CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jayne Anne Phillips doesn't think she'll ever get tired of writing about West Virginia. In her writing, the award-winning novelist likes coming home when she can and said that it's a real strength for her.
"I feel as though it's a great advantage for a writer to be from a place that they're connected to physically," the Upshur County native said. "I think the place a writer develops a sense of identity has a lasting effect on you."
Phillips' latest novel, "Quiet Dell," in stores Oct. 15, brings the author back to her West Virginia roots and to one of the most notorious crimes to occur in the state: the "Bluebeard" murders of Quiet Dell, a small community near Clarksburg.
In 1931, police arrested Harry Powers in Quiet Dell for the murders of Asta Eicher, her three children and Dorothy Pressler Lemke.
Through ads in a lonely-hearts magazine, Powers had corresponded with Eicher, Lemke and dozens of others. Powers wrote them letters. He promised safety, financial security and love, but really only intended robbery and murder.
At the time, the crime was a national sensation. Newspapers from across the country sent reporters to cover the investigation, but even after the trial, the story became a kind of a local legend that lived on.
"Certainly when I was growing up we heard about it," Phillips said. "Our parents were children when it happened."
Phillips' mother told her about holding her mother's hand as they walked up a dusty, hot, crowded road, past the "murder garage," where Powers had killed his victims, then hidden their bodies in shallow graves out back.
Phillips' mother remembered watching the crowd take apart the garage piece by piece.
"For souvenirs," Phillips said.
The memory haunted her mother and it was an image she passed along to Phillips, which became part of the inspiration for her book.
Beginning with the handed-down legends, rumors and stories, Phillips added to her novel with research from the Clarksburg papers and the local library.
"The rare-books librarian David Houchins was an enormous help to me," she said. "They have a whole room of photos ascribed to local photographer Eugene Fare, and David helped me locate Fare's grandchildren. They gave me permission to use his photographs in the book."
Phillips said even with all of this, she didn't have a fully fleshed-out portrait, which is where the fiction comes in. The skeleton of the story is true: Through deception, Harry Powers did lure two women and three children to their deaths. But some of the characters in "Quiet Dell" were created to help move the plot along and to make the novel more than a dry revisiting of a terrible crime.
Phillips said she also took artistic liberties with some of the real people.
"Clearly, I invented the thoughts and relationships of the real characters," she said. "There's certainly no way to tell who they really were."
Phillips said she wrote the book over the course of the past six summers, a project she took on during the break between semesters at Rutgers University-Newark, where she founded and is the director of the school's Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.
"It was a writing-from-dusk-till-dawn kind of thing," she said.
She acknowledged she might have completed the book sooner, but added, "I want to have a big life, not a small life."