One of my favorite books this year has been a YA novel titled The Art of Holding On and Letting Go by Kristin Bartley Lenz. I knew about her book before it was published because we have the same literary agent, the fabulous Carrie Pestritto.
But I didn’t just love Kristin’s book because we share the same agent. It was such a page-turned that I would have read it in one sitting if my oldest child had not been leaving for China the following day and someone had to pack his luggage! I recently asked Kristin some questions about her novel and writing in general. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I do!
Susan Blumberg-Kason: Okay, so I have to admit I didn’t think I would be into the rock climbing setting of your story. Ecuador, yes. But I’m not very sporty and thought that part wouldn’t really interest me as much as the personal stories in your book. How wrong I was! I kept wanting more rock climbing–and thankfully my wishes were answered–because I found it so fascinating. Cara is the main character and is a nationally-ranked teen rock climber. Is this part of the story based on personal experience? Have you spent time on the competitive rock climbing circuit or is it something you researched because you had an interest in it?
Kristin Bartley Lenz: Oh so glad you grew intrigued by the rock climbing in my story! One of my fears is that people will pass by my book because they’re not interested in climbing, but I worked really hard to make it accessible to non-climbers, and of course the story is about so much more. I learned to climb in my mid-twenties when I moved from Michigan to Georgia and then California. I never climbed competitively, and even though I spent many years immersed in the sport I had to do quite a bit of research to bring this story to life.
SBK: I love your book for many reasons–rock climbing being one, obviously–and was wondering if you set out to give it a diverse cast of characters. Or did that happen as you wrote it? There’s now a big push for diversity in YA and MG fiction, and it was so refreshing not to see an all-white group of kids.
KBL: I did deliberately want to create a diverse cast of characters, but much of it happened organically too. My main character, Cara, is white like me, but I wanted to reflect the real diversity in the metro-Detroit area, and it made sense that she would interact with and meet friends from diverse backgrounds. I’ve learned a lot about other cultures from friends, and some of this became woven into my story without me planning it – that’s the part of writing that feels like magic sometimes!
SBK: Kaitlyn is a major character in the book and has a disability. How did you come to write Kaitlyn’s character and have you received feedback from teens or adults who can identify with her and are happy to see a character like them in a novel?
KBL: Kaitlyn’s character changed drastically over the course of several revisions, and she originally had a much darker backstory. In later revisions, another character was cut and merged with Kaitlyn – it really took me awhile to understand her! In a way, I wanted Cara and Kaitlyn to be foils for each other, so I tried to imagine what would be a barrier to climbing for a character and how Cara could help that character via climbing. Fear of heights was too obvious and common, but I thought about a disability – some of my social work experience has been with people with disabilities. I have a friend who lost fingers on his hand in an accident, and one day I saw a store clerk with no hand at all. She was beautiful, and I was so impressed by how she managed every aspect of her job seamlessly, folding clothes, working the cash register, etc.
I haven’t yet received any feedback from readers with a disability similar to Kaitlyn and everyone has their own unique experiences, but I would love to hear from those readers. I’ve been so touched to hear from readers who said it felt like serendipity that they found my book at just the right time in their life when they were going through their own emotional journey of holding on and letting go, either from losing a loved one or uprooting and moving to a new place.
SBK: Let’s talk a little about your publishing journey. We share the same fabulous literary agent, Carrie Pestritto. I know how the submission process goes and it can be gut-clenching. When you signed with Carrie, had you completed this manuscript? Can you take us through some of the highlights and even lowlights on your road to becoming published?
KBL: Haha, how much time do you have?! The title of my book, The Art of Holding On and Letting Go, also became a metaphor for my long, bumpy path to publication. The quick version is 10 years, 2 agents, years of rejections, years of conflicting feedback, years of revising, years of setting it aside, more revising, and then a contest win that finally led me to an editor who shared my vision. I had already written this novel when I met Carrie, but I had tucked it away after it failed to sell via my first agent. It was for a different YA novel that Carrie offered me representation.
SBK: That is quite a journey and one that is bound to inspire both seasoned and new writers. Which authors have influenced your writing and are there any books you suggest aspiring YA authors to read as they write their own novels?
KBL: So many different authors have influenced my writing from Judy Blume to Agatha Christie to Barbara Kingsolver. The Art of Holding On and Letting Go was especially influenced by nature writers, including Annie Dillard, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Mary Oliver. As far as which books to recommend to aspiring YA authors, it really just depends on what you like to read and write – there are so many excellent YA writers in every genre. I especially like to study award winners, such as the Printz. For a book on craft, esteemed editor Cheryl Klein’s new book was just published, The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults.
SBK: Finally, what are you working on now?
KBL: Ah, I seem to be stuck in a state of perpetual revision! My newest novel, Runaway, is on submission right now. An editor responded with some feedback, and I’m going to revise for her to read it again. I had such a wonderful experience with Elephant Rock Books and I’d do it all over again, but they’re a small press that only publishes YA novels through their Sheehan Book Prize. I won in 2015, and they’ll be looking for their next winner in 2017.
May I turn the tables and ask you that same question? I loved learning about your China experiences. What’s next for you? Thanks so much for having me here on your blog, Susan!
SBK: Wow, thank you! I’m working on revisions for a memoir about dating after divorce. I incorporate a little from my Hong Kong/China years, but it’s mostly about finding strength dating as divorced, single mother when I was in my early thirties. Thank you so much for your wonderful answers. I can still visualize so much of The Art of Holding On and Letting Go, which says a lot for someone whose short-term memory is dwindling by the day.
For more about Kristin Lenz, please check out her website at http://www.kristinbartleylenz.com.