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Jenny Kiefer on her new horror novel 'This Wretched Valley'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Imagine this - you're deep in the wilderness. It's cold, and it's getting dark, but you and the other three members of your party can't stop searching for a mysterious rock face. If you find it, you'll be the first to confirm its existence, and your friend Dylan Prescott will be the first to climb it. But everything looks the same, and you're starting to lose your way.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANCH CRACKING)

RASCOE: And you may not be alone. That's the plot from Jenny Kiefer's debut novel, "This Wretched Valley." The wilderness horror starts with Clay, a University of Kentucky PhD student, looking to finish his dissertation with a new discovery. He enlists the help of a colleague, Sylvia, and Dylan, a newly endorsed rock-climbing influencer who brings her boyfriend, Luke. Jenny Kiefer told me last week that her new novel is partially a warning. Just because we live in the age of GPS and computer mapping doesn't mean the wilds can't still terrify.

JENNY KIEFER: All of that technology doesn't really give you the same experience of actually being in the wilderness where you can get turned around really easily. Everything looks very similar, especially when there's no trail. And I think that, in itself, is frightening, let alone if there's something extra sinister going on in the background.

RASCOE: I feel like another character in this book is this rock face that Dylan is trying to climb and that she's excited about doing because she has this corporate sponsor. She wants to be a rock-climbing influencer. She really needs it to work out. Can you tell me about that?

KIEFER: Yeah, so there is this - almost this magnetic force pulling her towards the wall. So there's some moments in the book where there's really more pressing things happening that she should be focusing on, but she still just feels this pull to the wall, and that's really the effect of the valley, specifically with the rock wall. And I think other characters experience that sort of influence in different ways.

RASCOE: Your book is inspired by a true story, and I don't think I knew this story. Can you tell us about that and why you thought of that as a base for your book?

KIEFER: Yeah. So it's inspired by the Dyatlov Pass incident, which is this event in the '50s where these hikers went into the mountains in Russia, and they sort of disappeared. And then when they were found several months later, when it was safe to go up into the mountain pass again, their bodies were just found in these really bizarre ways.

And so that was sort of the inspiration for the structure of the book. So the book opens - in the first chapter, you know, three of the four are discovered, and their bodies are found in those really weird ways and just sort of, like, the fascination around that event and how there's all these crazy theories about how it could have happened, ranging from, you know, very realistic to out-there wild.

And so sort of just, like, thinking about the structure of how that incident is told and the unsolved mystery aspect of it really intrigued me. And I think it's a kind of unusual way to start a book.

RASCOE: Did you always know you would start it that way? And were you concerned - like, do I want to start it with that?

KIEFER: I don't think I always knew I would start it that way, but I think once I started planning and then I was, like, at the same time learning more about the incident, the Dyatlov Pass incident, I think that's sort of where that idea sparked - and to sort of make it more about not necessarily, like, what happens to the characters, but how did they end up that way?

RASCOE: It feels like a lot of this story is about ambition and ego. Dylan, of course, was trying to work with her sponsor. She wanted to get famous. Then the other - Clay - he was trying to get his doctorate. So they're pushing through even though there are these warnings, and then there's some others that show up in the book that also seem to have been driven by ambition and ego. Is that where they go wrong? Are you trying to say something about ambition here?

KIEFER: Yeah, so that's - again, you've touched on one of the themes, and I sort of think of it as almost, like, arrogance and - as well as maybe sort of, like, a theme of environmentalism. All of the people who end up in this place are kind of of the opinion that the land is there for the taking. They can use this land for their own selfish reasons. And they don't really respect the land. They sort of see it as a way to improve their own situation, whether that's colonizing the land or whether it's trying to use it to make yourself famous or get a lot of money.

RASCOE: Do you think of your own ambitions in some of those terms, or - I mean, obviously, you know, when you're writing a book, it's not about you, but it's - like, is that something that you think about in your own terms? Because, obviously, you got a lot going on. You own a bookstore, a horror bookstore. You're writing a novel. That's a lot going on.

KIEFER: Yeah. Well, I mean, I do have ambitions, and I don't think that there's an issue or a problem with having ambitions, but I think you can make an attempt to have ambitions while also acknowledging it's not just you around. Like, for example, as an author, you want to support and lift up your fellow authors and not make it just about yourself. Thinking about it in a more community sense or a more mindful sense - even though you have your personal ambitions, that doesn't mean you need to trample on others or, you know, ruin the environment to get there.

RASCOE: That's author Jenny Kiefer. Her new novel is "This Wretched Valley." Thank you so much for joining us.

KIEFER: Yeah. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.