Today, Melissa Roske chats with Kellye Crocker, author of the MG debut, Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties (Albert Whitman & Co). Described by best-selling author Rita Williams-Garcia as “thoroughly engaging,” the novel combines serious topics—anxiety, ADHD, blended families—with laugh-out-loud humor. It also hooked Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly “from the first page,” which is no mean feat. Want a chance to win a copy of the book? Giveaway details below 👇👇👇
A Summary of the Novel
Anxiety has always made Ava avoid the slightest risk, but plunging headfirst into danger might be just what she needs.
Dad hasn’t even been dating his new girlfriend that long, so Ava is sure that nothing has to change in her life. That is, until the day after sixth grade ends, when Dad whisks her away on vacation to meet The Girlfriend and her daughter in terrifying Colorado, where even the squirrels can kill you! Managing her anxiety, avoiding altitude sickness, and surviving the mountains might take all of Ava’s strength, but at least this trip will only last two weeks. Right?
Interview with Kellye Crocker
MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Kellye. So happy to have you here!
KC: Thank you, Melissa! I’ve been a MUF fan for years! I’m so excited to be here!
MR: First, I have to tell you how much I enjoyed Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties. It was fun, fast-paced, and highly relatable. Can you tell us a bit about the novel? What inspired you to write it?
KC: Thank you so much! The book was inspired by my surprise move to Denver and my own anxiety disorder. After living most of my life in Iowa, the only thing I knew about Colorado was that my partner suddenly had a job there. Colorado is so different from Iowa, and I wanted to pay attention to those differences before I got used to them. I fell in love with Colorado—like everyone does (except Ava, at least at first). I’d been feeling down about my writing and a close friend suggested I take a more playful attitude. I had so much fun exploring the state with Ava and writing her contrarian views.
I wasn’t diagnosed with anxiety and depression until I was an adult, in the late ’90s. But I believe it’s something I’ve always had. It had been well-controlled for years—until the move. I didn’t intend to write about anxiety but it suddenly was part of my day-to-day life again and it danced onto the page.
Dealing with Anxious Thoughts
MR: Ava suffers from anxiety, which causes her to obsess over things that can go wrong—especially during her trip to Colorado, where the novel takes place. Ava’s fears include: altitude sickness; rattlesnakes; wildfires; hypothermia; avalanches; ghosts; poisonous plants… The list goes on. How were you able to jump inside Ava’s brain and channel her anxiety so effectively? Also, what did your research process look like?
KC: Here’s the thing: Ava’s not wrong about those dangers! 😜 She just doesn’t have the tools to accurately assess the risks and deal with her anxiety. I have a lot of those tools, and still there were times when I was a bit freaked about, say, bears. And rattlesnakes. And driving on very narrow, very twisty, very high roads with “falling rocks” signs. (By “driving,” I mean white-knuckling it in the passenger seat.) I took a lot of notes about my feelings and physical sensations, especially in the mountains, and drew on childhood memories.
When I finished the first draft in late 2016, I started researching anxiety in young people and was surprised to learn that it was growing and the American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations were concerned. (This, of course, was pre-pandemic.) I ended up reading a lot of studies and articles about adolescent development and anxiety. I even talked to (and spied on) real young people! I also did a lot of internet searches for things like “how to stay safe in Colorado.”
My amazing editor—who gave me permission to share this—was diagnosed with anxiety as a young person. Everyone’s experience with anxiety—or illness or disability—is unique, so it was very helpful to talk about our experiences as we deepened Ava’s story.
Iowa, Dogs, and Charlotte’s Web
MR: Ava is not the sum total of her anxiety. On the plus side, she’s smart, resourceful, and highly relatable. On the minus, she sabotages her dad’s carefully planned vacation to Colorado with a host of evil-adjacent deeds, including canceling the hotel reservation and putting rocks in The Girlfriend’s shoes. How were you like Ava as a child? How were you different?
KC: One of my biggest childhood fears was getting into trouble! There is no way I would have done what Ava does. She’s also a shy introvert. I’m the opposite of shy. My first grade teacher wrote, “Kellye likes to go visiting” on my report card! As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve discovered that I’m actually an introvert, too. I love being with people, and I need lots of alone time. Ava and I also love dogs, books, and Iowa. We both like a good comfort read, including Charlotte’s Web. (For more children’s books that can calm anxiety, click here.)
The Connection Between Vulnerability and Humor
MR: I appreciated how you were able to take serious topics—anxiety, ADHD, blended families—and add a generous dollop of humor. How were you able to pull this off? Also, what is the secret sauce for writing “funny”?
KC: Thank you! I think humor plays such an important (dare I say “serious?”) role in helping us face and cope with difficult, scary things.
As with so many aspects of writing fiction, I think the humor comes from the main character. How does she uniquely experience and see the world? I can’t quite articulate it, but, for me, there’s also something about the connection between vulnerability and humor that really gets me, especially in writing for young readers. Funny situations often reveal an embarrassing, tender, honest part of ourselves.
At the same time, hyperbole is a fun tool for creating humor, and I may have exaggerated Ava’s Colorado take because it made me smile. I also love paradoxes, and I think it’s true that anxiety can be both awful and funny.
It helps to have really good (and funny) critique partners! (How would any of us survive without friends to help us laugh?) Shout out to Sarah Aronson and Coral Jenrette, in particular, who helped make some last-minute revisions funnier.
Finally, I can’t help thinking about what EB White and his wife, Katharine S. White, said in an essay: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process…” I haven’t found the secret sauce, but if you do, Melissa, please share, and I promise to do the same!
Advice from Elizabeth Gilbert
MR: I know you’re a fan of the following quote from writer Elizabeth Gilbert: “Fear can come along for the ride, but it doesn’t get to drive—or touch the radio.” What is it about this advice that resonates with you?
KC: Oooh, you’re good, Melissa! Respect from one journo to another! Fear and writing is something I’ve been interested in for years. As strange as it sounds, our sweet, twisted fear is trying to protect us. It’s the ancient lizard part of our brains that sounds the alarm: BELONGING IS EVERYTHING1 What if your writing is terrible, and everyone knows but you? You will be REJECTED! YOU! WILL! DIE! ALONE!
First of all, Elizabeth Gilbert’s quote frees me from even trying to get rid of fear. (I think it’s probably impossible. Also, fear is part of ourselves, which is why she opposes macho approaches like “Punch your fear in the face!”) Her quote reminds me that when I’m doing something I really care about, especially when it’s so uncertain, fear will show up—and that’s okay. It might arrive disguised as procrastination or writers’ block, perfectionism or the most vicious Inner Critic (whose voice sounds so familiar… Your dad? Your former coach? A jealous ex?) However it shows up, it’s not the boss! It sits in the back seat because it’s not making any decisions about this creative road trip.
I try to make Fear feel as welcome, safe, and cozy back there as I can. Setting baby-step goals, finding joy in writing, focusing on a playful process instead of the end “product,” all help me calm my fear. A friend and I joked that we feed our Fear warm applesauce cake—and then she made me one with her own home-grown apples! It was delish—and still warm. Writing (and baking) friends are so important for dealing with the fear that comes with this work.
On the Move
MR: Ava faces relocation after her dad falls in love with The Girlfriend and considers a move from Iowa to Colorado. This is something you faced yourself when you relocated to Colorado from Iowa. Can you tell us about it? What are the pros and cons of moving from one place to another?
KC: As an adult, I’d moved four other times to places where I knew no one (and little about each state), and each experience was positive. The move to Colorado felt different because I’d lived in Iowa as an adult for 26 years. My roots were deep. Maybe stuck?
I didn’t want to leave our son, who had started his first year of college, my parents, and friends I’d loved for decades. I also still was recovering from a debilitating, long-term illness. Our mortgage would be paid off in three years. My husband and I were nervous. Should we do this? What if we moved to Colorado and didn’t like it? What if it was a huge mistake?
At the same time, we agreed that our decision had to come from a positive place and not fear. (Say it with me: Fear doesn’t get to drive! That quote works for everything! 😃 ) We were new empty-nesters. Weren’t we due for an adventure? If not now, when? We could return to Iowa if we wanted, couldn’t we?
Getting our house ready to sell was a full-time job. Sometimes I’d stretch out on our living room floor and sob about all I was leaving. (Why the floor? I didn’t want to disturb the stager’s precise sofa-pillow arrangement.)
AND…Colorado’s sunny, laid-back vibe really suits us. Exploring the state’s famous mountains, history, cultures, customs, and food—and meeting amazing new friends—is the shake-up we didn’t know we needed. We joke that we should have moved sooner.
Path to Publication
MR: You were a newspaper journalist and freelance writer and editor for more than two decades. How did your past career prepare you to be a novelist? Also, can you tell us about your path to publication? Was it a straight path or a curvy road?
KC: A sure way to improve your writing is to write a lot every day, and that’s what newspaper reporters do. As a reporter, you’re constantly meeting different kinds of people, and it’s such a privilege to hear their stories. You have to be able to understand their perspective, even if you personally disagree, and that’s important for writing fiction, too. One of my fiction-writing strengths, I think, is dialogue, and that probably comes from so many years of listening to—and writing down—what people said and how they said it. Also, as a reporter, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. You sit down, write, and meet your deadline. It’s great training for novel writing.
My road to publication was long, with lots of hairpin turns, potholes, construction zones, and traffic jams! I wrote fiction for kiddos seriously and steadily for sixteen years before publishing my debut novel. Here’s to all of us late bloomers!
The process of getting the book out has been nerve-wracking. Like a lot of books in the past couple of years, mine experienced supply chain and shipping delays. In addition, the publisher was unhappy with the quality of the initial printing, so the book went through an entire reprint. (I’m very happy that they did that.) My release dates were 9/1/22, then 10/18/22, and, finally, 11/22/22.
I was told that November 22 definitely was my pub date… except no print books were available! Amazon was saying the hardcover wouldn’t ship until January. (It seems to have shipped sooner than that.) The book seems to be sort of trickling out. I haven’t seen it in “the wild” yet, and occasionally a friend emails asking, “When is your book coming out?”
Writing: Inspiration Is in the Cards
MR: What does your writing routine look like? Do you have any particular writing habits or rituals?
KC: I usually work for two or three hours in the morning, and sometimes can get another hour or two in in the afternoon. I have a neurological disorder and chronic illnesses that cause serious exhaustion, and, sadly, that has worsened recently. I’m trying to learn how to work with it. (Fighting it didn’t help.) For example, I just learned about pre-emptive rest—resting before you absolutely need to—and am experimenting with that in the hopes that it increases my energy.
It’s funny when I think about my writing habits and rituals. I don’t have one thing that I always do, but I have a bag of tools, so to speak, that I use often, as needed. I do a lot of journaling, but not every day. I’ll go through periods where I light incense for certain projects. (I like Golden Coast and Amber and Moss from PF Candle Co.) Sometimes I ask a question and draw a tarot card for inspiration. (I recently bought the cool Modern Witch Tarot Deck by Lisa Sterle.) Making low-stakes visual art—drawing, painting, collaging—is helpful. Sometimes I play music. I like to read early in the morning—it inspires my own writing. (I also read while resting in the afternoon…and at night. LOL.)
Read, Read, Read… and Write, Write, Write
MR: In addition to being an author of MG fiction, you teach creative writing to young people. What advice do you give to your students—and to other aspiring authors—besides “Never give up”? (For more insight and advice from Kellye, click here.)
KC: I want my students to know that writing is good for everyone. Scientific studies show writing helps them think better, stretch their creativity, and express themselves—all important skills for whatever their dreams are. Other studies have found strong mental health benefits from even short sessions of journaling (private writing about feelings).
For those who want to publish, I recommend the standard: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Send, send, send. As I’ve turned toward a more relaxed, playful writing process, I’ve encouraged my students and others to do the same. Drafting and editing require different skills and brain regions. It’s unhelpful to attempt both at the same time. Try to bring as much of your weird, wild, and wonderful self to the page. That’s truly where the magic is.
I also love, love, love working with young reluctant writers! I think it’s important that they understand they are innately creative, what they have to say is important, we need their voices, and stories can take lots of forms. I wrote a guest post about teaching creative writing to young people for The TeachingBooks Blog here.
New Projects Ahead
MR: What are you working on now, Kellye? Care to share?
KC: I’m juggling a few things. One is a middle grade novel set in the Victorian era. I finished the first draft ten years ago! I did a big revision in 2022, but it’s still a mess, and I’ve been stuck for quite a while. Expecting an epiphany…any…day… I’m also dipping into a new novel-ish thing…middle grade…set in the near future, involving politics and basketball. And I’m working on two nonfiction picture books. Picture books are a new and challenging form for me, but nonfiction feels like coming home.
MR: And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…
Preferred writing snack? Dove dark chocolate
Coffee or tea? Cold brew coffee, even in winter—unless it’s really cold—then hot. Black. But iced tea (no sugar) on a hot, summer afternoon is lovely.
Cat or dog? DOGS. DUH. (Written under the watchful eye of Daisy Crocker, my energetic, bossy, loudly barky Black Lab.) As a kiddo, I was dismayed that the only pets allowed at my house were tropical fish. As an adult, I’ve been a devoted pet mom (consecutively) to two black cats and two Black Labs. They stretched my heart in so many ways.
Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? OMG, are you even KIDDING?! NAY ALL DAY, NAY ALL THE WAY!!! (I’m assuming this question involves me facing real zombies, in which case, I’m probably already dead. If it involves me safely reading about or watching zombies [on TV], then yea.)
Biggest fear? That someone I love will be hurt or die. (Second biggest: Zombies. Thanks for that!)
Tractor rides or hiking trails? Hiking. At a leisurely pace, not too far.
Favorite place on earth? With family and friends. Maybe in a magical, cozy-cool indie bookstore?
If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? Assuming clean water and food (coconuts? bugs?) already are included, I’d bring the biggest book I could carry, a notebook-and-pen, and sunscreen. Because of the hyphens, I’m hoping we can count notebook-and-pen as one thing. If I’m overruled, I’ll ditch the sunscreen.
MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Kellye—and congratulations on the publication of Dad’s Girlfriend and other Anxieties. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!
KC: Thank you so much, Melissa! Your questions really made me think. And I really appreciate you taking the time to read Dad’s Girlfriend and to share it with your readers!
For a chance to win a copy of Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account for an extra chance to win! (Giveaway ends 2/19/22 EST.) U.S. only, please.
Kellye Crocker is a journalist who’s worked in library youth services and has taught writing at two Iowa universities. She teaches creative writing to young people through a large literary nonprofit. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s an empty-nester who lives in Denver, where you’ll find her reading, making art, and hiking with her husband and their rambunctious black lab, Daisy. Learn more about Kellye on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.