David Bell’s New Murder Mystery Has an Academic Twist

His lead character is a college writing professor who publishes a novel that connects to an unsolved murder. Is it a case of art imitating life?

Connor Nye, the protagonist of Kill All Your Darlings (Penguin Random House), isn’t that different from his creator, David Bell, who received his Master’s in creative writing from Miami University and his PhD in English from the University of Cincinnati and is currently a professor at Western Kentucky University. The fictional Nye is finally publishing his first novel, a thriller, and is poised to earn tenure—but he didn’t write it. When the real writer shows up, Nye realizes he might have to confess. Worse yet, the novel shares details about an unsolved murder only the killer could know.

David Bell

Unlike his character, Bell is not publishing his first novel. Kill All Your Darlings is in fact the Cincinnati native’s 11th, and he’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (honoring work from small publishing houses) five times.

Tell us about Connor Nye. What made him so desperate to publish?

Connor’s wife and teenage son died in an accident five years before the book opens. Since then, he’s been wandering in a fog and unable to write. Like any academic on the tenure track, he has to publish to get tenure or he loses his job. If he loses his job, he’ll have a difficult time finding another one. He’s also experiencing financial pressures like most middle-class people. He needs a roof. He has student loans. He’ll do just about anything to keep his job.

Several of the supporting characters are from the university community. Tell us about the English department men.

The book’s male professors know how to pay lip service to a world that believes in equality. But when push comes to shove, they will excuse and cover up each other’s bad behavior.

One thing that seems to come up in many ways is the uneven power dynamic between female students and male professors. Why were you interested in exploring this theme?

As a graduate student and again as a professor, I’ve seen male professors prey on female students—and I’ve seen powerful people excuse or cover up the bad behavior. I would never want to downplay the suffering of the harassment victim, but harassment has negative consequences for the entire community. We all suffer when one person is preyed upon. Universities need to do more to protect students.

Not every institution, including Western Kentucky University, where I teach, prohibits relationships between students and faculty. They prohibit relationships between faculty and the students they directly supervise or teach, but if a faculty member isn’t in a supervisory role with a student he’s free to pursue a romantic relationship with her. I believe universities should prohibit all romantic relationships between faculty and students.

The story moves between the present and the past, when the original crime was committed. Why did you want to approach the storytelling in this way?

It’s a complex story, and a number of different characters know pieces but not the whole. I felt like I had to show different perspectives over time for the reader to grasp the entire story. Past events obviously affect the present, but not everyone knows how until all the threads come together.

What was your favorite scene to write and why?

There’s a scene in which two characters go up into the bell tower on top of the building that houses the English department. That was fun, but I won’t say what happens up there.

The novel suggests creative writing students tell the truth about their lives in fiction. Have you found this to be the case?

It’s generally true that writers who are first starting out write thinly-veiled autobiography and pass it off as fiction. I did it when I was in college, and so do many of my students. We give them the horrible writing advice of Write what you know, so what do we expect? Over time, they can grow out of that. Then again, I just published a novel about a creative writing professor living in Kentucky, so what do I know?

What are you working on now?

My next novel, which will be out in summer 2022, is called The Finalists. It takes place at a small private college where a donor awards a lucrative scholarship to a rising senior annually. To compete for the scholarship, six students agree to be locked in an old house on the edge of campus to take an exam—only this year, some of them start to die.

In the fall of 2022, I’m also publishing a young adult suspense novel called It’s Always the Boyfriend about a high school senior who starts making YouTube videos to prove his innocence after his girlfriend disappears on the night of homecoming.

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