KL Kettle is a global business person, girl boss and general nerd wrangler by day; by night she writes novels, short stories and flash fiction. She has been long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2017 and shortlisted by SCBWI as a 2018 Undiscovered Voice for THE BOY I AM.
Made in Birmingham, KL Kettle now lives near London.
Debut author KL Kettle, our YA Author of the Month, tells ReadingZone about her dystopian novel, The Boy I Am, which questions our perceptions about gender and power through a society where women are in charge.
1. Can you tell us a little about your YA novel, The Boy I Am?
The Boy I Am is a YA thriller set in an imagined future where humanity has survived a world-destroying war. They are now stuck in an incredible skyscraper, but over time and to rebuild, the population has skewed so that women make up most of society and the few men are either 'protected' by women or work for minimal pay to maintain the inner workings of society.
Jude Grant is a young man in this world who has followed his only friend into 'the House of Boys', a system which trains boys to entertain the female elite before being auctioned off as their wards before they turn 17. After learning his best friend has been killed by the Chancellor, Jude is swept up in an assassination plot to kill her, but will it change anything?
2. This is your debut novel - what was your journey to publication, and how long have you spent writing The Boy I Am?
I wrote the first draft in 2013 in four months. It was rubbish but I had so much fun writing it. There were a lot of components already on the page: Jude, the tower, the gender-flipped world, the location, chancellor, Vor and Romali.
Writing The Boy I Am was an experiment to find my voice as a writer. I began trying to tell stories with comics and graphic novels but wasn't talented enough to render what was in my head on the page. It was easier with words, or at least I thought so at first.
With earlier books (I started my first novel when I was 15) I felt I was unconsciously emulating other writers or trying to capture what I loved about them. I'd spent 10 years on one story, writing, editing and querying on my own without really spending time getting to know the industry or sharing with others that being an Author was such a big goal in my life.
I took a year long writing break to get over that book (like a bad breakup!). In that time I started playing with short stories, flash fiction and even fan fiction and poetry, all trying to find out what my writing voice was. In that year I began to meet other writers, actually call myself a writer, and get to know the world of publishing.
It was the best decision to start to embrace that part of myself, and the craft, and after a blitz on my first draft, and acceptance into writing programs like the Golden Egg Academy, I really feel I found my style.
After five years working on 'The Boy I Am', I thought it best to move on, and expecting it to not win, I submitted to the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices competition, which is a great way to get noticed - to my astonishment I was one of the winners and that led directly to my publication today.
3. Was there one moment or thought that gave you the seed of the idea for the novel?
Not one moment that I can recall, there are so many little moments that built over time to create this story. One of the key moments was when my godson was born, I wondered how I would engage him, or even a son of my own, in the ideas behind feminism as they grew up. Would they connect with the stories that spoke to me?
That question led me to ask what kind of feminist I was, and to talk to a lot of people about the same thing. I felt there were amazing tranches of literature that speak very well to the female experience but not only is it hard to engage young men in reading in those critical teenage years, it's even harder to bring them into the ideas of feminism in literature.
I felt writing with a boy facing the kinds of challenges (macro and micro) that women today, historically, and in some places around the world today, might help engage readers in the ideas of gender inequality who would otherwise turn away, and pose questions that have to be asked about how we treat each other.
4. The Boy I Am explores traditional gender roles, and puts women in charge. Why did you want to put questions around feminism and equality at the centre of this novel?
When I began to write this book it was at a point when a lot of young women were making loud noises online about how they would not call themselves a feminist. I wanted to ask myself the legitimate question, 'okay, I call myself a feminist, but what does that mean?', because if it is only those of us who identify as women fighting for gender equality, we will be fighting for a very long time, and if we can't persuade a generation of young people on all sides of the gender spectrum to fight for the ideals of feminism then it'll take even longer.
I studied politics at university and read lot of classic feminist texts, (none of them very intersectional I should add, which is something that I hope has changed in following courses) and after more than a decade working in a white, male-dominated profession, I felt even more passionate about equality, but did that still make me a feminist?
I think it's important to question ideals and movements we believe in. They will always evolve, and must do, with generations, social, economic and political tides. I think we have a lot to ask ourselves as the next waves of feminism roll in; asking the question 'would we do things differently?' is an important one because it helps us build a better world together, rather than let history repeat itself but with a different cast.
5. Was it difficult to write a novel from this perspective? What kinds of things would trip you up, if so?
I don't know what it was about Jude but his voice was already very loud in my head and I could not really change him once he took root. As Jude is in a society where he is held back, or very much held down, because if his assigned gender, I found plenty of experiences in myself, through research and conversations with others to lean on.
The times when Jude is on his own, in his head, fighting for the right kind of attention, or struggling to express himself, fell onto the page. The parts that I worked hard to hopefully not trip me up were those moments Jude interacts with the other boys in his dorms. Even working in an environment where there are lot of men, I couldn't have those experiences growing up, so I had some great male friends read those moments and give me feedback, so that hopefully there's a realness there.
6. The novel is told in the first person by Jude Grant, how did his voice develop?
Early on this book was a dual narrative, and there were a lot of chapters from Romali's perspective, but the story always began with Jude and over time his voice became the one I wanted to write the most. An early draft was a gender-flipped Romeo and Juliet (which is where their names came from, and remain), but I found Juliet has no agency, so Jude's chapters were flat and had no action.
As the plot evolved from those first drafts I worked into his voice more, he began to complain about his lack of choice very loudly, and often, and from there I had to keep writing. Soon Romali's chapters were few and far between, and with a little push from a mentor who had encouraged me along the way, suddenly it was very much Jude's story.
7. Why did you decide to set The Boy I Am in an indeterminate future rather than, for example, a parallel or fantasy world?
I wanted this world to feel like a reaction to the one we have lived in, and therefore a reflection, so it grew out of our present rather than a parallel or fantasy alternative. Politics and political ideas often swing between opposites like a pendulum, and tragically sometimes things get worse before they get better.
In order to see where we are today we often look at history, but for me it was important to imagine where things might go and what the 'worse' might be; what if the pendulum swung too far?
With patriarchal oppression on one extreme, pretending that the opposite is some kind of matriarchal utopia to me is itself an anti-feminist concept - i.e. if we are all equal then we are equally capable of being corrupted by power.
8. You have created a detailed dystopian world for the novel - how long did the world building take? What did you feel were your most inspired additions?
A lot of the world blossomed as I wrote the story, so the world building took as long as the novel writing, about five years. The worlds above and below the tower were always present, though over time the world beyond the tower became smaller and smaller until it was just dust and abandoned buildings.
There were things that I had a lot of fun doing while planning the world: working out the population growth from the original inhabitants; planning out the floors on the tower and where certain teams would work, organising the legal systems, monetary and otherwise, as well as how those systems would evolve; investigating 'earth scraper' designs and how the incredible lifts in the tallest buildings in the world have been created and evolved in the last decades was my favourite part as it gave me an excuse to visit some of my favourite tall buildings.
I think the decision that resonates the most with the themes is the economic system: it's a corrupted meritocracy, where the 'sins of the forefather' carried by the boys in the society are literally a debt to be paid and where cronyism puts elite families into an oligarchical type leadership model.
9. What were your thoughts about the meritocracy that the founders of this new world had originally tried to create?
Going back to my degree I remember thinking the idea of a meritocracy was fundamentally nice, but horribly flawed, because other political pressures corrupt it. After all, when only rich white men could vote in this country, that was considered a meritocracy.
I liked the idea that the founders set out to create a utopia in this tiny shut off part of the world, but that the biases built into them slowly corrupted the idea. There are so many things in this world that begin as beautiful ideas but that often mutate and we see the way they can be abused, for example social media. This is an example of that kind of system - our mechanisms of society are a product of the biases we build into them.
10. The Boy I Am explores many issues around power, corruption and gender. What would you like your readers to take from the novel?
I know that this book will open a lot of questions, and I hope that leads to those questions being asked, but overall I hope it also leaves readers with hope for change. For me there's always hope. I mentioned above the fact that political ideas come in cycles, but I don't for a second believe a world like the one in the book will become a reality, and that's because over the course of history, while things repeat themselves, they have on the whole got better for many people.
But I want those who read to always remember that change in the first place takes people, in the long term takes vigilance, and to become permanent always requires people to work together to take change step by step, hand in hand.
11. Are you planning to return to this world to explore what happens next?
There are definitely stories beyond this in the world that I think are worth telling; without giving too much away, there are still questions to answer. If the story began with a 'what if', then there's definitely a big 'what now?' at the end, because systemic problems (like the society in which Jude lives) are not realistically fixed over-night.
12. What are you writing currently? And how do you fit writing around your day job?
Right now, I'm working on book two with Little Tiger, which is a stand-alone novel that also looks at power and how we use it, but it's set in a nearer future. My 'day job' for the next few months is as a new mother, and therefore I could not write a single word if it wasn't for both the incredible support of my equally feminist husband and the ability to also afford childcare.
When I return to my day job I'll be fitting in writing every chance I get, because I love both the creativity of my author life, the '3D chess' of my corporate life and the fulfilment of being a mum; I intend to keep all three jobs for as long as I can.
13. What are your favourite escapes from your desk?
With the pandemic raging still, the escapes are less common than I would like. I love walking along the Southbank of the Thames, for a long time it's been a big source of inspiration for me. I also like to get out in nature, particularly the sea, and green hilly places in the UK.
Of course I love reading all things, including graphic novels, as much as I can. I'm also a bit of a gamer. But mostly, my favourite escape is curled up on the sofa with my family and a cup of tea with a good movie to get lost in, as I can go to quite dark places in my writing and in my research I like a good action film, kids film or comedy to clear out the cobwebs.
The Boy I Am (£7.99, Stripes Publishing) is now available from bookshops