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St. Paul writer's debut prison novel draws national acclaim

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Keith Hollihan
Keith Hollihan's novel, "The Four Stages of Cruelty," came about after one of his good friends was imprisoned for a series of bank robberies. Publishers Weekly recently named it one of the top books of 2010.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

A challenge with many novels is where to start. But the narrator in St. Paul writer Keith Hollihan's new book faces a different question.

"I can think of no gentle way to begin. I need to explain why the biggest mystery for me was not how an inmate can go missing inside a maximum security penitentiary, nor what the drawings meant, or even who was involved in the murders. The thing that stays with me, like the memory of a limb now gone, is the mystery of human compassion." 

This is the opening of "The Four Stages of Cruelty," which is Hollihan's first novel. Publisher's Weekly just named it one of the best books of 2010.  Hollihan said the book sprang from a surprising revelation.

"A number of years ago, a very close friend of mine was arrested and imprisoned for a series of bank robberies that he committed over an extended period of time," Hollihan said. "That was quite a shock to me, and I think had an influence on me in a lot of ways in terms of what I am interested in writing about."  

Hollihan visited his friend in prison. The outward ordinariness of a life behind bars --  masking tough regulations and troubled histories -- struck him. He watched as prisoners and staff greeted one another like office colleagues.

"And yet there were many interesting and mysterious stories behind all of those people, including the people who worked there and the inmates," he said.

"One of the things I am really interested in is the relativity of morality, and how it changes depending on context."

Hollihan was born in Canada. Before coming to Minnesota he worked in Japan and the Czech Republic as a ghost writer for business books. So he'd been exposed to many story possibilities. But it was what he saw in that prison which got him writing his novel. 

"One of the things I am really interested in is the relativity of morality, personal morality especially, and how it changes depending on context," Hollihan said.

In prison, he says, everything is up for grabs from a moral point of view. He learned from his friend about life on the inside. 

"One of the very first stories that he told me that hit home was about a young man who had, according to him, accidentally murdered his girlfriend and ended up in prison," Hollihan said. "And my friend saw him in very difficult circumstances. Young, not from the typical background that ends up in a maximum security prison, very distraught over his circumstances and what he had done."

Those details alone set Hollihan writing. He launched into a novel about Josh, a talented artist serving life for first-degree murder, a sentence exacerbated by violent images he drew before he killed his estranged girlfriend.

Hollihan says he wrote a very bleak story. Then he began rewriting after hearing another voice, that of an older female prison guard named Kali Edwards.

"She is as tough and as rigorous and as able to deal with the circumstances as any of her male colleagues," Hollihan said. "But she allowed me to introduce this notion of human compassion throughout the book -- which I think sort of became the running theme, the thread that tied all of these dark and violent and suspenseful events together." 

In "The Four Stages of Cruelty," everyone is on edge in the Ditmarsh penitentiary. Kali finds a hanged inmate. Was it suicide? Or murder? And what happened to the mysterious comic book the dead man had been working on with the young inmate Josh? Some believe it's a coded treasure map, others a story of redemption about a mythical prisoner. Hollihan says soon everyone is after it.

"It compounds the mystery, it confuses the mystery. It can be interpreted in a number of different ways, any way you want to come from."

Hollihan is now working out the mystery of the writing world. He's relatively unknown, even in his hometown of St Paul.

"I attended the recent Twin Cities Book Festival, and watched that from the audience," he said. 

 Then Publisher's Weekly selected "The Four Stages of Cruelty" as one of the best books of 2010, describing it as "a nuanced, character-driven narrative that provides insights into prison life." 

Hollihan launches his book at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis Thursday night. He'll also read at Micawber's books on Dec. 15. 

He mentioned how much he enjoyed hearing the writers speak at that festival a few weeks back.

"I am looking forward to being part of that conversation," he said.

Keith Hollihan's days of being unknown may be fading fast.