Interview with Kristen Chandler

by Hannah Roberts

Kristen Chandler is the author of Thief of Happy Endings, the award-winning Girls Don’t Fly, and Wolves, Boys, and Other Things That Might Kill Me. She was nominated for the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. She thrives on making readers laugh, cry, and worry about what will happen next, so she isn’t the nicest person in the world. She teaches creative writing and composition at Brigham Young University

Inscape: Can you guide me through your typical timeline and process of writing a novel? How long does it usually take you from start to finish?

Kristen Chandler: It really varies with projects. The actual writing is about a three-month process for me, but some projects will be really research-intensive. Researching can take a number of months, and usually—and I find this is true with a lot of writers—their process for one book will overlap with another book, so they may be revising or promoting something else. I think it’s really terrifying to finish a book and not have another book started because that feels like falling off the end of a cliff, so I think most people kind of overlap a little bit.

Inscape: Speaking of research, I know you spent some time in the Galápagos Islands while you were writing Girls Don’t Fly. How much time do you usually spend doing research? You just mentioned that it can vary, but how much time has that taken for your books before? And is it always that much fun?

KC: No, but wouldn’t that be great? I’ve loved researching all my books, but again, it does really vary. The research that I did for Wolves, Boys, and Other Things That Might Kill Me was very, very extensive. Maybe a little overboard. But I felt like I needed to do that, and I was also learning a lot about my craft along the way. I interviewed a lot of people because I wanted to hear both sides of the story, and then I discovered there were more than two sides to the story. One of the hardest things for me is, even if I’m just doing reading research, I can get so lost, and it’s so much less threatening than actually writing. But I think starting writers should keep in mind that one of the ways you get paid for writing a book is the fun that you have meeting people and discovering new things and going places and listening to different language. I mean, yeah, we all want to publish a book and get a paycheck and have a byline and everything, but boy, some of the best experiences of my life have come from doing research for a book.

Inscape: We’ve talked about your overall writing process for a piece, but what does your writing process look like on a daily basis? Do you tend to write in spurts or for hours on end?

KC: I’m really a big believer that it needs to be a sustainable, daily kind of a thing that you do, but many authors are doing writing on top of their life, you know? I was really inspired last year when I asked some of my students to step up how much they were writing every day and how they were able to say, “I’m going to write for an hour and fifteen minutes,” and then how much they could really do in a writing sprint. They could really bring out a lot of material in an hour and fifteen minutes. So I think you kind of have to find a schedule like that. For me, when I’m working like that, I can get quite a bit done doing a two-hour, early-in-the-morning-before-work kind of thing, but when I get down to that now-I’m-going-to-write-the-book, I have to put everything down and just go for it. I have to get lost in it. I have to let go of the world and let this be my world for probably about six weeks to finish a book. And if I don’t do that, it won’t be a book worth reading

Inscape: Do you generally find writing to be energizing or a little bit more taxing? Or does it depend for you?

KC: Well, I think it’s like falling in love. If I were to say to you, “Is falling in love energizing or is it terrifying?” it would be both, right? Like, you have that first date where you don’t know and it’s awkward, and then there’s that time when you have your first fight—it’s kind of like that! With every book it’s like falling in love and feeling all the uncertainty. And then it starts to come together, and then there’s that one day when you discover momentum, and that’s the best day of your life. And you just hang up, you hide your cell phone, and you write as fast as you can until it’s done.

Inscape: Was there a certain character or scene from one of your books that you had to cut out in the editing process that you wish you could have kept in there?

KC: No, but there is one scene that I kept in there that caused a lot of problems. It’s the scene in Girls Don’t Fly when Myra helps deliver her sister’s baby; there was a lot of discussion about whether that was appropriate. When push comes to shove, I usually listen to the people that I really trust, but this was one instance where I just knew that I had to tell the story in all the gore that I told it in because I felt like it was the whole story of the book; she became an adult in that moment. And it wasn’t like a movie, it wasn’t like a video—it was like life. I interviewed an obstetrician, and I said, “I want you to tell me exactly what this would look like,” and we went through everything. So that is a one hundred percent verifiable moment in that book. I still don’t know to this day whether it was right or wrong to include it.

Inscape: I am actually so glad that you left that in there. I just read it last week, and I was literally on the edge of my seat, gasping in horror. It did add a lot to the book. Moving on, where do you typically draw inspiration from? And how much do you let your own experiences and life inform the actual content of your books?

KC: My subconscious is a lot smarter than I am, so I listen to it. And that doesn’t mean that every time I wake up with an idea, it’s a good one. Oftentimes they’re terrible. It’ll sound genius when I wake up in the morning and write it down, and then by four o’clock that afternoon I’ll know just to throw it away. But if I ever wake up with an idea, I always write it down; if I have an image that comes back to me over and over again, I always write those down. I’m very influenced by setting. For example, the book that I just finished writing—you know, I haven’t been traveling because of COVID—without even meaning to, I set it here locally on the Provo River. I didn’t intend for that to be where the setting was, but every morning I was getting up with my dog and walking along that river, and I realized it was the river in my novel. I do think it’s important to transcend confessional writing. I think it’s important for writers that are in the college age group to use those moments of your life as a beginning place, but then at some point down the road of creativity, the characters have to become themselves. They have to take on a life of their own and have their own internal consistency. That’s always—to me—kind of like that moment when Pinocchio becomes a real boy.

Inscape: Speaking of characters and having them become their own people, which character do you relate to the most from any one of your books, and why?

KC: I think every character has a little bit of me. I would definitely say that anyone that knows me and my family would look at the characters from Wolves and see my family, but every one of my characters is like me at a different stage of my life. The weird thing about it is that even though my characters aren’t my age, they are me now—not the character that I was at that age. I don’t know what I was like when I was sixteen. But I know what I’m like right now, and I know what sixteen-year-olds around me are like right now. It’s kind of like people that write science fiction as a way of talking about the world they live in, but with this filter.

Inscape: Do you feel like that makes it easier or harder, especiallywhen you share so much in common with a character?

KC: I think it makes it easier, but I also want to be very cognizant of the age of my character once I really start working on them. No character is all sixteen-year-olds or all twelve-year-olds, but they should have certain qualities. They should be somewhat within the range of if I were to meet that character, I would know what age they were. I think that it’s really important for an author to respect their characters and not get too involved in the vanity of making them a representation of themselves. I was talking to some students the other night about a moment when they were really happy and then a moment when they were betrayed. And when they were writing about the moment of betrayal, it became very important for them to write a lot because they wanted to be validated in that moment, and that is very dangerous to try to find validation in your writing. I think trying to make a story validate your life would be the biggest downside of having a character be too much like yourself.

Inscape: Okay, can we just briefly talk about what an accomplished and diverse individual you are? You’re so active and outdoorsy. You do so many cool things, and then you incorporate all of those cool things into your writing and your books. How do you find the time to balance all of those fun hobbies with writing?

KC: A long time ago, my mom went back to school to get her master’s degree, and because she was so busy and we had little kids in our family, she hired a babysitter. And the babysitter was very strict—way more strict than my mom. She told me I needed to go practice my piano, and I said, “Well, I don’t have time to practice my piano.” And she said, “No one has time to practice the piano. You make time for the things that are important.” And that had this huge effect on my brain. I make time for things that I really love because if I don’t make time for them, I’m not happy.

Inscape: I love that. That’s so applicable to everyone, not even just writers. Okay, this next question requires a bit of explanation. Out of your three published books, my favorite is Girls Don’t Fly. One thing that I really admired was how well you wrote the setting because it’s set in Utah, right around the Great Salt Lake, and I’ve found—in my own personal experiences—that books that are set in Utah typically have a certain feeling, largely due to the majority religion here, and the bias and mindset that are a part of the culture tend to inform the way that people write about Utah. But you managed to avoid that in Girls Don’t Fly. And I love how you handled the setting! It made me see familiar places in a whole new light and a whole new way, and I was just wondering, did you have an intentional strategy for doing that?

KC: Well, it was intentional for me because the scariest thing that I could imagine was writing about my own culture. That literally was the most terrifying thing that I could imagine doing. I decided to go someplace that wasn’t exactly my hometown, so I went to Magna, which is very different from Utah County. There’s a whole different set of diversity; it’s very religiously diverse there, and I met people who were there and talked to them. I got to be friends with them. And then I made my character not LDS, and I didn’t really talk about religion, per se, in the novel. But what was really strange was that when the book was published, I had people write to me and say, “This is such a meaningful book for children that are atheist.” I was actually promoted in a magazine for kids that are atheist, and I was like, “Oh, okay.” But I do feel like it is the story of feeling like an outsider, and it doesn’t matter what religion you are—everyone feels like an outsider at some time, right? I certainly didn’t want to target any one religion, mine or anyone else’s. I saw myself as a square peg growing up, and maybe we all do. Maybe. I don’t know. But I wanted to have that sensibility. To write Girls, I actually interviewed my daughter’s friends. I went to lunch with them, and we sat and talked about their boyfriends, and it just opened my heart. I wanted to write this story about what it’s like to love people and have it hurt you so much, you know? And so I guess that’s where the book came from—the love I have for these girls that I talked to, and how sweet they were, and how they were trying to make things work in their homes as well as in their relationships. And sometimes the reward they got for that was just to be forgotten. I wanted to tell their story.

Inscape: That’s beautiful. Going off of that, what’s the biggest appeal of writing young adult fiction for you? That’s kind of an answer in and of itself, but tell me more about that.

KC: Well, I adore how brave teenagers are. And young adults, too. I just adore that courage that comes from not knowing who you are yet—where you’re really trying to figure it out. Adults get very good at disguising their confusion and pretending to be okay with everything and never really are. We have no idea. I remember a time like five years ago, and I’m visiting teaching with someone, and she says, “Isn’t it great to be our age because we know who we are?” And I’m like, “Oh, did I miss that?” Apparently I didn’t do that. But I love how teens and young adults strike out with their chin out, and they’re ready to try it and fail and get up and try again. It’s so inspiring to see. Just like this summer, to watch all these kids talking about social justice. Maybe they’re not getting it right, but adults aren’t getting it right either. At least these teens are trying. I feel so inspired by that.

Inscape: Do you see yourself ever exploring other genres in the future? Or are you going to stick with young adult fiction?

KC: I feel like stories come to you and then you write them. I don’t feel like I’m defined by the genre that I published in the past. I feel\ like I just write the books that come to me, and then the books tell me what to do.

Inscape: Okay, last question: If you could impart any wisdom to your younger writing self, what would it be?

KC: Everything that happens to you is material. All the hard things, all the scary things, all the beautiful things that happen to you are material. And so, as they happen to you, pay attention, write them down, feel through them instead of around them, and live. Because living makes you a better writer.