing that was always happening to him.” (from Going All the Way)

On His Nightstand: Meanwhile There Are Letters, edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan. “It’s the correspondence between a hard-boiled L.A. mystery writer named Ross Macdonald and a highly-regarded Southern novelist named Eudora Welty. They’re discussing their problems as writers.”

Ben WintersBen Winters

This author first caught our attention with his classic mashups Android Karenina and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Both playful and literary, those titles drew praise from The Onion A.V. Club. But it was 2012’s The Last Policeman, the first book in a trilogy, that cemented Winters as one of Indiana’s most important writers. In those novels, a detective investigates murders and disappearances as society prepares for a massive asteroid impact. The series gathered accolades from NPR and Slate, heightening anticipation of his upcoming novel, Underground Airlines, which publishes in early 2016.

First Story: “When I was in fifth grade, I wrote a series of stories about a pig named Piggy Wiggy. In each of them, he would die in some spectacular way. My friend would illustrate them. As I recall, they were quite popular with our fellow students.”

Excerpt: “People are building rocket ships, people are taking multiple wives, people are shooting indiscriminately in public places, people are setting fire to themselves, people are studying to be doctors while doctors quit work and build huts in the desert and sit in them and pray. The conscientious detective is obliged to examine the question of motive in a new light, to place it within the matrix of our present unusual circumstance. The end of the world changes everything, from a law-enforcement perspective.” (from The Last Policeman)

On His Nightstand: The Dopeman’s Wife, by JaQuavis Coleman. “This is what they call Urban Lit, which effectively means ‘having to do with black people.’”


Opening SpreadLiterary Indiana: The Next Chapter
Indiana’s Fiction Writers
Indiana’s Nonfiction Writers
Indiana’s Poets