In Kelly Barnhill’s new short story collection, Dreadful Young Ladies, female protagonists are bold, rebellious, and imbued with supernatural powers.
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A widow takes up with Sasquatch in lieu of human suitors. A divorced mother of two is killed and dismembered during a run and the prime suspect is her ex-husband’s second (and very pregnant) wife. A young woman charged with the care of her lover’s wife’s son tries to lose him on purpose at the fair. A junk man’s daughter seeks revenge against a totalitarian minister.
“I like writing about prickly girls and unconventional women,” says Barnhill, who launches the book at Magers & Quinn on Tuesday.
She also likes writing about death. In one particularly disturbing story, a taxidermist makes himself a new wife when his old one dies; he then becomes mayor and starts shutting down the town in an attempt to “preserve” it.
Barnhill, a mother of three, started writing many of these stories in her early days of motherhood. “I think part of being a new mother is becoming incredibly cognizant of how fragile we are and how that fragility makes us precious and how the fact that the only thing we can count on is our own mortality,” she says. “I feel that when we are honest about mortality we can be, strangely, more life-affirming and life-positive.”
Though the Minneapolis native studied creative writing at St. Catherine University, after graduation she didn’t write at all. Instead, she moved to Florida and worked a bunch of “stupid jobs.” Then she became a park ranger in Olympic National Park. She also moved to Portland because “if you were young in the ‘90s, you had to go to Portland.” It was there that she completed grad school and obtained her teaching degree.
At age 25, she moved back to Minnesota to start her family. It wasn’t until after her third child was born, in her 30s, that she returned to writing fiction, stealing the hours between 4 and 6 a.m. to write when her children were small. The short stories she created were experimental and surrealistic. They leaned toward science fiction and fantasy, but resided in their own “nebulous, unclassifiable genre,” she says. “I wanted to write stories that were beautiful and strange and also to kind of explore those places where the bones of the earth are kind of loose and where reality seems to blend. That’s where my sweet spot was.”
Short stories alone didn’t pay the bills, however, so she also wrote essays and non-fiction books for kids. Thanks to titles like Sewers and the Rats That Love Them, Barnhill is “basically a rockstar with third-grade boys,” she says.
Barnhill went on to author four novels, including the young reader novel The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which garnered her the 2017 John Newbery Medal, but short stories always held a special place in her heart. She was first introduced to the form at the (now shuttered) Regina High School, where she was required to write one short story per week for six weeks. “It was the first time I was able to have that experience of the well of stories inside us being inexhaustible,” she says.
Not that short stories come easy. “The thing about writing a short story is that it’s a completely different set of muscles than writing a novel. It’s actually much more similar to a poem than it is to a novel in terms of its architecture. It’s delicate and it’s a feat of engineering. I love a short story because it’s so precise,” she says.
One of the drawbacks of short stories is their lifespan, which is limited and ephemeral. They are published in literary journals, magazines, or anthologies, then disappear. That’s what led her to want to publish a collection of them. Given how many of her own she had to choose from, she compares the compilation of a Dreadful Young Ladies to making a mixed tape.
And while she thought the transient lifestyle she lived in her 20s would “shake the Midwestern dust” from her being, she instead found that “no matter where I went, my imagination kept on bending back towards home and this landscape,” she says. Her tales are highly attuned and tied to the natural world with its equally powerful pulls towards beauty and terror. “No matter what the story is, the setting and the geography of the story becomes almost its own character,” she says. “I love Minnesota’s geography. I love the openness of its prairies. I love the strangeness of its bugs. I love the north woods. I love the farm land. I love all of it. But it is brutal in its own way.”
Barnhill’s story also possess a timeless quality. They could have happened 100 years ago or they could be far off in some dystopian future. Perhaps that’s because humanity, at its core, doesn’t change that much. “As human beings, we think in stories,” Barnhill says. “We can’t help it.”
IF YOU GO:
Kelly Barnhill, Dreadful Young Ladies
Magers & Quinn
7 p.m. Tue., Feb. 20
Magers & Quinn Booksellers
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