Jewell Parker Rhodes and Kelly McWilliams have a very special bond – they’re mother and daughter after all. And they are both authors! They’ve been on (virtual) tour together promoting their books Black Brother, Black Brother, and Agnes at the End of the World. If you’ve had a chance to see one of their events together, you’ll know that their conversations have been fascinating and filled with love as they discuss all manner of things related to their writing practices. Jewell and Kelly were both kind enough to take time out of their busy schedules for this very special NOVL guest post, in which Jewell interviews her daughter and fellow author, Kelly. So without further ado, read on!
What was your inspiration for writing AGNES AT THE END OF THE WORLD?
I write to work out my nightmares, my worst fears. So, it’s no surprise that the inspiration for AGNES came during a pregnancy dream when I was dreaming especially hard (pregnancy nightmares are notoriously vivid) and feeling especially scared.
I kept envisioning a girl wandering through a desert landscape, trying to care for a young child. She was definitely running from something, but where was she going?
I decided she was running from a cult—much like a cult that plagued the Southwestern desert during my childhood. So, I had my genre: Cult Escape Fiction!
But when I began dreaming of Agnes, Honolulu, where I lived, was on high alert for Zika. The virus presented a severe danger to developing fetuses and doctors warned women to stay indoors, wear mosquito repellent. Though I didn’t plan it, a second genre crept into my storytelling: Pandemic Fiction.
However, novels are always over-determined. My feminism inspired this book as much as any epidemic; my love of survival and adventure stories inspired it as much as my reckoning with becoming a mother. I also don’t think it’s accidental that I wrote a book about a teenaged girl escaping to the Outside world—only to find the world crumbling around her. I graduated college right after the 2008 financial crash, with the specter of global warming looming larger every day. I can’t even imagine how kids are feeling, graduating into the world as it is right now.
How challenging was it to create a narrative with two POVs? What did your novel gain from creating two-character arcs?
It was really, really challenging. And the crazy thing is: I’m doing it again in my work-in-progress!
As a kid, I loved musicals—especially the big duets between characters at cross-purposes. I think of an intertwining musical composition involving two very different souls. To pack any punch, the souls should have a strong bond. Agnes and Beth are sisters.
What do you want young adults to learn from your book?
I’ve always held a deep, enduring interest in faith: I’m curious about what it means that human beings the world over look for something greater than themselves, curious how people keep faith alive in times of struggle.
While Agnes does maintain a version of her faith, I certainly didn’t want readers to feel preached at. So, I presented a plurality of faith systems, a plurality of different interpretations of the Virus—which Agnes herself sees in mystical terms.
Danny, Agnes’s love interest, puts his faith in public health and in science. Max, a fellow survivor, buoys his spirits with music and superhero comics. One character, Jasmine, even puts her deepest faith in the divinatory power of butterflies!
When young adults finish reading AGNES AT THE END OF THE WORLD, I hope they’ll feel that specific creeds, religions, and beliefs don’t matter so much as the strength of the faith you place in them—a strength that comes from inside you.
What’s it been like doing a virtual tour with your mother?
I haven’t seen my mother in person since Labor Day 2019, if you can believe it—at least, not in person. The pandemic has kept us apart. But after George Floyd’s death, I really needed her—both her presence and her wisdom. My mother’s been fighting racism all her life, watching atrocities repeat themselves in what sometimes feels like a never-ending cycle. I’d just written a book about a girl who rises up against systemic injustice; and she’d just published her most personal book to date, inspired by our family and by the injustices of racism. Together we’ve been having an ongoing public conversation I never would’ve imagined having a year ago. I think it’s a necessary conversation: We talk not only about our books but also about who we are and why we write.
Virtually touring with my mom has been emotional at times. But I think it’s helped us both stay hopeful during a truly rough time. After one event, someone asked, a bit skeptically, if the love they saw between us was really real. And the answer is yes, it is—but like any mother-daughter relationship, it’s complex. (Listen, it wasn’t easy to teach her how to operate Instagram Live!) We’re not putting on a show. The tour, in a funny way, is an extension of our writing: We’re trying to tell the truth. In every conversation, I learn something new about Jewell Parker Rhodes, and that’s pretty cool!
If there’s something you could change about your writer’s journey, what would it be? What would you tell your younger self? Or other young authors?
I’d urge my younger self to be patient. To practice self-compassion. To wait for the story that really needs to be told.
Believe in yourself. When you feel the overpowering urge to raise your voice, then sing your story as loud as you can.
Until then, don’t stress!
Live, watch, learn.
Agnes knows she loves her home of Red Creek—its quiet, sunny mornings, its dusty roads, and its God. There, she cares tirelessly for her younger siblings and follows the town's strict laws. What she doesn't know is that Red Creek is a cult, controlled by a madman who calls himself a prophet.
Then Agnes meets Danny, an Outsider boy, and begins to question what is and isn't a sin. Her younger brother, Ezekiel, will die without the insulin she barters for once a month, even though medicine is considered outlawed. Is she a sinner for saving him? Is her sister, Beth, a sinner for dreaming of the world beyond Red Creek?
As the Prophet grows more dangerous, Agnes realizes she must escape with Ezekiel and leave everyone else, including Beth, behind. But it isn't safe Outside, either: A viral pandemic is burning through the population at a terrifying rate. As Agnes ventures forth, a mysterious connection grows between her and the Virus. But in a world where faith, miracles, and cruelty have long been indistinguishable, will Agnes be able to choose between saving her family and saving the world?
A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection!
From award-winning and bestselling author, Jewell Parker Rhodes comes a powerful coming-of-age story about two brothers, one who presents as white, the other as black, and the complex ways in which they are forced to navigate the world, all while training for a fencing competition.
Sometimes, 12-year-old Donte wishes he were invisible. As one of the few black boys at Middlefield Prep, most of the students don't look like him. They don't like him either. Dubbing him "Black Brother," Donte's teachers and classmates make it clear they wish he were more like his lighter-skinned brother, Trey.
When he's bullied and framed by the captain of the fencing team, "King" Alan, he's suspended from school and arrested.
Terrified, searching for a place where he belongs, Donte joins a local youth center and meets former Olympic fencer Arden Jones. With Arden's help, he begins training as a competitive fencer, setting his sights on taking down the fencing team captain, no matter what.
As Donte hones his fencing skills and grows closer to achieving his goal, he learns the fight for justice is far from over. Now Donte must confront his bullies, racism, and the corrupt systems of power that led to his arrest.
Powerful and emotionally gripping, Black Brother, Black Brother is a careful examination of the school-to-prison pipeline and follows one boy's fight against racism and his empowering path to finding his voice.