Welcome to TRB Lounge. Today, I’d like to welcome author Janet Kelley from Atmosphere Press, for an author interview with The Reading Bud.
About The Author
Janet Kelley is a teacher, reader, writer, and feminist. A native of Hutchinson, Kansas, she studied Humanistic Studies and Religious Studies at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. She studied Historical Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She earned her teaching credentials from Indiana University at South Bend. Ms. Kelley currently lives in Boston and Budapest. Ms. Kelley believes that books are the cornerstone of freedom and justice. Her work to support survivors of sexual assault was inspired by the writer V and The Vagina Monologues. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this novel will be donated to The Trevor Project. Please consider a donation to The Trevor Project to support their crisis intervention and suicide prevention services for LGBTQ youth.
Welcome to TRB! Please give our readers a brief introduction about yourself before we begin.
Thank you for the chance to introduce myself beyond what you can read in my Author Bio. I am a high school English teacher with a passion for reading. Together with a friend I started a book club that still meets over twenty years later. I was thrilled to join them by Zoom during the Covid era. I started another book club in my city a few years ago. My book clubs read both classics and new releases, fiction and nonfiction. We recently decided to branch out into “reading” films and will even read and then attend a production of the stage adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Beyond books I love being active—running, working out at my favorite gym, Orange Fitness Theory, and learning how to cross-country ski this season. In my spare time these days I enjoy making homemade jams, taking ukulele lessons, and drinking good coffee. (I also drink terrible coffee as needed.) I spend part of every year in Budapest, Hungary, where I have a home in the city center. I can spend an entire day at one of Budapest’s famous thermal water spas.
Please tell us something about your book other than what we have read in the blurb?
My book deals with the impact of trauma in our lives. Much like how we experienced the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, trauma enters our lives seemingly out of nowhere. One day we are living our lives, and then in a flash our lives are changed by forces outside of our control or understanding. Sexual assault sometimes works in this way. (Sometimes sexual abuse is more insidious as perpetrators groom their victims.) This is why I set the story of Luke’s sexual assault in parallel with 9/11. I want readers to see the two events as similar–both are traumatic assaults that force us to consider how to respond.
What is that one message that you’re trying to get across to the readers in this book?
I want readers to contemplate the plight of men and boys who are sexually assaulted. In the early 2000s the situation of men who were assaulted was dire. There were no pathways toward healing. The shame and the fear of being labeled as gay often silenced men. The shameful silencing led to further damage.
In Taint, I show how this damage extends to others. Luke was assaulted and confides in Rebecca. She tells his story and in fact decides for him how to make his rapist pay for the crime. I do not endorse her decisions. I want readers to harshly judge her choices even while they understand what forces caused her to act.
I want readers to understand that male sexual assault happens and that we need to create both a safety net for victims and pathways toward healing.
Who is your favorite character in this book and why?
My favorite character in the book is Tiffany, the third friend in a group of three. She is earnest and well-intentioned. I like that she sticks with her friend Rebecca even when she faces ostracization.
What inspired you to write this book? An idea, some anecdote, a dream or something else?
I had been working with the issue of sexual assault and domestic violence for many years. I produced The Vagina Monologues for many years at our local university. There were several awesome vagina-friendly men who were active leaders in our group. They made me more sensitive to men’s assault stories. I grew very interested in the silence of male victims. I wanted to explore that in my work.
How long did it take you to write this particular book?
Well, a long time. I started writing it in 2006. I was teaching high school at the time. Then I started my family, moved across the country, and moved to Hungary. This novel was in a drawer for many years. I finally decided that its story needed to be told.
What are your writing ambitions? Where do you see yourself 5 years from today?
I see myself with a new book in the next 5 years. I will continue to write poetry and short fiction as well.
Are you working on any other story presently?
Of course! It is natural for me to have drafts floating around. In the past I kept a blog and tried to maintain regular writing practice. Now I am more into snatching time when I can—on the subway, waiting in line, while I am on a lunch break from a teaching job. I keep a small notebook for that purpose in my purse at all times.
Why have you chosen this genre? Or do you write in multiple genres?
I chose YA because it felt natural to me and suited the voice I wanted to explore. I am not too strict about genre. I like to bend the rules about genre and style.
When did you decide to become a writer? Was it easy for you follow your passion or did you have to make some sacrifices along the way?
I am a reader and a writer. I am a teacher. I am a mother. A wife. A friend. These all come naturally to me. The decision to publish was more fraught. My writing was always a personal habit born out of my teaching practice. Taking my work public required an extra push. For me that came due to Covid. The restrictions on life produced the feeling that I needed to push back against all the sorrow and suffering. I wanted to put my novel into the world as a positive push back. It was a way to say that I choose creativity and the life of the mind despite the fear and suffering.
What is your writing ritual? How do you do it?
As I mentioned above, my practice has changed. I used to need two or three hours in the morning. I worked best in a cafe. I needed to be away from home and the lure of cleaning dishes. I loved getting into the flow of writing for hours at a time. In many ways this is my ideal. I think it is necessary for the stage of writing when you are immersed in a long project. Now I have transitioned more into snatch writing–catching a few lines here and there. I have abandoned the need to protect long stretches at a time. It simply wasn’t happening with the demands of children, work, and Covid restrictions. I enjoy my new writing freedom. It gives me more of a writer’s eye–I am constantly looking at people, situations, setting. I listen and eavesdrop with a writer’s ear. I like the energy this brings to my writing.
How do you prefer to write – computer/laptop, typewriter, dictation or longhand with a pen?
Longhand with a pen in my journal. Laptop for longer pieces.
What are your 5 favourite books?
When I was young I loved the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and stories about Ramona by Beverly Clearly. Growing up I was a huge Stephen King fan, until I got too creeped out reading Gerald’s Game. We used to sneak King’s novels beneath our desks during English class. I adored Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Now that I look back, reading was kind of what the boys did and my reading selections mirror that. The other book that stands out as an influence was A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter, given to me by my grandmother.
In college I really discovered literature (I was a science/sports geek in high school). One of my majors was a Great Books program, which means we read works from the Western canon. Here is the stuff that moved me from college: Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, A Passage to India by E.M. Forester, Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Kundera, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, Pope’s Essay on Man, The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor and, of course, Shakespeare.
It has only been since I started to teach high school English that I began to seriously read like a writer. When I had to teach reading/writing/story concepts to 9th graders, I had to be able to analyze a story so that its mechanics were visible to my students (without destroying the magic, which gets dicey). Books/Authors that have moved me in this era include: Blindness by Saramago (really, a favorite), anything by Margaret Atwood or Louse Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan and Alice Munro among others. Most recently I finished Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic and I am slightly obsessed. I can’t leave out the Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, now known as V, which I produced/directed for three years. In my recent reading history I would include the following favorites: The Overstory by Richard Powers, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Elena Ferrante, Stoner by John Williams, Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro Kazuo, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, Hunger by Roxane Gay, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.
How do you deal with Writer’s Block?
I don’t believe in it!
What advice would you give to aspiring non-fiction writers?
Read and write a lot. Try to break some rules. For example, never limit your answer to only 5 favorite books when they ask.
Thank you, author Kelly, for your insightful and honest answers!
About the Book
Rebecca White, a senior at the top of her class at Plains High School in 2001, is a Kansas girl going places…until the rape. She wants the rapist to pay for his crime and go to jail. Unfortunately, nothing is that simple, and she wasn’t the one raped.
This is the story of how Rebecca seeks revenge for her best friend, Luke Warren, who was raped by the principal’s son, Weston. While the senior class chooses corsages and boutonnières for prom, Rebecca plots revenge against Weston. She must find a way to make him pay without revealing Luke’s secret. The solution she finds is chilling.
Set in a small town in the American Midwest when the terrorist attacks in New York City brought life to a standstill, Taint by Janet Kelley portrays how friendship and justice are tested when the unthinkable happens.
You can find Taint here:
Amazon | Goodreads | Barnes & Noble | Atmosphere Press
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