When’s the last time you read a book?
Better yet, when’s the last time you read a book so enthralling that you put down the remote, ignored the suggestions on your Netflix feed, and lost yourself in page after page of plotline all the way to the conclusion?
Whether or not you’re drawing a blank, we have just the read for you. Published in February, The Unwilling by Hudson Valley author Kelly Braffet is exactly the type of book that makes is all too easy for readers to lose track of the hours — and the page numbers — as they dive deeper and deeper into an otherworldly realm of magic, mystery, and the intangible force of destiny.
For Braffet, who resides in Ulster County, The Unwilling is a departure from her three previous suspense and thriller page-turners. Yet in a way, it’s also the backbone of her literary career. After starting the threads of the novel during her days at Sarah Lawrence College, she slowly but surely painted the picture of Highfall Castle and its characters: Judah, a foundling with a special gift; Gavin, the heir to an empire; Elban, a cruel and mighty lord; and a magus with a secret power.
Now, she unveils the threads between the four figures and lures readers into a story of ambition, greed, and love in a coming-of-age narrative unlike any other.
To learn more about Braffet’s writing process in the Hudson Valley (spoiler: she took cheese-making classes to inspire the world of the novel), we touched base with her to chat switching genres, living locally, and crafting fantastical literature in the Hudson River region.
Kelly Braffet: My published work has almost all been more in the literary-thrillerish department, but I’ve always loved fantasy. When I was 10, my family moved from Arizona to Pennsylvania, which was not the easiest year ever, and I spent the entire week-long drive reading and re-reading Elizabeth H. Boyer’s The Troll’s Grindstone. I still have that copy. It’s in shreds. I’m considering asking to be cremated with it, which would be kind of in keeping with [Boyer’s] whole Norse mythology thing.
Much later though, when I was in college, I read a fantasy novel by a writer I liked who didn’t normally write fantasy. Don’t ask what it was – that information will also be going to the crematorium with me. I spent time I should have spent working reading it, and it was supposed to be my self-indulgent little break. Unfortunately, I didn’t much like it, which annoyed me. I thought, “I can write a better fantasy novel than that. It’ll be about four people trapped in an abandoned castle.” And there it was. It was the first novel I ever tried to write. Obviously, the idea has evolved a lot between then and now.
KB: That’s a tricky question! From that first night in college to the day I finished a draft was almost 20 years, but I wasn’t working on it consistently. It was the project I went back to when I wasn’t doing anything else and, since those free moments were often years apart, going back to it usually meant starting it over. Judah [The Unwilling’s protagonist] was always in the back of my head, though…[and] by the time I finally sat down to focus on it, the book was pretty much fully formed in my head, and I managed to get it down on paper in about a year.
KB: After my third novel, Save Yourself, was published, I spent about a year and a half working on another literary thriller, but it never really took off. When I finally decided to drop it, there was this intense feeling of relief and frustration and sadness. I vented about the situation to my agent, and she said, “Look, you’ve been talking for years about this fantasy novel, but you’ve never shown me anything and I don’t think you’ve ever finished a draft. Why don’t you put your effort into that, and we’ll see what we can do with it?” I think the reason I hadn’t really sat down to finish the book was because it was so outside of what I’d always done, I wasn’t sure if it was even an option.
KB: The biggest factor is that it’s quiet here…and I can write. There’s a beautiful tree outside my office window…and sometimes I just end up sitting in my writing chair staring at it, letting my eyes follow the way all the branches meet and divide. The second book [in The Unwilling series] has some scenes set in a very Hudson Valley-esque forest, and I’ve had a lot of fun with that.
KB: I took a goat cheese-making workshop at Acorn Hill Creamery in Kerhonkson, which is a thing they do a few times a year that I absolutely recommend. Also, their feta is mind-blowing. If you go for no other reason, go because they send you home with feta.
Breadmaking fascinates me. I’ve actually been making sandwich bread for the last year or so, but I use refrigerated yeast that I get at the grocery store. I did try to make wild sourdough because my characters don’t have refrigerated yeast from the grocery store, but it kind of turned into a brick.
There’s a character in the book who makes this very soft, pillowy stovetop bread with a certain fictional spice in it and I tried that one, too, but I basically just ended up with inexpert naan. I’m still interested in trying that one because I’m still interested in eating it. I think the fictional spice might be somewhere between cardamom and, I don’t know, lavender maybe? I don’t tend to like floral flavors, but I suspect it’s that.
KB: What [my family and I] really love to do in the Hudson Valley is go to bookstores. Inquiring Minds is wonderful…[and] Barner Books, an amazing rare/used bookstore, is right across the street, and Krause’s Chocolates is right next-door to Inquiring Minds, and then from there you can go across the street to buy a beer from the nice people at McFoxlins’s and amazing vegan mac and cheese at Commissary!
KB: As I told my eight-year-old nephew this weekend: Keep a journal and read everything. If you want to practice capturing the lived experiences of your characters, the best way to do it is to try to capture your own lived experiences. As for reading, the more you read, the better a writer you’ll be. And I do mean everything, even books you don’t think you’ll like. In fact, I’d say especially books you don’t think you’d like. For one thing, you might be surprised. If not, you can learn more from clumsy writing than brilliant writing sometimes, because the cracks show.
The hardest part of writing, though, is the same thing that’s hard about anything else: doing it. It’s not easy to make the time, even for full-time writers. But if it’s important to you, you need to find a way.
Want a signed copy of The Unwilling? Head to Oblong Books’ Upstairs at Murray’s literary series in Tivoli on February 18 to meet Braffet and Night Circus author Erin Morgenstern for a signing and talk.