by JENNIFER LIEBRUM
Barrie Graeber is a high school counselor in a little town in Idaho who finds that her family has been forever altered by the actions of a trusted coach. Her fictional story “Mother of Pearl” is a look at what happens to lives when such straight-from-the-headlines traumas survive the immediate impact. It explores grief and its many facets of lost trust, incongruous empathy, denial, anger, revenge and recovery.
The book is the monthly alternate selection for the Pulpwood Queens Book Club, housed at Beauty and the Book, an east-Texas hair salon/bookstore featured by Oprah and on “Good Morning America.”
Author Kellie Coates Gilbert knows the constraints and comforts of small-town living. She grew up in Carey, graduating from high school there in 1976 before going to Boise State University.
Living in Dallas with her husband and grown children since 2001, Gilbert is the daughter of Arlene Bodenhofer Coates, of Hailey, and the late Elwin Coates, a sheep rancher whose relation to former Secretary of State Pete Cennarusa’s wife, Freda, led the men to a longtime partnership, and later, a job in Cennarusa’s office for Gilbert. Her great-great-grandfather was Asa Abbott, superintendent of mines at Thunder Mountain Mines. Her cousin Tom Goicoechea is an educator and wrestling coach at Wood River High School.
Her Idaho roots run proudly deep, and she is coming home to debut her first novel, “Mother of Pearl,” which will be released officially Sept. 6 in Boise. She will travel to Carey, where the public is invited to hear her speak at the high school on Monday, Sept. 10, at 2 p.m., and will do a book signing at All Things Sacred at 6 p.m. in the Galleria Building at Fourth and Leadville in Ketchum, sponsored by Chapter One Bookstore.
The writer is currently wrapping up a second book, “Lillies of the Valley,” about three dysfunctional sisters who look for love in all the wrong places, all of them a characterization of herself, she jokes.
She used personal experience gleaned from her work in the legal field and that of friends to ferret out the subject matter for “Mother of Pearl,” but admits to having been a “pantser” when it came to the telling of it.
“That’s a novelist who writes by the seat of her pants, as opposed to the type who carefully chart out the story before sitting down to write,” she explained in an email interview last week.
It should be clear to anyone who spends time with both the story and the author that she shares Graeber’s senses of humor and observation, attributes that make a tragic story tangible, endurable and uplifting.
What is it about Idaho that draws such literary energy?
Where do I start? First, there is no more beautiful area. The air is clean and the sky blue. The mountains grand. The water clear. I’m getting homesick just thinking about the landscapes I took for granted. Second, nowhere (except maybe in Texas) will you find such hard-working people who treat others with respect. People truly are neighbors in Idaho.
Few experiences compete with having grown up in a small town like Carey, a community of people embedded in my heart. I walked the cemetery last year and recognized every name on the headstones. I knew their kids, the houses they lived in and even what cars they used to drive. Nothing compares to those kinds of connections.
Any memory-jogging story you can tell that might help readers connect with you and your time here?
I attended my first high school reunion last summer and connected with many former high school friends and teachers. After the barbecue, we sat around telling stories and laughing. I finally learned who put the cows on the high school roof, but I’m not telling (ahem, Jim Barton). I tell people that I graduated in a class of 16 and no one believes me!
Were you writing young?
As a child, I was an avid reader. With no bookstore or public library at the time in Carey, I’d borrow books from the biweekly book mobile that came from Twin Falls. They had a two-book limit, so Mom and Gram would let me check out on their card as well.
I submitted to a few magazines while working in the legal field, and quickly caught the writing fever. Very soon, I steered my efforts toward fiction and took courses and attended conferences. My shelves are filled with writing books.
What was the impetus for sitting down and doing this now, at this stage of your life?
I spent years in a “safe” career as a legal investigator and trial paralegal. I worked for many Idaho law firms, including Elam, Burke and Holland & Hart. Loved that work, but trial work and litigation is hard. You don’t get to give half effort when you’re on a trial team. Frankly, I was getting worn out.
My husband is the one who pushed me to pursue my passion and dream before it was too late. So, I jumped off the cliff, so to speak.
I signed with my agent in 2008. I was so surprised to learn how long it takes to go through the edit process, the cover design, etc. and get to the actual release of the book.
“I walked the (Carey) cemetery and recognized every name on the headstones. I knew their kids, the houses they lived in and even what cars they used to drive. Nothing compares to those kinds of connections.”
Kellie Coates Gilbert
AuthorHow long has the idea been floating around in your head to write this particular story?
Every mother will tell you how fiercely she wants to protect her children. Parents send their children off to school trusting that teachers and coaches will not cross a line and act inappropriately with students. Sadly, we hear far too often stories of adults crossing the line with minors, blurring their roles and acting inappropriately.
When a dear friend encountered a similar situation, although not in a school setting, I watched the devastation that followed. The repercussions extended far and tea-kettled this family in unimaginable ways. I knew I wanted to explore this situation in a fictional setting. Although this story is not what happened in their family, the idea was sparked by their situation.
There have been some scandals of sexual abuse in this community, like most, but they are very shrouded in secrecy, even by the public at large which thinks we shouldn’t report on it. Why this topic for a debut?
Sadly, once I decided to use a plot where an adult crossed the line with a minor, news stories seemed to be broadcast frequently—maybe I just failed to notice earlier. I had little problem researching the issues I needed to craft this story. Dr. Sherry Bithell authored a thesis on this topic. Her work was cited in government studies. Dr. Bithell graciously agreed to meet with me, and she explained the common characteristics of an educator who crosses these boundaries, and the victim profile.
Although, here is where I probably need to disclose that this novel focuses on the mother’s journey. What happened between the coach and her daughter is primarily off stage, so to speak. The book is safe for all ages and contains themes of betrayal, fractured family relationships, marriage tensions and friendship. I hope readers cheer for Barrie Graeber as she risks everything she holds dear to bring the coach to justice, despite incredible odds.
When did you know it was finished, and did you have several drafts?
I knew the major plot points and how I wanted the story to end. During the process of writing, the tense relationship with Barrie’s own mother and the marriage tensions formed. I love discovering the story as I write.
I really didn’t have multiple drafts. I wrote a first draft that I reworked some before I turned the manuscript in to my publishing house. And then it went to edits. Unlike many novelists, I really enjoyed the edit process. My editor immediately understood where I was going with the story and we talked through pacing and how to strengthen the thread of mystery that would pull the reader from chapter to chapter. She’s brilliant, and her suggestions made my work even better.
Are you more nervous about coming home to speak or going to Boise and beyond?
Well, I prefer talking with book clubs to getting up on a stage. But Idaho is my home and I’m really looking forward to connecting with family and friends, and new readers who might enjoy familiar settings and Idaho landmarks in the book.
Most of all, I appreciate each and every reader. People are busy and time is precious. Anyone who spends their hours immersed in the pages of my book is a treasure, and I hope readers find the time well spent.
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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.