Kerry Kletter Discusses Her Debut Novel: The First Time She Drowned

kerry kletter by paul smith
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Kerry Kletter, the debut author of The First Time She Drowned, brings YA readers a tale of mental illness, toxic relationships, and navigating the ups and downs of parental relationships. The First Time She Drowned is to be released on March 15, 2016, and it promises to be an enthralling and captivating tale of mystery and deception.



Synopsis of The First Time She Drowned from Kerry Kletter’s website:

kerry kletter
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Cassie O’Malley has spent the past two and a half years in a mental institution — dumped there by her mother, against her will. Now, at 18, Cassie emancipates herself, determined to start over and reclaim her life. But when the unhealthy mother-daughter relationship that defined Cassie’s childhood and adolescence threatens to pull her under once again, Cassie must decide: whose version of history is the truth, and whose life must she save?

A bold, literary story about the fragility of family, forgiveness, and learning to love oneself, The First Time She Drowned reminds us that we must dive deep into our pasts if we are ever to truly understand ourselves and move forward.



As a writer, what were the easiest and hardest steps to becoming a published author?

I’m not sure there were any easy steps! I guess the easy step would be the joy I take in writing, which is not to say that writing is easy — I don’t find it to be anyway. I think the hardest steps are always the rejections. Every writer gets them, and even though I went in knowing that, I somehow allowed myself the delusion that I would be different. At the end of the day, I am incredibly grateful for those rejections. They made me a better writer, a more empathetic writer too, and they made my book better. But, of course, life can only be understood backwards. At the time it was super painful.


How long did it take you to write your novel and get it published?

Years. First I had to teach myself to write, then I had to teach myself story structure, and then I had to figure out how to combine the two into a book that other people might want to read. In the process, I wrote the entire book once and scrapped it and started over from scratch. The only thing that stayed the same was the first sentence. I’m also a very slow writer. I can spend an hour on one sentence easily.


Did you find the publishing process to be difficult once your book was finished?

I think there are aspects of publishing that are always difficult. Anytime you put yourself out there in a way for other people to judge, you’re going to have a few rough days. It can be very exposing and anxiety-inducing, and of course there are going to be people who don’t like your book — and that’s never fun. But it’s also incredibly rewarding; readers are so inspiring, especially young readers, and there are so many new friends to be made, and it can be very exciting. But mostly I try not to get caught up in “publishing” and keep my focus on the work of writing.


What inspired you to write a novel that involves mental illness?

I’m not sure I went into it thinking I was going to write about mental illness. I wanted to write about the complexity of family relationships, and I wanted to write about how pain gets passed down from generation to generation, and along the way mental illness became a part of that story. But mostly I was inspired to write about the language of protest in a dysfunctional family — how kids tend to act out their hurt because they have such limited avenues to express themselves when they are dependent upon their parents, and then they sometimes get punished for their feelings and labeled a problem not only by their family but by society at large. It can be very confusing and painful and frustrating, and I feel very passionate on behalf of kids who are going through struggles in their families. I wanted them, as well as adults who were once those kids, to feel seen and heard and understood.


What parts of The First Time She Drowned are true to your life? Do any of the characters reflect aspects of your personality?

Well, I had a complicated relationship with my mother which left me, for a long time, with some distorted perceptions about my own worth, so I relate to that in Cassie. As far as characters, I think I share with Cassie her sense of fight and her sense of hope, even though she often tries to reject her feelings of hope because they frighten her. She’s used to things not working out.


What steps did you take to creating interesting and believable characters? Are they based on real people or are they merely based on your own imagination?

I think the important thing when creating interesting and believable characters is to give them each a point of view. People are complex, and in most cases (though not all—in this story or in life), even when someone is acting unkindly or cruelly, they rarely see it that way. In their own minds they have justification for their behavior or are motivated by their own self-protection, and I think that’s interesting — the varying perspectives on any given situation. As for whether or not they are based on real people, I do sometimes borrow traits from people I know and put them into characters — it’s almost impossible not to — so most are probably a blend of several people I have met in my life.


Did you work in another work field before you became an author?

I was a film and TV actress in Hollywood. I also ran my own pet care business, which I still do part time.


What authors or books have inspired your work the most?

In writing The First Time She Drowned, my biggest influence was Pat Conroy. I pretty much taught myself to write by reading The Prince of Tides over and over — the rhythms enchanted me — so you can imagine what an honor it was for me when he blurbed my book. After that, Donna Tartt, Dave Eggers, Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff, Jo Ann Beard, Nicole Krauss, Judith Guest, and Frank Conroy were probably my strongest influences. Those are the writers whose sentences I love most, and I still study their books.

As I write the next book, I’m more influenced by the contemporary authors I’ve read in the last year: Jennifer Niven, Nicola Yoon, David Arnold, Stephanie Kuehn, Becky Albertalli, Adam Silvera, Charlotte Huang. There are also a bunch of debut 2016 authors who’ve influenced me recently, most specifically Jeff Zentner, whose remarkable The Serpent King will be, I think and hope, the break out book of the year. It’s truly one of the most extraordinary, beautiful, giant-hearted books I’ve ever read. I’ve also recently read and loved books by Emily Henry, Adriana Mather, Heidi Heilig, Julie Bauxbaum, Shannon Parker, Kali Wallace, Marisa Reichardt — I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch — just some incredible authors who have undoubtedly influenced my approach to my next book.


Do you have any future books planned? If so, can you share any plot details about it at this time?

I do, and I can’t. Muahaha.


In conclusion, do you have any words of advice for teens who are interested in pursuing a career as a writer or author?

Keep at it. Read a ton. Learn how to take criticism. Always want to be better than you are. Study screenplay structure. Accept that it’s hard. When you don’t know what happens next in a story, don’t panic, trust that you’ll figure it out.



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