In a spirited interview with author John Brown, Kelly Barnhill talks about her debut novel, The Mostly True Story of Jack, and tells readers what keeps her coming back to the page.
I have to start by saying I love the title of your book. It raises all sorts of questions in my mind. Was that part of the inspiration of the story or was it something you had to arrive at after a lot of hard work?
On the first question: Oh my. Titles. This title is the culmination of a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears. Okay, that's not entirely true. Neither blood nor sweat, just tears - mine specifically. This book was originally called The Boy Without A Face, then Jack Be Quick, then The Curious Face in the Cornfield, then Uprooted, then the House at the Far Edge of Town, then the A Child of Earth and Magic, then... oh lord, I can hardly remember.
The thing is, I typically don't have a problem naming pieces. The title usually comes when I've untangled the first knot of text and the beating heart of the story is just starting to assert itself. This time, not so much. I was stymied from the beginning. I asked my kids their opinions, my agent, my agent's assistant, every editor I've ever heard of. I asked my students, my Sunday School kids, kids on the block, kids at the park.
But that's the thing when you have a title that doesn't work - no amount of wanting it to be right will make it right. So I was bound to struggle and I was bound to hate - well, everything - because I just hadn't hit on the right one yet. Until I did. And the fussing stopped (much to the great joy of everyone involved).
(laughing) That's hilarious. I can see the desperate author hounding some kid on a swing. Of course, it shows persistence. And I'm betting it isn't just a title that's defied you. Have you run into plot or character snags that have been especially troublesome? If so, what do you do as a writer, how do you approach that?
Oh, clearly. I am one of those authors who does absolutely no planning before starting a project. Instead, I'll get a little knot of text stuck in my head (usually when I'm out for a run) - something pleasing to the ear or gentle in the mind's eye. And then I spend a whole lot of time figuring out the story behind it. What that means is that when I begin, I typically don't know what exactly I'm writing. Is this a short story? A novel? A children's book? A poem? It takes me a while to figure that out.
Insane, you might say. Absolutely barking mad, you might mutter.
Well, obviously, says I. But it's fun.
Anyway, I did a lot of select-all-deletes over the course of this novel (sometimes, deletes to the tune of 300 pages), retaining the characters, retaining the little bright spots that I managed to scrawl onto some note cards, but recomposing largely from memory, and re-engaging with the story in a fresh, new place.
It's a process I can't really recommend. Except that I do. Whole-heartedly. There's something thrilling about entering into a manuscript that doesn't have any mistakes in it yet. Of course, it typically doesn't have any words in it either at that point, but never mind.
Along the way I've had to remove some fairly major characters, which forced me to completely re-imagine and recompose the book (again), but as I did so, the story was better, the writing was better, and I learned a lot doing it. So, I don't like to call them "snags". I like to call them "learning opportunities". (Okay, fine, I also call them "throw-my-computer-in-the-creek-while-shouting-obscenities moments" but that's not very nice to talk about.)
Kelly, I have to say, to find a simmering joy in the dreaded select-all-delete (folks, she's wild, WILD!) Although I will say that starting a new project is always a thrill for me as well. So maybe we're not too far apart, although I do enjoy my planning. So, what was the knot of text that started this story? Is it even there anymore? And how did it develop into the fantastic magic that's at the heart of the tale? (Folks, as an aside, I have to tell you that the magic in this book is unlike anything I've read.)
Okay, you asked for it. Here is the original page....:
Outside the house, a girl stood on the darkening street looking up. Her hands were shoved deep in the pockets of her ratty cut-offs, and her red-brown curls struggled out of the long braid that hung down the length of her back. Her bike lay on its side on the ground, the front wheel still slowly spinning around and around, until it finally stopped.
Two boys walked slowly down the quiet street, their sneakered feet scarcely whispering against the pavement. One boy wore a bright orange seed cap over his even brighter blonde hair. He smiled at the girl as they approached. The other boy was very tall and he walked with a limp. Half of his face was obscured in a red knot of scars that bloomed over his skin like roses. He kept his eyes on the ground and did not speak. He never spoke. Both boys stood next to the girl. The boy with the cap tilted his chin towards the attic.
"That kid get in today?" he asked, his eyes on the silhouette of the stranger in the window.
"Yep," the girl said.
"Think he knows?" He turned to face the girl. His face, handsome and tan from so much time out of doors, shone in the last weak rays of the orange and pink sky.
"How could he?" she asked. She reached over to the boy on her left, who was taller than her, though his pronounced slouch made it difficult to tell. She put her arm around his shoulder, and he, in turn, laid his face, bad side down, good side up, on hers. Only when they stood like this, could people see that they were brother and sister. "But he will," she said.
I wrote this while on a positively lovely run through Fort Snelling State Park in Minnesota. Well, that's not exactly true. I thought it while I was running. I wrote it when I got home. But that's how a lot of stories start for me - a bit of fluff twists into a thread and thickens to a cord and winds into a knot. And then I have a hell of a time figuring out where the thing leads.
Now, that actually wasn't everything that led me to Jack. There was another bit that I can't find anywhere that was a conversation between a kid and his mom as they drove in a rental car towards a farm house in Iowa, where the kid would be staying while his parents worked through the details of their divorce. I didn't realize that the kids on the street would occupy the same story as the kid in the car. Indeed, I had no idea that the kids on the street were talking about the kid in the car. I also had no idea that I was writing a book with magic in it either. That was a surprise.
But to answer your earlier question, neither the conversation nor the bit about the kids looking at the house are in the book anymore, though little images and descriptions have drifted into the later drafts and taken root. That's the magic of revisions - every cut is necessary, and every cut hurts, but something new always grows. And sometimes the bits of your novel that once were broken and wobbly and weak transform into some very pretty bits of fiction. It's the transformation that gets us every time - or me, anyway. Honestly, it's why I keep coming back to the page: I like change.
And as far as the magic at the heart of the story - I can't really say. I think that the magic was simply there, waiting for me to find it. Everything I know about the strange history of that town, the terrible events that happened in the past and the necessity for Jack and his friends to set things right - I only discovered those things by accident. I discovered them because I cared about Jack, and cared about his loneliness and his lack of place, and I wanted to understand him. (And yes, I totally get it that he's not real, but in the end that doesn't really matter, does it? I'm a mother, and a child in need is a child in need.)
(Did I even answer your question? Why is it that every question sends me tumbling in all directions? I think I might be a dreadful interviewee. Maybe you should ask me easier questions. Like about darning socks.)
(laughing) You're a wonderful interviewee. I love these answers. And I think my readers will appreciate very much what you've shared. In fact, I'm betting they'd want me to keep asking questions for quite some time, but I'll limit myself to two more. First, the prose of your book has a flow to it. I haven't pinpointed what it's doing yet (I have noticed some parallelisms), but the prose is compelling. Just picks you up and carries you along. Is that flow important to you? Do you labor over it, or is it just something you enjoy, maybe seek out in other authors, and, therefore, seems to come naturally? Tell us your thoughts on this.
Oh, John, I am so glad you asked me this question! (Also, that you noticed, because I worked really hard on it!)
Let me back up before answering that, though, because I think it's really hard to separate how a writer builds text and uses words from how they think. There are people on earth - lots of them - who are visual thinkers. I am not one of them. In fact, I am not a visual thinker at all. Even now, when my house is quiet and my kids are at school, it is difficult for me to call up a mental image of their faces - but the texture and timbre of their voices is with me all the time. And it's always been like that for me as a reader - I'm much more attracted to books with a strong aural sensibility. I like prose that is rhythmic and rich. I think language works best when it is a sensual experience - not just in what it evokes (though that's clearly important) but how it feels in the mouth, how it feels in the ear.
Now I think part of the reason for this is that, as a little girl, I was a delayed reader. And when I started reading, I was stuck in the bottom group (they never tell you you're in the bottom group, but oh! As children we know. We know!). This is not to say I wasn't experiencing and engaging with stories. Every night my dad read to us - first the Grimm stories, then Narnia, then Tolkein, then Dickens. I also had a little fisher-price record player (that I bought at a garage sale with my own money, so of course I thought it was awesome) and a bunch of dramatized books on records - Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Watership Down, Call it Courage, Anne of Green Gables, and some others that I can't remember. I would listen to those things so often that my siblings threatened to throw my record player out the window. So I'd lock myself in the closet and listen some more. And even now, I love stories out loud. My husband and I read to one another every night, I read to my kids, and I read my own work out loud as I revise, over and over and over again.
My book sounds the way it does because I've read that thing out loud, cover to cover, approximately nine million times. Actually, that might be a conservative estimate. I want my stories to feel like a whisper on the skin, an insistent voice that you can't shake. Now, mind you, I'll probably never actually reach that goal, but it's good having a target, anyway.
...I see you have a whole bunch of projects slated to come out. The Final Exile of the Insect King is another killer title. But Iron Hearted Violet is the one coming out next after Jack. Tells us about that one or anything else you think readers should know about. And since Jack is a ways off, tell us which of your published stories you'd suggest readers try while they're waiting. I see a whole bunch you've linked to on your site.
Thanks John! This has been really fun, and I'd love to pop back over to your corner of the internets around launch-time (August 2! Mark your calendars!).
Anyone who is interested in reading any of my fiction online can head over to my blog for a list of links. And any of you who are interested in buying some pretty cool collections could check out Sybil's Garage #7, which has my story "The Dead Boy's Last Poem" or Apex's recent anthology Dark Faith, which has my story "Hush". Another story that I feel pretty good about is called "The Taxidermist's Other Wife", which appeared on Clarkesworld in December. That particular story came from an experience I had up in northern Minnesota (about ten miles south of the Canadian border), when I was teaching a fiction workshop to a bunch of hockey-playing high school seniors. One boy was telling me that it took him over an hour each way to get from home to school and back again. He said he'd been doing that for the last six years, ever since his town closed down the school. I asked him if all the kids in his town had to make the same kind of crazy commute, and he said, "Those of us who're left, sure. There's not many of us anymore. You kill the school, you kill the town. Everyone knows that." The idea that the lifeblood of a town is bound up in its school - and indeed, that a town can be killed, stuck with me, and transformed into an odd, mournful little piece. There is a deep love as well as a devastating sorrow that binds the people of my beautiful (and very cold) state to the land that surrounds them - and I feel that this story is the closest I've ever come to actually pinning those twin emotions down onto the page.
As for Iron-Hearted Violet - that has been a devilishly tricky book to write, but I'm pretty happy with it. How to describe it? Hmmm. It's the story of a girl who unwittingly releases an imprisoned, wicked god, and must sacrifice all that she knows and all that she loves in order to stop it from enslaving her - and every - world. There are banned stories and dragons with missing hearts and a grieving girl and friendship and a magic book and sleeping gods and a multitude of universes gathering in great foamy waves and crashing against the shore. Mostly, getting the language and tone just right was incredibly tricky, and I went through something like a million drafts, so for me to say that I'm feeling happy with it is a pretty big deal.
Interview excerpts reproduced from John Brown's website, www.johndbrown.com, with permission.