1 Author, 7 Questions: Kelly McWilliams
If you have not yet had the pleasure of experiencing a Kelly McWilliams book, boy do I have a treat for you! Agnes at the End of the World absolutely blew me away and now her latest book Mirror Girls has done it once again! We sat down with Kelly to talk Mirror Girls, her writing process, and maybe you’ll get a little sneak peek into what she’s working on next!
What was your initial inspiration for Mirror Girls?
My family is mixed race. Growing up, my brother presented very much as Black, while I present as white—and we’ve had very, very different experiences growing up in America. I wanted to write about the way the color of your skin causes these strong reflexes in other people—and the way families who don’t appear to be all the same race confuse the outside world. I can’t tell you how many times I had to stand up for my brother being my brother to people who refused to believe it possible. It was like, the moment our skin color registered, a prevented teachers, strangers, and acquaintances from seeing who was really in front of them. And the curse was contagious. As a young boy, my brother often asked me if he was adopted, because people kept telling him that he was; similarly, people refused to accept that I could identify as a Black girl. When my brother and I looked into the mirror as children, we didn’t see ourselves, but rather, society’s warped reflection of us.
The twin sisters in Mirror Girls have these exact problems, and it was wonderfully satisfying to see them coming together in a world that would rather have kept them apart.
Can you describe your writing process? Are you more of a pre-plotter or do you let the plot develop as you write?
I’m a flexible plotter, which is like being a flexitarian in the plotter/panster debate. Basically, I draw up an outline for each draft, but I don’t follow it too closely. The outline is ever-evolving as my characters evolve.
For those who might not know, Mirror Girls is set at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. What was it like delving into historical fiction? Did you have to do a lot of research?
So, I don’t think I had to do as much research, in the literal sense, as people think I did! Black culture is HUGE on transmitting cultural history, and I was just steeped in family stories, books, and movies about Civil Rights and Jim Crow specifically. And I really maintained a life-long interest in that time period. But I did find an amazing source of oral histories dictated by survivors of Jim Crow, and I clung fast to the emotions that filled those pages. History texts can feel impersonal, at times; for the novelist, hearing the voices of elders telling about their own experiences is priceless.
Your prior novel, Agnes at the End of the World, was also about two sisters facing deadly forces and insurmountable odds. What made you want to return to this theme of sisterhood?
I love sister relationships, and not just the blood kind. I’m fascinated, in general, by how women relate to each other in a patriarchal society, and I don’t think I saw enough of these complex female relationships in fiction when I was younger. There’s wonderful writing from and about women these days (heyo, Elene Ferrante!), but I still have this hunger to explore the bonds of women myself. There’s just so much there.
The town of Eureka and its history (and hauntings) are so central to Magnolia and Charlie’s story. What inspired the gothic horror/fantasy elements you gave the town?
The gothic horror and fantasy elements all have some kind of root in Black culture. In my experience, there’s a baseline belief in ghosts that came as a result of our vexed place in history. So many people have been lost, casually hurt or killed, that it’s impossible to go on without believing that those horrors left some kind of mark—or that the victims don’t live on in their own ways, too. Ghosts, trains, mirrors, snakes, foxfire over the swamp, haunted mansions… it’s a symbolic language that’s definitely not unique to MIRROR GIRLS, though I put my own spin on it, too.
What are some books you’ve been reading recently or would recommend?
I’m actually diving into research for my next book. I’ve been reading How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith, and I just finished The 1619 Project, edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones. I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys is next on my TBR!
What are you working on now? Any exciting ideas you can share?
I’m working on a novel about a girl named Harriet who grows up with her historian father on a plantation turned enslaved people’s museum. As a volunteer guide, she leads tours that tell the truth about the horrors of plantation life, while preparing for her senior year. Then a family buys the plantation next door—with plans to turn it into a disrespectful wedding venue—and Harriet becomes obsessed with cancelling a celebrity plantation wedding. Once again, it’s very much a story about female friendships, our country’s history, and long-standing racial divisions.
A thrilling gothic horror novel about biracial twin sisters separated at birth, perfect for fans of Lovecraft Country and The Vanishing Half
As infants, twin sisters Charlie Yates and Magnolia Heathwood were secretly separated after the brutal lynching of their parents, who died for loving across the color line. Now, at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, Charlie is a young Black organizer in Harlem, while white-passing Magnolia is the heiress to a cotton plantation in rural Georgia.
Magnolia knows nothing of her racial heritage, but secrets are hard to keep in a town haunted by the ghosts of its slave-holding past. When Magnolia finally learns the truth, her reflection mysteriously disappears from mirrors—the sign of a terrible curse. Meanwhile, in Harlem, Charlie's beloved grandmother falls ill. Her final wish is to be buried back home in Georgia—and, unbeknownst to Charlie, to see her long-lost granddaughter, Magnolia Heathwood, one last time. So Charlie travels into the Deep South, confronting the land of her worst nightmares—and Jim Crow segregation.
The sisters reunite as teenagers in the deeply haunted town of Eureka, Georgia, where ghosts linger centuries after their time and dangers lurk behind every mirror. They couldn’t be more different, but they will need each other to put the hauntings of the past to rest, to break the mirrors’ deadly curse—and to discover the meaning of sisterhood in a racially divided land.
About the Author
Kelly McWilliams is a mixed-race writer who has always gravitated towards stories about crossing boundaries and forging new identities. For this and so many other reasons, young adult literature will always be close to her heart. Her novel, Agnes at the End of the World, benefitted from a We Need Diverse Books Mentorship.
She has loved crafting stories all her life, and her very first novel, Doormat, was published when she was just fifteen-years-old. Kelly has also worked as a staff writer for Romper, covering issues important to women and families. She lives in Colorado with her partner and young daughter. Visit her website at KellyMcWilliamsAuthor.com.