Kelly McWilliams published her first novel, Doormat, in 2004 at age 15, but she still considers this spring’s Agnes at the End of the World (Little, Brown) her debut. Writing has been a part of her life since she was a child. She used to tag along with her mother, the author Jewell Parker Rhodes, to events and workshops. “I had always seen her writing,” McWilliams says, “and I just always believed that that’s what women did: we wrote.”
These experiences led McWilliams to write Doormat during a summer break. She found her agent, Michael Bourret at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, back then.
Despite her initial success, McWilliams struggled with writing in her 20s. “I kept writing books, but I didn’t quite have a story to tell yet,” she says. Bourret encouraged her to “just live her life” and wait for her story. In the meantime, she worked as a staff writer at Romper.
It wasn’t until McWilliams was in her 30s that the idea for Agnes struck. She was pregnant while living in Hawaii during the Zika virus outbreak. “I was reckoning with becoming a caregiver,” she says. “And with Zika going on, I realized how quickly life could change because of a public health issue.”
Agnes took McWilliams three years to write. It is the story of a prophetic young woman who finds herself in a global pandemic and at odds with her family and the Red Creek compound, the religious cult where she was raised isolated from the outside world.
Inspired by the way female characters grow from victims to leaders in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, McWilliams wanted to highlight the same kind of triumph in a novel that mashed cult and pandemic genres. She says she found help through the We Need Diverse Books mentorship program: Jodi Meadows (coauthor of My Lady Jane) provided “a sounding board when things got frightening” and walked her through the steps of the writing process she had forgotten since Doormat.
Agnes has received several starred reviews and was listed as one of People’s 20 Best Books to Read This Summer. With Doormat, McWilliams says, “I was in high school and I didn’t do any of the debut things such as touring or promoting.” Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she has switched to online events and promotion. She’s part of a Facebook group of debut children’s novelists and believes that “with all the books coming out now, this is their time to celebrate as much as we’re also in mourning.”
While she is savoring her book’s success, McWilliams has her sights set on her next novel, Mirror Girls, a YA historical fantasy in which twin sisters are separated at birth after their parents are murdered in the Jim Crow South. The personal nature of the story was important for her to explore, particularly during the recent protests against police brutality. “As a writer of color, the emotions and grief that I feel, I have just been pouring into this manuscript,” she says.
Though McWilliams was looking forward to in-person book events planned to coincide with her mother’s Black Brother, Black Brother (released by Little, Brown in March), she is currently publicizing her novel online and joining her mother for virtual workshops and book talks. Noting that “authors make their own communities,” she says she is working hard to “make space for joy and celebration,” both online and off.