KELLY BRAFFET is the author of such novels as Jack and Josie, Last Seen Leaving, and Fabulous Things. Her latest is Save Yourself, published last May. Braffet presents to us a dark fictional world with compelling characters and what Booklist calls “locomotive plotting.” Here she speaks about her life, her literary influences, and other topics.
JOHN WISNIEWSKI: When did you begin writing, Kelly?
KELLY BRAFFET: I always knew it was the thing I wanted to do. I grew up in rural Arizona and I learned to read early; there weren’t a lot of other kids around, the internet hadn’t been born yet and we only had two channels. So it was pretty much read a book or go play in the tumbleweeds. I did do a lot of playing in the tumbleweeds, but mostly I went for the books. I read everything I could get my hands on. Although my parents weren’t bookish people, they were incredibly supportive, taking me to libraries and used bookstores and generally just indulging the hell out of me. As I got older, and went to first college and then grad school to study fiction writing, I got the “what are you going to do for money” speech from pretty much every other direction, but never from them. When I sold my first novel after grad school, my dad said, “I always knew it would happen, but I never thought it would happen so soon.”
What was your first published story?
I’m not a huge short-story writer – I manage one about every five years – so actually, my first publication was my first novel, Josie and Jack. (Unless you’re counting the terrible stuff that ended up in my high school and college lit magazines. Ugh, let’s not.)
Who are some of your favorite authors?
The older I get, the harder this question is to answer. I love classic writers like John Steinbeck and Doris Lessing and Dashiell Hammett. There are so many good writers working today, too. A lot of the modern stuff that I like is cross-genre stuff, like China Mieville and Nick Harkaway and Tim Powers, and there’s really been a surge of brilliant literary crime writers in the last 10 or 15 years: Gillian Flynn and Donna Tartt, obviously, but writers like Megan Abbott, Tana French, and Sara Gran blow my mind on a regular basis.
Is Save Yourself inspired by people in your own life?
Not directly, although the world is definitely one that I grew up around. My family moved to western Pennsylvania when I was 10, which gave me a sort of outsider’s view into the kind of depressed and declining coal towns that I based Ratchetsburg on. At some point — I think it was when I was in grad school — I was home visiting my parents and went to put gas in my car, and the guy working the counter was somebody I’d gone to high school with. I didn’t know him well, but I’d always had this impression of him as a bright, interesting person. Now he is selling gas. This was years before I started Save Yourself. That moment stuck in my head, though. There were so many bright and interesting people I knew in the town where I went to high school that never quite managed to find the door out. I had them in mind when I wrote people like Patrick and Caro; smart people in a world where being smart isn’t seen as being particularly special or valuable.
What kind of thing inspires you to write?
Oh, everything. Movies. Television shows. Other books. News stories. Weird little moments. I was driving through eastern Pennsylvania last year and I passed this dingy little general store, with a girl sitting on the curb in front of it. She was just a girl looking at her phone, but she was wearing bright red sandals and an enormous white shirt unbuttoned over her clothes. At first I thought it was a lab coat. I’m sure she was just waiting for a ride or something. She’s stuck in my head now, though. That’s the kind of thing that eventually ends up in a book.
How do you keep the reader interested as the story unfolds?
That’s the six-million-dollar question. I think it’s a question of pacing and tension. You have to keep the story moving, quickly enough that nobody gets frustrated and slowly enough that you have time to build the world, to make the story full-fleshed and evocative. And there’s also the matter of controlling what the reader knows and when they know it. When I’m writing a book I sort of think of it as a dark ride at a carnival: over here there are some dangly things to brush against your face in the dark, but down the line the car spins around and a skeleton jumps out. You have to make sure all of your creeps are creepy and all of your surprises are surprising.
Do you find that writing comes easy to you?
Sometimes. I had a friend who played ice hockey growing up and I remember once telling him after a game that I’d noticed that the puck had seemed to flow ahead of his stick, like in a pro game. He laughed and said, “Yeah, that hardly ever happens.” When writing goes well, it’s like that: the puck and the stick flowing across the ice together, the words flowing across the page. Stephen King described it in Misery as “falling through the hole in the paper,” and that always felt like a good description of it for me, too.
Sometimes, though, it’s like trying to clean up crumbled bits of Styrofoam, those little balls that stick to everything you don’t want them to and nothing you do. My second novel, Last Seen Leaving, jumped happily onto the page as if it wanted to be there, but Save Yourself took some serious wrestling to get to the place where I wanted it to be. It’s a better book, though.
What are you doing when not writing, Kelly?
My husband Owen King and I have a small child, so mostly when I’m not writing I’m pretty much doing mom stuff: juice boxes delivered and retrieved, laundry, arguments about what percentage of one’s weight in candy one should be allowed to eat over the course of a 24-hour period. The endless cycle of dishes from table to dishwasher to cupboard, as another friend of mine once put it. I still try to read everything I can get my hands on, and my husband I usually have a show we’re watching together. (We love Shameless and Orphan Black, and I made him watch the most recent season of Doctor Who.) The things I really love doing are generally pretty sedentary, so I try to force myself to do physical things. I hate running, but I do it. A few weekends ago I went rock climbing for the first time. I’m slowly learning to roller skate. I’m old enough that I care more about setting a good example for the kiddo than I do about making a fool of myself — which I inevitably do.
Are you working on any screenplays?
I’m not. Owen does quite a bit of screenplay work, and in fact he has so many irons in the fire right now that when he tells me some piece of news I usually have to make him remind me of which project he’s talking about. I really am a novelist at heart: I love consuming the end products of screenplays, but it’s not a medium I feel compelled to work in. Owen and I have talked about collaborating on something in the future, and that might well happen. We work pretty well together. If somebody offered me the chance to work on the screenplay for one of my books, though, I’d jump at the chance.
Any plans for the future?
More books. More juice boxes. More laundry. Hopefully, mostly more books. There was a period last year when I was actually working on two novels at once, but I had to back-burner one of them in order to get the other off the ground. One of them is another crime-y novel, along the lines of what I’ve already published, and the other is a fantasy novel I’ve wanted to write for years and years. The first feels more practical, so I’m concentrating on that right now. I really want to finish both of them yesterday. I’m super-impatient with myself.