THIRSTY: a novel by Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

Writing Thirsty

A Nub of an Idea

In 1987 or so, I published a poem called “Crumbling Steeples.” It explored the story of my grandfather and how the closing of the steel mills in Pittsburgh was affecting steel workers, their families, and their communities. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this poem was the beginning of Thirsty.

Around the same time, I became aware of a woman floating around in my head (the woman who eventually became Klara). I didn’t see her clearly for a number of years, but she was always there, giving me small glimpses of her life and her struggles.

The Birth of a Novel

During my first semester in grad school, I took a creative nonfiction workshop in which one of our first assignments was to choose a topic to research. Still driven by my experiences as a kid in Clairton, Pennsylvania, I chose the steel industry in Pittsburgh. From day one, I was captivated, and the deeper I got into the research, the further back in time I traveled…eventually following the immigrants to their homelands.

For a whole lot of reasons, this story—steel, the death of a major industry, immigrants who had made their way to Pittsburgh during the 1800s, and Klara—took hold of me and refused to be put to rest until I had followed it through.

The First Scene I Wrote

The first scene I ever wrote was the one in which Jake falls from the flaming roof in the mill and dies. The second was the one in which the women walk to the mill after being summoned by the death whistle. Klara began to take shape as I wrote this scene, and she quickly became much more than a flicker in my head. As I wrote, I discovered an interesting, creative woman who was held victim by fear, circumstance, undeserved loyalty, religion, and tradition. At first glance, the solution to her story might seem simple—an abused woman should leave her husband immediately—but like most things in life, it’s much more complicated than that. The more I got to know Klara, the more I understood her side of things.

Klara’s Fate

When I discovered what a terrible marriage Klara was in and how at risk she was, I realized that I couldn’t try to control what happened to her. No matter what I imagined for her, Klara’s life was up to Klara; I was simply lucky enough to be the one following her around with a pen in hand. Sure, I had lots of hope for her, and a good bit of anger at Drago, but I had to let things play out naturally. Throughout the writing process, I wrote a couple of different endings to the story; it took a while to see Klara’s choices clearly.

The Last Scene I Wrote

The last scene of the book is the last scene I wrote. I don’t want to give away the ending, so you’ll have to read to find out.

The Title

Ugh, titles. I have a tough time coming up with titles, and no matter what I’m working on, it almost always takes me a long time to light upon the right one. Thirsty was called a lot of things before it was called Thirsty (including Lunge). For a while, some readers wanted me to call it Klara, but honestly, this is not a story just about Klara…it’s a story about Klara in Thirsty…and a story about Thirsty. So Thirsty it is.