Kelly Barnhill lives in Minnesota with her husband and three children. She is the author of four novels, most recently The Girl Who Drank the Moon, winner of the Newbery Medal. The Witch’s Boy received four starred reviews and was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards. Kelly Barnhill has been awarded writing fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the McKnight Foundation. Visit her online at kellybarnhill.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @kellybarnhill.
1. Favorite books/authors who inspired you?
When I was a kid, I wasn’t much of a reader. I knew that one should be a reader, and I was terribly good at pretending to be a reader, but reading simply didn’t come easily to me. What I did love, though, were stories. I was a listener. My parents—who also loved stories (still do, actually)—fed this love by reading to my siblings and me every night. They read the Narnia books and the adventures in Middle Earth. They read Grimm’s fairy tales and Andersen’s fairy tales and some Dickens. They read Just So Stories and The Jungle Book and condensed Shakespeare plays. What I loved was not the words on the page, but the telling. I loved the story in the mouth and the story in the ear and the story hovering in the space between the teller and the listener. Later, when I did start reading, I read very slowly, and I loved books with beautiful language that I could hang on and puzzle over. I read Shakespeare’s sonnets over and over and over when I was an older child. And Edna St. Vincent Millay. Oscar Wilde’s stories. And the entire Oz canon. I also read pretty much every fairy tale I could get my hands on. I liked the way words sounded. I liked the physicality of language.
2. What’s your writing routine?
For much of my early career, my writing time (when it was not disrupted by screaming infants or sick toddlers or dogs who didn’t understand that predawn was an inappropriate time for walkies) was from four to six in the morning. Then the kids would wake up and my “real” job would start. I can’t recommend this routine, actually. I will be the first to admit that the stories produced during that period were universally terrible. I refer to them now, affectionately, as my “starter stories,” for my own education, and no one else. Now, though, my kids are in school, and my days are my own. After I’ve made all the lunches and everyone leaves, I usually sit down and write a few longhand pages until my dog’s whining becomes too distracting, at which point he and I will walk until I have the scene I’m writing worked out in my head. Then I return, and write until the kids get home. I don’t really write late at night or early in the morning anymore—unless I’m on deadline. I keep banker’s hours.
3. What part of your book was the most fun to write?
When I began this book, I knew that I would have an ancient, poetry-quoting, six-limbed swamp monster named Glerk, and I knew that I would have a Perfectly Tiny Dragon who suffered from delusions of grandeur. What I did not know was how much fun I would have writing the relationship between those two characters. Glerk’s long-suffering realism. Fyrian’s overwhelming enthusiasm and lack of social skills. The friendship that those two characters have, and the profound affection they have for one another, despite their many differences, was really a joy to write.
4. Which part was the most difficult?
This novel has so many moving parts. Political machinations. Characters who intentionally blind themselves to facts. A mind broken by grief. A planned assassination. Woodworking. Puberty. True love. A bright girl insisting on answering her own questions, even when the adults around her are doing their best to obfuscate and deny. Stories that lie. And then everyone’s paths lead them, inexorably, into the Woods, and the Woods changes everything. Just keeping track of everyone’s trajectories was much harder than I realized.
5. Is there one particular character in your new book that you most relate to? Why?
I am the madwoman in the tower, hanging on to a single, desperate hope.
Wait. That’s not right. I am Xan, the Witch, intent on kindness and willing to help, but who doesn’t always do the right thing right at the beginning.
No, that’s not it. I am Glerk. Slow-moving. Fond of flowers. Insisting on boring everyone around me to death with poetry.
Actually, I take that back. I’m Luna: furious, curious, cantankerous, restless, eager to please, but more eager to annoy. But underneath it all, pulled forward by a deep, deep love.
And I’m Antain: shy, uncertain, anxious, easily broken, but desperate to do the right thing.
And wait, I’m also Ethyne, I think. And the awful Grand Elder Gherland. And even Sister Ignatia. I’m all of them. I am large and contain multitudes—I think it’s part of the job.
6. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Be prepared to write really, really, really crummy stories. Like, the crummiest in the world. One thing that drives creators to create in the first place is our highly tuned sense of what is awesome in stories. We seek it out. We revel in it. We devour words like starving people. But the problem is that it takes a long time to achieve a skill set that allows us to produce work that even comes close to what we value. Which means that, for a long time, your stories will stink. And that’s okay. It’s important to write the stinky stories because that is how you learn. And the more you learn, the more likely it is that you will one day produce a story that touches the heart of another person. And that is a good, good thing.
7. Cats or dogs?
I grew up with cats. I have a dog. I would have both if my darling husband could tolerate those of the feline persuasion. I love my dog, but I do miss having a cat. Cats both cuddle and sting. They are like having a loveable assassin living in your house: they charm, they play at adoration, but they can always strike. I like it when creatures keep us on our toes.
8. If writing weren’t part of your daily work, what career would you like to have?
Well, I’ve already had several: teacher and bartender and park ranger and whatever. I thought about being a doctor in my youth, but I fear I lack the brainpower. But if I woke up and realized that the story well had run dry, I’d probably go back to the classroom. And train new writers.
9. Which author would you most like to spend the day with?
Oscar Wilde. My first true love.
10. What is your secret superpower?
Oh, I have several. I can run very fast and for a long time and not get tired. I can pick up very hot objects with my bare hands and not get burned. I make amazing soup (though baking is my kryptonite—my cakes are notoriously horrible). I can anticipate when one of my kids is having a bad day even when they’re nowhere near me. I also am in possession of Giant Love Rays, which I can direct at people at will. I am able to make people feel awesome about themselves. It’s a useful skill and I have made a solemn oath to only use my power for good. Also, it’s fun making people feel happy and shiny and amazing.