Kelis Rowe writes beautiful contemporary YA and children's books to give Black kids joyful reads to see themselves in.
KELIS ROWE lives and writes out of her home in Austin, Texas suburbia and spends her summers traveling with her husband and son. During her past life as a Market Research Analyst, Kelis kept her creative juices flowing after-hours as a blogger and YouTuber, which included a two-year stint as one of twenty national Clinique Beauty Brand Insiders and a brief assignment as an Austin Honeybee for Honey Magazine. Kelis grew up in Memphis, where she had her first big love as a teenager. She did not see herself or her big love reflected in the pages of a YA novel at the time and now writes contemporary YA to give Black young people more reflections of themselves and their love to enjoy.
Follow her at @TheeKelisRowe on Twitter and Instagram.
When and how did you start writing?
Writing was always my strength. As a kid, I wrote poetry for fun. In school, I excelled in English classes. As a young adult, my professional life in market research involved technical writing, which is very structured. The rules for analyzing and reporting research findings are rigid. I’m a rule follower, so I felt confident and competent in my job, which was satisfying, but not happifying. So, I started a blog as a creative outlet, journaling about life after college and writing book reviews. I blogged in the early days before advertisers and influencers and social media existed, and was lucky to get opportunities to work with Clinique and Honey Magazine, which led to more fun opportunities to travel and feel like I was a part of something cool outside of work. When I became a mother, my focus shifted to life and connections closer to home and I stopped writing altogether for a few years. Then, in 2015, I had the strong desire to connect with the world through my writing. I thought that would mean humorous essays and observations a la David Sedaris, and considered a return to blogging. But reading children’s books as a young mother sparked my desire to connect with children and young adults through my writing. My first YA novel was my first attempt at fiction writing, and the reception by the publishing industry has been a dream. I can’t wait to share it with the world.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
I’d spend hours alone in the local library reading, growing up, mostly to get out of my house—a five minute walk away. The library was a peaceful place, so I read to pass the time. I’d binge read picture books until I got bored. Then I’d hang out in the YA section, scanning the romance novels for “the good parts.” My reading was mindless escape, so I didn’t have any early childhood favorites. The Great Gatsby was on my middle school Honors English reading list. Gatsby was the first book that made me feel strong emotions and that stayed with me long after I’d finished it. I felt angry and frustrated and hopeless—things I’d only felt before due to my own life, never due to a fictional character’s. Reading Gatsby shifted the lens through which I viewed the world. It deepened my empathy for people and made me curious about people’s life stories and motivations. Gatsby marked my shift into spending more meaningful time hanging out in my favorite place—my own head—and doing my two favorite things: people watching and reading for pleasure.
Can you talk us through your career so far? What were the key moments?
I feel lucky that my first novel was a shiny, sparkly thing in PitchWars 2019. PitchWars is a Twitter event that gives writers an opportunity match with a mentor to help them polish their manuscript and find a literary agent. A great mentor plucked my book from among hundreds and landed me here at Greenhouse, with an amazing literary agent, Chelsea Eberly, and amazing book deals and film agents. It’s a dream.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
During the early morning hours, I take my teenager to school and play with my toddler after breakfast until our full-time nanny arrives. Then I write at a desk in the corner of my bedroom with a framed portrait of Toni Morrison watching over me, or in a rented workspace. On weekends, during toddler nap time or late nights on the couch across from my husband, I write if the spirit moves me. I’m horrible at organizing my time. It can take me two days to finish a grocery delivery order. I am a work in progress. For my novels, I look to Black kids, and my memories of being a kid, and dream up books that I would have loved to have read. Those are the stories I write.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
Write something that makes your heart sing. Go to manuscriptwishlist.com and find agents whose wishlists match your work. Knowing that you’re pitching to agents who are waiting for something like what you’ve written makes the querying process less stressful. Even though I found my agent through PitchWars on Twitter, when I read her wishlist I just knew she would be the perfect agent to represent my work. I was right.
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
Reading other books in the genre I’m writing, YA, helps me keep my writing voices as teen voices. Learning from accomplished writers by listening to interviews on podcasts like 88 Cups of Tea, taking masterclasses and workshops and reading writing craft books keeps me confident and motivated to keep writing. I write an outline, chapter summaries and a full synopsis (like I’m gossiping to a friend) before I start writing. I find it really helpful to have a solid set of bones when I start. Then fleshing it out is less stressful and just more fun.
Which favorite authors would you invite to a dinner party?
Deceased or alive, I’d invite Octavia Butler to dinner. She was a hermit, and I’m a Virgo, so I have strong hermit tendencies as well. I’d only invite one, maybe two additional people. I’ve gone into YouTube deep-dives watching Jhumpa Lahiri interviews. She’s incredibly smart and serious, and I love the way she expresses her thoughts. She seems laid back and wouldn’t scare a couple of hermits back into hiding. I feel the same way about Zadie Smith and have also watched tons of her interviews. I think the four of us would get on quite well over a nice dinner followed by coffee outside under the stars.
What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones is ruthless and calculating and horrible, but with so much heart. He’s a genius you abhor, yet also respect and root for. He’s an amazingly complex character who deserves sympathy and loathing. I feel all the emotions for him. When I binged all five books in swift succession, I’d flip pages ahead to see when I’d get to another one of his chapters. It would be a dream to create a character so rich and complex. Also, I’m obsessed with Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. If I ever write fantasy, you can bet money the protagonist will be an unlikable survivor.