Julia Keller
Nieman Class of 1998

UnknownA former Chicago Tribune reporter and cultural critic, Keller won the 2005 Pulitzer for feature writing, for her “gripping, meticulously reconstructed account of a deadly 10-second tornado that ripped through Utica, Illinois.” In the 2005 Best Newspaper Writing anthology, Keller wrote about the experience of reporting and writing the series, describing the demands particular to narrative journalism: “…Despite the story’s length, a great deal of my reporting had to go. Yet I could not have produced the series without have first produced the pile of material that wasn’t ultimately used. … There were facts, and then there were the shadows that congregated behind those facts. There were shades and subtleties and nuances that emerged only because I had taken note of the shadow-facts — the scuff marks on the side of a shoe or the way the clouds seemed to stack up in the autumn sky like sweaters in a drawer — and they retained power and influence over the finished story, even though they were not explicitly mentioned.” Keller has been an essayist for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, and has taught at universities including Notre Dame, Princeton and the University of Chicago. She left the Tribune last May, to write novels (she has published three), and to teach writing at Ohio University. “It’s been an extraordinary journey for me,” she told TimeOut Chicago. “I was given the chance to write about anything and everything, from a long series on traumatic brain injury to a series on the aftermath of the Utica, Illinois, tornado. As cultural critic, I’ve had a ball writing the Lit Life column for the past several years. On stage at Tribune-sponsored events, I’ve been able to interview people such as Joyce Carol Oates, E.L. Doctorow and Umberto Eco. Not too shabby for a kid from Huntington, West Virginia.”


Her Pulitzer-winning series on the Utica tornado. Here’s the way she opened “A Wicked Wind Takes Aim,” the first of the series’ three parts:

Ten seconds. Count it: One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Ten seconds was roughly how long it lasted. Nobody had a stopwatch, nothing can be proven definitively, but that’s the consensus. The tornado that swooped through Utica at 6:09 p.m. April 20 took some 10 seconds to do what it did. Ten seconds is barely a flicker. It’s a long, deep breath. It’s no time at all. It’s an eternity.

If the sky could hold a grudge, it would look the way the sky looked over northern Illinois that day. Low, gray clouds stretched to the edges in a thin veneer of menace. Rain came and went, came and went, came and went.

The technical name for what gathered up there was stratiform cloud cover, but Albert Pietrycha had a better way to describe it: “murk.” It was a Gothic-sounding word for a Gothic-looking sky. A sky that, in its own oblique way, was sending a message.

Pietrycha is a meteorologist in the Chicago forecast office of the National Weather Service, a tidy, buttoned-down building in Romeoville, about 25 miles southwest of Chicago. It’s a setting that seems a bit too ordinary for its role, too bland for the place where the first act of a tragedy already was being recorded. Where the sky’s bad intentions were just becoming visible, simmering in the low-slung clouds.

Where a short distance away, disparate elements—air, water and old sandstone blocks—soon would slam into each other like cars in a freeway pileup, ending eight lives and changing other lives forever.

The survivors would henceforth be haunted by the oldest, most vexing question of all: whether there is a destiny that shapes our fates or whether it is simply a matter of chance, of luck, of the way the wind blows.

Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It, her nonfiction book about the history of a forerunner to the modern machine gun. Excerpt:

On March 31, 1887, a Thursday, an unusually exotic and decidedly eclectic collection of items was systematically loaded onto a transatlantic steamship known as the State of Nebraska. It was a memorable manifest. There were “97 Indians, 180 horses, 18 buffalo, 10 elk, 5 Texan steers, 4 donkeys, and 2 deer.” There were rifles and fringed buckskin jackets and colorful neckerchiefs and big-rimmed cowboy hats. And there were a few other things, too: Gatling guns.

The objects constituted the packing list for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, a traveling show that was taking advantage of its biggest break yet: a chance to perform in London as part of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. While a thirty-six-piece band on deck—the musicians tricked out in cowboys (sic) hats and moccasins—struck up “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” the steamship fumed and churned out of the New York harbor.

In the roughly two decades that had passed since the end of the Civil War, the Gatling gun had become a ubiquitous symbol of American pluck and bluster, of American determination to tame the rugged West, and it was a crucial part of William Cody’s show. Since the early 1870s, Cody had entertained thousands of his countrymen in towns large and small with the bombastic extravaganza, complete with sharp-shooting heroes, thundering wagons, whooping Indians, and an electric atmosphere. But this trip was something else again: This was royalty. This was a publicity bonanza. This was the threshold of a global marketplace, the first step in mounting the sort of large-scale spectacle that could bring great profits …

Her Nieman Reports piece (Winter 2013 issue) on transitioning from critic to author. Excerpt:

Should every book critic publish a book, in order to know what it’s like on the other side? Well, no. No more than every sportswriter ought to try out for the New York Yankees. I do believe, however, that it might behoove critics to look up from their laptops every now and again to remind themselves that works of art have lives independent of critics. Movie critics should see movies outside of advance screenings and film festivals; they should stop by the multiplex on summer weekends. Book critics should hang out in bookstores. Art critics should wander through galleries on their lunch hours—not just during wine-and-cheese receptions for high-dollar donors.

A Killing in the Hills, the first in a series of mysteries about Bell Elkins, a single mother who returns to her hometown in W.V., a hamlet beset by drugs, and becomes the prosecuting attorney. Excerpt:

The old men sat around the little plastic table in the crowded restaurant, a trio of geezers in shiny black jackets, mumbling, chuckling, shaking their heads and then blowing across the tops of their brown cardboard cups of coffee, pushing out their flabby pink old-man lips to do so. Then sipping. Then blowing again.

Jesus, Carla thought. What a bunch of losers.

Watching them made her feel, in every restless inch of her seventeen-year-old body, so infinitely superior to these withered fools and their pathetic little rituals that she was pretty sure it showed; she was fairly certain her contempt was half visible, rising from her skin in a skittish little shimmer. The late-morning sunshine flooding in through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls made everything look sharper, rawer, the edges more intense. You couldn’t hide a thing in here.

She would remember this moment for the rest of her life. Because it was the marker. The line.

Because at this point, she would realize later, these three old men had less than a minute to live.

One of them must’ve told a joke, because now his two buddies laughed—it sounded, Carla thought, like agitated horses, it was a kind of high-pitched, snorting, snickery thing—and they all shuffled their feet appreciatively under the table. They were flaky-bald, too, and probably incontinent and impotent and incoherent and all the rest of it.

So what’s left? That’s what Carla was wondering. After you hit forty, fifty, sixty, what’s the freakin’ point anymore, anyway?

The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.

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