Kelly Barnhill: When Women Were Dragons

Kelly Regan Barnhill was born December 7, 1973 in Minneapolis MN. She worked various jobs, including as a bartender, activist, park ranger, and teacher, and lived in Florida and the Pacific Northwest for a time before returning to Minnesota.

Her debut novel was middle grade The Mostly True Story of Jack (2011), followed by Andre Norton Award finalist Iron Hearted Violet (2012) and The Witch’s Boy (2014). The Girl Who Drank the Moon (2016) was also a Norton finalist and won the prestigious Newbery Medal. The Ogress and the Orphans is out this month. Her first novel for adults, feminist fantasy When Women Were Dragons, is forthcoming in May 2022.

Novella The Unlicensed Magician (2015) won a World Fantasy Award. Some of her stories were collected in Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories (2018). She has also written non-fiction for elementary school students.

Barnhill lives in Minnesota with husband Ted Barnhill and their three children.

Excerpt from the interview:

“Rage is a funny thing. It ignites, but it exists to transform. We don’t stay in rage, typically. Our rage changes us in the same way that fire changes wood from one thing to another thing. As I was writing, the story just poured out. I had no sense of where it was going. I had no structure in mind. All I had was that rage. Very quickly, the character of Alex asserted herself, and I realized I wasn’t writing a story about rage, although rage plays a significant role. Instead, what I was writing was a story about memory and trauma and the ways in which memory is manipulated to reframe the past, and to rob people of context to be able to un­derstand the present. Once I started to think about the story in those terms, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not writing a novel, I’m writing a memoir.’ Obviously it’s a memoir of a person that doesn’t exist, but I wanted to intersect with that form specifically – to be able to think about memory and the ways in which memories rewrite themselves, but also the ways in which memory and the present are linked. A memory will alter our understanding of the pres­ent, but our current experience can reframe how we think about our own memories, too. When we’re little, our memories are really decontextualized. As our sense of the world gets bigger, our experience changes – when we hit late adolescence and young adulthood, it feels like everything is happening at once. It’s a heady time. Adults make terrible mistakes, and they still love us. Sometimes in an adult’s desire to protect children from harm, they end up causing harm. That’s the other truth we have to live with as adults.

“I had to write to Jonathan and say, ‘I’m very sorry, but this short story is now 150 pages.’ At that time, I thought I was writing a novella, and then I sent it to my agent, who said, ‘It’s definitely not a novella – it’s a novel. Here are some questions to answer.’ That was when the shape of the story started to change. It wasn’t in chapters back then – it was much more one long exhalation.

“Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was so brave and so clear. But even as you’re listening, you can already hear in your head, there are going to be assholes on the internet saying things like, ‘Why didn’t she say something before?’ Have you ever been a girl? You have a sense that there is a really small space where I can live, there’s a small space where I am allowed to be okay, and when I step out of that, then I’m not okay anymore, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if I’m going to be ridiculed, I don’t know if I’m going be believed, I don’t know if my family’s going to stop loving me. All those things feel like existential questions. We look at what happens to people when they speak up, especially when they’re young, and it’s not kind. Of course she didn’t say anything. It didn’t even make sense for her to say something now! It didn’t work, and she knew it wouldn’t work. It was still important, and it still mattered, but look at what happened. This is why she didn’t say anything, this exact thing that we’re seeing right now.

“I read the work out loud as I am composing. Whenever I sit down to write, I will read what I wrote yesterday out loud, just to get it in my ear so that I can continue. I do all of my revisions out loud – my poor neighbors. I perform it too. My dog listens. I had a dog who passed away last year, Sirius Black. He was really wonderful and I really loved him, and he was an excellent listener. Our new dog is just a year old, and she’s less good at it, but she’s getting there.

The Ogress and the Orphans is another book I wrote by accident, and it came out of my daily fairytale writing. I wrote a fairy tale that right away didn’t feel like the others. It really did stand apart. I was going to put it in the recycling bag like everything else and throw it away, but I left it on my desk. By the end of the day I was like, ‘This might mean something.’ I sat down and I typed it into the computer and started to mess with it, and I fussed and fussed and stayed up. My husband kept on coming downstairs – ‘Are you coming to bed?’ ‘Yeah, I am eventually.’ I usually don’t do this, but I stayed up until around five in the morning. I never write at night, but there was something I was trying to find. I just didn’t know what it was. I finished it and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ve written a picture book.’ Then I thought, ‘Maybe this will be some kind of early chapter book with illustrations.’ I sent it to my agent and said, ‘Will you just tell me what this is?’ He wrote back to me, ‘This is the thing that I’m going to sell, that’s what this is.’

Interview design by Francesca Myman.

Read the full interview in the March 2022 issue of Locus.

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