A BOMBSHELL Interview With HOTSHOT Debut Novelist Kelsey McKinney
10:04 AM EDT on June 22, 2021
Kelsey McKinney is just about the most principled, big-hearted, and wise colleague you could ask for, so it comes as no surprise to me that her debut novel, God Spare the Girls, is all of those things too. Defector readers know and love Kelsey for her perfect musings on American real estate, her heartfelt political writing, and, of course, her war against the condiment robot at Nationals Park. Her talent is for writing scenes and sentences so disarmingly smooth you don’t realize how deeply and differently they’ve asked you to think.
She’s also just a great person to Talk Books with. We do that every month at this website, and it always makes for fun, generative conversation—a rare departure from all other workplace conversations at Defector, which tend to be stupid, maddening, and a complete waste of my time. So it was extra special to chat with Kelsey about her book. Ahead of publication day today, I called up the woman some are calling the next great American novelist to ask her about what goes into writing an entire freakin' book!!!!, what exactly the deal is with white evangelicals, and how to decode their Instagram posts.
In a North Texas town, one congregation lives under the spell of celebrity pastor Luke Nolan. He wears Wranglers and no tie and preaches about purity in ways that feel modern and refreshing. Crucially, the women in his life play their assigned parts. Ruthie, Luke's wife, smiles always and dresses immaculately. Their daughters, Abigail and Caroline, serve as "gracious and humble and quiet and holy" examples to everyone else. To Abigail, soon-to-be-married, the role seems to come naturally. The younger Caroline, though, wonders whether her community’s fierce love might actually be something closer to suffocation. Early in the novel, Caroline loses her virginity, setting off a crisis of faith that only deepens when her father announces to the church that he's had an affair. To process the upheaval, Abigail and Caroline abscond to their late grandmother's nearby ranch, which Ruthie warns them "hasn’t been kind to the women of our family." Kelsey lets her readers squirm for a bit in the heat of Hope, Texas while she keeps the plot zipping along. I finished God Spare the Girls in two sittings, and only because I started reading late at night. We’re all terribly proud of her, and also invite her to eat shit. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
I just want to say, I’m so excited that you wrote a book!
Thank you! It’s kind of like any big life goal, like when you go to college or something and you think, “Oh this is going to be this big, exciting thing, and I’m going to feel great when I get into college,” and then you get into college and realize there’s all these things you have to do afterward. It’s kind of the same with the book, where I try to keep telling myself this is really great and you’re really excited and this is really fun, and meanwhile I have a to-do list with like 500 things on it. So I will try to absorb your excitement.
There are a few ways I’ve grown as a reader, and one of them is that there are two sections of books I used to flip past, and now don’t. The first is the epigraph, and I definitely want to talk about yours in a minute. The other one is the acknowledgements section, which I’ve found can be this really revealing window into the writing life, especially when writers use them to remind everyone how unromantic it can be. My favorite example is Milkman; Anna Burns thanks a food bank and the government housing benefit system. In yours, you thank the scholarship program that put you through college, your therapist, the various snacks and music that got you through the day. It helped me appreciate how much the world conspires to make it difficult for a person to get to a point where they can even imagine being able to write and publish fiction, and I wonder when in your life you began to feel like you could.
I love to read the acknowledgements of writers. I love scoping out who’s friends with who, so it’s a real gossipy section to me. My acknowledgements are extremely long and part of the reason they’re very long is because I wanted to make it really clear and obvious that there were a lot of ways my life could have gone where I didn’t get to write this book, even though it was a lifelong dream. So the scholarship program, in particular—there’s no way I could have afforded to take my first writing job out of college if I had student loans. There’s no way I could have made it work. I did not come from a family with that kind of money. And so, I wanted to be kind of honest. My therapist is named, someone I absolutely needed to be able to process through things—and I have already forgotten your question.
It’s when, uh, it’s…now I forgot it. It’s when in your life you felt like you could be a writer.
Right. I grew up reading a lot and wanted to be a writer. I particularly loved Alice Hoffman as a child, and I was like ‘She writes so much and these are such weird books and I wish I could do that.’ But I didn’t know any women with jobs, really. Like the women I knew who worked either worked part-time jobs in retail or were teachers, and that was about it. So my understanding of work was a little bit different. And because I didn’t come from money, I knew I was going to have to work to make enough money to live, and that my parents worked all the time.
In college, I wrote a lot, and I had this idea in college that if you wanted to write fiction you had to be a savant. My understanding was that everyone who wrote a novel just, like, did it in one draft and got an agent and was a genius and famous immediately. So I did try to write fiction in college, but not successfully and not very well, and I think because of that I pivoted to non-fiction and journalism, because I liked it more and it was easier. And in a twisted way, it kind of is a more secure job, despite being one of the least secure jobs in the world. But I think even when I had my first job in journalism, it wasn’t a sure thing, like ‘Oh I can do this forever.’ I would say that I have felt my entire career as a writer has been one bad year from over, until we sold this book. So, now? Is that a feasible answer? It feels crazy that I get to do this for money.
I did want to ask you about having a journalism job and writing fiction at the same time. What’s your—this is a weird way of putting it—brain status? Do you feel like you have to switch or think in different ways?
I hear a lot of writers say all the time that writing is really difficult for them and that they feel that each type of writing is really distinct from one another and for me, it’s never been like that. The way that I tweet is the way that I write my blogs is the way that I wrote this novel. It’s all the same to me. I have no ability to differentiate those forms from one another. I think that’s partly because I’m an auditory writer, so I think the words and then type them; I’m prone to make homophone errors. My hands are always trying to keep up with the words that I’m thinking. All the forms of writing feel the same because it’s the same kind of highway. Getting that highway to start running is a different question that can be very difficult.
But what’s interesting about working in fiction is that this is all fake, right? That’s what fiction is. I made it all up. None of these people exist. And there would be phases in the editing process where my editor would be like, “What if this scene took place somewhere else?” or “What if these characters were combined?” Basic questions of storytelling. And my brain just never thought of those things because of my training in journalism, so I would be like “Well, this is the way that this scene happens.” And she would say, “But you made this up! None of this is real. You can change it.” And I’d be like, “Ohhh. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Got it.” But the way that I saw it in my head, was the way I saw how it “was,” which is not actually how writing works, but is how journalism works.
Oh, that’s fascinating!
Yeah! I like learning how other people’s minds work.
Writing is weird, because it’s kind of a gateway to your brain. I’ve been doing these interviews about the novel and people keep asking me questions about it with observations I didn’t realize were in the book, but are certainly true. So I’m like, “Is my brain just leaking out?” It’s unclear to me where it is going.
On the “This is fiction” subject, I do want to be careful in stressing that this isn’t an autobiographical novel or autofiction or anything, but it’s set in a social environment and place that you know well and think about a lot and I’m curious about the challenges of writing a place you know so closely.
I started working on this book not realizing that it would be a novel. I started working on it just for myself to practice; I was having a really hard time in my journalism describing things and being really intentional about scenes, and drawing out these pictures of reality. And so I started writing about a fake pastor, because I thought it was interesting and I thought it was fun to write his fake sermons and describe the way that he walked on stage. And then it kind of snowballed out of control and suddenly I had like nine legal pads and now I’m on the phone with you.
Because of that, I ended up writing about a place that is really similar to the one that I grew up in, in a culture that is really similar to the one that I grew up in, and the challenge of that was confronting that culture for what it is. I had changed as a person since I grew up in it, and I wanted to look at the white evangelical Christian church honestly, which both requires you to show everything that is wrong with it and to try to portray it as a place that can be really loving and beneficial to some people. So that was a big challenge, but the bigger challenge was remembering which things other people don’t know. I would say things that, to me, made perfect sense but actually needed to be explained to the reader. A lot of the description of the Hope Church was not in the early drafts because I just saw the church in my mind and did not think that people would need the tiny details to build it out on their own. Because I assumed that everyone knew a church like this, which is not true!
That’s sort of the theme of the novel, too: the blurring of familiar and unfamiliar, and looking at a world you’re really steeped in as something new, which is what Caroline is forced to do.
Yeah, that’s part of why the book is in that third person, right? It’s because I wanted the reader to be able to see things that Caroline didn’t see—for you as a reader, who didn’t grow up in the church, to see a mistake that she is making or see a way that someone is talking to her and recognize that it’s not as loving or as generous as it could be and have her not realize that. Even as she is trying to break down the boundaries of culture that she grew up in, you can tell as a reader that she’s not quite there yet, that she’s still too steeped to really understand everything. She’s fake, but I hope that one day she can figure it out.
You said this began as an exercise in description of a place, and I thought you totally succeeded. I was mesmerized by the ranch and the idea of this separate physical environment where Abigal and Caroline could, using that distance from their community, process their feelings. Their stay at the ranch kind of took on this surreal quality—the way you describe the passage of time (“...the days fell away like petals). There are also these intense weather events. So many things about it struck me as dreamlike.
Thank you! The first version of this book—the one in my own handwriting—is so slow. It is truly slow as hell, and all I wanted was to build out this space. I wanted to play in this realm of extreme weather and extreme emotion and extreme solitude, and because of that, the first draft of this book had, I would say, absolutely no plot and no momentum. I spent a lot of time trying to create those things without losing that atmosphere that feels, like you said, almost surreal, where there is so much intensity in the air that it feels like if one more thing happens, the whole thing goes up in flames. So I’m glad to hear that that is still there in some form, despite having a plot.
Another thing that was special about the ranch to me was that it felt very much like a women’s space. It had been passed down matrilineally in their family, and even in a secular context, there is something kind of radical about women living on their own together, which, granted, they’re only doing for a short amount of time, and for Abigail, it’s only in this transitional period between her father’s household and her husband’s.
It’s nice to hear what you think about it because something that’s really interesting about the ranch as a space is that they both view it as completely off the grid. They view it as a place of complete solitude and you as a reader notice that people are constantly stopping by, and they are never actually alone. They’re not in the middle of nowhere. There’s a street. People can drive by and see them. It’s kind of fascinating to think about two characters like this, whose life would have been so much in the spotlight and so much under scrutiny that even this tiny amount of solitude feels like an entire world. They are literally trapped at this ranch, they are not leaving, people keep showing up at their own whims and ruining their solitude and they’re still like, “This is the best it’ll ever be.”
Yes! Even that limited solitude still enables this discovery period; they’re able to think critically with just a little more space.
Right. It makes you imagine what their lives could be like if they didn’t have to return. If they were going to stay out there forever, what would happen? But we’ll never know [laughs] because they’re not real!
So now I want to talk about the epigraph. It was funny, when I started reading this and was just beginning to think about our conversation, I was like, “Ah, I already have a note on the very first page of the book! At this rate…”
Oh, did you mark it up?
No, I [getting very flustered at this accusation] have a thing about not marking up books.
[Laughing at this flusterment] Sacred.
Yeah, I write them in my side notebook. The epigraph is a passage from Genesis, and the story is of Lot protecting these two angels from a mob in the city of Sodom. He says to the mob, “Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
And later that passage figures into the story. Abigail reveals that she’s tried writing a sermon about it and really struggled. Both Abigail and Caroline sort of ask each other what it’s about and neither of them can come up with a satisfying answer. So what is it about?
Oh man. Damn. I’ve obviously spent so much time with this passage, so much time trying to decipher what it means and why it’s included and why we talk about it the way that we talk about it. I don’t know. I don’t know what it means. The conversations the girls have in the book are because a verse like this—there are tons of verses like this in any scripture, but particularly the bibles that evangelicals use—can completely change the way that you think about your faith. What it asks of you as a believer is to just accept it. Every pastor will admit at some point, you have to just have faith. There isn’t going to be an answer that you like and there’s not going to be a tidy little clean-up that feels good to you.
There are ways to look at this verse that might make them feel better. When I believed the most, I would have said this was an intentional indictment of Lot. But there are a million ways to read it. I think that a verse like this that is controversial, and difficult and that you read it and you say, “How can this be in any kind of holy scripture?” is the point of the book. At the end of the day, you have to decide, do you just accept it or not? And if you don’t, you have a lot of problems that are going to follow you and if you do, you have to accept it, which is its own kind of problem. For me, I didn’t accept it, and I don’t know what to think about it still and I’m obsessed with it, so I think about it all the time. The first time I heard the story of Lot’s wife, I was probably in middle school and I don’t think I’ve stopped thinking about it since, so that’s just a me problem.
I was obsessed with this, too.
Yeah, again, it was the very first thing I wrote down in my notes, and it worked well as an epigraph because it kind of haunted me throughout the book.
It’s also kind of a dogwhistle. The reason I put it at the front of the book—and it’s been at the front of the book forever, probably since I started writing it—is because if you are a person who has spent any time in any form of Protestant Christian church, this is a verse that will upset you or has upset you in the past. So when you get to it, it should theoretically put you on your toes immediately and shake you up a little bit as a forewarning of what is to come. I’m glad to hear that you were aware of it, but I’m sorry that you now are also dreaming of salt pillars.
Thanks a lot!
It’s weird over here, isn’t it?
Let’s talk about the Hope Church specifically, because it’s kind of modeled after some of these “cool” churches and Luke Nolan is modeled after their “cool” pastors. The section where you’re describing his viral sermon I had to go back and re-read to comprehend just how—I don’t know if sinister is the right word, that might be too strong—deceptive the message of it is? It’s a reframing of the “lost virginity as crumpled flower” trope. Luke’s sermon counters it by saying that God loves you despite such sin, and while that certainly sounds nice, it does carry this value judgment of what is sin.
You’re right. It’s definitely modeled off of these contemporary “cool” evangelical megachurches who pretend that they aren’t Baptist; that’s very intentional, that the Hope Baptist Church becomes just the Hope, they drop the ‘Baptist’ to hide it a little bit. But the thing about Luke Nolan, is that he, like a lot of current evangelical preachers, is very good at his job. And one of the things that makes him so good at it is that he is aware of what people outside the church think and say, and he’s aware that his own congregants are aware of that. So he knows that the conversation around purity pledges is that they’re outdated and that they’re very hurtful and that they don’t work, right? He knows that. And so he invents his own way to do it anyway. Because that’s what it is—it’s still a purity pledge.
Yeah, exactly. It’s a rebrand that makes it a little more palatable but absolutely no different in theology or practice. The difference in saying “You’re a crumpled rose and no one wants you” and saying “You’re a crumpled rose and no one wants you except Jesus” is two words. You still, at the end of the day, are a crumpled rose, and that is his perception. That’s the skill of those churches—the way that they manage to stay relevant is not by actually updating their theology or by questioning what they actually believe but by adjusting the way that they say what they believe in order to make it palatable for longer. So the Hope Church is not going to come out and say, “If you aren't a virgin, everyone hates you,” but if you hang around long enough then you’ll realize that’s actually what they believe, and that’s what gives these guys power, their ability to make a belief they have that they know is inherently hateful feel like it’s not.
I was compelled to go re-read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s GQ profile of mega-pastor Carl Lentz and Hillsong Church while I was reading your book, and there’s a line I wrote down: “So make no mistake: He believes being gay, or getting an abortion, is a sin, and he believes Jesus wouldn’t disagree. But more than any of that, he only believes those are the headlines of your life. They are not your story. Your sin is not the biggest part of you, no matter how much it might feel that way.” And you can kind of see the appeal in that! It’s preying on your guilt while reassuring you.
Yep. Forgiveness is enticing, right? The opportunity to say, “Everything bad I’ve ever done can just be glossed over, can just be forgiven in one fell swoop, no questions asked” is incredibly enticing. That’s what makes these churches really appealing; they’re still evolving but they have figured out a way to get you in the door and feed you that forgiveness before you realize all the other things they’re feeding you.
That’s something the girls grapple with in a conversation with Ruthie, who insists she’s forgiven her husband for his affair, because “true love is not only forgiving but forgetting.” She goes so far as to tell them, “What your father does is more important than any other priority that the three of us might have.” I thought she was this fascinating stand-by-your-man character, but how much does someone like that actually buy what they say?
I think there is certainly an argument—it’s almost utilitarian—that if you believe that everyone who doesn’t believe what you believe is going to hell forever and you believe that your husband is good at convincing people to believe what you believe, thus saving them from eternal damnation, an affair is much smaller. What’s an affair compared to that? I think that is what she’s verbalized. Ruthie Nolan is an interesting character and one that I spent a lot of time with—both versions of her physically in the world and the fake character that I created.
What’s so interesting about Ruthie is women like that don’t realize they’re protecting their own power. Let’s say she pitches a fit, and she doesn’t forgive him. Everyone around her is going to say, “You not forgiving him is you not extending Christ’s forgiveness to your husband, which then makes you the wrong one instead of him.” If she wants to play it out further, she’s going to get a divorce and then what? Then she has no power, she has no job, she has no status in the community. Her entire world is about protecting Luke’s position in order to protect her own position in the community and she’ll do what it takes to maintain that. That’s the darkest way to read her, but I also think it’s probably the most accurate. This is a woman that knows that without Luke Nolan her entire life goes to shambles. And so she has to protect him. Whether she believes it or not is kind of irrelevant, because she has no other option. Easier to just convince yourself you believe it, I think, then put up much of a fight.
A lot of this book is about playing politics, in a sense. The office politics of the actual church and in relationships.
I did an interview for a Christian magazine and they asked me if I was surprised that white evangelicals voted for Trump, and I said no, not at all. It’s about preservation of power. It is always about maintaining your seat in society.
That reminds me to ask about your novel’s outlook on marriage, which isn’t particularly sunny. I’m trying to think if there’s any happy marriage in it at all. There’s an impending one, Abigail’s, that doesn’t seem like it’ll go especially well. There’s the fraught one between Ruthie and Luke. There’s Abigail’s high school sweetheart Connor’s, which has just ended. Are those failures coincidental or are they written as products of their culture in some way?
Hmm. I think when you think being married is more important than who you are married to, you are doomed, and I think that the evangelical church encourages marriage to a degree that is 1) unbiblical and 2) extremely harmful to young people. If you’d like to see this play out, I recommend following Christian influencers on Instagram, because you will see in their captions—they have this very particular way, and I followed all of these when I was writing this book and trying to perfect this group of people—they write these 600-word captions and the whole premise of the caption is my oaf of a husband. My oaf of a husband drops the baby, my oaf of a husband doesn’t do anything but I’m obsessed with him and thank God I have him.
It’s tied to the same conversation we were just having about Ruthie. It has to do with status, where as a married woman, not only do you get to have sex—which is a huge benefit if you’re a horny 23-year-old virgin—but you also now have status in society. So even though the Bible they claim is the root of this decision says it is literally better to be single, better for the kingdom of God, better for your own personal sanity, they don’t believe that. They believe that what they need to participate in the world is to be married and that if they’re not married, there will be consequences. And they’re not wrong, right? I don’t blame any girl in the evangelical church who’s getting married at 23 to someone she met six months ago; that is what the culture encourages. And sometimes those marriages really work out and they’re fine, but for a lot of people, they are decisions that have been encouraged to a degree that they have become pressure.
I do recommend following those girls on Instagram. It is truly wild.
That’s one thing I like about working with you: You’re our staff’s resident Instagram anthropologist.
I love ‘em. It’s fascinating, always, to dive into a culture, but what’s more fascinating is what they aren’t saying. You say that every marriage in this book is not necessarily a happy one, but I think if these fake characters were real and you asked them, they’d be like “I love being married. Being married is the greatest blessing I’ve ever been given.”
Did you think a lot about what each character’s grids would look like?
Oh, yeah! 100 percent. All of these people would do what these girls I follow on Instagram do. They think they’re writing a really sweet and sappy Instagram caption, and the caption is like Marriage is really hard and you fight every single day and sometimes you want to tear your husband’s guts out. And people in happy marriages are like “What? You’re doing what?” But all their friends are having the same conversations and they’re all having the same kind of marriage and so they’re like “Yeah, this is normal.” Completely normal! Screaming fight with your husband every single day!
[A few minutes of us confessing that we don’t want to go back to the other things we were supposed to be working on and me trying to think of more questions.]
Well, let’s keep talking about status and power. Caroline is an 18-year-old girl, and she does feel some power in her first sexual experience and in attracting the attention of a boy, but mostly in this novel she’s struggling with her own powerlessness and the fact that a world she once felt very steady in is now all shaken up. What does power even look like for someone like her?
Part of the reason that virginity loss scene comes so early is that I’ve tried to structure the book in a way that when you see women feeling powerful or taking power, they are under the presumption that they’re not supposed to be having it or they’re not supposed to be doing it. She feels this power and at the same time, believes or has been told to believe that she shouldn’t want it or shouldn’t have it. For Caroline, that is an eye-opener in its begetting of that question, “What do I believe and why do I believe it?”
She was told her whole life that this is something that, were she to do it, would be traumatizing and bad for her and make her feel bad, and suddenly it didn’t. So it opens this door in her brain to ask the question, “OK, they told me that having this power would ruin my life and it didn’t. What else have they told me that is a lie?” Everyone in the Nolan family has a bit of a power complex. They all want to be influential and they all want to be important, and that is because they have it. They are powerful in this community and they all want to maintain it in a different way. Caroline is 18 years old. She is not mature enough to be like, “My father’s pursuit of power has ruined my life and therefore I will not try to pursue it.” She views it as unfair that he has the power and she doesn’t.
I’ll be honest in saying that as a not-especially-religious Indian-American from the Midwest, a lot of this book was foreign to me—in the best way, in the good, thrilling way that fiction often is. But one moment of recognition I had while reading was that feeling of being a teenager, where it seems like you’re the last person to find out everything. It can be so frustrating.
You could not pay me to be a teen again. It’s terrible. That’s part of what’s so hard is that you feel like everyone else has already figured things out and that they refused to tell you, not that you just have to figure it out on your own. So for Caroline, a lot of her resentment of her mother comes from the fact that her mother knew things that she didn’t explicitly tell her. But you still see Ruthie’s perspective. You wonder why she ever would have told a child those things, something that doesn’t make any sense to tell a child but to Caroline is this huge offense. It’s just so hard to be a teen. You have so many emotions and so little control over your own life.
My final question, because this is a sports blog—
You write that Luke sometimes drinks a beer while watching college basketball. Who’s his team?
Oh, that is a really good question. Luke Nolan went to the University of Houston—
But! He roots for Texas A&M.
I’m glad I did all those terrible character studies where none of the information made the book.
God Spare the Girls is out from William Morrow Books today.