#72: Behind the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with author Brendan Kiely by Liz Mathews
June 19, 2015
As we’re gearing up for the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference, happening in downtown Brooklyn on September 12 and 13, we’re excited to introduce you to a few of our panelists. This week, meet Brendan Kiely, author of the debut novel The Gospel of Winter. Chosen as a Kirkus Reviews selection for best of 2014 and one of the American Library Association’s Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults 2015, The Gospel of Winter is the sort of debut novel success story many burgeoning writers can aspire to. Brendan will be on our Social Consciousness in YA Literature panel on Saturday, September 12. You can find the full panel schedule here.
In writing The Gospel of Winter, what was your inspiration? Why did you choose to write about a young man with Aidan’s situation?
When The Boston Globe exposed the vast scandal of cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, it revealed a broken promise of the worst magnitude for the community I grew up in, but I wrote The Gospel of Winter to go beyond the news stories and to focus on the courage of the survivors. I wanted to write a novel about kids whose world seemingly collapses when the adults in their lives corrupt and abuse love, but who still find the strength to construct their own, new definitions of love–who “might rise from the muck and bloom.”
For me, writing fiction is an act of social engagement. It springs from my desire to speak up when I give a damn, and I want my fiction to participate in the wider cultural conversation about contemporary social issues. I don’t believe fiction works if it is merely a polemical portrait of victimhood, and therefore in my stories I try to plumb the range of moral ambiguities of all the characters involved. Whether I am writing about the victims of sexual abuse (The Gospel of Winter, 2014), teens trying to understand their identity and accountability in the wake of a police brutality incident (All American Boys, co-authored with Jason Reynolds and forthcoming in Oct. 2015), families coping with Alzheimer’s (The Last True Love Story, forthcoming in 2016), or American ex-patriots grappling with racism and infidelity in Barcelona (my current project), I write to find the dignity and grace of the people caught up within these complex issues: I write in search of hope.
At what point did you decide that your first book would be a YA novel—and why?
I set out to write a novel, and once I got it going and got to know my characters more and figured out the span of time in which the novel would take place, I realized that I was writing in the ever-growing shadow of Holden Caulfield. This was fine with me. Aidan’s first person voice takes cues from Holden, but the story is very different. It was pitched as The Ice Storm or Ordinary People meets Doubt–comparisons I loved! So I had no idea what YA even was as I wrote the book or as we began to pitch it to adult editors. But Holden’s shadow looms large, and as my agent and I progressed through the process, we decided we might try to pitch it as YA, too, as many stories with echoes of Holden have found a home in the YA world. And that makes sense to me–I first read Catcher in the Rye in 9th grade.
So this decision to pitch it as YA as well was thrilling because it opened myriad new doors and multiple YA editors were interested. But even more importantly, after it was picked up and it was “officially” going to be published as YA, I met many other YA writers and editors and agents, and I found an enthusiastic and embracing community. Nobody seemed to be in competition with each other. People supported each other and believed that writing and publishing was a collaborative and communal project. I loved it! It felt like home!
What was your first step in getting published? An agent, the slush route, some other method you chose?
The first step was really graduate school, attending the MFA program at The City College of New York. While there, I met other writers and professors who all helped me take myself more seriously as a writer, inspired me to dedicate more time and effort to writing, and who helped me shape, hone, and think more clearly about the work. But also there, I was fortunate to meet one of the most big-hearted people in the world of publishing, David Groff. He was a professor who believed in my work and eventually introduced me to my agent, Rob Weisbach. Rob had been an editor before becoming an agent, and he worked with me for a while on the manuscript too–even before signing me as a client–and so I was lucky that David introduced me to someone as patient and inspiring as Rob, too! So I lucked out, because once Rob and I were working together, I knew I couldn’t be in better hands.
Did anything surprise you about the process of manuscript-to-finished-book?
This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did–the length of time it takes to publish a book. My first book, The Gospel of Winter, was picked up in July of 2012, and it wasn’t published until January 2014. For me, that was a long time! And yet, I’m grateful for it. My editor, Ruta Rimas, was awesome, and her edits made the book much better than it was. By taking our time, we built buzz within the publishing house, Simon & Schuster, and I got the chance to talk about my book with the sales force and the marketing team. They, in turn, had time to talk about it and share early promo-material with bookstores, librarians, and festival and conference organizers. That all takes time, and it was all worth it in the end. It should be no surprise to me that my mother’s advice from long ago still rings true today: “Brendan, have a little patience!”
Based on your experience with this first book, is there anything you wish you would have or could have done differently? Any advice to someone else trying to break in to the industry?
First things first: When I decided I wanted to write fiction, I wish I had carved out more time every week to actually write. I wish I had been more rigorous and methodical from the start about how best to learn from the writers and books I admired most. I didn’t know what I was doing, and it took a long time to embrace the dream as a working reality. I don’t think you need to get paid to take your work seriously–taking the work seriously is what matters most, I think.
Also, I wish I had volunteered for more literary organizations from the beginning. People often use the phrase, “a literary citizen,” and I think it is true and necessary. It is important to read as much and as diversely as possible. It is important to champion the work you admire most. It is important to get involved and find more like-minded people. Life is busy and hectic, but I can’t claim to know and love yoga if I’ve only been to a couple classes and bought two DVDs that I’ve only watched a couple times. Learning yoga takes time and dedication. It takes practice. It is practice. I think writing is the same. The writing life is a practice filled with literary citizenship and lots and lots and lots of writing time. The books are the products of all that practice.
Brendan Kiely received his MFA from The City College of New York. His debut novel, The Gospel of Winter, has been published in eight languages, was selected as one of the American Library Association’s Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults 2015, and was a Kirkus Reviews selection for the best of 2014. He is the co-author, with Jason Reynolds, of the novel, All American Boys (Fall 2015), and author of the forthcoming novel, The Last True Love Story (Fall 2016). Originally from the Boston area, he now lives with his wife in Greenwich Village. Find out more at www.brendankiely.com.
Liz Mathews is a former publishing veteran recovering from her years in New York by living in Minnesota. After years as a copywriter for a science fiction and fantasy publisher, she now attends science classes, thinks about statistics, and sells books to business people in her spare time.