Vermont Arts Council

Kekla Magoon: A Trip Down Memoir Lane

“If the work is going to be good, I believe you have to put yourself into it.”

Headshot of Kekla smiling
Kekla Magoon. Credit: Alice Dodge

While this maxim could be true of painting, schoolwork, or filing taxes, Kekla Magoon is talking about writing. We can certainly take her word for it.

Magoon is a Montpelier-based author and a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has written many books for children and young adults, including a picture book biography Ketanji: Justice Jackson’s Journey to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was released in June. Magoon has also been recognized with many honors, including the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, three Coretta Scott King Honors, the Walter Award Honor, an NAACP Image Award, and has been a finalist for the National Book Award. Readers can look forward to her new middle grade time travel fantasy novel The Secret Library, coming next spring.

Magoon received an FY23 Creation Grant from the Vermont Arts Council in order to pursue work on a new project — a memoir for adults composed of a dozen personal essays about significant non-romantic relationships, currently untitled. The Council grant permitted Magoon to take some time off of teaching to focus on her writing projects. She aims to complete a draft of the work by the end of the year then submit the collection to publishers.

Read on to find out more about Kekla Magoon and her upcoming memoir in her own words. 

Please note that the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you tell me a bit about the original inspiration for the memoir?

Part of why I applied for the grant was that I wanted to try things that I haven’t done before. I’ve published a lot of books, and because of that, my publishing schedule is very particular and there are a lot of demands — certainly the demand of making income. I do a lot of speaking engagements and I do a lot of teaching. I’m on faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I don’t always have time to experiment. I don’t always have time to expand. 

One of the genres that I really enjoy reading is essay collections, especially humorous essays that are generally written by women [and] are just about their own lives and their own experiences. I’ve always aspired to write that kind of personal narrative — nonfiction with humor [laughs] and heart — and to explore a genre that’s very far removed from the audience that I typically write for.

What can you share about the subject of the memoir?

I proposed a project that would allow me to write some personal essays to explore the concept of relationships that one has as a single adult. Our society is so bent on the idea that everybody needs to be in a relationship and a partnership, in a marriage — that’s considered the highest form of relationship culturally, right?

As a single woman in your twenties, in your thirties, now in my forties, people are always kind of like, “Oh, well, are you online? Are you getting out there? Are you looking for your person?” I think a lot of other people experience that pressure more extremely than I do. I don’t feel a lot of stress about that social pressure in my life right now. But part of why is because I have all these other relationships that are really fulfilling to me. 

I have wonderful parents, and I’ve had the opportunity to even go back and live with them as an adult for a period of time and really get to know them. I have a brother and a sister-in-law and a little nephew. I have these cats [laughs]. I have a relationship with a lot of other writers — just really good friends who know how to celebrate and appreciate different aspects of who I am and bring out different strengths of mine and provide the kind of solace and comfort and community and support that people are expected to get from romantic relationships. [In this memoir,] I really wanted to think about how those relationships have meaning in my life.

As a historical fiction author, how has it felt to switch from writing about the historical past to your personal past?

It’s interesting because [with] fiction, you don’t have to think about that directly, right? [She laughs.] You kind of create this distance where you’re always exploring your own emotions and you’re always putting yourself into the work. If the work is going to be good, I believe you have to put yourself into it, but it’s behind all these layers, right? It’s veiled a little bit, which is also something that I think is valuable from a reading perspective. You can read a fictional narrative about some experience that might be similar to something you’ve gone through, but you don’t have to then own it. You can be like, “Oh, I understand how that would feel,” and you’re sort of putting it on this other character. So I do like that distance. I like the distance of fiction, so it is a challenge to directly say what I think, or what I feel, or what I felt in a particular moment.

Whom do you see as the target audience for this book, and what do you want them to take away?

I think who I want to be speaking to is other people like me. You know, people who are caught in the mythology that the only way, the only path to happiness and fulfillment and success in life is that you are partnered with someone in a long-term way.

And I do think that that’s a mythology because romantic relationships aren’t perfect. They’re always difficult. They can be wonderful, but there are all these other relationships that can be wonderful, too. I think that we sometimes get so absorbed into the culture, feeling like we’re not doing it right or we have failed, or we’re not being seen as fully human in some way [as] an adult who is often single or who is primarily single. I think perhaps [the book] can provide a little bit of comfort and perspective for other people who are going through that experience.

I have so many friends who are my same age, early forties, who are like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m still single. This is terrible,” saying, “You gotta treat online dating like a part-time job.” [She laughs.] Honestly, I don’t want to spend that kind of time when I can be doing these other things that I actually do care about and I am passionate about. So I would hope that if people read [the book] and connect with it, that maybe it helps lessen a little bit of the pressure because we can see the world in a slightly different way. We can see that there are other ways to be a happy and productive adult.

I suspect that [the readership will] be a lot of people who are single as adults, but it might also be people who are in relationships who might want to reframe that idea that the relationship has to be everything, that that kind of partnership is the be-all end-all, when actually there’s all this other stuff going on. Maybe for some people that’s liberating, or makes them see themselves as an individual more than a part of a couple. Maybe it gives somebody the strength and empowerment to step out of a relationship that’s not working for them. Maybe it gives comfort to somebody who’s single and is spending part-time-job levels of time on online dating sites and can take a breath and go, “Oh, okay, well, here are the positive things in my life. I do have these cats. I do have these friends, I do have this family. I do have total control of the remote control, whatever.” [She laughs.] There are positives and benefits to all different ways of living. And it’s not to take anything away from people who are in happy, committed relationships. It’s just to say that’s not the only way.

What was the Creation Grant application process like for you? Do you have any advice for future applicants? 

I mean, I used to be a grant writer [laughs]. So I’m familiar with what grant committees tend to want to see in things. One thing I’ve learned from my past applications is that they really want you to be doing new work — not just funding work that you’re already doing. They want you to be stretching yourself and be challenging yourself in a particular way.

In general, obviously conciseness and clarity and being able to say what you want to do really succinctly and having a clear reason or vision for why you want to do it and how you want to do it are probably the most important. 

Really articulating what you’re trying to do is hard with a lot of art forms. It’s hard to say why you want to make those pots or why you want to do those paintings — it’s a challenging thing to have an artist statement in mind. But I think the more we understand those things about ourselves, the better we do in the art anyway. And so it’s probably a good exercise and a good challenge to have to state it for the purposes of the grant. 

[In terms of] nuts and bolts things, you have to be really good at budgeting. You don’t have to put a lot of stuff in your budget, but you just have to really say what you’re using the money for. Going to [the grant-seeker workshops] that they have in advance is helpful too, to hear what [they’re] looking for and help you craft some of those things.

Finally, what is your favorite part about living in Vermont?

I live in Montpelier. I love my little town — obviously we’re having a hard time right now, but I love that I can go into my bookstore and they know me and they stock my books, and I go into the coffee shop and write and they know my name [laughs] and put it on my coffee cup and that I can run into people downtown whom I’ve never met before who are like, “Oh, you’re the author. I read your book!” [She laughs.] I do feel a strong sense of support from the community. I went in to vote in the last election and I walked into the polling place at City Hall and the person who was checking me in was like, “Oh, you’re the author!” [She laughs.] Everywhere I go people know me. So I feel like I have a lot of support from the community, from the college, from certainly the local media, now from the Arts Council, as well. 

[Vermont] is a really beautiful place to live. It feels like a combination of a small town, but also has a cosmopolitan vibe here in Montpelier. It’s a capital — people have a way of seeing the world that’s just bigger than the exact place that we’re in, but we’re in a beautiful place at the same time. I feel here that people are able to see and embrace and be excited about new ideas and new stories. And that’s a lot of what I bring.

Find more of Magoon’s work on her website, and check out more Creation Grantee profiles here.