Mystery Writer, Llama Enthusiast Got Start at VPCC

When Debra Gaskill wrapped up her journalism career in 2016, she wasn’t done writing. She has loved the craft since childhood.

Gaskill enjoyed a rewarding career with stints at several newspapers in her native Ohio and periodic Associated Press assignments. She ultimately became managing editor at the Record-Herald in Washington Court House, Ohio, and the newspaper earned two Associated Press General Excellence awards during her tenure.

Taking her talent in another direction made sense after retiring from the Record-Herald. A Virginia Peninsula Community College graduate, Gaskill channeled her lifelong love for writing into becoming an author and has since written 16 mystery novels.

The veteran journalist’s more than 20 years of experience covering crime and courts is seamlessly woven into her mysteries, adding an authentic layer to her storytelling.

“I got to see a lot of man’s inhumanity to man,” she said of her transition from news writing to fiction.

Jokingly referring to her current career as “cheaper than therapy,” Gaskill proudly reflects on her body of work. Her novel, ‘The Major’s Wife,’ received an honorable mention in the 2011 Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards, while ‘Barn Burner’ was a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award at the Killer Nashville International Writers Conference. In 2018 her novel, ‘Kissing Fitz,’ won the Silver Falchion Best Suspense Award, which was presented at Killer Nashville by internationally acclaimed author Anne Perry.

Fast forward to the present and Gaskill has a new book in the works. All her books are self-published, but she is aiming for traditional publishing with this outing. Her foray into self-publishing stemmed from the industry’s struggle to categorize her eclectic works.

“I was getting rejected pretty regularly by traditional or legacy publishers. I was not being rejected because of poor quality writing,” she explained. “They told me they just didn’t know where to shelve my books: ‘You are not clearly one genre.’”

“When technology changed to publish-on-demand, I jumped in with both feet,” Gaskill said.

With her publishing firm, D’Llama Publishing, she offers services ranging from book formatting to cover design and editing for fellow self-published authors. She also takes charge of her marketing participating in book signing events in iconic locations such as Graceland and the Mansfield Reformatory where the movie “Shawshank Redemption” was filmed.

“I’ve been to Florida, Kansas … all kinds of different places. That’s been fun,” she said, acknowledging her promoter’s efforts.

Gaskill has sage advice for aspiring authors, especially those considering self-publishing.

“It’s a tough business. Be ready for rejection. Be ready to work very, very hard for little return at first. But once you’re out there, market yourself and don’t give up,” she offered.

Gaskill began shaping her journalism career while living in Hampton, Va. as a military spouse enrolled at VPCC. A Daily Press column called “My Turn” caught her attention and she decided to test her writing chops while still in school.

“It was for anybody who could write in. I sent in three or four humorous pieces,” she recalled of her newspaper entries. “They published them, and I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this!’”

Earning an associate degree in liberal arts from VPCC in the early 1990s, Gaskill returned to Ohio when her husband was stationed at Osan Air Base, South Korea. She furthered her education at Wittenberg University (Springfield, Ohio). After completing a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in journalism, she landed a writing position at the Xenia Gazette (Xenia, Ohio) in 1996, launching her lengthy career.

While writing comes naturally to Gaskill, who holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Antioch University (Yellow Springs, Ohio), she discovered another outlet for her creativity.

The mother of two – a daughter and son – would not have imagined becoming skilled at knitting and weaving. She picked up the crafts when her husband, Greg whom she married in 1983, decided to raise llamas and alpacas upon his retirement from the Air Force.

Gaskill admits she met the idea with humor.

 “I said, ‘What’s an alpaca and how many eggs does it lay a year?’ My idea of livestock was a German Sheppard,” she quipped.  

She said humor quickly turned to love when she met the llamas and alpacas, they would come to raise on their Enon, Ohio farm.   

“We started with three and the first year after we sheared them, I had all this fleece. At that point, I didn’t know what you did with it … so, I learned how to spin it myself. I learned how to knit, and I learned how to weave,” Gaskill said.

The herd’s growth forced her to rely on a mill to commercially process the fleece as it was too much for her to manage. The decision paid off. She has “a small” artist’s studio in Springfield where she sells the yarn spun from the fibers of her beloved animals. 

“That’s where I’m able to work. It’s all me,” she said.

Raising llamas and alpacas has yielded other rewards. Gaskill established the llama and alpaca 4-H program in her county, serves on the board of the Greater Appalachian llama and Alpaca Association, and is a member of the Ohio River Valley Llama Association.

As she works on her 17th book, she is excited about the prospect of taking the traditional publishing route and envisions a future of continued creativity. Her novels are available on roughly 25 platforms, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble (e-books) and Hoopla.

She is grateful for her VPCC experience, saying the College was “a real good foundation in the liberal studies.”  She has encouraging words for those contemplating higher education no matter the age.

“Don’t give up on your dreams,” she advised. “Some of us are late bloomers. We don’t get our stuff all in one bucket until we’re adults and know where we’re going. Community colleges are a great place to start.”