Advice for budding writers: Never take the two-book deal
By Debora Gordon for Ashland.news
Local writer Kristin Elizabeth Clark, who relocated to Ashland in 2020, brings an elaborate historical patchwork of experiences to her writing, including making silk flowers, teaching taekwondo, producing youth theater and being a scenic artist for theater. Her life’s winding path began with growing up in Las Vegas, attending college in Utah and Nevada, and later marrying, settling, and raising her children in California.
Her first published novels were “Leaving the Bellweathers,” published in 2009, and a follow-up book the next year, “The Butler Gets a Break: A Bellweather Tale.” Most recently she published “Freakboy” in 2013, and “Jess, Chunk and the Road Trip to Infinity” in 2016. The latter two were both works of fiction, but growing out of her learning about the experiences of her trans/gender-fluid daughter.
Clark describes growing up and later leaving her hometown of Las Vegas, saying, “I and my creative friends, the Benways, a name we gave ourselves; we all left. The funny thing is that we were nerds from different schools, coming together over the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ We were creatives but bullied at our individual high schools. We thought we were nerds, but some kids thought we were the cool kids, but not at our schools.”
This familiarity with being bullied is reflected in some of the experiences of the main characters in “Freakboy” and “Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity,”both of which incorporate significant encounters with the main characters being bullied.
Clark was married for 28 years to the father of her three children, Lucy, Max, and Chelsea, all now in their late 20s/early 30s. She remains on excellent terms with her children’s father and ex-husband, noting, “We have remained super-amicable. It was important to remain a family, even a family that traveled and celebrated Christmas together.”
Reflecting on some of the experiences of her life that is often reflected in the experiences of her characters persevering under difficult circumstances, she mentions, “I was teaching taekwondo; and I was never afraid of getting hit. The sparring was good for me. In terms of self-defense, I wouldn’t say taekwondo is the best, but the hugest thing it drilled into me, was not putting myself in that situation, a ‘spidey sense,’ meaning there is an awareness of an unsafe person.”
Clark explains the origins of “Freakboy,” which she describes as being inspired by some of the experiences of her oldest child.
“When she came out to me in later high school, I immediately started looking for support” where they were living in Saratoga, California, and found Project Outlet, a youth counseling service. “We found community there and I taught some poetry classes there. Got to know other people; and this was before Caitlyn Jenner came out, so my first reaction was fearful was what might happen to her. I wrote it for readers who might be non-binary, some who wrote me amazing things through my website. I wanted cis kids to understand how tough it was. People are afraid of things that are unfamiliar. The more people can see trans/non-binary people, the more empathy there could be. It was a lot about the individual’s self-discovery. It was early days; it had some tropes.”
Clark describes her next book, “Jess, Chunk and the Road Trip to Infinity,” following “Freakboy”by about three years, as “lighter, easier, less about internal agony. It’s one of Jess’ (the main trans character) own making. She’s very self-centered. They were just normal human beings. She appreciated the way I wrote them. It’s more about the people around her. I would never write another book in verse. I was writing outside of my own lane (as a cis-woman). On the one hand, I probably did have an easier time getting published in that way, as people weren’t necessarily at that point, telling their own stories. Now it is different, people are telling their stories. Today I would not write that story. I have received emails from kids who said ‘Freakboy’ saved their lives.”
The book has been in banned in Texas schools, meaning students there would have limited access. Clark mentions that “I would get from kids were often across the state line. What some kids were saying was that I left the characters ‘on the road to OK,’ and I think about those kids and other kids that don’t have access.”
Clark notes that the publishing “industry is big on sensitivity readers. My (trans) daughter was in early college when it came out, I told her I would not reveal who she was, so I was protective of her identity. This is how my gender fluid child feels; when we started to have the conversation about who could write what, in between this books, she was the one who came to me and said ‘You know, you should mention me in the forward to know that you did this with my approval.’”
In terms of her current approach to maintaining her writing practice, she self-describes as a “pantser, with the challenge is that every single time I sit down to write a book, it’s like I’ve never written before.” Clarks notes that she writes every day, but not fiction; often her writing is personal essay.
Among her suggestions for new writers working on their first books are, “First, enjoy it because, if you’re fortunate, it will be the last book that you write that you have complete and utter control of and no expectations; there’s not that pressure — and, speaking of pressure, never take the two-book deal. I took the two-book deal for ‘Freakboy,’ and had such a hard time. ‘Jess, Chunk,’ was supposed to come out around the time ‘Freakboy’ got published because books spend about a year in production, once you’ve turned in it to your editor. I couldn’t do it and couldn’t do it and I had taken the advance and I remember calling my agent and saying, ‘Can’t we just give part of it back?’”
“Freakboy” had won several awards and she felt extremely pressured, but finally persevered with the support of her editor, who pushed the publication date back several times.
Clark now has been living in Ashland for about two years, working as the content coordinator and features writer for Ashland Living Monthly Magazine.
“I interview families and we’re involved with the Chamber of Commerce, which is unlike other Chambers of Commerce because it’s fun,” Clark said. “There’s a huge amount of volunteerism. And I’ve done some personal essays; and I’ve been asked to write a third book in the Bellweather series. It’s a world I would love to live; this was my innocence and my adolescence. This is my adulthood. Can I write a grown up?” Clark wondered aloud.
She continues to write and we look forward to seeing what her next words may be.
Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist who recently moved to Ashland from Oakland, California. Email Ashland.news Executive Editor Bert Etling at firstname.lastname@example.org or call or text him at 541-631-1313.
July 24 update: Some of the language regarding gender identity adjusted to better reflect current usage.