The Murderer’s Daughter
An interview with The Last Breath author Kimberly Belle, whose debut novel presents a family’s struggle over their dying father — who may or may not be a murderer.
Scroll down for Friday Twitter chat details with Kimberly Belle!
“This was a crime of passion,” Kimberly Belle tells us in the prologue. Her new book The Last Breath opens with adulterer Ella Mae struggling for her life at the hands of a killer that could either be her husband or her lover. Before taking her last breath, Ella Mae locks eyes with him but it’s not until the end that the reader finds out for sure who the real villain is in this book.
Belle’s premise is taken straight from headlines about a man recently released from prison and has main character Gia Andrews returning home to Rogersville, Tennessee, to take care of her dying father. Sixteen years ago, he was convicted of killing her stepmother and has been released from prison to rest at home for his final days. As Gia wrestles with uncertainty about her father’s guilt and reluctantly resumes the role of daughter to the town’s most infamous murderer, she also attempts to find out who really killed Ella Mae and why.
Despite her chilling prologue, Belle says she wasn’t so interested in the events the night Ella Mae was killed. “The fascinating part for me is not so much what really happened but how everybody deals with it moving forward and how they figure out how to keep going with their own lives and find happiness.”
A humanitarian aid worker, Gia has chased disasters around the globe to avoid confronting her father’s conviction. Her brother and sister chose to stay in Rogersville, but haven’t fared much better. Belle is an expert at creating family tension and throwing her characters into difficult situations to see how they cope. As Gia struggles to convince her siblings to even visit their father, she becomes distracted by local restaurant owner Jake Foster, whose dark hair and talent in the kitchen (and bedroom) make it easy for her to forget about the crisis at home.
A strange thing happens when a home turns into a crime scene. Its contents are labeled, cataloged and photographed. Walls become scene boundaries, doors and windows, the perpetrator’s entry and exit. Seemingly ordinary objects — dust bunnies behind the couch, scuff marks on the stairs, a tarnished nickel under the carpet — take on all sorts of new significance. And the people living there, in a place now roiling with bad memories and even worse juju, no longer think of it as home.” – Chapter 1
Belle can relate to what she calls Gia’s “gypsy soul” and says her favorite thing to do is get in the car or on an airplane and be “going somewhere.” Although she now lives in Atlanta, she grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee, not far from where she decided to set the book. “When I first started writing this story, Gia’s voice pulled me to set it in Rogersville,” she says. “The towns are so small and insular there and everybody knows everything and knows your business, and that worked well in this story. Gia really feels stifled by it, but at the same time it’s in this beautiful area and nature is everywhere.”
While Gia’s character, along with her sister Lexi’s, were easier for Belle to write, Ella Mae’s was not. “We all know somebody who’s gotten caught up with the wrong guy,” Belle says. “She [Ella Mae] lives in this little place and she’s not working. She’s looking for a little excitement and she finds it in a really bad person. She was hard for me to write because it was such a tragedy. She kind of took me to a deep dark place I didn’t really like.”
The “wrong guy” Belle is referring to is next-door neighbor Dean Sullivan. He and his wife move in one September day and Ella Mae invites them over for dinner. When Dean looks at her, she feels “a jolt of something she hadn’t felt in a good while shot clear to her toes and crackled and popped on her skin like a Fourth of July sparkler.” She sees adventure in Dean, but their affair quickly escalates into something sinister.
Belle says her story needed a bad guy, and Dean was it, but is he a murderer? This is a question that Belle teases us with throughout the book, and it makes sense when you find out she herself didn’t know who the murderer was until she was more than halfway done writing.
While The Last Breath opens on a dark note and includes some serious themes, the overall message of the book is about forgiveness. “Figuring out how to forgive a person even though you hate their actions” is how Belle describes it. Can Gia figure out how to move on and forgive herself if her father didn’t kill Ella Mae? And can she find a way to forgive him if he did?
Read The Last Breath to find out and participate in our Twitter chat with Belle on Friday, November 7, from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST) using the hashtag #southernlit. We’ll be sure to stay away from spoilers and are excited to have co-host Tamara Welch on board. See our full Twitter chat schedule through 2014 here.