Author Interview: Kellye Crocker Uses a Light Touch for a Serious Subject

By Gayleen Rabakukk

I’m thrilled to welcome author Kellye Crocker to Cynsations! Like me, she’s a Vermont College of Fine Arts alumnx more than a decade past graduation. Her debut middle grade novel, Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties (Albert Whitman & Company, October 2022) features practical tips on mindfulness and managing anxiety shared through a hilarious, yet tension-filled story.

Your new book Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties features a main character who worries about nearly everything, from the air being too thin to catching the plague from ground squirrels. This book feels very timely given the increase in anxiety among children since the pandemic. What drew you to this topic?

When I was young, I had so many worries! (Actually, I still do, but I’ve learned some good coping strategies.) I was an adult when a doctor diagnosed me with anxiety and depression in the late 1990s—but I believe I’ve always had it. I don’t remember anyone talking about mental health then except for joking about it, and I kept my diagnosis secret.

In recent years, I’ve started sharing this part of myself because I want people with anxiety and depression to know they’re not alone. I want to help destigmatize mental health problems and encourage people to get help if they need it. My editor, Nivair Gabriel, was diagnosed with anxiety at a young age. (She gave me permission to share.) She’s an incredible editor, and having her bring that specific experience to this novel was such a gift.

With that said, I didn’t set out to write about anxiety! I think it seeped into the story, which I started after my surprise move to Colorado. I’d grown up in Iowa and, after college and my first job in other states, I’d returned and lived there for 26 years. I was excited about this new adventure, and it sent my anxiety soaring.

When I finished the first draft at the end of 2016, experts already were concerned that anxiety was increasing in young people.

Now, it’s a crisis. Anxiety is the most common mental illness among Americans, young and old, and I’m glad people are talking about it now. Big changes need to happen in the way we offer mental health services in this country, though. There aren’t enough providers, especially for young people, and many people can’t afford it, even if they’re lucky enough to have insurance.

Your light approach to this serious topic makes the book very funny. Was this your approach from the beginning or did the manuscript change during the writing and revision process?

Oh, thank you! I love novels that combine humor and heart. Humor is an important coping mechanism, I think, especially when a character faces difficult truths. Laughter is healing and offers hope. I hate books without hope.

Ava isn’t wrong about Colorado’s dangers, but I exaggerated her take. (Everything is so different from Iowa! And, honestly, I initially shared some of her worries.) I fell in love with Colorado—as everyone seems to—so, for me, it added to the humor that Ava has a different opinion.

She’s barely started therapy. When she’s done it for a while, as I have, she’ll learn that if she can stop and notice her whirling thoughts—and realize they’re separate from her—she might see that they’re also pretty funny. Anxiety can be terrifying and painful—and, anxious thoughts can be funny. Both can be true. Some of the funniest people I know are quite anxious.

For this story, I had to do some major revisions related to the humor before I queried. In the first draft, Ava mistakenly thought the girlfriend’s daughter was a baby, so that’s what she prepares for. I loved that she learned to swaddle a baby by using a couch pillow. (Now that I think about it, wouldn’t Ava have had a doll she could have used? LOL.) Anyway, a friend, who hadn’t even read the draft, questioned the believability of that—and she was right! Dad keeps a lot of secrets from Ava, but there is no way he wouldn’t have told her that this other girl is 12, too!

I was nervous about losing those funny scenes, so I posted a sticky note in my writing space that said, “trust the funny.” I wanted to believe that more humor would come if I had the courage to cut what didn’t work and stayed true to Ava’s story and voice.

Also, no one writes a book alone. All of my early readers, plus my amazing agent and editor, helped make this book better, including funnier. In particular, author Sarah Aronson, my longtime friend and former grad-school roomie, and Coral Jenrette, a great friend and writer who’s in a critique group with me, really made it funnier.

Kellye’s Denver Critique Group: Coral Jenrette, Oz Spies, Kellye, A. F. Kay and Samantha Cohoe.

Ava, the main character, keeps a “very important notebook” and a few of her anxiety-reducing exercises appear as notebook excerpts between chapters. Is a “very important notebook” part of your writing process?

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but, yes! My husband knows that a stack of composition notebooks is a cheap and easy gift that delights me. (I love knowing I have blank ones at the ready.) I always have a notebook going, and I carry it around the house through the day. (I used to have a “night notebook” beside my bed, but that got too complicated.)

Kellye and her husband, Mike, hiking in the mountains. They’ll celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary Oct. 17—the day before Kellye’s book comes out.

I dump everything into my notebook—reminders and to-do lists, poems I stumble across, doodles, pleas to the universe, story ideas, and mind maps. But the most important thing is that I journal. Sometimes it’s just “word vomit,” venting about what’s bothering me. It makes me feel better (research bears this out), and then I can move on and be productive.

Researchers also say we think differently when we write than when we merely sit and think. I do a lot of thinking on the page before I dive into my actual story. I love writing by hand with my favorite pen (the Pilot Precise V5 RT).

I’m always, always asking: What does my character want? Why? It’s something you learn in a beginning fiction-writing class, but no matter how far along I am in a story, even in revisions, I return to those questions and the variations: What does my character think she wants? What does she need?

Sometimes I interview my characters. I write a question, listen, and “take dictation.” There’s usually pushback, like “bet you won’t write ‘I, Kellye Crocker, eat my own boogers.’” But I do. (Write everything, I mean. I do not eat boogers.)

If I write everything down, eventually, if I’m lucky, I’ll get an important detail or insight. It sounds weird, and I thought it was, too, the first time I tried it. Louise Hawes, one of the teachers at Vermont College, had suggested it during a residency. When I got really stuck on my first novel, I broke down and interviewed my main character. She was supposed to be in an improbable relationship with a rock star….but it just wasn’t happening. As I interviewed her, she told me maybe the rock star was secretly gay. I nearly fell over in shock. Everything in the story pointed to that, but I hadn’t seen it. Once I knew that, everything fell into place.

The only problem with my notebooks is that I don’t have a good method for storing them or for easily accessing info from a past one. (My attempt to index was short-lived.) I’m such a fan of journaling, I developed and taught a class about it for middle-grade writers.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

Wow. This is an interesting and complex question! I believe the books we read as young people are so important—they become part of us. Writing for young readers is a responsibility and an honor. Publishing this book is a long-time dream come true, and I’m excited and grateful for the opportunity. I’ve also been…anxious. This shouldn’t have surprised me. But I was a newspaper reporter and a magazine writer for more than 30 years and never felt shy about people reading my work. But even though Ava isn’t me, fiction feels much more personal.

A few months ago, a stranger tweeted about my book and tagged me. I had no idea anyone had access to it then except for the authors who’d been asked to possibly blurb. When I first saw the tweet, I felt happy and excited. Then, almost immediately, I felt sick. I was shaking and light-headed. (I remember journaling about this, but there’s no way I can find that entry now. See?) My body had gone into fight/flight/freeze mode. And, the thing is, his tweet said my book was awesome!

His bio said he’s a Canadian educator. (As a general rule, I’ve found Canadians to be exceedingly kind.) But he’d just joined Twitter. Was he trolling me, somehow? Was his identity just a cover for my mom? (That is, if my mom knew how to get on Twitter?)

In my novel, Ava is torn between wanting two opposite things at once. This is how I feel about my book coming out—although I didn’t know that when I wrote Ava’s dilemma. I really want to connect with readers—I’ve worked long and hard toward this dream—and it’s embarrassing to admit that it’s also scary. I’m hoping these feelings help me grow, and that’s good for me and my writing.

I don’t know how anyone could do this work over the long haul, though, without a supportive writing community. I’m so grateful for my friends.

One of the wonderful surprises of publishing has been connecting with the #22debuts—a large group of folks who are traditionally publishing middle grade, YA or adult books this year for the first time. We meet on Slack and help each other with all kinds of things, especially the confusing world of marketing and promotion.

I came to the group late and really appreciate how so many of them—especially the kidlit community—have been incredibly patient with my questions and have gone out of their way to help me. I feel as if I’ve made lifelong friends. I’ve been trying to read as many of their books as I can—and they’re fantastic!

In terms of marketing and promotion, it’s difficult to know what to do and if any of it makes a difference! It feels as if I keep learning about things I’m “supposed to” do but should have started three months ago. I’m sure I’m not the only debut author who searched for “what’s marketing?” and “how do you do it for a book?” I think many of us feel uncomfortable with promotion, even though we’ve worked hard and are proud of our work. It’s impossible to know where the line is between sharing about your book in hopes of connecting with people who might be interested in it and becoming annoying and one-note.

The best marketing, though, is supposed to be the next book, and you asked how I was moving forward with my writing. I’ve been a bit stuck, which makes me anxious. I do a lot to try to get myself into a relaxed, playful space so I can work through that and do my best writing.

Dad’s Girlfriend was the fifth or sixth novel I’ve written, but none of the rest are ready to give to my agent. In the past year or so, I’ve returned to a middle grade set in the Victorian era. I finished the first draft ten years ago!

I’ve recently written a 70,000-word revision—really trying to “re-vision” all of it—but I couldn’t figure out the climax. In desperation, I gave it to my critique group much earlier than usual. They said the question wasn’t “what’s the climax?” but “for which story?” Apparently I’ve tried to squish several stories into that one novel. This is a bit of a bummer because 1) I’ve done this before, 2) more than once, and 3) I couldn’t see it! Again, I appreciate my writing friends!

I’m also working on a nonfiction project I’m really excited about. Sadly, it seems to have the same “stuffed” problem, and I’ve been trying to focus, focus, focus on the true heart of the story.

At one time I dreamed of selling a second book before my first was published. That’s not going to happen, and worrying about it isn’t helpful. No one is pressuring me for the next one except myself. I’m going to keep journaling, trusting the process, and writing with as much joy as I can, and, hopefully, I’ll publish another book some day and will feel a little less anxious about it.

Cynsational Notes

Author Kellye Crocker, photo by Laura Carson Photography

Kellye Crocker is a journalist who has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Parents, and Glamour. She holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a bachelor’s degree in news-editorial from the Missouri School of Journalism. She lives in Denver, Colorado. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. Now she focuses her energy on inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.