Monday, June 15, 2020

Kelly McWilliams

Photo Credit: Black Forest Photography
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, benefited from a We Need Diverse Books Mentorship.

McWilliams has loved crafting stories all her life, and her very first novel, Doormat, was published when she was just fifteen-years old. She 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.

McWilliams applied the Page 69 Test to Agnes at the End of the World and reported the following:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

My title, Agnes at the End of the World, makes the novel’s stakes clear from the get-go—this is a story about a girl standing on the edge of a cliff, which just happens to be the collapse of society as the result of a terrible pandemic.

But the title has metaphorical resonance, too. Raised in a doomsday cult, Agnes has been anticipating the apocalypse for her entire life. But Agnes’s world doesn’t end in fire and brimstone, as the controlling Prophet of Red Creek predicted. Ultimately, her world ends in ways she never could’ve anticipated—and it ends twice: First, when she must leave her family and everything she’s ever known behind in order to save her brother’s life; then again, when she discovers the Outside world is facing down a near-apocalypse—a real one.

What's in a name?

“Agnes” is an old-fashioned name, meant to convey the fact that Agnes herself comes from a strange community that exists slightly outside time. It’s also a name that shouldn’t be beautiful—all those consonants packed into the middle!—yet somehow, rolls off the tongue. As a character, Agnes is as unexpected and surprising as her name.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

I grew up reading dystopian and apocalyptic fiction, especially the dark, edgy, socially conscious kind. My favorite book for many years was Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower—I also loved On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

If I could travel back in time, I’d absolutely drop Agnes at the End of the World off at the doorstep of my teenaged self (with clear instructions to prevent time travel paradoxes, of course). I think past-Kelly would really enjoy this feminist, apocalyptic tale!

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings are definitely challenging to write. Ultimately, however, writing the ending of my novel felt more intense. Endings are crucial, because they’re what leave readers with a lasting impression of the work as a whole. I went back and forth on whether my protagonist would live or die at the end (no spoilers here, so I won't say any more!). I toggled between the bittersweet, the tragic, and the hopeful for months before I decided Agnes’s fate.

I’ll never forget the river I cried when I wrote the last scene for the final time—I just knew in my bones that I’d finally gotten it right. At long last, I’d found the missing puzzle piece, the perfect fit.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Agnes at the End of the World is a novel narrated from the perspective of two sisters, but that wasn’t always true! It used to be Agnes’s story alone.

I was pregnant with my daughter when I first conceived the premise of this book, and of Agnes, who must choose between remaining in the only world she’s ever known and saving her baby brother’s life.

Agnes is in many ways my ideal self—a selfless caregiver, steadfast in her beliefs. But in my second draft, I decided to explore the perspective of her younger sister, Beth, who represents another, more shadowy side of myself. Beth is occasionally selfish, petty, and needy—but also fun to be around. Agnes is a superhero, but Beth cares more about kissing boys and wearing makeup (despite the strict rules of her oppressive society) than about saving the world. Beth is relatable, and her desires are recognizable to anyone who’s ever been a teenaged girl.

Agnes and Beth play foils in the novel; but they also represent my own dual selfhood, I believe—the ideal and the real.

--Marshal Zeringue