Kelsey McKinney is a writer, reporter, and co-owner of Defector.com. She has written cover stories on Olivia Munn, in-depth looks at how a producer created the most dangerous monster of the 21st Century and everything in between.
Her debut novel, God Spare the Girls, is a family drama about two sisters who uncover a disturbing secret about their father. The two handle it very differently and the book follows their family story through mega-churches in Texas to their most intimate moments where everything is questioned.
Debutiful asked McKinney to answer the reoccurring questionnaire A Life of Books so readers can get to know her better.
Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?
I read so much as a child. I was constantly checking out the maximum allowed at the public library and then finishing them in time to go back the next weekend. I consumed books so quickly, it’s hard for me to distinguish many that I read as a true child. At some point, my mother gave up on me reading kid lit because I ran out of books at the library, and the librarian directed me (probably I was in late elementary or early middle school) to Alice Hoffman’s young adult book Green Angel, which I promptly fell completely in love with. I loved Green Angel. It’s been years since I’ve read it but that was the book that made me realize that literature could be beautiful and weird and leave you with this kind of hollowed out feeling that you could carry with you even after the book was finished. I was also a sad kid in secret, so it didn’t hurt that all of Hoffman’s oeuvre has a permanent darkness to it that felt relatable to me.
Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?
I don’t have children, but many of my friends are starting to have children and I love to buy them books. I think the Shape Trilogy by Mac Barnett absolutely slaps. Every one of those books is so emotional and beautiful. The Square one makes me cry every time I read it! My philosophy on what children read (since I am not a parent) is the same as my philosophy on how everyone reads, which is that for pleasure you should read only books that you like and no books that you don’t. I would rather have every kid in America happy reading than have them all read the same 10 books that some adult like me decided was important for them to read.
Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?
My high school was not very focused academically. We barely read anything at all to be honest. A lot of the students in my class were behind academically because they had come from underfunded elementary and middle school, so we would read mostly short stories. Every single book we read was by a dead white man, and most of them I found boring then and don’t find much more interesting now. We did read Hamlet when I was a senior in high school. By read, I mean that one of the theater kids performed it for us during class hours, and I remember not really understanding it. I thought it was kind of unfocused. As an adult, though, I think Hamlet is a masterpiece. I’ve seen it staged several times and each time I find something new to be astounded by.
What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?
As a teen, I loved Hemingway. I was obsessed with The Sun Also Rises I think, in part, because it felt like a cool book to be obsessed with. I still think it’s a beautiful book, but when I read it a few years ago it didn’t feel like a book written for me. I think this is a common way to interact with great books in that you can acknowledge the technical capabilities of a writer without feeling anything for a novel. But what’s so fun about that is that a book can be so personal and moving at one point in time and then fade out of import. I hope that one day, The Sun Also Rises will return to me the way it did when I was a teen, and that I’ll be able to read it with that level of connection again.
Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?
What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?
It’s Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. A college professor pressed it into my hands and I don’t think I’ve ever truly set it back down. I read that book once a year expecting for it to have faded away from me in some way and it never does. It’s haunting and beautiful and the relationship between the sisters is so brutal and real. I would trade so much to be able to write a book that feels the way Housekeeping feels in the fourth act. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to.
What books helped get you through quarantining and social distancing during 2020?
I had a really hard time reading early on in the pandemic, as I think a lot of people did. The book that broke my streak of no-reading was Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, which I tore through and then found my ability to read again. To create some structure to the structureless year of 2020, I decided to read an author’s entire body of work. I chose Laurie Colwin for that project, which was a great choice because all of her books are an absolute delight to read. They’re also surprisingly funny which was a nice relief in a hard year.
What bookstore can’t you wait to shop at once things return to normal… whatever normal is now?
Most of the bookstores where I live in Washington, D.C. are open again, which has been so refreshing and normal. I’ve been stopping by Lost City Books at least once a week to scoop up everything I can mainly because I missed going in there. But one of my favorite bookstores in the country is BookPeople in Austin, and I cannot wait to get in its doors again later this year.
And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.
My current work in progress is: gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss!