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The Tales of Two Writers

Ignited by passion and propelled by courses at the Writer’s Studio, Monique Demery and Deborah Keene enter the ranks of published authors.

Devora's Spring

Though certainly intrigued by the literary craft, neither Monique Demery nor Deborah Keene ever held grand visions of writing a book.

In fact, Demery jokingly refers to herself as a “failed academic” while Keene’s professional background resides in the criminal justice system, where she has served as a criminal defense attorney and parole and probation officer.

Today, however, both are published authors, the result of personal resolve and persistence as well as support from the Writer’s Studio at the University of Chicago’s Graham School.

In 2013, Public Affairs Press published Demery’s debut work, Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu, a biographical account of South Vietnam’s former first lady and her role in sparking conflict in Vietnam. Demery tracked down the reclusive Nhu in Paris and earned the first interviews Nhu had granted a Westerner in more than two decades.

And Keene published her first novel, Devora’s Spring, earlier this year. A stirring tale about a woman who sets out to find her missing daughter following a nearly 30-year stay in prison, Keene’s tale offers a searing exploration of the criminal justice system, the child foster care system, mental illness, and the difficulties of post-incarceration life.

Ideas become books

Curiosity drove Demery to investigate the life of Madame Nhu. While earning her master’s degree in East Asian Studies, Demery became fascinated by mentions of “this dragon lady” and began digging into Madame Nhu’s history. Yet, she struggled to find anything more than footnotes and virtually nothing from contemporary times save a 1980s era account of Madame Nhu’s brother murdering her parents.

“I just got curious, like, ‘Where did this woman go?’” Demery says.

Demery ditched thoughts of pursuing a PhD and instead dove into Madame Nhu’s life, discovered her in Paris, and began taking classes at the Writer’s Studio to compile her research, interviews, and insights into a compelling narrative. Demery’s classmates offered critical feedback fueling the structure of her story and accountability that pushed her project forward with force and focus.

Meanwhile, Keene honored one of the most trusted pearls of literary advice – write what you know – when she enrolled in her first Writer’s Studio course with veteran instructor Susan Hubbard in 2017. Leaning into her personal history with the criminal justice system, including people she had encountered in prisons and courtrooms, Keene penned a short story about a character named Devora and her preparations to leave prison. Classmates were fascinated upon reading the draft and urged Keene to explore the story more.

“That encouragement forced me to kind of keep upping my game,” Keene says.

Keene continued her literary march, often plotting ideas on a legal pad before jumping to the computer. Feedback from Hubbard and classmates helped Keene strengthen her work – developing scenes and characters, fleshing out dialogue, and leveraging different narrative techniques to produce a richer story.

“I came to this with no MFA, no creative writing experience to speak of,” Keene says. “I wrote legal briefs, and so it was just really helpful for me to get exposed to the craft.”

Advancing literary efforts  

In authoring their respective books, both Demery and Keene brought a female perspective to two topics – the uprising in Vietnam and incarceration – historically told through a male lens. Undeterred by that reality, each writer’s genuine passion for her subject matter spurred a spirited story, says Hubbard, who has led classes featuring both Demery and Keene.

“If you pick a topic that truly fascinates and compels you, you will feed it, you will honor it,” says Hubbard, who teaches creative writing workshops focusing on character, scenes, structure, and catharsis.

By enrolling in Writer’s Studio courses, Hubbard says Demery and Keene joined a group of committed writers serious about advancing their work. They added structure and accountability to their passion and, as a result, charged their own literary efforts.

“It can be hard to write in isolation, but sometimes all that’s needed is the energy, support, and structure of a group of like-minded creatives to get your work going in the right direction,” Hubbard says.

In fact, Demery, who is struggling with her latest project about an American man who played a central role in executing members of Madame Nhu’s family, has returned to Writer’s Studio courses with firsthand knowledge of how an earnest community of fellow scribes can enhance one’s own literary pursuits.

“I’m back in classes trying to puzzle my way through and to see how this character’s going to work,” Demery says.

If you are interested in enhancing your writing skills, similarly to Monique Demery and Deborah Keene, contact us to learn more.

Daniel P. Smith

Freelance Writer

Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer at the Graham School.

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