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JesseDonaldson_head_shotJesse Donaldson doesn’t think the characters in his debut novel, The More They Disappear, are particularly special. But you wouldn’t know that from how he speaks about them.

Mark, who used to be pure evil, “became more interesting when he was more vulnerable.” Harlan is “not even a great lawman; he’s like a capable lawman,” but he’s got a clear “moral view of the world.” Lewis is “kind of dumb,” which is kind of fun. And Mary Jane? “She’s terrible at making decisions,” but she has an “emotional intelligence” that makes her “charming.”

“You spend enough time writing, and they become real,” Donaldson said.

And Donaldson, who will read with Jeff Fernside at a free event at the Valley Library at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 20, has spent a lot of time with these characters. The spark for the Kentucky native’s book came in 2001 when he ran across an article in his hometown newspaper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, about a sheriff who was murdered by an opponent who had local drug ties.

“It was good source material—drugs and crime. I just had to add sex and it was good,” joked Donaldson, who holds an MFA in creative writing from both Oregon State University and the University of Texas’s Michener Center. “I kind of started with that source material and turned it all around. I made my sheriff corrupt instead of clean, and I made my deputy clean instead of corrupt.”

The book, set in a small Kentucky town, is a murder mystery with a twist: we know from the beginning who murdered the town’s sheriff, but we don’t know why. The unfolding story reveals a complicated tangle of addictions, mistakes, and questionable decisions, with prescription drug addiction at its core.

“My characters make a lot of terrible decisions,” Donaldson said. “I would not advise people to read my novel and use it as a guidance post for how to go through life.”

The novel’s many characters are intertwined in ways they only gradually come to understand, and Donaldson spent a lot of time mapping their connections and motivations. The key? Empathy.

“You want people’s decisions to all come from, at least in their own minds, a rational place,” he said. “I have to understand why they would make those decisions, and that in a different set of circumstances I might make those decisions.”

Fiction writers Jeff Fernside and Jesse Donaldson will read on Friday, Jan. 20 at 7:30 p.m. in the Valley Library Rotunda on the OSU campus, 201 SW Waldo Place. The event is free and open to the public.

By Maggie Anderson