After years of writing fantasy stories for middle graders, saving realistic fiction for her teen audience, author Kathryn Ormsbee changes things up with Candidly Cline, her first contemporary book for younger readers. In the novel, 13-year-old Cline Alden, who is chasing her dream of becoming a singer-songwriter like her icons: Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Brandi Carlile, works to discover her voice as an artist while finding safe spaces to explore and express her queer identity. Ormsbee spoke with PW about setting the story in her home state of Kentucky, the necessity of community, and benefit of diversifying creative pursuits.

You were born and raised in Kentucky, where Candidly Cline is set, but have lived in various other southern states and even overseas before landing in Oregon. Why did you choose to set Cline’s story in Kentucky? How did your experiences growing up in Kentucky impact the story?

Cline is my 10th book to be published, which is wild, but it took that many books and that many years of writing to finally feel like I could write a story that was this close to home. There are a lot of experiences that I had that directly inform Cline’s story, though she’s certainly very different from me. I didn’t have the bravery that Cline has as a kid! There’s no way that I would have gone behind my mother’s back to go to a workshop, but I think, in a lot of ways, she’s the kind of kid I wanted to be. I grew up in Lexington, where part of Cline’s story takes place, and lived my entire childhood there until I left for college. When I was growing up in the late ’90s and early aughts, I didn’t feel like I was in an environment where I felt comfortable or safe to express or even explore my own sexuality and queerness. I had a lot of ideas and feelings deep inside that just didn’t align with the cultural norms around me, so while I loved so much about where I grew up—the food! music!—in other ways I felt like I wasn’t fully able to express myself. It’s difficult when you’re young to make sense of that and reconcile ways in which you feel welcomed and comforted and the ways in which you don’t at all. That was an experience that I wanted to be able to capture [within Candidly Cline], because I would have loved to read a story about a queer girl living in Kentucky who finds her voice and is able to own who she is, especially in a context that felt safe and friendly.

Cline’s relationships, particularly with other women and girls in her life, are central to her journey. Why did you decide to focus on these bonds in particular?

A lot of the women in Cline’s life are based on women who have very important role models and supports for me. Like my older sister, who has been such an ally and a support through our childhood and into adulthood. And my aunt, who is the person who introduced me to a lot of my favorite country and bluegrass singers. She lives in Nashville and, when I was maybe nine or 10, she took me to Ryman Auditorium where Alison Krauss was performing. At the time, I remember feeling like it was a cool experience, but I didn’t fully grasp how amazing it was to be seeing Alison Krauss at the Ryman! I also wanted to make this a very female-centric book where Cline’s heroes are female country and bluegrass singers and the folks who support her along the way are also women. I especially wanted to draw out the idea that no one can accomplish any big dream—like Cline’s big dream of getting on the stage—without the people around us who inspire, encourage, and sacrifice for us. I fully believe that it takes community to accomplish anything big in this world.

Cline is a country music fan and singer-songwriter. Is this your genre of choice as well? Is music a part of your writing process?

I love country and bluegrass, of course—you have to, to write a book like Candidly Cline—but when I was her age and later as a teen, I tended more towards really weepy emo music and rock, which served as inspiration for Sylvie, Cline’s singer-songwriter partner. But I listened to a constant stream of Emmylou and Dolly while I was drafting the book. It’s music that’s very deeply nostalgic to me, tied to a specific time and place, so sometimes it feels like the right music to put on, but generally I lean more towards rock.

I joke that, when I’m procrastinating and not doing revisions, it’s because I’m hyper-curating a Spotify playlist, putting songs in just the right order to align with what’s happening in the book. So yes, music has always played a huge role in all my drafting experiences.

Do you share those playlists for readers?

Yes, I have made some available! And I did make the Candidly Cline playlist available on my author blog and on social media. It’s called Cline Kicks the World’s Butt, which is the name of her playlist in the book!

What do you most hope readers find within this book?

I wrote Candidly Cline to be the book that I really wanted and needed when I was Cline’s age, which has generally been my writing philosophy since my first novel. For me, books acted as safe spaces to explore, question, adventure, and achieve catharsis through a character who was way bolder than I was. I hope my books help my readers do the same, while also allowing them to feel known and seen.

Do you recall any of the books or authors that resonated with you as a young reader? Or contemporary authors or titles that you recommend?

Growing up I read a lot of fantasy, which I think I needed as an outlet to explore ideas in a way that didn’t feel too overwhelming or scary. I remember reading The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall, which is about these characters who are outsiders in their community but band together as found family. I remember being so drawn to that story... consciously for the fantastical elements, which I did love, but I think, in hindsight, it also had a lot to do with feeling like an outsider and wanting to find people I could relate to, too.

There are so many amazing authors currently writing queer girls in middle grade fiction, including Ashley Herring Blake, Nicole Melleby, and Lisa Jenn Bigelow. It makes my heart so happy to see more and more queer middle grade stories being published.

It makes my heart so happy to see more and more queer middle grade stories being published.

Do you find that your approach or mindset shifts depending upon the intended audience or genre of the project?

I definitely do. I start a project because I’m passionate about the story and the characters, but who I’m writing the story for is always present in my mind. For example, when I was writing Tash Hearts Tolstoy, one of my young adult novels that’s very contemporary and has a very immediate, first-person perspective, it felt like a completely different experience from writing the second book in my Water and the Wild trilogy, a portal fantasy for kids that I was working on at the same time. I like being able to shift between genres and audiences because it almost doesn’t feel like I’m doing the same job. I think that helps me to evade some burnout.

Do you often work on multiple projects simultaneously?

I’m generally writing two books a year and there is always some overlap. At the moment, I’m writing a new middle grade novel but have also been, until recently, doing edits for a graphic novel I have coming out with Random House. The experiences feel really different, and I’ve been fortunate to have editors who help me balance things, so I never have two major deadlines coincide. It can be a lot to juggle at times, so I have to occasionally take a step back to make sure I’m maintaining my work-life boundaries and taking breaks.

How do your various other creative pursuits inform your writing?

I’m not sure that there’s a ton of thematic overlap, but I think I somewhat consciously [keep things separate] because for so long reading and writing was my big passion and hobby. It was the thing that I would always carve out time to do, and would fight to prioritize it. So when it became my career, I was nervous that [doing it professionally] was going to cause me to lose some of my passion. I realized that I needed to find other creative ventures where I wouldn’t be worried about trade reviews, edits, deadlines, and looming pressures that can paralyze you. Having other pursuits keeps me grounded. In my early 20s I did a Shakespeare web series with fellow author Destiny Soria that was completely low stakes, which morphed into doing podcasts projects with my sister and my wife. Throughout all of that I’ve continued to compose music and, until recently, was teaching piano as well, which I think are all great ways to be creative with zero stakes.

In hindsight, now that you’ve published 10 books, what writing or publishing advice would you give to your younger self?

I would give the same advice an author gave me right before The Water and the Wild came out: as a writer, all you can control is what you write. So, if you do well and find success, keep writing. If a book doesn’t gain commercial success, keep writing. The only thing you have full control over is the ability to write stories. Oftentimes it’s easy to get overwhelmed and caught up in the minutiae, but there will be disappointments, rough patches, and times you don’t feel inspired. Keep writing the stories inside you. I used to feel like I had to wait for the muse to find me, but nothing would happen if that were the case. Sometimes just the act of writing, even when uninspired, can shake loose ideas.

What are you looking forward to as we head into 2022?

On a personal note, I’m looking forward to my wife and I moving closer to my sister and brother-in-law, who just had a daughter! We are so in love with her, so that’s exciting. In terms of work, I’m excited about Growing Pangs, which is my graphic novel coming out from Random House in the spring. It’s based on my experiences growing up homeschooled, experiencing OCD, anxiety, and changing friendships. It’s been a huge passion project and is like nothing else I’ve ever worked on, so I’m excited for it to come out and for readers to see Molly Brooks’s amazing illustrations!

Candidly Cline by Kathryn Ormsbee. HarperCollins, $16.99 Nov. 9 ISBN 978-0-06-305999-3