Good Character
Novelist Ken Jaworowski delves into morality, roots, and the cruel hand of fate in his new “Rust Belt thriller,” Small Town Sins.
by Bill Donahue

Ken Jaworowski traces the idea for his new novel, Small Town Sins, to a trip across Pennsylvania with his daughter to vet prospective colleges. The experience brought back memories of his time studying at Shippensburg University.

“I’m this kid from the streets of Philly, and all of a sudden I’m seeing Amish people and hearing horse-drawn buggies clip-clopping past,” he recalls. “It all came flooding back.”
The novel, which drops on Aug. 1, has been described as a “Rust Belt thriller.” The story revolves around a small cast of characters who live in the fictitious central Pennsylvania town of Locksburg. His down-to-earth and down-on-their-luck characters face many hardships, some of which are of their own design.
The writing is deft and tight, which should come as no surprise considering Jaworowski’s day job: an editor with the New York Times. Unsurprisingly, Small Town Sins has received high praise, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Philadelphia magazine recently named the novel one of the best books to read this summer.
Jaworowski, who was born and raised in Roxborough, now lives across the river in Princeton Junction. He will be reading his work at the Princeton Public Library on Aug. 20, with another Philadelphia-area reading still to be announced.
In Small Town Sins, your characters make some bad decisions, but you can almost understand why they do. What is it about that dynamic that interests you?

When good people do bad things, or when bad people do good things, it’s fascinating. If you view the best person on their worst day, you will see them differently. … I also like the idea that you can make a bad turn one day and your whole life changes. There’s something interesting in an ethical dilemma. You can do the right thing your whole life, and there’s no reward for doing the right thing. If you find a bag of money that doesn’t belong to you, it raises a question: If I do the wrong thing and no one sees it, is it still the wrong thing?

In the book, there are no brilliant investigators, no genius scientists, just ordinary people going through difficult times. … In a small town, the things you do echo and get amplified. In a city, you can be anonymous, but in a small town, people know your past and everything else about you.
It takes discipline to write a novel like this, especially after you’ve been writing a full day, or to steal moments before a day at work. What does it take to balance writing for work and writing for enjoyment?
I don’t find a clear distinction between the two. … I don’t know how good of a writer I am, but I know I’m a decent editor. I’d dwell on a paragraph for an hour. I’d follow the advice to write fast, keep writing, and then go back and edit later.
I imagine your job has played a part in the intimacy of your dialogue, because you talk to people for a living, and I imagine that you have met all kinds of “characters” to help you shape the people that come alive on the page.
I’d attribute [the dialogue] to two things: journalism, where your job is to talk to people a lot and always find the right quote; and my work in theater. You write something you think is brilliant, and then the actor says it and it sinks like a stone. It’s humbling. I’ve written stuff I thought was so good the heavens would open up, but when it’s spoken out loud it just doesn’t work. I’ve also written stuff where the actor twists the words just so, and it’s perfect.  
Tell me about your work as a playwright.
I went to the University of Pennsylvania for my graduate degree in liberal arts, and for my creative project I wrote a play. I’ve since had four or five done, and I did sell the film rights for one. … Believers is about a couple, and it takes place in two time periods, looking at their lives in two different times. Never Missed a Day is set at a retirement party, and it’s sort of like Glengarry Glen Ross. Interchange is an amalgamation of five interconnected stories. … If there’s a common thread that runs through all of [my plays], I’d say they’re all about common people—ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Photo courtesy of Ken Jaworowski
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, July 2023.