Talking about writing: Kell Andrews

It’s been a while since I’ve had a guest here. Thankfully, Kell Andrews has agreed to take the hot seat and share her thoughts on magic, ecology and, of course, writing. Kell has always wanted to be a writer, but before she rediscovered her love of children’s books, she mostly wrote and edited trade magazines, websites, textbooks, and marketing copy. That was fine except that magic is frowned upon in math textbooks and business press. Today she writes fiction for children and nonfiction for adults.. Her first novel, Deadwood (Spencer Hill Press), was published in 2014, and her short fiction will appear in an upcoming issue of Spider Magazine. A member of SCBWI, Kell holds a humanities degree from Johns Hopkins University and a master of liberal arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she now lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. You can contact Kell here, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or Goodreads. Kell is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

You’ve mentioned enjoying reading and writing fantasy set in the here and now. Not urban fantasy so much as the places where magic slips into life. In fact, your recent book contains magic involving a tree, correct? What draws you to that type of story, and how does Deadwood fit in?

Deadwood has magic rooted in a very real world setting of a depressed inner-ring suburban town. A tree has been cursed via carvings on its bark, and it uses those carvings to spell out messages and communicate to two seventh-graders who have to lift the curse before it spreads.

Deadwood is a bit further on the fantasy line than magical realism but the magic is not as pervasive as urban fantasy or contemporary fantasy, where more often fantasy creatures and settings exist within the human world. I’d say it’s about the level of something like Bigger Than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder or Half Magic by Elizabeth Enright. Maybe half magic is a good descriptor of my subgenre. I keep the magic limited and give it a pseudoscientific spin because I want it to seem to readers as if it could happen to them if they are in the right place at the right time.

You say that you want it to seem to readers that it (magic) could happen to them if they were in the right place at the right time. I’m curious about that idea, mostly because I also like finding that point where the possibility of magic feels abundantly real, some point of seepage between what we know and what we don’t. Where does that come from in your writing–do you think of yourself as someone inclined toward the unknown, or does it come from who you’ve been as a reader, the types of stories that drew you in as a child? Or both?

As a reader, I am willing to suspend disbelief and trust any world a writer can create if they do it well. But when I was a kid, I suspended disbelief in real life too. I wanted to believe in magic. In fourth grade I had a tree that I would talk to and I pretended it could hear me. I tried witchcraft and spells and Bloody Mary in the mirror at midnight. I worked hard at believing in Santa Claus until I was in sixth grade — then my little sister stopped believing, and I couldn’t maintain the fiction any longer. I still have my childhood teddy bear — she’s a mess, but I loved her enough that she became real like the Velveteen Rabbit, and she never became unreal.

Giving up magic is a hard transition. In Deadwood I wanted the magic to be believable for those who still want to believe — or at least want to pretend to believe.

Rationally now I don’t believe in magic or the paranormal of any kind. But I still know my teddy bear loves me.

I like to think that there’s something in that need to believe that has very tangible benefits. Believe in enough cursed trees and you might begin to look at the trees around you, really see them, find reasons to save them, magic or no. It’s not about dogma as much as it is about connection. Are those types of ideas in your head as you write, or is the story the thing?

I have an ecological theme running through this book, but it wasn’t the primary idea. The theme emerged from the story, not the other way around. All living things in an ecosystem are connected, and in my story I augmented the connection so it’s a bit magical.

There’s a moment in the book when a character says of the Spirit Tree, “It’s not like it’s a living thing.” But of course it is! In my book, the tree has a consciousness. In real life, they don’t, but they still strive towards life. Plants don’t “want” anything, and yet they “want” to live and reproduce. I was looking for a kind of magic that might be plausible in the real world, and I thought of the interconnections of plants and animals.

I hope that readers think about how what they do influences other living things, but it wasn’t what drove the plot. The story came first, but it came from my mind and ecology is something I’m concerned about.

I love that sense of connection in an ecosystem as a type of magic! I think I’m drawn to it because I also spent a great deal of time as a child trying to find magic–talking trees, fairies, weather that I could control–and it was all through nature. Yes, I did check out the backs of a few closets to make sure there weren’t portals, but the rest of the time I looked to the woods.

I think writing about that kind of magic, that openness to the world, is much easier to do through children’s fiction. Adults are often too stodgy. What specific things have led you to write for the ages you do–was it a conscious decision, or just where the writing took you?

Like a lot of people, I started writing middle-grade books because of Harry Potter. When I read those books, it was one of the first times I read a novel and thought maybe I could actually write one. Now I realize I had that moment of recognition, not because Harry Potter was for kids, but because it was genre fiction, and more specifically fantasy.

I read children’s fantasy, mysteries, and fairy tales up to seventh or eighth grade, when I started reading books in the Modern Library or on the college-prep reading lists — mostly 19th century novels. Then in high school, college, and post-college, I read literary fiction. I started out majoring in writing in college, but I never could figure out how to write a contemporary literary novel like the ones I read. How would I plot it out if it wasn’t plot-driven? Plus my own limited experiences were not really anything I’d want to read about — I didn’t want to write them either.

So when I decided to write middle grade, it was partly because I wanted to write about magic, but also because I love how plot-driven middle-grade fantasies are. My story was a puzzle to figure out, and my outline gave me something to follow. And I actually got it done.

So far I’ve only written middle-grade novels, but there are stories I want to tell for older readers too. And they’re still fantasies — it turned out that Harry Potter was a gateway drug, not just to middle grade, but to adult fantasy and genre fiction of all kinds. I’ve realized I love beautiful writing and unforgettable characters even more within a gripping plot, and I have a lot of reading to catch up on.

I also struggled with the idea that I should be writing literary novels, that anything else wasn’t important enough, even though I was moved by stories from all sides of the genre lines. I’ve been working with kids and writing in the last year, and I love how they don’t feel any of that stress. They write what feels good to them, and it’s fun to be able to talk magic with them.

So, as a final question, knowing what moved you as a child, what would you most like to provide to your readers? What would your dream piece of fan mail tell you?

This is the hardest question so far! One of the reasons I wrote about magic is because I so often wished it were real, but in this book, wishes don’t — and shouldn’t — come true. Martin and Hannah are seeking to restore balance, and power to grant, receive, or demand wishes throws that off. So my dream fan mail would be from someone who told me they had stopped wishing for something to happen, and started to make it happen. I hope readers get a sense that they themselves can change the world, starting with their own lives and communities.

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