After I put myself back in that mindset, I had to change everything. I didn’t want to make this character exactly like me because that wasn’t going to be interesting. For most of KB’s story, I imagined what it would be like for a 10 or 11-year-old to go through specific challenges. The first-person narrative was the hardest thing, just staying in her voice forever.
It was easy for me to learn and hear her voice, but more difficult to show the process of her coming to understand everything that’s going on in the world around her.
SCM: Right, because the easier way to do that would be to write it in third person. I keep going back to the scene over the Fourth of July where KB is looking for Nia, who disappears with a boy. Everyone reading knows what Nia’s up to. Like, duh. But it takes KB so much longer to get there. Because she’s a kid and finding the words to explain something you’ve never seen before is incredibly difficult.
KH: Yeah. It’d be easy sometimes to slip out of her voice, so she’d just be talking like an adult, like you and me. Sometimes I’d let myself write it and then go back and re-write in KB’s voice.
One thing that really helped me was daily writing exercises, where I would think about a scenario, and then I’d have KB talk about it in her voice. A small scene that didn’t go into the book, like getting a bad grade on an assignment. Like, “I don’t know why that happened; I feel so frustrated.” I did that regularly, and it really helped me identify her voice and thought process, so it wasn’t as difficult to think through what she would and wouldn’t say.
SCM: So much of this story deals with loss—Daddy dying, Mama leaving her daughters to seek treatment, the no-longer-close relationship between KB and Nia, who becomes sullen and more interested in boys than her sister. KB thinks early on: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my family, it’s that when you hurt, you got to ignore it and pretend it don’t exist; otherwise it’ll swallow you whole.” How much of you set out to prove that the opposite is true?
KH: Oh my gosh, so much of me was setting out to prove that. You found me out! But, yeah, I talk a lot about mental health. I’ve previously written specifically about mental health awareness in the Black community and the stigma around mental health issues, all the barriers to access for Black people. The contradictions. [“The Importance of Mental Health Awareness in the Black Community,” The Everygirl, Aug. 2020]
I wanted to show this family as one that’s not super progressive when it comes to mental health, but I did want to show that they were trying. Like, Grandaddy. He doesn’t fully understand what’s going on with his daughter and her depression, but he’s trying and grappling with how much of it stems from the falling out they had when she was younger. And at this point, even though he doesn’t really understand, he believes in her, he knows she is strong, and that she wouldn’t have brought her kids to stay with him unless she absolutely needed to.
KB is the character doing a lot of work to teach the lesson you mentioned, about it being important to say stuff or it’ll eat you alive. She thinks she’s doing what her family has been showing her to do, which is to hide things. But she’s never successful at that, right? She’s always asking questions; she’s trying to figure things out; she’s confiding in people she’s just met, like the girl across the street. She’s writing things down and always trying to process. And little does she know that she’s helping other people to do that. People start opening up to her, like Grandaddy tells her what’s happened between him and her mom. And it’s KB who Nia finally tells what happened between her and their dad.