Saturday, January 7, 2012

Kelly Milner Halls on "Girl Meets Boy," Free Speech and The Writing Process

By Juliet C. Bond

On the first night of my first writing workshop, I attended a barbeque.  It was a beautiful summer evening.  A tent had been erected on a wide back lawn located on the lip of a lake.  Some of the writers were taking boat rides, others stood in circles getting to know one another in the gentle breeze.  
I wandered around making small talk, smiling like I was comfortable when I wasn’t yet. At dinner, I took my plate and sat across from a genuinely smiling woman.  Maybe she doesn’t know anyone here either, I thought.   I introduced myself, proudly sharing that I’d recently had a picture book published.  She said her name was Kelly and told me that she wrote non-fiction picture books.  I can’t remember why, but I shared with her that my favorite children’s book author is Chris Crutcher.  I confided that I’d even sent him an email once telling him how much I admired his stories.
“Really?” She laughed.  “He’s my boss, and one of my best friends.”

It turned out that Kelly Milner Halls was on the faculty of that writing workshop and that she is Chris Crutcher’s assistant.  Chris Crutcher, the only writer I have ever felt compelled to enough to put on my dork hat and send a fan letter to, and I sat right down next to one of his best friends at my first dinner with other writers.  That had to be fate or something even better.  
It also turned out that Kelly is one of the nicest people I have had the pleasure of getting to know.  She has a laser sharp wit, a heart as big and warm as any working hot tub and she's an immensely skilled writer herself.
In fact, Kelly’s own list of publishing accomplishments are too long to tackle!  She’s written thirteen picture books, numerous craft, career and science books and over 1,500 articles, bylines and reviews. Her latest book, Girl Meets Boy, is a series of short stories in pairs that vary from the female and then male point of view.  It’s YA fiction and she contributes her own important piece alongside some of the greatest writers in YA fiction today, including Chris Crutcher. 
Since that first meeting, Kelly and I have become fast friends.  She's given me writing advice, we've debated political issues and we even of shared another mind-blowing meal with other writers when she came to Chicago for ALA.

A few weeks ago, I picked up an ARC of Girl Meets Boy at the NCTE conference.  Kelly was eager for my feedback but, after I read it, I realized that this book is far more than a series of fun stories.  The depth of the issues each character grapples with and their scathingly real voices blaze right through the reader's skin.  They also invite a host of questions I was dying to ask Kelly.  So I did. 

Me: You said in the introduction of Girl Meets Boy that, “truth is subjective.”  In the book, the reader is allowed into the minds of both the boy’s and the girl’s head in a series of short stories by various (awesome) writers.  How did you direct the authors ensure that points of view varied in their subjective truths but stayed authentic?

Kelly: One author, in each pair, took the lead and created the first story.  I asked them only to write a story with a male/female relationship of some kind featured.  It could have been anything -- love, hate, friendship, infatuation, healthy or unhealthy, as long as one boy and one girl were impacted by the turn of events.  I also encouraged them to write the story they've always wanted to write, no holds barred.  I think the writers did a fantastic job in creating diverse scenarios, independent of one another, as well as stories with deep emotional commitment and meaning.

Me: So I just want to jump into the meat of yours and Chris’s story because it was compelling and because I struggled so with the female protagonist.  I know she was damaged by a series of painful experiences but she read as almost ruthless, even when I arrived at her point of view.  In fact, one reviewer described her as a “dangerous girl,” and in your introduction, you described her as “toxic.”   What motivated you to write this girl?

Kelly: I knew a girl in high school who had been molested by her step father.  She talked about how she used her power over him to get the things she wanted.  She was so open, about it, so calculated -- it blew my mind, even then.  She didn't show that angry edge, but I kept thinking how angry I would have been if the people I was supposed to trust exploited me.  So I gave Wanda that edge.  She was dangerous because she felt she had nothing to lose.  She was, in her own mind, ruined -- unworthy of love.  So lust was all she had left.  And there are so many girls out there who fear the same things are true in their lives.  She was toxic, but that was her survival skill.
Me: I was also intrigued by the fact that Wanda wanted to have sex.  I am the advisor to a group of feminist students at Columbia College (called The F-Word) and we’ve just begun to embrace the concept and envision activities around the “power of yes.”  By that I mean, the necessity of girls and women feeling unashamed of their own desire.  There is so much confusion for young men and young women in a sexual exchange because “good” girls are supposed to say no even if they want to say yes.  This tends to put the boy in a situation where he has to push in order to find out if “she really means no.”  For girls who really don’t want to have sex, the exchange can escalate to date rape.  For girls who do want to have sex, they have to pretend they don’t in order to avoid being seen as “slutty.”  So I liked that Wanda was unafraid and unashamed of her sexuality – or was she?

Kelly: No, you're right.  Wanda loved and fully embraced her sexuality.  It was the one place she felt safe and sheltered from her own sense of worthlessness. She didn't have to wonder if she was good at it, because the response was so immediate and so easy for her to recognize.  And in those physical moments, she had power over her body and, in many ways, over her partner's body, too.  She knew she had her sexual strengths.  It was love she doubted.  

Me: The cover of the book is eye-catching.  There is something all consuming about the way the couple is draped over the tree looking as though they are completely exhausted and removed from the world. Did you have any input in the cover of this book?

Kelly: Chronicle Books created that cover and revealed it to me.  So I had no input at all, but I really love it. 

Me: I also thought it was wonderful to include the story of a transsexual character.  There are also mixed race couples, couples whose gender constructs are flipped (the girl is the protector and pursuer if the smaller boy) and a gay character.  You have a link on your web page about your commitment to free speech, any concerns that this book will be banned due to the transsexual content (or any of the conceivably “divergent” content for that matter.)

Kelly: There is not a doubt in my mind, if the book is widely read, it will be widely challenged.  That's not what we set out to do, but after working for Chris for so long, I know it's probable.  Telling the truth so often draws fire.  Sara Ryan and Randy Powell's story about a transgendered character could make it more likely, but I love the story.  I think they handled the awkward quality of some personal relationships in the lives of transsexual people with compassion and candor -- without apology.  It hope it rings true for other kids trying to traverse those waters.  I hope it helps them feel a little less alone.

Me: You have been working with Chris Crutcher for over ten years, how do you think his writing has influenced your own?

Kelly: Of course it has, but not because I work for him -- not because we're friends.  His work influences mine because he is my favorite author, apart from our friendship.  He says I can't be objective, but he's wrong.  I am a tough, tough reader.  My patience for fiction that is less than authentic is almost non-existent.  But when I read Crutcher's books, I am always astonished by how honest he is in crafting his characters and their challenging lives.  He's been accused of stacking hardships against his protagonists to build sympathy, but anyone who has worked with at-risk kids knows he could double the trouble without leaving the realm of possibility.  When it rains, it pours in the lives of troubled teens because one thing leads to another and another and another.  He tells the truth, and I hope I do too.  If I can't, I won't put it out there.  In so many ways, his courage sets the benchmark for all YA authors hoping to write realistic fiction.
Me: What’s your writing process? Do you have to get into a special zone, time or place to write?

Kelly: Mine is a little weird because I am known for my nonfiction for much younger readers, and I love those books too.  So I tackle my nonfiction deadlines first, because nonfiction interviews are easier to arrange in traditional working hours.  Then I work on fiction at night.  In a way, nonfiction is my day job, while fiction is what I do after work.

Me: I have a friend who gave me a couple of tiny gremlin-heads I keep by my desk with the quote, “It is not our task to eliminate the gremlins of self-doubt but to educate them.” Do you have any advice for keeping away the gremlins of self-doubt?

Kelly: My daughter, Kerry is also a writer.  The three of us -- Kerry, Crutcher and I -- had breakfast not too long ago.  Kerry had hit a rough patch on her work-in-progress and Chris offered to help.  As she described the doubts she had, her fears, I kept trying to reassure her, to take the sting out of her confusion.  Chris shot me that, "Hush!" look, and it confused me, but I trust him, so I shut my trap.  Later, he called me and I asked why he'd had that reaction.  He said, "Kelly, stop trying to alleviate her discomfort.  It's necessary.  It's part of the writing process." 

To me, the trick is to balance or embrace the fear and to write through it -- to recognize almost everyone's first drafts are pretty bad, but writing is truly a process.  Write the rough first draft, then revise to a smoother second draft.  Stick it out through the third draft, the fourth draft, the fifth draft; whatever it takes to produce the final work that makes it look so easy and natural, once people read it.  

Fear isn't your enemy.  It's a part of the process, so relax and let it be. 


  1. I met Kelly in '08 at the Blue Marble bookstore in Fort Thomas, KY. She was talking about petrified dinosaur poop & had 3 young male readers in the palm of her hand.

  2. What a great interview, J. Girl Meets Boy is now on my to read list :)

  3. I enjoyed reading this. Your putting on your dork hat comment made me laugh out loud. I do that way too often. ;)

  4. Excellent interview! I love short story anthologies (I wish there were more in YA) so I'm very excited to hear about "Girl Meets Boy." Definitely going to check it out!

  5. Thanks for the fun interview! (that cover reminds me somewhat of National Geographic picture of lemurs or sloths or something--in a good way! After all, we are primates too...)