In Her Cultish YA Novels, Kelly McWilliams Blends the Personal and the Historical

Kelly McWilliams

To author Kelly McWilliams, writing is about asserting valuable truths. With her 2020 novel, AGNES AT THE END OF THE WORLD, she “felt [she] needed to send a message into this world:  a message about feminism and patriarchy and how we can survive oppression.”

agnes at the end of the world

That sense of survival and hope is key to both of her novels. AGNES shows perseverance in the face of a fundamentalist cult, and the sister protagonists of McWilliams’ new novel MIRROR GIRLS must face the horrors of Jim Crow south. In a way, both settings have aspects of cults, with “the power to brainwash, gaslight, and systematically attack self-worth.” Says McWilliams of her heroines, “my sisters have to extricate themselves from societies hell-bent on oppressing them, and that means they have to first decide that they’re valuable, even if the wider world is telling them (falsely) that they’re not.”

The premise of MIRROR GIRLS is especially personal to McWilliams. She relates to the character Magnolia as a biracial woman who can pass for white. On the other hand, Magnolia’s sister Charlie — like McWilliams’ brother — presents as more obviously Black. McWilliams and her brother have had vastly different experiences because of their differing appearances. She recalls a moment from her childhood: “I remember a teacher who insisted to us, as children, that we couldn’t possibly be related. So it was very satisfying for me, personally, to bring that onto the page.” McWilliams combined her firsthand experiences with extensive historical research in the novel.

Mirror Girls

Throughout her writing journey, McWilliams has realized that it’s important for her writing to stem from powerful themes. “It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I stopped ‘trying to get published’ and started ‘trying to tell the truth,’” she says. “That said, every manuscript I’d written before was important practice.” In her writing process, the characters aren’t the only ones for whom hope is important. McWilliams enjoys the sense of possibility and promise that a first draft brings.

But she’s also come to appreciate the importance of the revision process. At that stage, she understands her book as a whole and can read other works to inform the changes she makes. For McWilliams, taking part in the We Need Diverse Books mentorship program played an essential role in her growth as a writer. “Every young writer should seek out mentors and colleagues to share the good times and bad,” she says, “…and preferably, as many as possible. It’s invaluable to connect with someone in the industry who can give you advice and, perhaps most importantly of all, perspective.”

Kelly McWilliams will be an attending speaker at this year’s Willamette Writers Conference.

Visit Kelly’s website here.

See the list of speakers who will be attending the conference.