‘Writers seemed imaginary’ | An Interview with Author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Frances DowellAuthor Interviews

By Frances O’Roark Dowell

In the process of writing How to Build a Story … Or the Big What If, I thought a lot about my own experiences as a young writer – I tried to remember about what was easy for me and what I struggled with. What inspired me to sit down and write in the first place? Recently, I’ve reached out to some writing friends to ask them about their own lives as young writers. Their answers have proved wonderful and illuminating, and they’ve giving me a lot to think about both as a writer and a writing teacher.

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For many years, Kim Brubaker Bradley was best known as the best-selling author of middle grade historical fiction, but her most recent novel, the Newbery Honor book Fighting Words(2020), is a contemporary novel that takes on the difficult topic of abuse. Whatever era she sets her books in, Kim is one of the most fearless writers I know, and like her most memorable characters, she’s wonderful company–straightforward, smart and funny. With two Newbery-honor books in a row (The War that Saved My Life was the first), she’s clearly a writer who has hit her stride.

What was your interior life—the life of your imagination—like when you were a kid? Were you a daydreamer? Did you tell yourself stories, make up movies in your head?

Constantly. I could put myself right into books, imagine conversations with the characters I loved. If I was walking down a street by myself, I’d be telling a story inside my head about whatever was happening around me. It took me years to realize most people don’t do this.


Do you remember your earliest desire to write something—a letter, a list, your name?

Not really–the first writing I can actually remember came when I dropped one of my mittens into the toilet. I was going back outside to play (wearing another mitten) and I didn’t want my mom to flush the mitten, but I didn’t want to pull it out of the toilet myself. So I wrote her a note about it. I knew I wasn’t spelling “toilet” right, but later she told me she got the idea.


What is your earliest memory of writing a story or poem?

In third grade I wrote a story about my parakeet. I called it “A Bird Called Perry.” Even then I sucked at titles.


What was a book, movie or comic book that incited your imagination? Were there particular kinds of stories that inspired you? Did other forms of art and entertainment—songs, illustrations, TV shows, etc.—spark the desire to write?

I read absolutely anything from our library about horses or Native Americans (in a perfect world, both). I was never much inspired by music or TV. The first book that I thought of at all differently from any other was A Wrinkle in Time. I read it all in one day as a freshman in high school–reading straight through several of my classes–and at the end I was not only blown away, but I was curious as to WHY I was so blown away. I finished the last page and immediately flipped back to the front and started rereading, this time to try to understand the mechanics of the writing. For the first time I was separating the story from the act of writing it–I think that was the day I started to become a writer.


How important was it for you to share your writing with others? Who did you share it with? Did sharing it become more important as you got older? Did you ever publish your writing when you were young (in a student magazine, a school or local newspaper, your family’s holiday newsletter, a zine, etc.)?

I actually guarded my writing from almost everyone. I would write differently based on whether I thought the writing would or wouldn’t be shared. My most humiliating day in school came when we had to write stories for class. I’d asked the teacher directly, and she absolutely promised me that the stories wouldn’t be shared–not read out loud, not hung in the hallway. But then when she handed them back she had us all go up to the front of the class and read the stories out loud. She called on me to go first. I stood at the podium, shaking, and couldn’t make a sound come out of my mouth. I would never have written the story I had if I thought my classmates were going to hear it. Eventually the teacher told me to sit down–but she never apologized. I’m very comfortable now speaking in front of an audience but it took me years to learn it. I’m still angry at that teacher. As for publishing—I had some poems I wrote in a summer creative writing class published in the town newspaper. They were awful, but they scanned well–and they didn’t mean much to me. I didn’t publish anything else until I was in college, and getting paid for small magazine and newspaper articles. By that time I was in some terrific writing classes, and would share damn near anything with my classmates, whom I trusted.


What were your biggest challenges as a young writer? What parts (and what kinds) of writing were easy for you?

My biggest challenge was simply believing it would be an option for me. I’d never met a writer. I didn’t know anyone who made their living in a creative way. I was the first college graduate in my family and felt a responsibility to repay my family’s work in sending me to college (and to Smith, no less!) by getting a good professional job.


Did you know that you wanted to be a writer when you grew up?

Yes and no. When I was ten we had to write class essays about it, and I said I wanted to be a research scientist and write children’s books on the side. But that was a rare moment of clarity. (I did in fact become a research scientist, though I eventually dropped it to write children’s books full-time.) Again, I didn’t really see it as possible until I went to college and met writers and people who took writing seriously. My family always took books seriously–but writers seemed imaginary.


What or who helped you become a better writer? Did you have a teacher or some other adult in your life who encouraged you to write? Did you spend time studying the craft of writing, say, by reading books about it or taking workshops?

Everything changed in college, when I took a survey course in Children’s Literature taught by none other than Patricia MacLachlan. It was not a writing course, but I showed Patty some early attempts at manuscripts, and she steered me into the local SCBWI (back then, SCBW) critique group, headed by Jane Yolen, and into conferences. I did take that summer class in creative writing, when I was about ten–it was at the Y, and my mom was teaching something, probably embroidery, so I took the writing class at the same time. But it was a short class, just a one-time thing. I was never taught anything about the craft of writing until I went to college.


What’s the best way, in your opinion, to teach creative writing to kids?

Honestly, I think your new book [How to Build a Story] about it is superb. I’m not saying that to butter you up–I love the way you encourage kids to explore other options within their writing: you could do this next, or this, or this. I think sometimes kids get stuck because they think they can’t make drastic changes to what they’ve already written down. I like to tell students that I decided not to kill off a major character in draft seven of The War I Finally Won–up until draft seven, someone important died, and then I decided it was too much sadness and let that character live. That’s a pretty major change for so late in the game.