Beyond The Bio: Kelly Barnhill


Hey, welcome back! James here, and today I’m joined by the Newberry medalist, Kelly Barnhill. While Kelly is most famous for her bestselling 2016 novel The Girl Who Drank The Moon, she’s also the author of The Witch’s Boy, Iron Hearted Violet, The Mostly True Story Of Jack, and Dreadful Young Ladies And Other Stories--which just came out earlier this year. When she’s not writing, she loves to be outdoors canoeing, hiking, or gardening. I just know you’ll love this interview as much as I did, so let’s get to it! And be sure to stick around to the end for an awesome giveaway!

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James: Hey Kelly! So happy to have you join us today to chat about your award-winning book, The Girl Who Drank The Moon. Can you tell our readers a little about what they can expect?

Kelly: Hi everyone! My book is a fairly typical story about a five hundred year old witch, and a poetry-quoting, four armed swamp monster who may or may not be as old as the world, and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon (who suffers from delusions of grandeur and thinks he is Simply Enormous, despite the fact that he can fit in your pocket), and the three of them are tasked with raising a magical baby. Actually, that's not what this story is about at all - it's actually a story about false narratives, the power of stories for both good and bad, the insidious grip of oppression and blind allegiance, and the power of asking questions.

James: Your book is an utter joy, but my favorite character had to be Fyrian. Where did you get the idea for this delightfully diminutive dragon?

Kelly: Oh, heavens, I have no idea. Some characters just show up and I have no idea how they arrived in my head, or even for what purpose. I will say this: when I was in the midst of one of the many re-writes of this book, I started to worry that Fyrian might be too much of a distraction for my readers, and actually floated the idea or pulling him out and seeing what the story would be like without him (oh, Fyrian, darling, forgive me!) and my editor wrote back one second later and said, "OH DON'T YOU DARE." She was right of course, and in truth, I don't think I would have been able to do it. I loved him too much.

James: Which character is most like you?

Kelly: Ha! Fyrian, for sure. I do love being part of the group. And cuddling. Although, there is a bit of the salty grump of Xan in me too. And Glerk. And I am for sure part Antain, I think. And while I'm nothing like Ethyne, she is always the sort of person I wish I could be.

James: I love the way you incorporated legends into your book. There were chapters spoken directly to the reader, and I love the way those chapters brought me into the story. What's a legend that loomed large in your childhood?

Kelly: It's hard to choose just one. I was the kid who was convinced there were Sasquatch in the woods and ghosts in the attic and very large tentacled beasts living at the bottom of the lake. I loved changeling stories and gallant knight stories and stories about sinister hitchhikers on lonely country roads.

James: Your poetic writing style really added a layer of depth to the world you created. Who are some writers who make you believe in magic?

Kelly: When I was a kid, I read every fairy tale collection I could get my hands on. I read tales from all around the world, using the magic of inter library loan to get my hands on more obscure volumes. In addition, as a kid I was obsessed with the Oz universe of L. Frank Baum - which, if you haven't read them, are some of the weirdest children's books ever written. I loved every word of them. Every single word.

James: What advice would you give to young people who hope to one day publish a book of their own?

Kelly: Read a lot. Listen a lot. Think a lot. Notice everything. Care about everything and every one. Live with your mind open and your heart on your sleeve and your soul so exposed that you're pretty sure everyone can see your sinew and your bones. Being a writer means that we assume nothing, ask for nothing, and offer everything. Our heart in a sentence and the world on the page. It isn't an easy life.

James: You used to work in the parks service and spent a lot of time in the forest. Is the forest in The Girl Who Drank The Moon based off any real-life locales?

Kelly: I had this story living in my head for a long time, but I couldn't bring myself to start it until I had a strong sense of the landscape. This is typical for me. I need to know the ground under my feet before I can set my characters in motion. The landscape finally clicked for me when I was in Costa Rica with my husband for our honeymoon (we had been married at that point for fifteen years - it just took us a while). We were hiking in a volcanic landscape, and it was wild - boiling water underground and areas we couldn't go to because of poisonous air and vents spewing out steam or water or mud. And that's when I realized it: these characters were living in a volcanic landscape. And then I was able to write it. Later that year we took our kids to Yellowstone National Park to go backpacking, and even more details of that very different sort of volcanic landscape started to work their way into the story.

James: I know you had a book come out in February. What can you tell us about Dreadful Young Ladies And Other Stories?

Kelly: In this collection we have odd magicks and strange love affairs and dark choices. These stories had been published over a number of years in different books and magazines. There's a story about a widow who takes up with a Sasquatch, and a lover made out of old poems and a girl pirate revolutionary and a dark twist on the old stepmother trope. The collection also contains my World Fantasy Award winning novella, The Unlicensed Magician.

James: Last question, so let's make it a fun one... I know you like to bake pie. Any chance you could share a favorite recipe with us?

Kelly: Oh my gosh. So many! Actually, what I'd like to share is a book, my all time favorite pie book ever written. It's called The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book. Literally every single pie in this book is worth its weight in gold.

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That’s it for today’s interview with Kelly. But don’t leave just yet! We’re teaming up with our friends at Alconquin to give one lucky winner a copy of The Girl Who Drank The Moon and Kelly’s newest book Dreadful Young Ladies And Other Stories. You can enter the giveaway by clicking on the image below. And be sure to come back again next week when Sasha will be chatting with the incredibly talented Nic Stone about her new book, Odd One Out. See you then!

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