THIRSTY: a novel by Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

More About Kristin

Kristin is a native Pittsburgher.

I was born and raised in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, not far from the Clairton Works (the largest coke-producing plant in the United States) where my grandfather and two great uncles worked after emigrating from Croatia. My grandparents (on my mom’s side) lived on Coal Valley Hill on a bluff overlooking the Monongahela River. This was during the late 1960s and early 1970s—before the steel mills started to close—and from my grandparents’ back porch, I used to watch the smokestacks of the mills that lined the riverbanks huff and puff orangey flames and huge clouds of steam. Overhead, the sky was often a gray-yellowy color, thick with smoke and smog. Each week when we drove from our house to my grandparents’, we knew we were getting close whenever one of my sisters or I hollered, “Ooh, rotten eggs,” and frantically rolled up a window. Although my grandmother worked like crazy to keep the soot from smothering the house, her effort was frustratingly futile.

Kristin spent lots of time in one of Pittsburgh’s most vital steel communities.

Although I lived with my family in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania—a pretty, green suburb of Pittsburgh—my grandparents lived about twenty minutes away in Clairton, a steel town. As a kid, I spent a heck of a lot of time at their house, and although the description above makes it sound rather unappealing, it was anything but. I loved it there.

In my grandparents’ neighborhood, there was a strong sense of community. Folks sat on their stoops when the weather was good, waved every time someone drove by, visited in the evenings, and gossiped amiably about each other. Everybody I came into contact with via my grandparents had something to do with the mills (at least it seemed that way to me when I was a kid). To top it off, there was a cast of wacky characters who were indelibly ingrained in my soul (and who appealed to my writerly ways even back then). Like the mustached bread delivery man who also sold candy out of the back of his van to all the kids in the neighborhood and who sold numbers to Pittsburgh’s illegal lottery to various folks on his route. A true jack-of-all-trades. Pixie Sticks, Razzle Dazzles, and red licorice fish still remind me of him.

Kristin is half Croatian.

Both my mom’s parents were Croatian, and I grew up in the Croatian tradition. With my grandfather as the family patriarch, we sang Croatian songs, danced Croatian dances, attended performances of Pittsburgh’s Tamburitzans, ate lamb at the Croatian picnic in Clairton Park every year, and listened to stories about Zagreb, Tito, and the fact that although my grandparents met in the U.S., their home villages in Croatia were less than a mile from each other.

Kristin is a Steeler fan.

Born and bred. (You can take the girl out of the Steel City, but you can’t take the Steel City out of the girl.)

Kristin has moved a lot in her life.

Indeed. Here’s the timeline and map:

Birth – 1984: Bethel Park, PA (with a very short stint in Ohio somewhere around 1972)

1984 – 1988: Bloomington, IN (Indiana University, earned BA in English and journalism)

1988 – 1992: Pittsburgh, PA, Alexandria, VA, Washington, DC

1992 – 1996: Chicago, IL (Columbia College Chicago, earned MFA in Creative Writing)

1996 – 1998: Newburyport, MA, Brooklyn, NY

1998 – 2002: Newburyport, MA (1/2 of each year), Vermejo Park Ranch, NM (1/2 of each year)

2002 – 2006: Newburyport, MA

2006 – Now: Shanghai, China

Kristin studied writing in college and grad school.

As an undergrad at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, I majored in English and journalism, but poetry was the thing I cared most about. During those years, I studied with some amazing poets including Lynda Hull and Yusef Komunyakaa. Later, at Columbia College Chicago, I started writing fiction and earned an MFA in creative writing.

Kristin connects deeply to place (and therefore, spends a lot of time exploring place in her writing).

Despite the fact that I’ve moved so often, I’ve discovered three places that mean a lot to me: Pittsburgh, New Mexico, and China. After spending my childhood watching my grandfather leave for his shift at the mill and coming home with story after story, it makes perfect sense that I wanted to explore steel-making, immigration, Pittsburgh, and family on the page. In fact, I consider Thirsty (the town) to be as much a character in the novel as I do Klara, Drago, and Katherine.

New Mexico and China have lured me in with their own mystique.

Kristin loves the Sangre de Cristo mountains in New Mexico.

In 1998, I moved from hustling-bustling Brooklyn, NY, to a 588,000-acre ranch in New Mexico where I lived in a wee lodge at 10,000 feet. Despite the fact that I’d been “city girl” since graduating from college, I discovered that living in pristine wilderness where I saw more bears and elk than people suited me. For three years I split my time between Newburyport, Massachusetts, and the ranch in New Mexico. When in Massachusetts, I taught writing as an adjunct instructor at various universities and worked as a freelance writer; when on the ranch, I worked in the lodge, fly-fished, meditated, wrote, hiked, and fell in love with bears.

Friends laugh at me because for years after my stint in New Mexico, I started nearly every sentence with, “On the ranch….” (There are so many stories to tell.)

Now whenever I start to tell a story, it’s a toss-up between “In China….” and “On the ranch….”

Kristin supports the fight against domestic violence.

Passionately. After graduating from college, I began volunteering in domestic abuse/homeless shelters and often worked with children. I’ve got a soft spot for kids in these situations. In Chicago, as a writing consultant for Northeastern Illinois University, I taught writing in some of the most challenged schools in the Chicago Public School System where many of the children were from dysfunctional families and had serious, heartbreaking stories to share. In 2005, I raised nearly $2,000 for the Elizabeth Stone House in Boston by participating in Wilderness Heals, a three-day annual pledge hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Kristin now lives in Shanghai, China.

In 2005, while living in Newburyport, Massachusetts, I met my husband-to-be. Six weeks after our February 2006 wedding, my husband’s company moved us to Shanghai. Although we planned on a two-year stint, we’re now into our fourth year. When I’m not exploring old Shanghai lanes with my daughter, yakking with locals in my mediocre-but-hopefully-always-improving Mandarin, or figuring out how I fit into this beautiful, crazy country, I’m usually hunkered down in my office…writing.

UPDATE: Kristin repatriated to the United States in late 2010. To learn more about her current projects, visit her web site Kristin Bair O'Keeffe.

Kristin is married to an Irishman. Their daughter Tulliver is Vietnamese.

My husband, Andrew O’Keeffe, grew up in Westmeath, Ireland. We adopted our daughter Tulliver from Vietnam in 2008.