When I read this blog post by author Kelly Barhill, I knew I wanted to interview her immediately. In addition to her novels, she also has a new short story called, “The Insect and the Astronomer” in Lightspeed Magazine. Be sure to check it out!

Enter a world where magic bubbles just below the surface. . . .

When Jack is sent to Hazelwood, Iowa, to live with his strange aunt and uncle, he expects a summer of boredom. Little does he know that the people of Hazelwood have been waiting for him for quite a long time.

When he arrives, three astonishing things happen: First, he makes friends — not imaginary friends but actual friends. Second, he is beaten up by the town bully; the bullies at home always ignored him. Third, the richest man in town begins to plot Jack’s imminent, and hopefully painful, demise. It’s up to Jack to figure out why suddenly everyone cares so much about him. Back home he was practically, well, invisible.

The Mostly True Story of Jack is an eerie tale of magic, friendship, and sacrifice. It’s about things broken and things put back together. Above all, it’s about finding a place to belong.

The end of their world begins with a story.
This one.

In most fairy tales, princesses are beautiful, dragons are terrifying, and stories are harmless. This isn’t most fairy tales.

Princess Violet is plain, reckless, and quite possibly too clever for her own good. Particularly when it comes to telling stories. One day she and her best friend, Demetrius, stumble upon a hidden room and find a peculiar book. A forbidden book. It tells a story of an evil being—called the Nybbas—imprisoned in their world. The story cannot be true—not really. But then the whispers start. Violet and Demetrius, along with an ancient, scarred dragon, may hold the key to the Nybbas’s triumph . . . or its demise. It all depends on how they tell the story. After all, stories make their own rules.

Iron Hearted Violet is a story of a princess unlike any other. It is a story of the last dragon in existence, deathly afraid of its own reflection. Above all, it is a story about the power of stories, our belief in them, and how one enchanted tale changed the course of an entire kingdom.

Here are Kelly’s answers to some of my questions:

Your website bio mentions that you “have a bunch of short stories in various publications.” What do you like most about short story writing?

I really enjoy writing short stories a lot, and it’s something that I let slip in my regular writing practice for a couple years, due to an over-focus on the novels. Not to trash-talk novel-writing, mind you, but it is good to keep the different creative muscles flexing. I have two short stories coming out soon – one called “The Insect and the Astronomer” which will be in Lightspeed Magazine and another which will be in an anthology of feminist science fiction sometime next year. As well as a number of others currently out on submission. For me, writing short stories has more in common with the construction of a poem than the long journey of a novel. Both require a focus on sound and a precision of language that is not quite as true in novel-writing. Both are designed to be consumed in a single sitting, which means that both are built on an intricate web of harmonics and reverberation – each moment carries an echo of every other moment in the story, and every word, every comma, every break, every beat, matters. And that’s a fun way to write. Stressful, yes. But fun.

I’ve heard writers should write outside their usual genre–to challenge themselves and grow. And, short stories sometimes offer extra income, so it’s valuable from a business standpoint, too.
I love the premise of IRON HEARTED VIOLET! Where did the story concept originate, and what do you want readers to take away when they’re finished reading?

The story started a number of years ago. We have a little cabin that my family goes to from time to time – just a shack in the woods, no electricity, no running water, no phones. Even our cell phones don’t work up there. Just eleven acres of scrubby forest and running creeks and sometimes a cougar or bear or wolverine sighting. It’s awesome. Anyway, I was snuggled up with my daughters and was getting ready to tell them a story. They wanted me to tell them the story of a princess. “But not a pretty princess,” they said. “Pretty princesses are boring.” And so I started telling them about Violet. And then I couldn’t stop.

Pretty princesses are boring! And Violet really seems to break the mold. You also wrote THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK. Great premise here, too. Did Jack come fully formed or did you develop him while writing his story?

Jack arrived fully formed. I am a runner, and do quite a bit of writing while running. Normally, I will start with a sentence that pleases me, and will just string it further and further, looping back to the beginning and adding word after word, like beads on a string. I am primarily an aural thinker, and not a visual thinker at all, so when images pop into my head….well, it’s rare. So I pay attention. I was out for a run, and I had a sudden image of a boy sitting in the back seat of a rental car, barreling through Iowa, with the landscape stretching away in every direction like a broad, green quilt. And this kid in the car? He was such a singular fellow. And desperately lonely. I could feel his loneliness hit me like a truck. And I wanted nothing more than to write him a place to be – a place to belong. I had so much compassion for that loneliness, and I wanted to write him home.

It’s wonderful when inspiration comes at unexpected times! Your website bio also mentions that you teach and freelance. What strategies have you found while juggling various tasks? Do you have any recommendations for writers balancing more than one career?

Man. I’ll tell you, it’s hard. Both my husband and I are independently employed, and we have three kids, so we have essentially built our lives together out of duct tape, cast-off lumber, cardboard and gum. And sweat, of course. And tremendous love for the work. Mostly, I have a pretty good sense of when to work like mad, and when to give myself a break. When I’m teaching, for example, I absolutely cannot write. Teaching requires such a tremendous rush of energy going out, that I’m completely depleted by the end of the day. Happy, yes. Satisfied, most definitely. But too exhausted to write. So I schedule things far in advance, I let my editors know where my teaching gigs are, and they are wonderfully flexible and forgiving. And I do my best.

What that means, of course, is that sometimes projects don’t happen in exactly the way I think they will. And that can be frustrating – particularly because it is easy for us to be hard on ourselves, and to assume that any deviation of the original plan must constitute failure. The fear of failure is huge with artisty-types, and it’s not helpful. Being able to bring what I can to the page, to trust the work when it happens, and not to judge myself – well that was a hard one to learn. But worth it.

Excellent advice. Especially the part about how crippling “fear of failure” can be. What are some current projects that you’re working on?

Well! I have a new book coming out next year called The Witch’s Boy, which will be published by Algonquin Books for Young Readers. And I am terribly excited about it. And I have two books that will be heading to my agent shortly – and I’ll let him decide which one comes next. One is called The Boy Who Loved Birds, and it is about a girl who goes to live with her estranged grandmother when her father is deployed to Afghanistan, and the boy she meets who may or may not be able to speak to birds. The other is called The Sugar House, which is about a boy who is out of the good graces of pretty much everyone on earth after he accidentally almost blows up the school. He also has Type 1 Diabetes, which means that he’s the only kid in the neighborhood who hasn’t fallen under the spell of a gingerbread-house-witch who is wreaking all kinds of havok on the block. And no one believes him. Why would they? He already almost blew up the school. Accidentally. Mostly. I’m also finishing up a short-story-turned-novella called The Unlicensed Magician. And a couple more stories. It’s good to have a bunch of logs in the fire. Very good indeed.

Indeed! Thanks, Kelly, for an excellent interview! 

To snag Kelly’s books for yourself, click on the links below.


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