Keller to end ‘extraordinary journey’ as Tribune critic
Julia Keller, the Chicago Tribune cultural critic who won the newspaper’s only Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, says it's time to return to the academic world — and pursue a new career as a novelist.
Calling it “an exceedingly difficult decision,” Keller, 54, told her bosses last week that she plans to leave in June after completing several projects for the paper and participating in the Tribune’s Printers Row Lit Fest.
Starting this fall, Keller will join the faculty of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where she will teach writing classes in the journalism department. She previously taught at Ohio State University (where she earned a doctorate in English), Princeton University, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago. Just before joining the Tribune 1998, she studied technologies of literacy as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.
“It's been an extraordinary journey for me,” Keller said of her tenure at the Tribune. “I was given the chance to write about anything and everything, from a long series on traumatic brain injury to a series on the aftermath of the Utica, Illinois, tornado. As cultural critic, I've had a ball writing the Lit Life column for the past several years. On stage at Tribune-sponsored events, I've been able to interview people such as Joyce Carol Oates, E.L. Doctorow and Umberto Eco. Not too shabby for a kid from Huntington, West Virginia.”
It was what the Pulitzer jurors called Keller’s “gripping, meticulously reconstructed account of a deadly 10-second tornado that ripped through Utica” that won journalism’s top prize for feature writing in 2005 — the only time the Tribune has been so honored. Keller spent seven months researching the disaster, turning out a 13,372-word story published over three days in December 2004.
In addition to teaching, Keller said she’s looking forward to devoting more time to writing novels. Her first mystery, A Killing in the Hills, set in her home state of West Virginia, will be published this August by St. Martin’s Press.
With Keller leaving and Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Blair Kamin taking a year off for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, the Tribune soon will be missing two of its most distinguished voices. In Keller’s case, it’s unlikely she’ll be replaced, considering that the paper’s culture beat was created for her.
“This was an exceedingly difficult decision for me,” she said. “I love Chicago, and I believe that Chicago is the finest and most vital literary city in the nation. But change, they tell me, is a good thing. And I feel increasingly drawn to fiction-writing.”