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This Philly novelist’s new book is a mystery set amid Kensington’s opioid crisis

"Any time a writer of fiction spends time in a very complicated place,” the author said at an event at the Free Library last month, “you want to write about it.”

Liz Moore, author of "Heft," her second novel, in her home in South Philadelphia.
Liz Moore, author of "Heft," her second novel, in her home in South Philadelphia.Read moreSHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer

Temple University professor and novelist Liz Moore says her new book, Long Bright River, is her first “Philadelphia book.” The Framingham, Mass., native has lived here for years but says she doesn’t begin writing about a place unless she feels there’s nothing else she wants to write about.

That place was Kensington, where Moore has been volunteering since 2009, teaching writing classes to women at St. Francis Inn, the long-running Kensington soup kitchen and shelter. The neighborhood, neglected for years and plagued with drug use and violence, compelled her. "Any time a writer of fiction spends time in a very complicated place,” she said at an event at the Parkway Central Library last month, “you want to write about it.”

The resulting novel tells the story of two sisters raised in Kensington. The elder, Mickey, patrols the neighborhood as a Philadelphia police officer, while Kacey, addicted to heroin for years, is struggling to survive on its streets. When a murderer begins targeting women in the area — and Kacey goes missing — Mickey embarks on a desperate search for her sister, and the killer.

Moore spoke with The Inquirer in mid-January about the neighborhood, her characters, and setting a book amid a real-world crisis. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What first brought you to Kensington?

I’ve always volunteered in various capacities, ever since I was a kid. I think it’s always been ingrained in me that giving money is important when possible, but giving time is also important. I first got involved in Mighty Writers [the nonprofit that offers after-school writing classes to Philly schoolchildren] when I first got here, and I wanted to be able to teach. What I was doing professionally was writing and teaching creative writing, and I thought, where can I teach creative writing to adults in a way that would be beneficial?

I already was interested in Kensington, having visited there and written a couple of nonfiction pieces about it. I emailed [the soup kitchen] St. Francis Inn and asked [about starting a workshop], and I started visiting them. I’m not doing it at this very moment, because of the book tour and parenting and teaching, but when the book tour is over, I hope to return to it.

What drew you to writing about Kensington and Philadelphia’s opioid crisis?

I was always writing about the neighborhood. It’s just that most of this writing was private at first. I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I wanted to do it, and whether I could do it in a way that felt meaningful, respectful, and accurate. I’m not from Kensington, and I’m not even from Philadelphia. It takes me a very long time of living in a place where I feel equipped to venture into a novel-like work. It took six years after I went to Kensington for me to start thinking I wanted to, or even could do, or should try to do.

I’m very interested in family dynamics — all of my books have difficult family situations at the center of them and this one’s no different. It’s being positioned as a thriller or literary suspense. But what initially sparked my interest in it was the family at the heart of it. The conflicts between the different members of the family felt similar to a lot of conflict that has existed in my own family, within and outside the realm of addiction. Any time I make the decision to write a book, I know it’s going to take me four years, and I know it has to be propelled by some deep emotional urge. There’s certainly a small autobiographical spark, like for all my books.

I benefit in certain ways from the protective veil that fiction has over it, so unlike photography, unlike even reporting, none of my characters are real people nor are they based on individuals I’ve met. People who have long family histories in Kensington are protective of it, and for good reason. I’m protective of the town I grew up in.

My hope is that this book portrays Kensington in a way that feels respectful and also doesn’t shy away from some of the ways that various systems have failed the neighborhood.

What are your thoughts on how the city has handled the crisis in Kensington?

I never write with a message in mind. I hope no one takes a moral from my story — I’ll leave it at that. For the record, I believe a supervised injection site should exist and I think medication-assisted treatment can be very useful. But in fiction, people can have all different opinions on these things and allow them to be problematic if they are.

The way addiction is portrayed in popular culture is often inaccurate or stigmatizing. What responsibility do fiction writers have to accuracy when writing about real-world issues?

As a writer of fiction, it would be nice to be able to say, I’m going to write anything I want with no sense of obligation to the way society perceives certain issues.

But I recognize that when people encounter fiction about addiction or fiction about a specific neighborhood, that’s going to alter their perception of the real-life entity or concept they’re reading about.

I attempted to be careful about the way the protagonist’s, Mickey’s, thinking evolved on some of the trappings of addiction — where at first, she may seem judgmental about it, and sort of self-righteous, and has this sense of moral superiority because her sister fell into addiction and she never did. By the end of the book, I think that that becomes more complicated, and the question of who’s right and who’s wrong flips back and forth several times.

My hope is that if a reader recognizes some of their own thinking in Mickey’s thinking at the start of the book, maybe their perception may be shifted slightly the way hers is at the end.