At the times when you're feeling dispirited or disillusioned with the process – when you're bogged down in editing, or querying and getting nowhere – holding onto the reason you created the story you chose to can really help you to keep going and hold onto what matters to you.by Author Kit Mallory
One of the nicest things about receiving invitations to join panels is meeting other panelists and their hosts. I was lucky enough to have this happen to me recently when I was invited to take part in a YA Crime Fiction Panel recently. The panel was hosted by author Kit Mallory and I jumped on the chance to invite everyone to visit my site. Happily, Kit took me up on it (So did author Christina Hoag). Kit writes speculative YA fiction and in this interview she shares some helpful insights into her writing process. Please welcome Kit Mallory!
GG: How did you choose this genre for your work (would you call it speculative fiction)? I'm always curious as to what draws writers to particular genres. Is it because that's what you enjoy reading? Or did you feel it was the best genre for your message? If so, why?
KM: I've always been drawn to books with speculative elements, whether fantasy, sci-fi or dystopian, so it feels like a natural fit for my own writing. I do like the term 'speculative fiction' for the Blackout duology – I think Margaret Atwood coined the term quite a long time ago with The Handmaid's Tale, and to me it feels like the best description for my books. When I started writing them, I wasn't thinking too much about what genre they fit into – I just had the seed of a story that I really wanted to tell about a girl who lived in a cellar and was furious with absolutely everything and everyone, and once I had the book I had to figure out which genre best described it. Although it's spec fic, I drew from quite a few real-life topics in creating the world for the book – the real North/South economic and social divide that exists in the UK; the history of the Berlin Wall; and ideas about over-reliance on fossil fuels and what might happen when those run out.
GG: Did you have any deliberations about how much violence if any to use in the novel? How did that process work? Or if there's no violence, was that a conscious decision?
KM: Yes, that's something I thought quite a lot about. There is quite a lot of violence, both physical and psychological, in both Blackout and Sparks. The world is quite a dark and brutal one, and the acts of violence that I chose to show are ones that I felt were congruent with the world and characters I'd created. It felt important not to just gloss over or sanitise that; I felt like if there was going to be violence, I wanted to genuinely show the impact of that on the characters, and not just gloss over or glamourise it. At the same time, it was important to me that the violence wasn't gratuitous or included for shock value, but that the incidents themselves, and the knock-on effects of them, were a meaningful part of the plot.
GG: Are your characters based on people you know in real life or perhaps on yourself? Do you have a favorite character?
They're definitely not based on people I know! I didn't consciously set out to base them on myself, either, although I imagine that there's probably a level of self-insertion somewhere (I imagine there is for most authors?!) I think Mackenzie is probably the character I'm most similar to – soft-hearted, empathic and rather anxious! I don't think I'm very similar to either Skyler or Angel, but I do sometimes wish I could channel Skyler's ferocity and passion, and Angel's calmness and poise.
KM: I'm always fascinated by who readers pick as their favourite character – people seem to tend to align quite strongly with either Skyler or Mack, which makes sense I think because they're so different. It's really tough for me to pick a favourite character because I feel very attached to all three of them – over the course of writing and editing the duology, I spent an awful lot of time with them and a lot of time in their heads. However, I have to admit that I have a secret soft spot for Skyler in particular.
GG: There are a few mental health professionals on this site (see my interviews with Esther Amini, Florence Kraut, Karen Schauber). I'm detecting a pattern. Do you think there's some crossover between this field and book writing? What do you think it might be?
KM: Ooh, this is a really interesting question! I wonder if it's because mental health professionals spend a lot of our working lives talking and thinking about trauma and survival – bearing witness both to the darkest parts of humanity, and the incredible capacity that people have to endure and persist and flourish despite that. I think perhaps speculative fiction allows us to explore those things in a way that's very real and still very human, but is just enough removed from day-to-day reality for us to be able to tolerate engaging with it.
I think that for me, once these books started taking shape, it was impossible to write them and to inhabit the characters' heads without thinking all the time about the impact of their experiences and the world they inhabit, and on the ways that those things continue to affect them throughout the books. I definitely felt like I had a responsibility to do justice to those themes of trauma and recovery, and to make sure they were sensitively and accurately represented and explored.
GG: Why did you decide to write for this age category?
KM: Again, I think it's something I just kind of fell into! I've always been drawn to writing YA – it's such a fascinating stage of life to explore. All the themes around figuring out who you are, your place in the world, what's important to you, what's worth fighting for – and the intensity of the emotions and relationships and new experiences that come with that are just endlessly compelling.
GG: What are you working on now and do you think you'll stick with self-publishing?
KM: Another good question! During the pandemic, I've been working on something totally different – a queer YA fantasy romcom. It was great fun to write, and especially during the pandemic it was lovely to have something to focus on that was such a source of joy and lightness. Late last year I was lucky enough to be taken onto Hachette UK's Future Bookshelf mentoring programme, and my mentor has been encouraging me to pursue traditional publishing as an option with this latest book. So at the moment I'm at something of a crossroads in terms of direction – we shall see how it pans out. There are considerable opportunities and challenges with both self-publishing and traditional publishing – I know some people are very firmly aligned with one route or another, but I don't really feel like that. I think I'll just be taking each book as it comes and trying to figure out what the best direction is.
GG: I really love these tips from a 2018 interview I found online:
Give me one writing tip that works for you.
Find your people; the ones who can both lift you up and challenge you. Learn to love criticism – it's the key to becoming a better writer – but don't forget to embrace and celebrate your strengths and the positive feedback you get just as much.
And one that doesn't.
I've never been convinced about the whole "write every day" thing. Self-care is the most important thing. If that rule works for you, awesome; but don't push yourself to stick to a rigid set of rules because you think that's what you *should* be doing.
I'd like to ask if you have two more tips for us now that you're even more experienced.
KM: New tips! I feel like I've learned a lot over the past few years. So…
1.Something process-related I've discovered is really helpful to me is to keep drafting and editing as separate as possible. For me, editing is a totally different headspace to drafting, and not going back and tweaking/fiddling with earlier parts of the book while I'm still drafting the rest gives me the opportunity to start the editing process with as fresh eyes as possible. It also means I can just revel in the joy and freedom of drafting and be totally immersed in that process, which I love.
2. Always try to hold in mind what the book you set out to write is at its heart, and why you wanted to write it. This can really help you to stay on track during the writing process if you're checking in with yourself about whether the book you're writing is still the book you wanted and intended to write, and if not, whether you're happy with the book it's become. More importantly, though, I think it helps to keep connected to your values as a writer when things get difficult. At the times when you're feeling dispirited or disillusioned with the process – when you're bogged down in editing, or querying and getting nowhere – holding onto the reason you created the story you chose to can really help you to keep going and hold onto what matters to you.
GG: Do you find any misconceptions or cliches about mental health that you still find in modern fiction/movies/TV that bother you? For example, back in the day drug addicts were often depicted on TV and in movies as "strung out and sexy" and there was a lot of kickback about that at one time. Do you still find such things out there? Or would you say things have improved?
I think things have definitely improved – I think there's much more awareness and sensitivity, and far fewer cliches, than there used to be, which is great. At the same time I think there's still a really long way to go. Something that bothers me a lot is when a character is written as having a mental health issue but it's kind of glossed over or not really explored properly – or when it seems to resolve too easily without much exploration of how that happened. On the flip side, though, I think it's worth mentioning that there's some really phenomenal mental health representation in media now that is really heartening to see. A brilliant recent example that comes to mind is trauma/PTSD representation in Mae Martin's TV comedy series Feel Good – I think that's actually the best exploration and depiction of PTSD resulting from abuse that I've ever seen, and the fact that she was able to capture that in what is still a genuinely funny comedy series is amazing.
GG: Anything you wish to add?
KM: Thank you so much for interviewing me! I'd love to add a quick plug for the Psychological Formulations masterclass I've just run for the 2021 YA ThrillerCon, which is available to watch back for free online for anyone interested in exploring how psychological and therapeutic theory can help inform character development for writers. Also, for anyone writing about trauma in any form, I always, always recommend the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk as essential reading!
Thanks so much, Kit. I am sure many readers and writers will be happy to check out your masterclass, as well as your speculative fiction. Please visit us when your next book comes out and let us know how it went with either more self-publishing or a turn to traditional publishing.