I’m so pleased to be sharing a recent interview with Kelly Barson, YA author extraordinaire, and Vermont College of Fine Arts alum. While she doesn’t write speculative fiction (yet!) her first two novels deal with issues of importance to women in particular relating to body image and social expectations of women. Her first book, 45 Pounds (More or Less), was extremely well received by YA and adult audiences alike. She now has a new book, Charlotte Cuts it Out, and a new teaching gig in the UCLA Writer’s Program. When I asked Kelly about her writing process, her approach to teaching, and some of her favorite YA books, here’s what she had to say …
KCM: You graduated your MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults a few years back. How do you think the program most significantly changed your writing?
KB: It changed my writing in every way. Mainly, though, it helped me to view my work critically and have the courage to experiment and change it, even if that means starting over from scratch. It also gave me confidence. I learned more about motivation and structure and how to make use of every word.
KCM: You’re about to start teaching middle grade and young adult writing in the Writers Extension Program at UCLA. What is your approach to teaching folks interested in writing for younger readers?
KB: I prefer a cooperative approach. Writers are interesting people with a wide range of skill-sets and experiences. We all have something to offer, whether you’ve been writing for years or just [getting started]. My class has a strong focus on group discussion and peer critique to better utilize people’s strengths.
KCM: What is the most important writing advice you ever received and/or if you could give a new writer ONE piece of advice, what would it be?
KB: Know why your character does what she does and make her and her actions pull the plot forward. The advice I got was: “Your character needs to do something besides not die.” In that early draft, all my MC was doing was reacting to his circumstances rather than acting toward a goal. That makes the story too passive and boring. There’s nothing to root for. Your characters need to want something, try to get it, and experience opposition. It can still be subtle, emotional, internal, but it has to be there.
KCM: Your book 45 Pounds (More or Less) deals with the issue of weight and body image, which is often a sensitive topic particularly for younger readers. You tackle it with grace, sensitivity and humor and create an engaging protagonist (Ann) who is concerned with a lot more than how much she weighs. What were the biggest challenges in writing a story that is, in a sense, about body image without making it preachy or didactic?
KB: Thank you. I wrote from my personal experience. I can’t be too preachy or didactic because I haven’t figured it all out yet myself. I wanted Ann to make steps toward caring about herself and taking control, but nobody can do it all in the span of 240 pages. I wanted the focus to be on health–both physical and emotional–not just losing weight. Ann has a long road to get there, as do I.
KCM: Your most recent book, Charlotte Cuts it Out, like 45 Pounds (More or Less), deals with midwestern girls who have big dreams and big challenges, this time focusing on cosmetology school and fashion design. Did you find it difficult to let go of Ann to create your new character, Charlotte? What advice would you give writers beginning work on a second manuscript?
KB: I didn’t find this hard because Charlotte is an imposing character. She pretty much took over my head. Ann makes a cameo appearance in CHARLOTTE though, so that was fun. Charlotte is very different from Ann. I think that helps. If I tried to write a similar character, that would be harder.
The hardest part about a second manuscript is that it starts out really crappy. You compare it to the first book, which is polished and finished, and it comes up short. My advice is to let it be its own process and be patient with the development.
KCM: Who are some of your favorite middle grade and/or YA authors? What are you reading now?
KB: I love Rainbow Rowell and Kekla Magoon. As a kid, I read a lot of Judy Blume and Stephen King. Right now I’m re-reading ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia and discovering its brilliance all over again.
Thanks so much for your time, Kelly!