Rebecca Keller has been a visual artist almost her entire life — and has garnered numerous accolades for her work. But with the debut of her first novel, You Should Have Known, she is exploring a different creative outlet — and is already receiving positive reviews for her effort.
“I don’t know if I ever made a conscious decision to transition from one medium to another. I’ve continued making visual art. I just installed a solo exhibition at the Evanston Art Center. I’ve [now] added another artistic pursuit for which you work really hard for little or no money on top of another of the same,” she said, laughing.
Keller has been a member of the faculty of the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), where she teaches in three departments — sculpture; art history, theory and criticism; and art education — for more than two decades. She has exhibited her work internationally and is the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, among other honors.
But she also has been writing short stories for many years — it fit into her busy life as an artist and teacher and mother. But about 10 years ago, one of her short stories gave her the germ of an idea for the book that eventually became You Should Have Known.
She was interested in exploring a character with a morally complicated life — someone with a strong moral compass who steps off the straight-and-narrow path. Her central protagonist, Frannie Greene, is such a person.
“If you look at a lot of compelling stories where someone does something really terrible, but with whom we still connect, it’s because we sense that they are justified — that they are trying to get justice and the world is not cooperating so they are forced to take matters into their own hands,” Keller said.
During the course of the novel, Frannie is presented with the opportunity to exact vengeance against someone who has nearly destroyed her entire family. Her decision is an errant impulse in an otherwise exemplary life. And the reader is still rooting for her.
While thinking about her main character, Keller also decided to focus on someone who was older — because older people, especially women, are invisible in our society. Frannie’s invisibility gives her a kind of freedom, however, because who is going to suspect an elderly lady?
Keller’s choice of setting is a major aspect of the book. Watching her own mother move into an assisted-living facility confirmed Keller’s sense that it would be a great setting for a book.
“There is a reason so many books are set in semi-enclosed environments — small towns, schools, dormitories, etc.,” said Keller. “Every motivation becomes amplified, everybody knows one another, and secrets are hard to keep. In an assisted-living facility, this situation is compounded by the fact that residents come in with their whole life histories, and their memories might not be accurate. They are at a point in their lives where they are reflecting, with a certain amount of wisdom, but also straining at the bounds that their current situation is imposing.”
Keller had experience working in a nursing home after college and engaged with senior citizens as an educator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. As part of her research for the book, she talked with doctors, nurses and administrators at senior residences to make sure that a major plot point was realistic.
After writing the manuscript — and rewriting it twice — Keller embarked on the journey of convincing an agent to promote it to a publisher. It was a rocky road, filled with lots of rejections, even though she won a Novel Slice Award for the first chapter and a work-in-progress award for an early draft.
In some ways, the life of an artist prepared her for rejection.
“I was doing a lot of dating but no one was putting a ring on it. I knew what the odds were, going into it. So many excellent books never find a home, or sink like a stone. I remind my students that even the best baseball hitters fail 7 out of 10 times,” she said.
The responses that most rankled her were from agents who told her that they didn’t think they could market a book with an elderly protagonist.
“This struck me as a distinct lack of imagination. Who do they think reads books — it’s middle-aged and older women!”
Just as she was refocusing her energy on another book, she decided to submit her manuscript directly, without an agent, to Crooked Lane Press. The publisher quickly got back to her and offered her a contract in January 2022.
She was surprised at how quickly the physical aspect of the book kicked in. While she was still making a few revisions to the manuscript, she was asked for input about marketing and promotion and the design of the cover. A publicist advised that she could get Keller on Good Morning America for $40,000, an offer Keller passed up.
One of the most exciting parts of the production process, according to Keller, was the creation of the audio book.
“They sent me samples of voice auditions. It was amazing to hear professional actresses interpret these characters who had lived in my head for so long — to see how they portrayed the characters vocally. Luckily, I was really pleased with the actress they chose to read the book,” she said.
Reviews for the book have been positive. Shelf Awareness, an industry e-newsletter, referred to the book as “a beautifully drawn psychological literary thriller … explores themes of what is right and what is just.” A reviewer for Chick Lit Central wrote that “Keller does a masterful job at weaving in all the other threads that the novel presents — immigration, sexism. racism, even religion. You Should Have Known is a compelling novel that, thematically, goes beyond the plot to ask deeper questions about the responsibilities people have to each other, and the ripple effects of their actions.”
Keller is currently on a book tour, which takes her to Iowa City later this month, and is already at work on a new novel — about an advice columnist on the brink of retirement who decides to explore what happened to several readers for whom she provided advice, and connects with someone who represents a major trauma from her past. Sounds like another fascinating character with a morally complicated life.
“You Should Have Known” is available at The Book Table in Oak Park.