Author and MFAC alum Janel Kolby talks about her YA novel, Winterfolk (published February 6, 2018). Rain lives with her alcoholic father in a homeless camp outside Seattle. Despite threats to dismantle the encampment, Rain believes that those who live there—the Winterfolk, she calls them—are essentially invisible. Her only friend is King, a homeless 17-year-old who has taken it upon himself to look after her. When King takes Rain into the city to celebrate her 15th birthday, he crosses paths with Cook, a petty drug dealer, and that’s where the trouble begins. Debut novelist Kolby explores homelessness through the eyes of a teenage girl who can’t remember not living in a tent in the woods; a stripped-down narrative voice and the language of fairy tales shape Rain’s worldview.
What inspired Winterfolk?
We’ve had an artist live/work studio for about 15 years in Seattle, and across from it is a large homeless area known as “the jungle”. Over the years, I’ve seen the number of homeless grow dramatically, as well as more youth in the homeless population. I was curious about why this was happening, and why people would choose to live in such a dangerous area vs. going to a shelter. I started researching the issue and visited a tent community to talk with people. There I learned the difference between a temporary shelter and a community. Everyone wants a place “to be”, and that can’t happen when you’re in a temporary situation. I began thinking about what would cause someone so deep into the community to leave it and find their own way, and this became the story of Rain.
What were the challenges (literary, psychological, logistical, etc.) in bringing this book to life?
One of the greatest challenges was balancing what was external to Rain (the danger of her living situation) with what was internal to her (the love for her family, friends and environment). I wanted to show the different sides of her situation without casting judgment, and also show how her own interpretation changed from the beginning to the end. Because the story is told in first person, present, and the reader is very much in Rain’s imaginative head, I wrote revision after revision to clear up confusion about what was real vs. what was imagined.
If you could be friends with only one of your characters, who would you choose and why?
I would choose Jessiebel, who is someone Rain meets mid-way into the book. His sudden appearance was a surprise while I was writing the story, and he added a much needed levity, as well as a grounded trustworthiness that was not in any of the other characters. Though opportunistic, he was someone Rain could count on to give her the bigger picture and provide a sense of reality. Jessiebel came out of a short story fairy tale I was writing at the time about an imperfect prince, and he ended up being perfect for my novel.
What did you edit out of this book?
So much that I can’t even remember! Nothing really big stands out. I mostly had to add a lot to clarify and ground the story. My beginning wasn’t sufficient, and neither was my end. Beginnings are hard! I kept wanting to jump into the action without adequately setting the stage, which is what I’m trying to fix in my overall writing process.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I have a more-than-full-time job in the tech industry. When I’m not working or writing, then I’m either reading or spending time with my family.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Keep going. No matter what. Believe in yourself and respect your work. Demand the highest quality work from yourself. I tend to write better when I treat the story as if it’s separate from me. That way I don’t get wrapped up into the whole “I’m not good enough” talk. The story is great. The story is good enough. The story has its own life, and my role is to nudge it along.
What is next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m working on the second book in my YA contract (not a series). I wrote a draft of a new story, and my editor didn’t like it. She advised me to heavily revise or write something new. I decided not to let it get me down, and take it as an opportunity to find something I’ll really be proud of for my next book. I’ve pitched a new story and am waiting to hear back.
What else would you like to add?
I’m grateful to my support network. I don’t know how I ever thought I could do this alone. It’s not possible. My mentors and friends are everything. Thank you!
Janel Kolby is a poet and story writer for teens and children. She is a graduate of Hamline University’s MFAC program and lives in Seattle with her family and Sunny Arms community. Winterfolk is her debut novel.