More than 100 pages into her first attempt at a novel, Kentucky native Holly Goddard Jones realized it was a failure.
"I pretty unhappily decided to scrap it," says Jones, 33, an assistant professor of English at University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "I had invested a lot of time into it, and I was really disappointed."
But when one of her students submitted a story about a boy who went missing in the forest, Jones began recollecting her own childhood in Russellville, particularly her fascination with the wooded areas between the town's working-class subdivisions.
"I would go ride my bike and go into these little wooded areas, and I thought they seemed kind of wild and exciting," Jones says. "I was kind of scared and I thought maybe something bad would happen like in a horror movie, like I would stumble upon a dead body."
That is exactly what happens in the opening chapter of Jones' debut novel, The Next Time You See Me (Touchstone, $24.99).
The novel has been well-received since its release last month. The New York Times called it "impressive" and said Jones "has a precise eye and empathy to burn, bringing each of her many characters to well-rounded life." Gillian Flynn, author of the blockbuster best-seller Gone Girl, called it "an astoundingly good novel, ... simply mesmerizing."
Jones will read from and sign The Next Time You See Me on Friday at The Morris Book Shop in Lexington.
It's a bit of a homecoming for Jones, who earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Kentucky and worked at The University Press of Kentucky. A former colleague at the publishing house, Wyn Morris, is an owner of The Morris Book Shop.
"I'm definitely excited about the reading — more excited about it than any other on the schedule," she says. "I love Lexington. Getting to do the event at Wyn's store is perfect because I interned at UPK when he was sales manager there. I thought he was the coolest then and I still think he's the coolest."
Like Jones' 2009 book of short stories, Girl Trouble, The Next Time You See Me takes place in the fictional town of Roma, Ky., not so secretly modeled after places such as Russellville.
Set in 1993 — before the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet — The Next Time You See Me revolves around the mystery of a missing woman and explores the surprising ways different townspeople are connected to her.
The books shares some elements of the crime-solving mystery genre, but it also is a multi-narrative literary portrait of the inner lives of ordinary folks — folks Jones grew up with, folks you might meet in a small-town grocery store or gas station.
But "ordinary" does not mean "uninteresting" or "one-dimensional."
"I'm interested in ordinary people and I just take for granted that they lead interesting inner lives," she says.
"I have always been very interested in writing about characters who do bad or unfortunate things and then try to see the humanity in them and to empathize with them. I've made that my project to such an extent that a lot of times people end up feeling really sympathetically for characters who do horrible things."
Jones' empathetic embrace of the darker side of her characters — along with her intimate familiarity with the real-life counterpart to the book's setting — allows her to critique social injustices including racism, gender inequality and classism, undercurrents woven throughout the book.
The fact that the missing woman, Ronnie, is known to be a drunk who "gets around" means the police are more keen to shrug off her disappearance than to conduct an extensive search.
"Sully the victim a little, and the narrative changes," Jones said in a March interview with the well-respected online reading magazine Bookslut. "There are insinuations about the woman's share of the blame. With Ronnie, I was imagining what would happen if a discarded woman was so on the fringe of the community that she wasn't even registered at first as lost. Only her sister really cares, and even that sister has resentments and grievances that complicate her search."
Jones credits her working-class upbringing in a small town as a boon personally and professionally, although she didn't always see it that way.
"There was a time when I felt a certain amount of resentment about it and then I think that transitioned into a kind of pride," Jones says.
"I grew up in the kind of working-class household where there wasn't a lot of excess or luxury, but I never palpably felt need: I had a stable home, I wasn't hungry. I knew my parents were there for me and they loved me," Jones says. "It really prepared me in the best possible way for being an adult."
It also gave her insight as a writer.
"It's always been very important to grant my characters dignity and intelligence, and a lot of the portrayals of working-class characters depict them as pitiable and unintelligent," she says. "A person who is not bringing home that much money and lives in a crummy house still feels love and anguish, and is hungry for beauty and connection, and it is important for me to convey that."
IF YOU GO
Holly Goddard Jones reads from and signs The Next Time You See Me
When: 6 p.m. March 15
Where: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.
Learn more: (859) 276-0494, Morrisbookshop.com
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.