In The Witch’s Boy, Kelly Barnhill’s third middle-grade novel, a wild magic links the fates of Ned, who lives under the burden of being the “wrong boy” rescued while his twin brother drowned, and Áine, the fierce daughter of a bandit king. When a megalomaniac king threatens Ned’s village, it’s up to the Wrong Boy, Áine, an orphaned wolf, Sister Witch (who negotiates a tenuous pact with her magic), and a strong-minded queen to stop him. Barnhill has been a park ranger, a GED teacher for homeless youth, a janitor, and a freelance writer of science books for children, with such colorful titles as Sewers and the Rats That Love Them and The Wee Book of Pee. She spoke with PW from a family gathering at a remote lodge in Minnesota, where she had just seen a wolf and wasn’t giving up on seeing Sasquatch yet.
Why so many jobs?
I have a talent for getting fired.
But now you write full-time now.
As well as being a mom – I have two daughters entering seventh and 10th grade, and my son – who helped me write The Witch’s Boy – is entering fourth grade. My husband is a builder, and times got rough in 2008 when the market soured badly. I was lucky enough to sell my first two books, Iron Hearted Violet and The Mostly True Story of Jack around that time to Little, Brown, which was really a godsend.
You also teach at Minnesota’s COMPAS [Community Program in the Arts]. Do you work with adults or young people?
I have four or five residences a year at COMPAS, during which I teach creative writing to young adults. During the residences, which are a week long, I have four classes a day and it’s a short, intense period, so I try to get them to write as much as possible on anything at all. I also teach workshops for adults at the Loft [a literary arts center in Minneapolis].
Your fiction career launched with your short stories, which have appeared in the Clockwork Phoenix anthology series, Lightspeed magazine, and Weird Tales.
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer helped me tremendously with their publication of my fiction (“Elegy to Gabrielle: Patron Saint of Healers, Whores and Righteous Theives”) in their anthology Fast Ships, Black Sails.
Do you still write short fiction?
Yes! I have a short story, “Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch,” upcoming at Tor.com and a new length for me, a novella, The Unlicensed Magician, coming out later this year from PS Publishing.
“The Unlicensed Magician?”
Apparently there are rules.
How does writing short stories differ from novels?
I love writing short stories because it uses a completely different set of muscles. I like to alternate between forms; it’s like an athlete training for a marathon one day and switching to yoga the next. In the same way the genres I write in are all over the map: literary, science fiction, fantasy, horror. I don’t stick very well to one theme.
How did your son help you with The Witch’s Boy?
We were hiking in Shenandoah National Park, and had walked almost six miles downhill to a waterfall, which meant, of course, that we were going to have to walk six miles back – uphill. I wasn’t able to carry him back so I started to tell him the story of a boy who steals his mother’s magic. Afterwards the world stuck with me, and I knew I had to tell more about it.
How would you describe your writing process?
I immerse myself in the worlds created by my books for a long time before I can unspool the bones and threads of the story on the page. I start all my books by writing longhand. It’s not so much a first draft, but what you could call a zero draft. Then I go back and fill it out, writing in the margins. It’s a little dangerous since I have a tendency to lose notebooks! And I never write the endings longhand, because I don’t know how the book will end during the zero draft stage. I like books that resonate in the body, like music, so I do a lot of reading put loud to make sure I get the prose right. I get very dramatic – my neighbors must think I’m nuts.
Can you talk about publishing with Algonquin Young Readers, and editor and publisher Elise Howard?
I was very excited to have a chance to publish with Algonquin, because for one thing Elise is a genius. During the editing process I go through tons of revision, and a good editor can take your work and show you the cracks that you can really get your fingers into and pull a better story out. It’s also cool to be a part of building a new imprint, and to know that you’re part of publishing a whole new line of books.
Do you work with a writers’ group?
I have a wonderful authors’ group, all of whom are great writers as well as critics. It’s good to have people I can send my sticky bits to. And also when I get disgusted and delete my entire manuscript, since we work online they’ve saved it and make me take it back. I’m not very savvy when it comes to publishing. I have no idea how to market myself, for example. I tend to put all my cards on the table and not hold anything back, so I depend on others to tell me how to be more sophisticated.
Your two main characters from The Witch’s Boy, Ned and Áine, can be seen to reverse traditional roles for boys and girls in fiction: Ned is a more gentle, even nurturing character while Áine has some of her father’s ferocity. Was that intentional, or is that how those characters came to you?
I don’t see that many girls like Áine in fiction, although I’ve met many like her in the real world. I’m aware it’s a risk to have a female character who is all angles and edges. But that’s how she came to me, and I’m not going to try to change her.
Do you have a favorite character from The Witch’s Boy? Who do you identify with?
My favorite character might be the Queen – she’s based in part on a principal at a school where I taught, and in part on a St. Joseph’s nun who started a network of battered women’s shelters in Minnesota. She has the sly sassiness, competence, and toughness of both, and also of a lot of older women I know and am related to, being part of a large Irish-Catholic family. Sister Witch is the character I see myself as now, especially as a mom, and Áine is the fierce, self-reliant girl I wish I was. Ned is the character who I most associate with the 11-year-old me – I remember very much the sense of being the wrong person in the wrong body at the wrong time.
Talk about the books that were important to you as a middle-grade reader, and what you read now.
I liked Baum’s Oz books, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Andrew Lang’s fairy books. Books with an unsettling weirdness. I was also fond of Diane Wynne Jones, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels. And I’m a sucker for the plucky orphan, like Anne of Green Gables. Right now my son and I are reading the Harry Potter series to each other at bedtime.
The great middle-grade novels are several books at once. Kids are preoccupied with their adult selves, so when they read they are reading both for themselves and for the grown-up version of themselves. At the same time, when an adult reads a middle-grade book they are reading for themselves and the child they once were – or thought they were. Essentially, a book is a conversation between me, the kid-me, other books I’ve read as a child and an adult, and what my kids will think of it.
One of the most important things I’ve been able to teach, as a middle school, high school, and creative writing teacher, is that reading is an act of radical empathy, the experience of putting on the skin of the other.
What can we expect from you next?
I have two more middle-grade books, The Sugar House (which is a Hansel and Gretel retelling) and The Boy Who Loved Birds, coming out from Algonquin, but I’m not sure in which order. And I’m very much immersed in my current project, The Girl Who Drank the Moon.
The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill. Algonquin Young Readers, $16.95 Sept. ISBN 978-1-61620-351-X