Q+A: Kelly Barnhill on Her New Short-Story Collection
"Dreadful Young Ladies" brings together tales vibrant with the author's signature magical realism and socially charged perspective
Author Kelly Barnhill
Courtesy of Algonquin Books
A year after winning the country's highest honor in children's literature, the John Newbery Medal, Minneapolis author Kelly Barnhill is back with a new book—this time for adults.
Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, a collection of short stories released February 20 at Magers & Quinn, returns Barnhill to her beginnings as a short-story writer, before she took off as a children's novelist. While comparatively contained, each of the collection's nine stories recalls the wide-ranging and fantastical world-building that enlivened Barnhill's Newbery-winning novel The Girl Who Drank the Moon—which, four novels into her career, we can describe as Barnhill-esque: rife with witches' magic, driven by social outcasts, and embroiled in murderous plots. Her new collection binds together magical-realist fables that she wrote and distributed over the past decade. They range from her 2007 tale of a beauty seeker whose desperation goes beyond body modification ("Notes on the Untimely Death of Ronia Drake") to her 2014 novella about a girl who magically defies an infanticidal tyrant ("The Unlicensed Magician").
Different, though, is Dreadful Young Ladies' place in the adults section. The collected stories blend sex, disillusionment, and romance even as Barnhill's signature lyrical language weaves fairy-tale scenarios we often associate with kids' stories, full of charismatic animals, strange curses, and logical leaps. The concept of "gaze" links them—whether societal, parental, male, or otherwise: One woman's interspecies love rankles her community's church-lady gatekeepers; a besotted poet's constant fawning begins to annoy a teenage girl; and a young witch skirts her mother's plans while running afoul of the law.
A Minneapolis native, Barnhill slips Minnesota-isms into these eldritch worlds, including hotdish feasts, Nordic-sounding surnames such as Sorenson, and Midwestern ideals of etiquette, manifesting in the uncannily perfect and coldly kind titular character of "The Taxidermist's Other Wife." Writing the Minnesota-steeped opening story, "Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch," Barnhill even took inspiration from this 2010 Minnesota Monthly essay about Sasquatch sightings in the north woods.
Over the phone, I asked Barnhill about the stories behind these stories and what it means to write with an adult audience in mind.
Courtesy of Algonquin Books
MnMo: To start, how did Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories come to be?
Barnhill: I had been publishing these short stories for a while, and the thing about a short story is—I love writing short stories, I should start by saying. But the thing about writing a short story is that you work on it, and you fuss at it, and you fashion it, and you get all of the parts to hang together tightly until it can become its own thing that is separate from you. And you send it off into the world. It gets published by whatever journal. Then it kind of vanishes from you. They have their life our in the world, and they kind of go away. And so, I had been wanting to have a collection primarily because I wanted the permanency of a spine and cover, and also I wanted to be able to gather some stories together that will talk to one another a little bit. And it was an interesting experience, because so much of my work is in the moment. You live inside of a novel, and you know every single thing about it—every rock, every blade of grass, every person in it—but when you hand it over to your publisher, you have to let go of it. It doesn’t belong to you anymore. And so, whenever I turn in a book, I have this period of grieving, actually. It’s very sad for me. And so, to do this, which meant that I was going back into these works [short stories] that I had said goodbye to a long time ago, and fixing some things that needed fixing, and living in the sentences a little bit, and living with the characters a little bit—it was fun for me to reconnect with these former versions of my writer self, and these moments that felt, before, like they were lost. There they were again.
MnMo: What led you to select these stories for the collection?
Barnhill: It was a challenge to decide what to bring in and what to leave out. I had to do a lot of thinking about how the different stories would interact with one another. I kind of felt like I was back in high school and making mix tapes. But mostly, there were a couple of different things I was trying to get at. One is actually really hard for me to explain to somebody else, because, like making a mix tape, I was looking for particular sounds. I’m really interested in the texture of language and how language and how sentences will feel in the mouth when you say them and feel in the ear when you hear them out loud, and feel in the body. I am very much an aural thinker. And so, all of my work has that aural sensitivity, and all of my work has been read out loud again and again and again and again and again—it’s how I nail down a story. So, part of it was a certain quality of the sound that is difficult for me to explain. I just knew it when I felt it. But the other thing I was looking for was this notion of gaze. Every story, outside of "Insect and the Astronomer," deals with the notion of gaze. And it’s either the male gaze or the community gaze or the parental gaze or—no matter what it is, these female characters are chafing under that gaze and are stepping aside and are subverting it in different ways. "Insect and the Astronomer" is the outlier in the collection, which is about gaze but in a totally different way—changing what we think about gaze, as well as how as we look, because as we yearn we change both ourselves and our beloved. So, mostly, that was there as an interlude. And also because, whatever, I dig that story [laughs]. Sometimes we have to leave space for us to be random and just to like stuff.
MnMo: I’m interested in that aural sense you’re talking about. Is there an example readers might notice that sticks out to you in this collection?
Barnhill: For example, the two very, very Minnesota stories in the collection—“Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch” as well as “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife”—both of those have different aural sensibilities, but I think there’s a lot of commonality in the way in which the sentences work, and the way in which the sound works. So, I didn’t want them next to each other as a result. I wanted it to be more like point and counterpoint as you go through the collection. You’ll have other sounds, but then you get this little bit of a refrain as you get to "The Taxidermist’s Other Wife." So, that was important. In "Insect and the Astronomer" as well as "The Unlicensed Magician," there is more of this kind of fabulism, and a kind of language where the world enlarges upon itself: You look at something small, and it’s angels dancing on a pin, or whatever. And a kind of delight in strange incongruencies. So, those two talk to each other, as well.
MnMo: I noticed that the story that follows “Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch,” called “Open the Door and the Light Pours In,” does really have a different sort of sound than those two Minnesota stories you mentioned. It sounds like a British voice. And I definitely picked up on “Mrs. Sorenson” and “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife” feeling Minnesotan.
Barnhill: Yeah, one might. [laughs] That was kind of fun for me because my next-door neighbor is also a writer, and he has actually written for Minnesota Monthly (Frank Bures), and he wrote a piece for Minnesota Monthly a few years ago about going on Sasquatch safari in Minnesota, because did you know we have a lot of Sasquatch sightings here? Well, now you do. [laughs]
MnMo: So, for that story, you were drawing from Minnesota’s reputation for Sasquatch sightings. When do you know to draw from Minnesota for your stories? Because your work has a strong sense of place, but it’s not always a Midwestern place.
Barnhill: Right. I’ve lived in Minnesota for most of my life—except during a period of youthful exuberance, when I traipsed about a bit. But for the vast majority of my life, I’ve lived here. And I’ve always lived my life with a very strong connection to where I was, and a very strong connection to nature, and a very strong connection to the particularities of where I was in the world. And so, in some ways, in a lot of my work, either it’s set in a place that’s very different from where we are—a world that is not our own—or I set it in places that are highly identifiable—for example, in “Open the Door and the Light Goes Through” [in London]. But no matter what, that sense of connection between the human being and where they are is important to me. Because where we are alters us, indelibly. That is something I think about quite a bit.
MnMo: I think, in Fran’s story, the slide from the State Fair makes an appearance?
Barnhill: Yes! So, my sister is also a writer—an arts writer for the Star Tribune, Sheila Regan—and when she was a little girl, she got lost at the State Fair. That was probably the longest 30 minutes of my parents’ life. The State Fair, like—first of all, all of us either love it or hate it, and we’ve all been there, right? And it’s such a strange place. And it almost seems to defy the laws of physics, that place in the world. Both time and space seem to bend while you’re there. It’s such an odd, odd place, and it was super fun, being from a family of a child that did get lost and was then found, to then be writing a story about a child who was continuously attempting to be lost and yet managed to stick like glue.
MnMo: I’m interested in the collection-within-a-collection that Fran’s story comes from, “Dreadful Young Ladies”—four vignettes that form the centerpiece of the book. Did you originally write those four vignettes together?
Barnhill: I did, actually. I wrote it to be exactly like that. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever done, in terms of these hooked vignettes. I wrote that wanting to have these brief interactions with these really problematic women. And each one of them explores different aspects of female sexuality, of female placement in the world, of the female experience, and explores the yuckiness behind it sometimes.
MnMo: “Dreadful Young Ladies” also became the name of the collection. The word “dreadful” is especially evocative. Where do you think that word came from?
Barnhill: I think it came from thinking about those of us who grew up in the Midwest at a particular point in time, especially those who grew up with really clear expectations of what it meant to be a good young lady, right? I was the oldest child of a big family. I went to Catholic school. This idea of what it meant to be a good young lady was incredibly rigid, and it had to do with helpfulness and not being a disappointment and not making noise and not causing any worry. And there was a lot of fear, in growing up like that, that you would side-step and become dreadful. That you would cause people to be disappointed, you would cause people to be uncomfortable. And at some point, you realize that that, too, is a function of gaze. Growing up that way, the parental gaze and the male gaze keep you kind of limited in what you can consider yourself to be. And it’s when we shrug that off, when we subvert the narrative that has been handed to us, that we become kind of dreadful, you know? “You’re now making me uncomfortable, and I don’t like it.” And so, all of these characters in this collection, that is what they have chosen to do. There is a particular narrative that has been laid out for them, and they aren’t having it. So, originally, I wasn’t going to have the whole collection called Dreadful Young Ladies. Originally, the title was One by One They Flew Away. But my editor said, “No, no, no, no.” [laughs] “You’re taking this title that you already wrote; that’s my favorite." So, my editor is a genius, and whatever she tells me to do, I always do, because she’s literally right about everything.
MnMo: You mentioned wanting these stories to converse with one another, and that you enjoyed getting the chance to go back and finesse them. Were there any changes you made to heighten the stories’ interconnection?
Barnhill: Not substantive changes to the stories per se, but I’m one of those writers where it’s really difficult for me to turn stuff in. I fuss and fuss and fuss and fuss and fuss. And I read things out loud again and again and again. And I monkey with the texts, and I monkey with the sentences, and I just try to achieve whatever it is that I’m trying to achieve. And sometimes my manuscripts have to be wrested away from my cold, dead hands. One time, my editor called me, and she said, “I am not going to hang up the phone until you open your computer and press ‘Send.’” So, most of the changes that I made were just because, once I got there, once I returned to that ground, I just needed to live in the sentences again, which meant that I had to be reading them out loud again, which meant that I had to be tweaking them again, because I can’t not. And also, there were little tiny bits for clarity—things that I should have probably fixed before. But mostly, it was just me feeling, like, “I can make that sentence just a little bit better.”
MnMo: Reading these, I got the sense of a shared universe. One thing I picked out, which was small, was that the name of one of the dreadful young ladies, Margaret, appears also in “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife” as the name of the Taxidermist’s first wife. She, like Margaret in “Dreadful Young Ladies,” ends up standing for this idea of needing death in order to feel alive. Was that intentional?
Barnhill: Yeah, that was not intentional. [laughs] And a lot of times, that’s just it—one of the things that came up [in editing] was, “Do you want to change one of these damn Sorensons?” [referring to the appearance of a character named Sorenson in “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife,” recalling the titular Mrs. Sorenson from “Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch”] Because, of course, they have nothing to do with each other; they just both are in Minnesota, and both are named Sorenson, because guess what? In Minnesota, you can’t throw a rock in a bar without hitting a Sorenson. You know? So, part of that is that names get recycled because we are always around to recycle themes. Especially being here. I mean, how many Jeff Johnsons do you know? Like, 12 probably.
MnMo: Do you see these stories existing in the same universe then?
Barnhill: I mean, yes and no. No in that they’re definitely all different worlds, but yes in that it is the universe of my own head, which means that I’m drawing from the same well. So, obviously I’m going to be pulling from that same, like, primal source. I think the one that has the most distinct world is “Open the Door and the Light Pours Through.” So, my husband’s grandmother was a war bride, and she, like Angela [one of the protagonists] in the story, also lived in South Port, which was the place where American soldiers would have their rest and recuperation. So, there were a lot of American soldiers in South Port. It was a beautiful town. And a lot of them came home with British wives. There were a lot of hurt feelings about that. The American soldiers were given more spending money; they just had more money in their pockets than the British soldiers did, so they were able to wine and dine these young ladies. My grandmother-in-law was 19, and she met this very lovely 31-year-old G.I. He always said that Friday the 13th is his lucky day because that was when his plane was shot down. He had to parachute into the North Sea, and was picked up—none of this sounds lucky, obviously—and taken to recuperate at South Port, where he met a very beautiful English girl, and they got married right away. She was expecting a baby shortly after that. But then he got sent away again. And she wrote to him—she was telling me this story—she wrote to him every week. And she would write to him, and she would put the stamp on the letter, and she would send it off, and she had no idea if he would ever see it. And how strange that was. That you are writing to somebody who may not be there. Really, these letters are just going into the sky somewhere. And that idea of these letters vanishing into the ether was so interesting to me, and so very, very sad. So, that’s where that story comes from.
MnMo: That leads me to my next question, because you’ve said before that, especially writing short stories, you’re not always sure if you’re writing for children or writing for adults.
MnMo: These stories have these adult themes, as you were just describing. Did you have an audience in mind putting together this collection?
Barnhill: Yeah, these are for sure grown-up stories. And they’re not just grown-up stories because they have grown-up themes in them, but also because the view of them is very grown-up. We talk about middle-grade fiction versus young-adult fiction versus adult fiction. It’s the view of the story—what the story is doing and how that story is interacting with the world—that is very, very distinct. A middle-grade reader is trying to understand the world. They’re trying to understand how all of the different pieces work. They’re trying to understand these really big concepts, like justice, and love, and courage, and friendship, and what happens to us when we die, and why are we even here anyway, and what do we owe to one another? And all of those are questions that middle-grade kids ask of themselves all the time. You ask a middle-grade kid what they want to be when they grow up, they’ll give you, like, 97 answers, right? So, middle-grade fiction is very global in its view, and very universal in its view. Young-adult fiction, for teenagers—teenagers are preoccupied with identity. Who am I? Who am I really? And so, the view is inward. It’s the actions that we can’t undo; it’s the things that define us as a person. It’s, “I was never the person who did X, but now I am the person who does X forever.” And of course, you ask a teenager what they want to be when they grow up, and they’ll be like, “Why are you making sudden and aggressive eye contact with me right now?” [laughs] And I say this with all the love that’s in my heart, because I have three teenagers. Whereas, with fiction for grown-ups, our view is behind us. We are trying to make sense of things. How did I get to where I am right now? Right? And so, even when we have grown-up fiction where we have a child main character—we’ve read those books; we know they exist—the view is primarily nostalgic. It is through the lens of an adult’s knowledge and an adult’s sensibility. So, all of these [short stories], they are asking backwards-focused questions, they are asking adult questions. And that was one of the main questions when I first set out to make this collection, you know? Do I include the short stories that I’ve written for children? Because I have written those. I had a story in an anthology of all-Minnesotan children’s authors called Sky Blue Water about a kid with an invisible dog. I’ve had a few that have been published in different things. And some of those stories, maybe they could be included. For example, “Elegy for Gabrielle” [a story in Dreadful Young Ladies] could end up in a young-adult collection. But in the end, I decided that it would muck it up too much. So, I just wanted to focus on these grown-up-y stories. So, that’s what I did.
MnMo: That's interesting. I feel like we tend to think of literature per age as having to do with language more than perspective.
Barnhill: Yeah, I don’t believe that at all. My work for children tends to be fairly dense. I mean, I write all of my books so that they are read-out-loud-able, which allows more advanced language and prose to be scaffolded by a parent or a teacher. But, in the end, when we are grown-ups writing stories for kids, we typically write the kinds of stories that we dug when we were kids. And that’s the kind of story I dug when I was a kid—the dense, big-question, pretty-words, pretty-sentences books, with lots of big words, too. I loved those books when I was a kid. So, that’s what I do. And, you know, I am a little bit lucky in that regard, in that I’ve never been asked to dumb down my work, ever. I’ve never been asked to dumb down my work for children. I’ve never been asked to simplify, ever. So, I have been afforded a lot of artistic discretion that I appreciate, because I think kids like thick and meaty sentences.
MnMo: Yeah. I mean, they’re all set to learn new words, probably better than adults.
Barnhill: Absolutely. And they’re also willing to, like, go with you, you know? And that’s the other thing about writing for kids. Grown-ups need to be explained a lot of things, right? Grown-ups tend to be more obtuse than kids. Kids, because they are in the process of writing the world, and they’re in the process of literally making the world up to try to answer their own questions—that means they are way more willing to take all kinds of cognitive leaps. And, I mean, I tell this to kids all the time when I visit classrooms, that it’s not the writer who builds the story, it’s the reader who builds the story. The writer’s job is to give the reader all kinds of raw material and pretty sentences, and then the reader is the one who takes that material and leaps forward. And that’s easier to do with kids because they’re just willing to do it. For all of the hand-wringing that people do about kid readers, my interactions with kids is with lots and lots of kids who read. I go into classrooms all around the country now, and all I meet are kids who really dig reading, and who, if you ask them, “What should I read?” will give you 9,000 books that they want me to read. And what’s also really interesting is that their relationship with those books goes far beyond what is written in the books. And there’s all kinds of stuff they remember from those books that actually weren’t in the books at all. [laughs] Because they add things. Their imaginations are so juiced up that they add all kinds of stuff. Which is awesome.
MnMo: So, now I'm wondering: What makes you want to write for an adult audience?
Barnhill: Because sometimes I need to look back, too. And sometimes I need to ask those questions, of, “How the heck did I get here?” And, whatever—sometimes I like to write about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, too, right? There are some things—especially when you’re writing about human love and human connection—that are perfectly suitable for children, and there are some that are not. So, then you write for a different audience, because you still have something to say, and you still have something to understand. Because we always write to understand, you know? As well as to make something pretty.