Please welcome Kelly Braffet to The Qwillery as part of the 2020 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Unwilling, Kelly's fantasy debut, was published on February 11, 2020 by MIRA.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece you remember writing?
Kelly: The very first short story I ever wrote was called “The Blue Giraffe.” A terrifying tale of conformity, it was about an idiosyncratically pigmented giraffe who was advised to eat an orange to correct his coloring, and did so. Was the orange in season? Was it organic? What was the orange’s carbon footprint? We’ll never know, mostly because I was in preschool and didn’t know what any of those things meant yet.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Kelly: I’ve written five novels, and it seems as if every time I have to figure out a new way to do it all over again. I’ve done outlines, I’ve done no-outlines, I’ve done partial outlines. Whatever yanks the thing out of my brain. Since we’re talking about The Unwilling: I spent 20 years thinking about it, so it was pretty fully formed before I started to write it down. There were a few plot knots that I had to figure out a few chapters ahead of time, but it was fairly well behaved in the allowing-itself-to-be-written department.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Kelly: Honestly, the most challenging part of being a writer for me is this part: the promotion. If I could just sit in my pajamas and write the books and send them off into the world via vacuum tube, I would do so delightedly. And that’s not because I don’t love my literary people, or my readers – it’s just because it’s a whole other toolbox, and not one I dig into regularly. It’s like when the guy who was installing our new dryer asked if we had a socket set. We did, but I had to find it, and then I had to make sure it had the right parts, and even then I wasn’t totally sure it was what the guy needed. But if he’d had asked me for, say, a knife sharpener – I know exactly where that is, and I use it all the time. Promoting is the socket set. Writing is the knife sharpener.
If we’re talking about writing, the hardest part is winnowing out the distractions. Life has so many demands – like for instance, sometimes the dryer breaks, and the repair guy has to come and declare it dead, and then all of this other stuff happens and there’s your week gone, just with calling people and scheduling things and letting people into the house. Sometimes I cheat and go to hotels to work, just to minimize the distractions. But that’s incredibly lonely.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Kelly: Everything. I just said in an interview the other day that I wasn’t sure I “got” ideas as much as they accumulated slowly in the corners of my mind, like mental dust bunnies. But instead of cat and bunny hair – we just adopted a rabbit, so some of our dust bunnies are made of actual angora – they’re made of things I notice in books and movies, or read on the internet, or see out of the corner of my eye as I’m driving. I try to stay curious about everything, which I realize is kind of at odds with my desire to sit at home in my pajamas all the time. Internal conflict! Keeps life interesting.
TQ: Describe The Unwilling using only 5 words.
Kelly: This is the kind of thing I’m terrible at. My good friend Anthony Breznican called it “an adventure story about empathy” – can I steal that?
TQ: Tell us something about The Unwilling that is not found in the book description.
Kelly: It’s a story about chosen family. When your birth family is absent, or a mess, you find other people to fill in those gaps. Judah, Gavin, Elly and Theron love each other, and that love is the source of all of their power. (And a not-insignificant amount of their trouble, but they’re not to blame for that.)
TQ: What inspired you to write The Unwilling, your first Fantasy novel? What appeals to you about writing Fantasy?
Kelly: I’ve always loved fantasy. Many years ago, when I was in college, I read a fantasy novel by a non-fantasy writer and didn’t like it. I thought, “I can write a better fantasy novel than that! It’ll be about four people who live in a deserted castle after civilization falls.” Fast forward twenty years, and those four people eventually became Judah, Gavin, Theron and Elly, the main characters in The Unwilling. The story evolved a lot over time, obviously. As to why now, the short answer is that I was trying to write another crime novel and it wasn’t behaving itself, so I turned to the only other story kicking around my head, which was this one.
Part of what I love about fantasy is the worldbuilding. I love that feeling of “Why can’t I live there?” that comes with a really original setting. But more than that, I like the sense that (within the bounds of whatever magical system exists) anything can happen. The Unwilling has all the human drama of my crime novels, but the magic is an extra level of possibility to play with.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Unwilling?
Kelly: Honestly, most of it revolved around food. I took a cheesemaking workshop, tried my hand at harvesting the wild yeast in my kitchen (turns out there’s not much of it, which is why I haven’t ditched writing and started up a sourdough bakery), and cooked all sorts of random things, just to see if they worked. Other than that, most of the research was of the “what kind of carriages exist,” internet-search variety. I do keep notes files for all of my works-in-progress, with random ideas that occur to me and things that I want to include. Since this particular work was in progress for twenty years, the notes file is . . . lengthy. If you read it start to finish, I doubt it would bear any resemblance at all to the book as published.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for The Unwilling.
Kelly: The cover was designed by Micaela Alcaino, and I love it. Normally, the art department of a publisher sends a few different initial concepts, and then everyone discusses. This time they only sent one, and it was pretty much there out of the gate. We asked for a few tweaks, but nothing dramatic. It was important to me that the cover for The Unwilling capture the dark and knotted feel of the story, and I think it does.
TQ: In The Unwilling who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Kelly: Normally, there is a character that really gives me trouble, in one way or another, but I’d had these people in my head for so long that they were pretty fully formed. I suppose that the Seneschal was probably the most difficult, because he’s key to the plot but also extremely interior. We don’t ever see what he’s thinking. Even in those few moments when he talks about his own motivations, there’s a pretty good chance that he’s lying. I also didn’t want to make him a cartoonish monster; the book has one of those already, and I saw the Seneschal as much more subtle. And much more dangerous.
TQ: Does The Unwilling touch on any social issues?
Kelly: I think it would be difficult to find a novel that doesn’t at least touch on social issues, because what we think of as “social issues” are actually just humans trying to interact with each other despite their differences. But I will say that The Unwilling is a very intentionally feminist novel. The women in the book are, in some ways, those who suffer the most, but they’re also the ones who really come into their own power over the course of the story. The book also deals a lot with economic inequality, and life at the bottom of the tier in Highfall; one of my two narrators, Nate, is a healer who works with the poorest people in the city. So many fantasy novels are about the ruling classes. The Unwilling is no exception, but I also thought it was important to include the lives of ordinary people.
TQ: Which question about The Unwilling do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Kelly: If my grandmother was still alive, she would probably glare at me and ask why I didn’t write nicer stories. But these are the stories that grow in my head, and they grow out of everything that I see in the world around me. Human beings are not particularly kind to each other, and they never have been. I absolutely see why my gran preferred “nicer” stories, and don’t blame her or anyone else for gravitating to more pleasant depictions of the world, but the stories that I write tend to be about people who feel powerless and at the mercy of the world around them, and that’s not a nice feeling. I feel like it would be dishonest to tell the stories any other way.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Unwilling.
Kelly: This is from the perspective of Nate Clare, a travelling healer who comes from outside the city to find Judah for reasons of his own: “He could remember quite clearly what it had been like to be that little boy, lying under a quilt, knowing only the dusty ease of playing outdoors, the familiar excitement of setting up stage and footlights in a new town, the smoky campfire warmth of being loved by everyone around him. He’d had no notion, then, that he would ever cross the Barriers to the blue and gray spires of this strange, sad city, or that he would grow into a man who sat alone in a gloomy lab after midnight, figuring out how much poison per smallweight of tea.”
TQ: What's next?
Kelly: Right now I’m working pretty frantically on the sequel to The Unwilling, which will hopefully be out next year. After that, the crime novel that wasn’t behaving itself had a change of heart, and it’s currently sitting in a nice messy first-draft stack on my desk, waiting for further attention.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Kelly: Thank you for having me!
MIRA, February 11, 2020
Hardcover and eBook, 576 pages
A penetrating tale of magic, faith and pride…The Unwilling is the story of Judah, a foundling born with a special gift and raised inside Highfall castle along with Gavin, the son and heir to Lord Elban’s vast empire. Judah and Gavin share an unnatural bond that is both the key to Judah’s survival—and possibly her undoing.
As Gavin is groomed for his future role, Judah comes to realize that she has no real position within the kingdom and, in fact, no hope at all of ever traveling beyond its castle walls. Elban—a lord as mighty as he is cruel—has his own plans for her, and for all of them. She is a mere pawn to him, and he will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
But outside the walls, in the starving, desperate city, a magus, a healer with his own secret power unlike anything Highfall has seen in years, is newly arrived from the provinces. He, too, has plans for the empire, and at the heart of those plans lies Judah. The girl who started life with no name and no history will soon uncover more to her story than she ever imagined.
An epic tale of greed and ambition, cruelty and love, this deeply immersive novel is about bowing to traditions and burning them down.
Kelly Braffet is the author of the novels The Unwilling, Save Yourself, Josie and Jack and Last Seen Leaving. Her writing has been published in The Fairy Tale Review, Post Road, and several anthologies. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University and currently lives in upstate New York with her husband, the author Owen King.