Jayne Anne Phillips grew up near the scene of a notorious 1930s murder of a lonely widow and her 14-, 12-, and 9-year-old children in Quiet Dell, West Virginia.
"I've known about it all my life," she says, recalling her mother's stories of souvenir hunters tearing apart the garage in which the killings occurred. Years later, a family friend gave Phillips a small envelope found in an antique dresser that read, in pencil across the front, "Piece of sound-proof board used in the terrible murdering, Aug, 1931."
The accomplished fiction writer turned the story into the mesmerizing Quiet Dell, which Stephen King hailed in 2013 as "the novel of the year." Phillips discusses the book on Thursday, November 6, 2014, at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St., sitting down with Kansas City author Whitney Terrell as part of Terrell's Writers at Work series.
The event is co-sponsored by the Writers at Work Roundtable and the University of Missouri-Kansas City English Department.
Phillips, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark, took an In Cold Blood approach to the story of Asta Eicher, her three children, and their slaying by a con man named Harry Powers, using real names and details of the case and filling in the characters' thoughts, perceptions, and relationships.
The tragedy was one of the first nationally sensationalized crimes in America, preoccupying the rural town and the Depression-era nation for months. Phillips imagines the Illinois family's last year of life and creates a heroine, Emily Thornhill, a Chicago reporter who found herself drawn to the youngest of the slain children - 9-year-old Annabel - and was determined to see Powers convicted.
He was in 1931. Powers, who also had murdered a Massachusetts divorcée, was hanged the following year.
Phillips, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Howard Fellowship, and a Bunting Fellowship from Radcliffe College, has taught at Williams College, Boston University, Harvard University, and Brandeis University. She currently is a distinguished professor of English and director of the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark.
Admission the event is free. RSVP at kclibrary.org or call 816.701.3407. Free parking is available in the Library District parking garage at 10th & Baltimore.