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An Interview with Kelly Barnhill

2011 October 26


We’re pretty smitten with local author Kelly Barnhill. She’s spunky, kind, incredibly insightful, a talented writer with a fresh voice, a supporter of other writers, and did we mention spunky? We appreciate a good amount of spunk over here at Hazel & Wren. Anyway, we reviewed Barnhill’s inventive young reader novel The Mostly True Story of Jack a while back, and just couldn’t get her out of our heads. So we decided to share her charm with all of you. Enjoy.

Hazel & Wren: When did you start writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer? 

Kelly Barnhill: That’s actually a complicated question! I started writing stories (and poems and character descriptions and single lines that I liked the sound of) in high school — primarily as a way to keep myself looking occupied as my mind wandered in class. I started writing more seriously in college. I had an amazing teacher — Jonis Agee (whose book of short stories, Acts of Love on Indigo Road remains one of my favorite collections ever) — and I wrote furiously, obsessively.

And then I sorta… stopped.

And I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps post-college ennui, perhaps being young and in love and the inevitable questions of identity that immature love tends to pose — that… acquiescence of Self, you know? (Am I me? Am I you? Where is the line between Me and You?) Being in one’s early twenties and being adrift? Well, it’s a curious time, I’ll tell you what. I still wrote then, just not very often and not very well. The obsession was gone, the fire was gone, and my writing life had gone cold.

That changed after my second child was born. I was reading Louise Erdrich’s book Last Report of Miracles At Little No Horse, and then re-reading it, and then re-reading it, as I balanced an infant on my lap, and something shifted inside me. I opened up a notebook, wrote a paragraph, and then wrote every day ever since.

H&W: What does a day in the writing life look like for you? 

KB: Well, that has changed as well. It used to be that I wrote from four til six every morning, because that was the only time that I had guaranteed to myself. But the work that I was producing then… well it wasn’t very good, was it? It wandered and contradicted itself, and no one will ever, ever see it.

Now that the kids are in school, I get them up, make their breakfasts, pack their lunches and send them into the world every day. Then I sit down and write from nine until noon or one, then go for a run, and then write some more. Sometimes I write at night as well, but I’m slower in the evening, so it’s not as fun. Plus, I’d rather be watching Mad Men with my husband. So there’s that.

H&W: You write in many genres, including fiction and nonfiction, for both children and adults. What are the challenges and benefits of this? 

KB: I think it’s good for our brains to be reading across genres, and it’s certainly good for my writer’s muscles to be writing across genres as well. I think the best writing happens when we’re outside of our comfort zones, and when you don’t allow yourself to stay too long in any particular genre, it means that you have no comfort zone. Everything is new.

And I guess, for me, I don’t know what it’s like to feel at the top of my game, and I certainly don’t know what it’s like to feel anything close to competency. All I know is the learning curve. All I know is the furious trial and error, trying to get the thing right. And really, I hope I always feel that way.

H&W: How has being a mother impacted your writing, if at all?  

KB: Oh, I am a way better writer as a mom than I ever was before. Being a writer requires a person to be in a constant state of empathy right? We are constantly in the brain and in the soul and in the very skin of people who are not us. This is a job requirement. One of the benefits of motherhood is that we are constantly — whether we want to or not — feeling as our children feel. I have felt every knocked head, every skinned knee, every schoolyard slight as if it was my own.

Because they are my own, you know?

H&W: How does writing for young adults and children change the way you approach plot, characters, and/or dialogue? 

KB: That’s hard to say. My projects are so different from one another — even within genres. Every piece has a different approach to those elements, and each element responds, not to audience necessarily, but to the heart of the story. Each story is tuned to its one, central note, you know?

But here’s the thing: when you’re writing for kids, you’re not just writing for kids. You’re also writing for the adults that read the book with the kids, and the kids that those adults used to be, and the adults that your kid readers will be someday. There is a sort of chronological vertigo that is a requirement for the writer. And I kinda dig it, to be honest.

On one hand, kid readers are an incredibly tough audience to write for. They can sense moralizing a mile off, and if they think you’re headed in that direction, they’ll kick you in the shins. At the same time, they’re incredibly soulful and philosophical and ready to engage. So the books that work for this age group have to walk an incredibly fine line.

Kids are also very flexible in their thinking. They get that the world is complicated and strange and largely unknowable, so they don’t need a ton of explanation. They’re more like, “Oh. So the world’s like that is it? Okay then.” And they’ll move on with the story.

It’s adults that need every damn thing explained to them. Because, as a group, we’re a rather dull lot, alas.

H&W: Jack is the main character in your most recent novel, The Mostly True Story of Jack (duh). Did he come to you naturally? 

KB: He did. Sometimes, when I go for a run, I’ll compose in my head. I’ll start with a line, or a little knot of language, and I’ll spin it out and out and out until it’s the beginning of something. I can usually carry about two to three pages of text in my aural memory bank.

A while ago, I had a scene pop into my head while I was running — a scene with a kid and his mom in a rental car, barrelling over a country road in Iowa. And they had a very snarky conversation, that was removed long ago. But the boy interested me. He was so singular and so sad and so lonely. And I had to know who he was. And it took me an entire book to do it.

H&W: What resources have been most beneficial to you as a writer? Are there organizations, publications, or people who have helped you along the way? 

KB: Both the Loft [Literary Center] and Intermedia Arts have been ridiculously helpful. I was in the mentorship program at the Loft as a creative nonfiction writer while simultaneously doing a speculative fiction mentorship at Intermedia Arts. I didn’t plan to do it, and it was nuts of me to even try, given the workload for each program. But I didn’t think I’d get into either, much less both, and when you work as a freelancer, you learn to just say yes when the opportunities arise. So I did. And it was amazing. Both organizations gave me a boost when I needed one and both have helped to define me as a professional writer. And I will be grateful forever.

H&W: You are embarking on an around-the-world trip by hot air balloon. You are allowed to bring three books with you to entertain yourself during the long trip, but no more than three, because, well, hot air balloon baskets aren’t that big, and you do need food, after all. Which three books do you bring? (No cheating with an e-book reader!) 

KB: Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse, the collected works of Borges,  and anything by Phillip K. Dick.

H&W: Literary Death Match: Mark Twain and Norman Mailer are in a fight to the grisly death. Who wins? Bonus round: Jane Austen vs. F. Scott Fitzgerald? 

KB: Oh, god, are you kidding me? Mark Twain in the first round. That guy could fight dirty and he knows everyone’s weakness.

And given that Scott Fitzgerald would likely be falling-down drunk before the fighting began, I think that Jane Austen would make mincemeat of him, despite the punitive Regency underwear and the domineering family members.

H&W: What’s next for you? Books? Life In General?  

KB: Why, world domination, of course.


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