Places & Faces
First Person with Erin Kelly
3/18/2015 3:23:59 PM

Erin Kelly

Erin Entrada Kelly, who grew up in Lake Charles, debuts her youth novel "Blackbird Fly” this month. The book, published by HarperCollins, will be featured at a Children’s Book World event in the Philadelphia area on March 27.

Kelly’s writing is well-known to local readers. She was a member of the American Press newsroom for a decade — joining the staff as a teenager — and later joined Thrive as a writer/editor. Now based in Philadelphia, she remains a Thrive contributor/editor.

Her first book is a Junior Library Guild selection.

School Library Journal said Kelly’s novel "will resonate with any student in middle school who has felt different and ostracized. The author has skillfully captured the various characters.”

Also, Kirkus Reviews said of the book: "Each character in Kelly’s debut novel … is portrayed with remarkable authenticity. The awkwardness and intense feelings inherent to middle school are palpable.”

Kelly spoke to Thrive from her Philadelphia home.

Analyn "Apple” Yengko is a 12-year-old girl who is coming of age in "Blackbird Fly” — and she’s the reason Kidliterati has rated your book a "Middle Grade Must-Read” for 2015. Who is she, and what can readers learn from her?

Apple is an outsider with big dreams. She wants to fit in, but she also wants to be herself—even though she’s not sure what that means. As far as what readers can learn from her … it’s my hope that they learn that they are not alone, they can (and should) dream big, and there are greater things to come.

Apple is a fictional character, but you’ve said she "feels very real to me” — and she is drawn from your own heritage.

Yes, Apple and I share a lot of similarities. She’s the only Filipino in her school, just like I was. She’s teased for being different, just like I was. And she’s a dreamer. Apple’s story is much different than mine in many ways, but it’s also very familiar.

You’ve written in many genres. Why was it this character, and this story, that led to your first book?

All writers have a story that they need to tell, even if they don’t realize it. It took me a while to find that story.

What were your favorite books when you were 12?

In the 1980s, there wasn’t much to choose from — so I was just starting to read grown-up novels. If you had asked me what my favorite book was, I probably would have said "Cujo” or "Pet Sematary” by Stephen King.

Thankfully, Harry Potter changed the kidlit market considerably and now children have a wide range of well-written books to choose from, no matter how old they are. They don’t have to jump all the way from Judy Blume to Stephen King.

When did you first dream of being a writer?

I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t thinking about writing.

When I was a little girl, my mother read to me at night ("The Cat in the Hat” was one of our favorites) and I would ask if I could read to her instead. She usually fell asleep to me reading, instead of the other way around. Around that time, I started writing my own stories. My father showed me how to staple the loose leaf pages together to make them look like "real books.” Once he even taped two pieces of cardboard together to make a hardcover.

I wrote all the time when I was a kid. When my mother saw me writing, she’d say, "Write me a bestseller.” And I’d say, "I’m working on it!”

In addition to thinker/dreamer, you also were a Gatorette at LaGrange High School.

Ha! Yes. I was a Gatorette dancer for one year. That was enough for me. I hated school, so it was difficult to stay committed to any extracurricular clubs for too long.

What other school memories and teachers in Lake Charles shaped you?

I loved Bebe Usie’s creative writing class, which I took my junior year at LaGrange. We crafted haikus and made masks. We wrote letters to our future selves. I’d never had a class before that was focused just on writing.

I also remember Career Day, when an American Press reporter named Kierstan Gordon came to speak to us. I’d always wanted to write for a living and I thought it would be cool to become a journalist. I loved newspaper movies — "All the President’s Men,” "The Paper,” "His Girl Friday”—and I figured I could become a big-time journalist like Woodward and Bernstein, join the White House Press Corps, or land a cushy job at the New York Times. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. But I did eventually get a job at the Press. My 10 years as a reporter were the most influential of my life. Well, so far.

You’re in the Philadelphia area now after spending much of your life and career in Southwest Louisiana. Describe life. The people. The food.

There is much to love about Southwest Louisiana—the food, the laid-back lifestyle, waving hello to passing strangers — but I love the northeast. It’s fast. There’s traffic. People may or may not say hello. But a few months ago I stood across from Van Gogh’s "Sunflowers” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it was just a quick drive away. I can hop on a train and be in New York or Washington in an hour. There are people here of every ethnicity. If you want to see or do something different, all you have to do is go.

Everything is a trade-off, of course. Last month I had a king cake delivered because I was homesick for Mardi Gras. And there’s no boudin, Darrell’s shrimp poboys, or crawfish etouffee.

Philadelphia soft pretzels. With mustard, or without?

Spicy mustard, of course. Without mustard is just insane.

What’s your workspace? A cluttered table? Hammock? Log cabin?

My workspace is a small, somewhat-cluttered desk under a big, bright window. No matter how cluttered the desk might get, I like to make room for flowers.

During your journalism career, you asked questions, listened for information and gathered facts. As a fiction writer, you can explore and express wherever your mind might go. It’s exclusively you. Or is it?

Well, yes and no. I can explore and express whatever I want, but it’s not exclusively me. I’m always aware that reading a book is an interactive experience between the writer and the reader. So I always keep the reader in mind. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Your next book, "Land of Forgotten Girls,” is already set for release next year. What are you working on now?

Soon I’ll be working on edits to "Forgotten Girls,” but right now I’m working on my third book, which will be released in 2017.

What’s the most satisfying early feedback you’ve gotten about your book?

Last month I got my first-ever fan letter from a fifth-grader who read an early copy of the book. He ended it with: "I will be a fan of your books for as long as I live.” You can’t get any better than that.

What would you tell a 12-year-old girl in Lake Charles — or a young Gatorette, or a kid whose household and classroom cultures clash — who is struggling with the emerging complexities of life?

You are not alone. It may feel like it, but you’re not. Trust me.

*

"Blackbird Fly,” juvenile fiction by Erin Entrada Kelly, illustrated by Betsy Peterschmidt, HarperCollins/Greenwillow Books, 304 pages, $16.99. Drops at bookstores and online outlets beginning March 24.

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