I’ve decided that when I say “today on the couch” I sound too much like a therapist. Besides, Kelly Barnhill, another member of The Lindsay Situation*, doesn’t seem like the sort of person who sits still for very long. If we were running, she’d be too far ahead and my questions would come out in huffing, puffing spurts. So let’s pretend we JUST went running, and now we’re walking, and one of us is probably limping, and we’re talking to Kelly about her new, almost-out book, The Mostly True Story of Jack. (Though in truth you can talk to Kelly about more than her book; you can talk to her about just about anything and she’ll tell you exactly what she thinks in her passionate, poetic way. Follow her on Twitter at @kellybarnhill or check out her blog and you’ll see what I mean.)
You may have already heard about Jack (Little, Brown and Co), which has already received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. The book’s officially coming out next week, although people who have preordered it seem to be getting it this week. It’s the story of a boy who seems to be mostly invisible, until he goes to a small town in Iowa and finds that he isn’t. He finds other things in Iowa, too: a strange house, eccentric relatives, best friends. People in Hazeltown, Iowa are interested in Jack. Some are a little too interested. And the reasons? You’ll have to find out those for yourself. The story is part mystery, part fairy tale, all good.
Me: Growing up, what were some of your favorite books?
Kelly: The books I loved as a child were not the books I read. They were the books I listened to. I was a bit of a delayed reader, but I absolutely adored anything read out loud. I had a Fisher Price record player that was all my own – a big deal in a family with five children. I had purchased it with my own money at a garage sale and wouldn’t let any of my siblings touch it. I had Treasure Island and Kidnapped and Oliver Twist and Call it Courage on old records, and I listened to them over and over and over. Also, my dad read to us every night – Grimm’s Fairy Tales and The Lord of the Rings and Great Expectations and The Chronicles of Narnia. As far as the books that made me into a reader, I was never the same after I read The Borrowers, and later The Five Children and It. And I’ve been a reader ever since.
Me: You mention in the acknowledgements (I have a thing for acknowledgements and yours made me all teary and bleary) that your dad had you given you Tolkein’s essay “On Faerie-Stories.” Talk a little about how that shaped your writing.
Kelly: One of the things that I love about about that essay is the assertion that the experience of the fairy-story is, at its heart, an earthy experience. Their aesthetic is rooted in the sensory information of the natural world. Fairy-stories require a consistence with the natural and a certain rationality, while still insisting on a vigorousness of vision and an insistence towards the beyond. But what kills me most of all is the language of fairy tales. In his essay, Tolkien says, “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” And it’s like that for me too – the ordinary achieves a sense of wonder and magic, not in spite of its ordinariness, but because of it.
Me: Where did Jack come from, and when did he come from?
Kelly: Jack came to me while I was running. This happens a lot, actually. I go running most mornings at six o’clock when the kids don’t have school, and shortly after I get them out the door when school is in session. And I spend a lot of time spinning sentences in my head or investigating images as I run. One day, I got a picture of a boy sitting in the back seat of a rental car as he and his mother drove across Iowa. The landscape intrigued me, of course, because Iowa is terribly intriguing. The swell and ripple of green. The air thick with growing. But the boy. I couldn’t look away from him. He was a terribly singular fellow, out of place and lonely. And I had to know what his story was.
Me: What about Wendy? (When I was first reading this story, I had this flash about Peter Pan’s Wendy, where I briefly wondered about a connection.)
Kelly: I loved reading Peter Pan in Middle School, and I loved it as an adult, but I was always distressed with the character of Wendy. She had so much potential, so much verve, and much of it was unused. In a lot of ways, my Wendy is an homage to that Wendy, giving her more of a spine than dear Mr. Barrie ever cared to. (This is not to knock James Barrie, who I adore. Still, Wendy was far too trodden-upon in his story, and it always bugged me.)
Me: One thing I love in this story is that how, fantastical though it may be, it is grounded in regular, real-world things, like fitting in, finding friends, and Mabel’s lousy cooking.
Kelly: Oh, come on! It’s hot dish! A staple of Midwestern pot-lucks for the last hundred years! Are you saying that a gelatinous concoction of canned tuna, overcooked noodles, canned cream of mushroom soup and crushed potato chips sounds…… (Okay, I can’t even keep that up. It’s disgusting. Don’t tell my aunts.)
Me: I won’t, so long as you don’t tell my mother-in-law’s friends that I’m not a fan of spaghetti salad…. I love the role of the animals in your story – how they do extraordinary things, while still remaining within the confines of possibility. (They don’t talk. They follow. They attack.)
Kelly: There was even another animal that had to be edited out, alas. Beowulf the yappy dog. I loved him, and he did threaten to rip Jack’s throat out (or, at least, Jack thought he would at any moment, but alas, he had to go. Next book, maybe.)
Me: What was the hardest thing about writing this book?
Kelly: Well, I just had no idea what I was doing. I’d never written fiction for children before, and while I had made an attempt at a grown-up novel, it was a hot mess. I was just feeling my way around, with no idea of where the story was going or what I’d find when I got there. And while there’s something to be said for that sense of discovery and wonder, it is a VERY difficult method of novel-writing. Primarily because I was constantly realizing that the novel I was writing was worlds away from the novel I thought I was writing. And time and time again, I’d have to go back, erase sixty or seventy pages, and start over. Heartbreaking? Yes. Necessary? Oh, yes.
Me: What was the easiest? I know for me this was a read-in-one-sitting kind of story, so curious as to how it was written.
Kelly: For me, the creation of characters is as easy as breathing. These characters came to me, fully formed, fully real, and fully ready to take over my life. And then they did.
Me: The waiting is the hardest part (so sayeth Tom Petty). True?
Kelly: Yes and no. When you first sell a book, and realize that the publication date is a couple of years away, a little tiny bit of your soul starts to crumple. And then, because of editorial schedules and what have you, the date gets pushed again and again and again into the future, your soul crumples a little bit more. But now, now as my wait until pub day shrinks into a matter of days, well, I’m filled with panic and dread. I’m not ready! my soul shouts. So now I oscillate between terror and dread and joy. Hopefully, we’ll start increasing the joy sometime soon.
Me: You’ve written other books before (largely nonfiction such as Monsters of the Deep and The Wee Book Pee, to throw out some intriguing titles that also evoke Kelly’s love for science) but this is what I suppose we’d call your first Big book. What was your biggest nail-biting moment?
Kelly You know, I kinda missed the nail-biting. When my agent sent my book out to publishers, I was teaching a week-long fiction residency in a tiny town up by the Canadian border. So first, she had a hard time getting a hold of me to get my permission to send the book out (I had assumed that we’d do another round of revisions, and was surprised that she thought it was ready). You see, I was staying in a motel that also doubled as the town liquor store. And it was bear hunting season. So the motel office workers were typically selling beer to hunters and weren’t answering the phone. And then, after the book sold the next day, my poor agent had a HECK of a time to try and get a hold of me. Finally, after some deduction, she figured out the number for the school I was teaching at, and was able to reach me there. And I’ll tell you what, finding out there’s an offer on your book while a gaggle of super-excited teachers crowd the doorway?….. Well, there’s nothing better than that, I’ll tell you what.
Me: Would you talk a little about the setting? I confess to opening it up and expecting to find a Minnesota winter.
Kelly: Midwestern winters are incredibly evocative, but so are our summers. The land thaws, opens and bears. After standing on ice for six months, we spend the other six drowning in abundance. And for the magic that I was working with here, abundance resonated better, so I set it in the summer.
But here’s the thing about Iowa: it’s magic. You drive down those roads, and you breathe in that extraordinary life, and you have no doubt- no doubt at all – that there is magic underground.
Me: How do you feel about the word “fantasy?” From what I know of your writing, you strike me as the “no labels” type of gal.
Kelly: One of the things that I absolutely love about writing children’s literature is the fact that it’s completely unbalkanized – science fiction sits next to historical fiction which sits next to contemporary which sits next to fart jokes. And what’s even better, kid readers are more concerned that the story is good, rather than what kind of story it is. Now, granted, that’s changing with how YA is shelved – with it’s giganitc section of paranormal – and I think that’s a shame. I know lots of kids who will read John Green and go from that to Holly Black and go from that to Daisy Whitney, or whatever. The point is that being in children’s literature allows me to work in the margins, and I really appreciate it.
Now, I do that anyway in my short stories for adults. I don’t call my stories “fantasy” or “science fiction” or “literary fiction” or “horror” but I will liberally lean into all of those. What I enjoy the most is occupying that nebulous place between. There’s a lot of good storytelling to be had in the gray spaces between genres, you know?.
Me: What’s next?
Kelly: I’ve got a book called Iron Hearted Violet that’s coming out next year, and I’m pretty excited about that. And in the meantime, I’m finishing a book called Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones, and another called Firebirds of Lake Erie, and I recently started a new project following a rather productive conversation with my Super Smart Agent. So, there’s a few pots bubbling on my proverbial stove, and that feels good.
Kelly: First of all, I’m something of a soup wizard. Perhaps it’s cold-climate thing, or perhaps it’s that I’ve gotten very good at being creative making meals that use what we pull out of the garden while still making use of leftovers. Anyway, my soups are epic – particularly with home made bread.
But REALLY, my secret skill is the fact that I make a mean key lime pie that is so good that you might actually see God (and you will say, Damn! She is gorgeous!).
Me: (Mouth watering.) Thanks, Kelly, for answering my questions. I’m sending out best wishes for a happy book birthday and a great year! For more about Kelly, visit her at kellybarnhill.com or follow her on twitter at @kellybarnhill.
* The Lindsay Situation: Five women, including me, who formed a support group back when our first agent, after selling our first books, departed for Europe and True Love. This year is a big year for the Lindsay Situation, with books by members Wendy Shang and Ruta Sepetys already under discussion on the ALA notable list, and with Kelly’s book sure to be discussed at the December meeting. Meanwhile Alexandra Bracken’s Brightly Woven just came out in paperback. Which means the last member of the LS to hit publication will be yours truly in 2012 (2013 if you count the book that Lindsay actually sold.) Cue the Tom Petty.
The Kidlitosphere has started compiling a list of author interviews on the web each Wednesday. This week’s Interview Wednesday is being hosted by Anastasia Suen.