Courtesy of the Heinz Endowments.

It took a chance encounter at a party to bring Natalie Krill to life.

Chatting on the sidelines of an event at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill in 2017, Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant mentioned that he’d written a novel several decades ago that had been edited, but never published.

Fellow reveler and Pittsburgh-based independent publisher Will Entrekin was intrigued and offered to take a look.

Two years later, Oliphant is showing off a new side of his public persona: novelist.

“I ultimately decided that we’re allowed to be many things in this life, including creative,” Oliphant tells NEXTpittsburgh.

Courtesy of Exciting Press.

Set and originally written during the 1990s, “Ring of Years” is a thriller following the fictional Krill as she confronts her past growing up in a cult while investigating the disappearance of a young girl. The novel debuted on the Amazon Kindle store last week for $5.99.

“It’s a story really about belonging and how we face our past,” says Oliphant. “Although I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms at the time, that’s what’s emerged for me now.”

Oliphant took his inspiration from the stand-off between David Koresh and his followers and Federal Law Enforcement in Waco, Texas, as well as other apocalyptic sects that sprung up in the years leading up to the millennium.

“There were a lot of strange cults emerging, raising new issues of what the future would be like and what people’s sense of belonging would be,” recalls Oliphant.

Despite having a hard-working and enthusiastic literary agent, Oliphant says the original manuscript failed to gain traction in the New York publishing environment of the 1990s. He put it aside for many years until Entrekin, who runs the local independent publisher Exciting Press, inspired him to take another look.

“Grant is the most local author I’ve worked with,” says Entrekin. “Most of the others are either across the country or across the world.”

Several Exciting Press titles have enjoyed notable e-publishing success. In 2017, Nick Earls’ “Wisdom Tree” collection of novellas was named the Adult Fiction eBook of the Year by the industry magazine Independent Publisher, and Entrekin’s own 2011 novel, “The Prodigal Hour,” reached the top of the Amazon bestseller list.

While “Ring of Years” is already available for purchase, Entrekin says Exciting Press will be promoting the novel with giveaways on Kindle, Goodreads and literary thriller e-newsletters throughout the summer.

“When publishing has become a button that literally anyone can press, curation and promotion are the two factors that can really drive success,” says Entrekin.

As Exciting Press seeks to promote Oliphant’s book, it may be that timing plays a role: In deciding to maintain the story’s 1990s milieu, Oliphant was struck by how many of his themes and storylines felt perfectly at home in 2019.

“Aside from the technology, the book feels very current,” he says. “Unfortunately, we now live in an apocalyptic time. The same bizarre, impending sense of doom and need to change.”

While his novel has only been online for a few days, Oliphant already has several other books in the pipeline. One is a nonfiction book based on his career in philanthropy and mission-driven organizations.

“I think this is just a wickedly hard time for people in those arenas,” says Oliphant. “I’m writing a book about what it’s like to work in this field, and why there’s reason for hope and how to get there.”

He’s also plugging away on another thriller, something “less well-formed” with a modern setting. Oliphant says the story is inspired by his own relationship with his father, artist and political cartoonist Pat Oliphant. “It’s at least right now fiction, but with some semi-autobiographical overtones,” he says.

Given that his job requires him to maintain a public profile, Oliphant says that several friends and associates asked if he’d be using a pen name for his dark debut. While he gave the idea some thought, he ultimately decided to fully own his work.

“I love to write. Writing is a big part of my career, and always has been,” he says. “It’s a very important part of my identity, so publishing this under my own name felt right to me.”

Oliphant has advice for anyone struggling with a part of themselves that wants to create. “Double down on that and let it happen. It’s worth doing.”

Check out “Ring of Years” here.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.