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Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient: Amber Keller

We’re excited to introduce each of our 2017 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients on our blog this winter! For these fellowships, out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 439 applications we received. These judges named nine writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. The 2018 OLF applications will be posted online soon, and the deadline will be toward the end of June. You can read more about the application process by clicking here

2017 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient

Amber Keller




Amber Keller’s short fiction has appeared in Juked, Nailed, B O D Y, Carve Magazine, The Adirondack Review and elsewhere under the name Amber Krieger. She was the host of Late Night Debut, Late Night Library’s podcast focused on debut books. When not writing, she can often be seen riding around town with her seven-year-old on a very large bicycle.

Q&A with Literary Arts

1. What are your sources of inspiration?

I don’t know. This is a hard one. I think I am just fascinated with this life. People are so messy, with our wants and insecurities and nobilities and meannesses. I love this complexity, how one person can hold all of these different things inside them. What does it take for our best to come out? Our worst?

2. How would you describe your creative process?

I tend to start with an image that communicates something to me and then look for the story that provides the context to make that same bang go off in someone else’s head. Sometimes I wish I could paint, but I suppose that wouldn’t be any easier.

3. What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?

Everything! My husband claims that when Susan Moore called with the news I shrieked that it was the best thing that ever happened to me—while he and our daughter exchanged looks that said they finally knew their true worth in my eyes. That’s not exactly how I remember it, but the fellowship was both affirmation that those hours away from my family, behind the closed door of my office, are worth it, and a push to get these projects done this year. And of course the money to help make that happen. It’s an amazing thing to have a respected literary organization tell you you’re doing something right and give you money to keep doing it. I’m so grateful to Literary Arts and the judges for both of these things.

4. What are you currently working on?

I’m working on the second draft of a novel and the gazillionth draft of a short story collection. And trying not to get sidetracked by new story ideas and the current state of our nation and its inevitable impact on the world.

5. What advice do you have for future applicants?

Don’t be afraid to try. I spent a lot of years telling myself I didn’t have time to work on a fellowship application, but really I was terrified of answering those personal questions. I had this idea that I needed to be able to assign some kind of larger meaning to my body of work and be able to write about it in some clever way. But then a good friend shared one of her successful applications with me, and it was just her beautiful honest words on the page, and I realized it’s not a goddamn college essay. Or maybe it is, but the main thing is just be yourself.

OLF Judge’s Comments

Amber Keller is doing the difficult work of exploring uncertainty in a society of moral certitude. This is fiction that doesn’t shy away from the complexity of the world we live in. Keller’s characters do not know where exactly they stand, and perhaps they will make the wrong decisions, perhaps their decisions will have terrible consequences, but their acknowledgment of the struggle and the impossibility of coming out clean is one thing fiction has always been good for.

—Matthew Salesses, fiction judge 

Excerpt from current work:

Writing Sample:

From “You Can’t Know What It’s Like,” at Juked

“Remember that time at Subterranean,” I say. “With the coke?” The two of us in a blacklit men’s room, looking for a pinch twisted up in plastic wrap.

She looks confused.

“Don’t you remember?” I say. Thick dripping paint on the walls. Sticky floor. “We bought it off that boy with the mohawk.” Renee’d slipped it into her bra, but then it was gone. We crawled around the bathroom floor. Unable to remember if we’d already done it or if someone on the dance floor had taken it or if we’d dropped it just then. Keep looking. When did you last have it? I don’t know. Knees stuck in who knows what. Swearing. Feeling around in the corners. The way she’d looked at me when we finally gave up, eyes stuck open like pinned-up butterflies.

“If you want to say something, just say it. I’m sick of your coded bullshit, Julie.”

“The next morning, I was knocking on your door.” Banging my fist on Renee’s door, the cordless pinched between my ear and shoulder. Her voice on the machine, Hello? And then a long pause, I’m not here right now …. The cat mewing on the other side of the wall. Wondering if she’d gone home with someone after all, or brought someone home. Wondering if she was dead in her bed. If she’d found the coke and choked on it. If she’d done the coke when I wasn’t looking, right there in the sticky drippy bathroom, while I crawled around on the floor.

It was the last of course, but it took me so many years to figure that out.

“You think I would leave my daughter alone in the apartment?” Her eyes are right on mine. “On purpose? My two-year-old? While I—while I what?”

Down the hall, smoking a joint with a neighbor, like we used to do.

In the bedroom getting laid.

Whatever she wanted, who cares what it did to someone else.

Christian is looking at me like he wants to put my head through the glass, never mind that he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.

“I don’t know, Ren.”

“You don’t. You don’t even know.”

“No, I don’t know!” I’m shouting, but I can’t stop.

“You’re drunk,” she says.

“You’re not some angel,” I say.

“She’s totally drunk.” Her voice is thick with disgust. “What did you put in those drinks anyway? Vodka? Julie never could hold her vodka.”

“Just because you’re a mom now,” I say. “You’re not some fucking angel.”

“Are we doing this?” she says. “Because you’re not so pure. You pretend like that wasn’t your past, like it couldn’t have been you. It could have been either one of us.”

Renee in my bathroom, telling me about the pregnancy. Saying, “I don’t even know where I’ve been these past six weeks.” Saying, “I’ve done so many drugs I can’t count them all.” Poking her head out. Looking me in the eye. “I can’t have another abortion. I just can’t.” And later, on my couch: “I want kids, Jules.”

It couldn’t have been me. I’ve always been careful. Too careful. She’d had five, six abortions. One was just two months before. I never had one. No miscarriages. No near misses. No souls waiting to get in.

What she didn’t ask then, what I didn’t give her, what she needed to hear: I can do this, right?

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