Over the last seven years, Kelsey McKinney has made a name for herself as a journalist by writing insightful stories about pretty much anything. Sports, music, and food are her bread and butter, but she’s also written, bravely, about her struggles with clinical depression and, ferociously, about Texas’s recent deep freeze. For the last five years her mind has been traveling down a parallel track as well: she’s been working on a novel. And unlike the countless journalists who dream of writing fiction and never get it done, McKinney has something to show for her efforts: God Spare the Girls (William Morrow, June 22), an astonishingly assured debut that focuses on Caroline and Abigail Nolan, a pair of sisters in the fictional North Texas town of Hope, as they struggle with their evangelical faith and family betrayal. McKinney, who grew up evangelical in North Texas and graduated from UT-Austin in the Plan II honors program in 2014, lives in Washington, D.C., where she works as a staff writer at Defector.
Texas Monthly: You’re primarily known as a journalist and this is your first novel. Have you been writing fiction in the background the whole time or were you exercising new muscles here?
Kelsey McKinney: I wrote some short stories in college, but once I graduated and started doing journalism, I didn’t focus on fiction. I started working on this book at a time when I was realizing that my work was becoming very dry—I felt like I was prioritizing the facts over the flow of the story. And so I started trying to work on something different. My therapist at the time was like, “Why don’t you write something just for you? Instead of doing this thing that’s making you really stressed out, why don’t you try to do something that you will enjoy?”
TM: Of the skills you’ve learned as a journalist, which ones helped you write this book, and which ones did you find yourself casting aside in order to do a good job as a novelist?
KM: The casting aside part is pretty obvious, because obviously fiction is all made up. And there were scenes in the book that weren’t working, and I would get to them and be like, “I don’t feel like the characters are really relating well.” And I would talk to my editor about it and she would be like, “Well, why don’t you just move the scene, or combine these two characters.” And my little journalistic brain couldn’t understand how to do that. It took me a long time to realize that I made all of this up. None of the “facts” existed.
But I do think journalism really helped me when it came to research. I did a ton of research for this book—watching sermons, interviewing women who have been the “other woman” in [situations similar to the “other woman” in my book]. Journalism also values making sure your reader understands what you’re talking about and making sure that they can position themselves in the narrative. Something I took a lot of time to do is make sure that you could kind of imagine where in the room the characters would be. And that’s something that I do in my journalism too.
TM: Journalism tends to prioritize stories that you turn around in hours or days or weeks or, if you’re lucky, maybe months. But this is something you’ve worked on for years. Was it weird to not have that quick hit of I got it done, I got it done, I got it done.
KM: Yes. I think you get addicted to that hit—the blog goes up and you feel good and you get all of this positive feedback or negative feedback, and then it’s over. There’s such a short time frame on that. So it’s nice to work on a book project because you can focus more and you can really fine-tune the things you’re trying to say. The writing in this book is better than anything I’ve written in nonfiction because I had the time to do it right instead of what I wrote the first time being published on the site.
TM: When I started the book I found myself immediately relating to and admiring Caroline’s skepticism and her desire to escape from what she finds to be a stifling culture. And, to a certain extent, I found myself disliking Abigail’s priggishness. And then by the end of the book, Abigail had become, if anything, even more admirable than Caroline or at least as admirable as Caroline. When you were constructing the book, were you conscious of upending at least some readers’ expectations in that regard?
KM: The book is really focused on Caroline. And every eighteen-year-old thinks that they’re the greatest thing in the world. So part of the way the book works is that over time you recognize things as a reader about Caroline that maybe she doesn’t even recognize herself or that aren’t even explicit in the book. And I did think a lot about Abigail as a character because in the beginning of the book, it seems like everything she does is for other people and her decision-making is only for the approval of the masses. And I wanted the book to be more complicated than that. I wanted the conversations that these girls were having about faith and honesty and agency to have a lot of depth. And to do that, you can’t make one side right or wrong. I don’t want readers to get to the end of the book and be like, “Well, clearly one of his sisters is right.” I wanted throughout the book for you to switch sides, kind of. And I’ve heard people say it the other way too—I’ve heard readers say, “I started with Abigail and now I’m on Caroline’s side.” And it’s like, well, you don’t really have to pick a side because they don’t exist.
TM: Do you notice any difference between the people who start off pro-Caroline and the people who started pro-Abigail?
KM: When I talk to sisters in general, usually the older sisters are on Abigail’s side—at least earlier in the book.
TM: Today, the day that we’re talking, you tweeted and I’m quoting here, “My book isn’t even out yet, but already strangers with burner emails have begun sending me Bible verses without any context,” and then you added a smiley emoji. Explain this to me. What is the connection here? Your book is about to come out and people are inundating you with Bible verses? What’s going on?
KM: I don’t really know, to be honest. I grew up evangelical and I haven’t written or talked about that publicly. And so this is kind of the first wave of that conversation. I’ve never really gotten the wave of extreme evangelicals or whoever these people are trying to reach out and convert me. But I’ve now gotten three emails through the form submission on my site from people who are like, “Please read the Bible, please read these verses.” And I’m like, “I have read the Bible so many times. None of these verses are new to me.” So I think what I meant in the tweet was that I think there’s a way to write this book that would have been really ungenerous and treats the church as universally bad. And I think in some of the press that I’m doing for the book and in some of the marketing materials, even, there’s this “bad pastor.” And I’d like to think that the book is more complicated than that. I’m interested to see if those emails continue to come after the book is out and if people who are sending them have actually read it.
TM: So your sense of these comments is that they’ve heard about this book, or maybe even read advance copies, and they’re worried for your soul.
TM: I don’t know how closely the events in the book track things that happened in your hometown. And it’s actually kind of a boring conversation to ask for various one-to-one correspondences. But I’m curious, has there been any early response from people in your hometown—I assume some folks might have seen advanced copies by now?
KM: My whole family has read the book, and I was nervous for them to read it, especially because my dad is a great person and very kind and the father in this book sucks. I didn’t want him to think that I have this huge problem with him. But the book is so different than the life that I grew up with. The only thing in the book that’s real is when Abigail negs Caroline for needing a lime to do her tequila shot. That’s real. That’s a real thing that I stole from me and my sister. The rest of it is fake. I was really nervous that my parents wouldn’t like the book and that they would read it as a critique of the situation that I grew up in. And they didn’t. They were like, “There are real problems in the church—we agree.” I was like, oh, great. It went way better than I thought.
TM: You no longer consider yourself a believer in Christianity, but do you think your religious religious upbringing gave you any tools that still hold you in good stead?
KM: I love the Bible as a book. I think the stories are incredible and fascinating. So I’m grateful to have that. And I think one of the things that evangelicalism does fairly well is teach you to talk about your emotions to other people, through Bible studies. You sit in a room with a bunch of girls your age and you say, “Here’s the way that I’m feeling, and here’s what I need from you. I need you to pray for me on these three things.” That is a great skill to have, especially as a child. And I feel like it’s one that still serves me very well—the ability to say, “Here’s what I need from you in order to process this thing,” or “I need help.”
TM: Did that sort of openness to emotions and to sharing help you at all in grappling with the emotional truths at the heart of the book?
KM: One thing that was really hard for me is that as is the case for Caroline in the book, a lot of the coping mechanisms that I developed in evangelicalism were no longer applicable once I wasn’t sure if I believed in them or not. The ability to pray and the ability to look to the Bible for answers were no longer there. And that gap is where this book exists, right in the space where one hasn’t figured out how to fill those things back in. And I think when I was in that phase, I felt this immense sense of loss because the people I wanted to ask for advice were all believers. I was confused about where to go. But I think one thing that I did really learn in the church when I was a very, very serious evangelical is that you never know everything. Evangelicals will say, “At some point you just have to believe. You have to have faith that this is what you’re going to believe in, and that it’s enough.” And I think, for me, when I lost the main core of Christianity, I was like, “Well, what do I believe now? What am I going to do?” And eventually the thing that I came down to was that same truth—you’re just not going to know. We can’t know the mysteries of the universe and sometimes you just have to sit in that discomfort.
TM: You’ve written pretty openly in some other venues about being a high-functioning depressive. And I’m curious, there’s this longstanding clichéd association between depression and creativity—that people who experience depression have a greater insight into the depths of the soul and such. During those five years you were writing this book, when you hit periods when you were feeling down, did that allow you to write with greater insight and perception or did it just lock you up?
KM: No, I didn’t write anything! I personally believe there is a direct correlation between me being able to begin work on this book and me beginning to take antidepressants. I think that as I worked to figure out how to survive my long-term clinical depression, that gave me both the skills and the mental bandwidth to actually focus on something that was going to take this long. All the time. I read authors in interviews who are like, “I’ve never missed a deadline in my life.” And I’m like, “What’s that like, to be to mentally well?” I just can’t understand that at all. No, if I’m in a deep depressive episode, I basically don’t work at all. Actually, that’s not true. I can write in a depressive episode, but it’s not good.
TM: Okay, so forget about trying to do the work while you’re in the throes of a depressive episode. But do you think that being someone who grapples with those issues fairly regularly gives you any insight into your own character or other people’s characters, in a way that informs your fiction?
KM: I’m not sure if mental illness gives you insight into other people. But I do think that being in therapy does, and I have been in therapy for a long time because of my clinical depression. And that forces you to be aware of the way that your own brain works in a way that is very uncomfortable. But it also kind of makes you aware of the way that everyone else’s brain works because you see them do the same things that you do. And I think people with clinical depression in general know other people with clinical depression. And so you end up in kind of like a therapy hive mind of people who can explain to themselves in this rudimentary way why people do the things that they do and try to map that out. And that is extremely helpful in fiction, to ask yourself, “What would cause the character to do something or what is the initial origin story that causes people to go on these paths?” And you have to do that for their actions, but you also have to do it for their emotions. How does a character relate to another character? How does Abigail feel about Caroline? And in terms of understanding feelings, I absolutely think that you don’t have a lot of feelings in a depressive episode. Everything’s kind of flat. And you learn to mirror other people’s emotions so that they don’t know that you’re depressed, as a kind of tricking mechanism. But that means you have to watch other people’s emotions very closely, which turns out to be helpful in fiction.
TM: In the book, Caroline has resisted everyone’s expectations that she go to TCU and she goes to UT-Austin. And that of course tracks your own trajectory: You went to UT and in the acknowledgments you thank a handful of teachers for “expanding my world and my mind.” Could you unpack that a bit for me? What did they expand about your world and your mind?
KM: I came into school with a view of the world that was really small, even though I went to a high school that was fairly diverse and knew about socioeconomic inequality and racism. But I didn’t have any kind of firm grasp on those concepts, and I hadn’t thought about them as much as I should have. And all of those professors teach in a way that now, as an adult, is incredible to me. They know that their students are eighteen and they know that they’ve come out of Texas public schools for the most part. And they do their best to give them all of the information that they need to succeed as adults, without forcing it on them. There’s a way that those professors could have taught me at eighteen that would have dug me back into the things that I believed. And instead they gently were like, “Let’s read these books,” they kind of presented a view of the world that allowed me to actually look outward and say, “Okay, what is it that I want to believe out here?” To ask the questions instead of deciding that I already had all of the answers.
TM: Last question. When are you going to move back to Texas and become a staff writer at Texas Monthly?
KM: Are you my mother?
TM: I don’t think so.
KM: I love Texas so much. I’m homesick as hell. And I think in some ways, when I first started working on the first themes of this book, what I had mainly were descriptions of skies, because it was winter in Washington, D.C., and the sky is awful here. And I was like, I miss it so much. I think part of what’s hard about having lost my faith in general is that I also lost the entire culture around it. So in some ways I’m extremely nostalgic for something that I no longer can participate in. And it’s similar with Texas, right? It’s like I’m nostalgic for this place that I chose to leave. It’s my own fault!
This interview has been edited for space and clarity. A shorter version of it originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.