Interview with Brendan Kiely

YA readers might be familiar with Brendan Kiely’s work from reading “All American Boys,”  which he wrote in collaboration with Jason Reynolds. His new novel “Tradition” is out this month, and it tackles an equally tough topic — rape culture at a prestigious private school. “Tradition” explores the ways young men help create and perpetuate rape culture, as well as fight it in alliance with young women. We’re thrilled he agreed to talk about his work. 

Writing Process:

YARN: What was your writing path? How did you first know you were “a writer,” someone who wanted and needed to write regularly? Once you knew, what did you do to make your dream a reality?

BK: Writing became important to me when I was a teen, writing poetry became a way to try to understand how the (tumultuous!) world inside me interacted and fit into the larger (also chaotic!) world around me. I’m still that same teen trying to figure out my place in the world as I write. I was never any good about being a daily disciplined writer, but the older I got the more time felt less precious or expendable. If I was going to get anything done, I’d have to get up early to write before going to work, and heck, if I was going to get up at 5am to write, I might as well make it a habit, otherwise I’d never get out of bed! I don’t get up at 5 any more, but I do find blocks of time in which I create some kind of schedule. The dream became something realer because I’d pitched the novel that became my first published novel to 12 agents who all rejected it—some never even got back to me—and then I had the chance to meet an agent at an event and I practiced a pitch I knew I’d only have a minute or so to make. When there was a respectful time to speak to him and bring it up, I did. I was lucky because he was patient and kind. He listened and then said it sounded intriguing. Please don’t wake me up from this dream!

YARN: What does your writing process consist of for a particular book? Any tips on finding the story that demands to be written? Any tips on finding the time to write when there are a lot of other demands on your time? (Like homework and sports, or parenting responsibilities and jobs?)

BK: Strangely, I have a more fractured and hectic schedule as a professional author than I did before, and finding time to write is increasingly difficult. Time is working against us, always! When my time is pressed, I try to work in small chunks—just one page at a time—and in order to stay focused, I spend a lot of time preparing to write. It’s what makes my process slower than other authors I know, but I like to have elaborate maps and notes to rely on, so that if I miss a couple days of writing and I’m in the middle of a scene when I return to writing, I know what my goals are, what is important in that moment of the book. It feels like procrastination when I’m doing all the prep work, but it helps make the limited time I have to write more productive.

YARN: Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing?  What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before the due date?

BK: I feel stuck all the time!!! I feel stuck almost every time I sit down to write—too often because I have the idea in my head but can’t get it on to the page in the way it feels in my head, but sometimes it’s worse, sometimes it feels like there is a giant emptiness on the page AND in my head. Whenever I’m stuck, I try to find a book I love, and I copy the words from a random section in the book. I literally copy the scene word for word and as I’m doing that it usually jump-starts some idea in my head that I can bring back to my own work. Then I just slip into what’s in my head and write (and remember to delete the other writer’s work later!).

YARN: You often write about the ways big social problems, like systematic racism and rape culture, are part of people’s day-to-day lives. Any advice for writers who are struggling to tackle social issues in their writing?

BK: I do want to write about how people cope with, witness, and experience large social problems, but it is always first and foremost about people. I have to do my best to create fully dimensional characters, not reductions. No one can be reduced to one aspect of their identity or one kind of experience in their life. It’s always about the whole person.

YARN: What was it like working on “All American Boys” with Jason Reynolds? Did you come up with that project together? Do you feel like more collaborative books that represent voices from different races, genders, etc. are needed? Would you ever collaborate on another project like this?

BK: I loved collaborating with Jason. We really wanted to respond to a cultural moment in a way that spoke to and about how young people were processing the national narrative about racism, police brutality, and Black Lives Matter. By collaborating we could produce a book neither of us could produce on our own. I can imagine any number of scenarios in which writers consciously collaborating to create an own voices book together would make sense and it is certainly something I’d do again!

Your Books:

YARN: “Tradition,” like many of your novels, deals with some pretty upsetting situations. Did you find it difficult to write these? In what ways? Or, if writing about them came easily to you, why do you think that is? Why do you think it’s important to write and read about these difficult topics even if doing so is hard?

BK: When I was a teenager I’d look out into the world and see injustices that could be mitigated by the communal and political will to do so. Then and now, I think it’s essential to remember that it isn’t only up to the victims and survivors of injustice to tell the world what’s happening—we’re all accountable to the injustices in our own communities—and so while it is hard to write about toxic male behavior and misogyny and how they fuel rape culture, I also think, and especially as a man, that I should write into a story like this to pull back the curtain and reveal how boys foster these attitudes and encourage it in their friends, because by exposing it, maybe more of us will think twice about dismissing it as “not a big deal.”

YARN: With a story like “Tradition,” a writer runs the risk of creating a tale that might not appeal to teens, because it seems too much like a lesson rather than the story of living, breathing people who have to grapple with difficult choices. How did you find ways to give your characters a heartbeat, rather than turn them into stock “right” and “wrong” characters?

BK: Empathy shouldn’t be a lesson we do our homework for and then forget about later; it should be a practice, a way of being, the bedrock from which we act in the world. The teens leading walkouts across the country, the teens leading marches in DC this year, the teens who take a quiet moment out of the day to check in on a friend who is having a rough day or week, all know empathy as a way of life. I think stories like “Tradition” speak to their instinct. A story like “Tradition” isn’t about lessons or props for a conversation; it’s about characters (whole people) who feel like they’re up against insurmountable odds, but overcome them by working together. I think all writing begins and ends with the whole life of the characters.

YARN: While the story of “Tradition” follows the lives of multiple high school students, it focuses on — and is told from the point of view of — two students in particular. Why did you choose these two? As a man, what challenges did writing from the perspective of a girl pose you? How did you overcome these challenges?

BK: I really love reading stories told in multiple points of view, and “Tradition” is my first attempt at actually writing more than one first-person point of view in a story. But I knew I needed multiple points of view, and because the story was going to be about all the subtle attitudes and behaviors that fuel and enable toxic male behavior and its effects on women in the community, I knew I had to try to write this book from both a young woman’s and a young man’s perspective. But as a man, I was extremely nervous that when writing Jules’s narrative, the young woman’s, I would have no idea and I’d screw it up. But because I thought the story demanded Jules’s voice, I had to try. As I wrote I sought feedback from many women in my life, other writers, my editor, other readers, and I’m extremely grateful they all took the time to help me consider more deeply Jules’s perspective and life circumstances.

YARN: In “Tradition,” one of the lines really struck us: “Like cruelty was currency, and the meaner you were, the richer you were.” This seemed so true decades ago, when some of us were teens, and as those of us who work with teens can attest, it still seems to be the way teens feel. How do you think reading and writing can help readers and writers in their struggles with the dominating power of cruelty and meanness?

BK: This is one of the most interesting and most difficult questions I think I’ve ever been asked. Thank you! That sense of cruelty used to assert power over someone felt real as a teen, but truthfully, it remains a reality I see adults use too. I look at the hazing rituals teens go through in high school and college, and then I look at corporate structure and the ways senior level managers might tease and harass younger employees, and it’s “all in good fun” but it’s also cruel and by definition an abuse of power. I think one of the most powerful aspects of reading and writing is the space they create for us to evolve and mature in our interior life. Books are gymnasiums for empathy and personal growth, testing grounds in which we can exercise the skills required to become more empathic. When Leigh Chen Sanders from Emily X. R. Pan’s remarkably beautiful “The Astonishing Color of After” tells me her story of traveling to Taiwan, I have to sit and listen with all my heart. Reading and writing require time, and I think our hearts mature with each other when we spend time with each other. Exercising our empathy, (in other words reading and writing) conditions us to better cope with our own pain as well as to be strong for others when they ask it of us.

YARN: Can you share a little snippet from the book? Favorite line or paragraph? Or did you have a favorite snippet that wound up on the cutting room floor?

BK: Well, interestingly, I did have a favorite scene, a bonfire and pep rally that ends with a fantastic explosion of fireworks, and also a heart-to-heart where Bax spills his secrets to Jules, but I cut that scene right before we printed the ARCs, wove the necessary information in elsewhere and had to cut that chapter for the sake of pacing. Even though it was my favorite scene in the whole book, it was isolated and floating out there, not really moving the story forward, mostly just stalling with atmospherics that I happened to find cool. Ha! But this is what we have to do sometimes, right? But I do want to share the line that helped me find Jules’s voice. I had written so many scenes in her voice but felt like they just weren’t working right. Then, I happened on this line, and I trashed everything I’d written in her voice and started from scratch: “I once heard another girl out it like this: This is a boys’ school and they accept girls here too. At Fullbrook, they told us to be ready to take on the world, but then they told us to do it quietly. What if I wanted to be loud? What if I needed to be?”

YARN: We would love to hear what else you’re working on these days. Do you have any other novels in the works?

BK: I find it tricky to talk about books when I’m in the middle of them. My problem right now is that I’m in the middle of too many projects. I need to buckle down and choose one to finish. Oh, wow. I just realized that I need to swallow my own medicine and do what I always tell my students or the folks I visit in their classes: You have to finish one full draft of a project, and then we can start talking about what it really is.

Other Books/YA stuff:

YARN: On your website, you write: “So for me, writing fiction is an act of social engagement. I want my work to participate in relevant cultural conversations.” What cultural conversations would you like to continue or start to participate in? What cultural conversations do you want to read more about?

BK: I think one of the most important issues of our day is figuring out how to distinguish between information and misinformation. I’d love to see more YA novels tackling that in meaningful ways. I’d love to work on a book that talks about the difference between news and propaganda.

YARN: What are a few resources you’d suggest to writers who feel they want to grow, but they aren’t sure where they can get some help and support? (These might be books, articles, online classes, writing groups, blogs — whatever/whoever you think offers great support for writers.)

BK: I’ve found the usual writing bibles useful once and then again in various times of my life: Anne Lamott’s “Bird By Bird,” Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones,” Walter Mosley’s “This Year You Write Your Novel,” Madison Smartt Bell’s “Narrative Design,” Charles Baxter’s “The Art of Subtext,” but truthfully, I also find that it is reading novels I love as closely as possible where I find most of the lessons I return to. I’ve read Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones” many times because I learn something new about writing every time I read it.

YARN: What writers or books would you say have influenced you most as a writer? What books helped you become a writer or helped you realize you wanted to be one?

BK: Well, I mentioned Jesmyn Ward, especially when I had made writing the real center of my life, but before that, I think back to the first time I read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” when I was 14 years old, in 9th grade, and my mind was blown. Also when I read Ray Bradbury when I was around the same age. But wanting to be a “writer” wasn’t an identity I was pursuing, rather I wanted to write, as an act. I wanted to write poetry, drama, and fiction. When I was younger I wrote rap lyrics (they were awful), but they were the springboard that got me to make writing poetry a part of my life. By the time I got to college, writing was something I loved and did, but again, not to be a writer, but to be someone who lived the arts. I would go to art museums and art shows and parties as inspiration for my work. An “art” party I went to in college that I wrote about when I was 19 has come all the way back around and is now rewritten as the college party scene in Tradition. I think if you want to write, you have to read everything you can and try to experience as much as you can and see what folks are doing in music and drama and the visual arts and find ways to learn from everyone and practice and experiment as much as possible in your own work too.

YARN: Are there any titles and authors you’d like to give a ‘shout-out’ to? What should YARN readers look for in their bookstores and libraries?

BK: Yes! I mentioned Emily X. R. Pan’s “The Astonishing Color of After” (so good!), but also Samira Ahmed’s “Love, Hate & Other Filters,” Ashley Woodfolk’s “The Beauty That Remains,” Kit Frick’s “See All The Stars,” Arvin Ahmadi’s “Down and Across,” Tiffany Jackson’s (I love her work so much!) “Monday’s Not Coming” — all these books are available now or by June. Buy them all!

 


Brendan Kiely is The New York Times bestselling author of “All American Boys” (with Jason Reynolds), “The Last True Love Story,” and “The Gospel of Winter.” His work has been published in ten languages, received a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, the Walter Dean Myers Award, the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, and was selected as one of the American Library Association’s Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults. Originally from the Boston area, he now lives with his wife in Greenwich Village.

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