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Listen Listen to Kelly Barnhill read from the opening story of her new short story collection
Minneapolis writer Kelly Barnhill, who won a Newbery Medal for her work aimed at middle-grade readers, is turning up the heat with her new collection of short stories for adults.
She says her new book, "Dreadful Young Ladies and other Stories," tells stories about people and things that just interest her.
"I have a great affection in my heart for prickly females," she said in the living room of her Minneapolis home. "I think that our culture gives us clothes that don't fit. Right? And that is what interests me in fiction, is those places where the chafing is. Or where the seams start to break."
Barnhill will launch her new book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Magers and Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis.
"Dreadful Young Ladies" opens with a story about a young widow living in a small town in what Barnhill admits could well be Minnesota.
"It's about as Minnesotan as it gets," she laughed.
The winsome widow, Mrs. Sorensen, quickly becomes the focus of attention for the entire community. Barnhill said that can happen to interesting people in small towns.
"And also, everybody feels very invested in not just their story, but also what they feel that story ought to be," she added.
But Mrs. Sorensen, being one of Barnhill's prickly females, has her own view of the world, as do those she considers her real friends. The local priest gets a sense of this on the day of her husband's funeral. The widow is stylishly yet demurely dressed — and he is surprised to see two white mice peering out of her breast pocket:
"Their whiskers were as pale and bright as sunbeams. They looked at one another and turned in unison toward the face of the old priest. And though he knew it was impossible, it seemed to Father Laurence that the mice were smiling at him."
It soon becomes clear that Mrs. Sorensen feels more comfortable with the creatures of the forest, and with one creature in particular.
"A sasquatch, yes," Barnhill said, laughing.
Soon the sasquatch is escorting Mrs. Sorensen to town events. He wears a fedora or a seed cap, depending on the occasion. The townspeople accept it, but only to point. As with many of her stories, Barnhill said, this is about something larger.
"Humanity's ability to normalize is one of the most interesting, and also sometimes most upsetting, things about us," she said.
The other stories of "Dreadful Young Ladies" tell, among other things, the reality behind a series of passionate love letters, and explain why women should never date poets — at least according to Barnhill, a self-identified poet.
The collection brings the works of Roald Dahl to mind. He charmed and slightly terrified children with his stories, but also produced a series of very adult tales that titillated and really scared grown-ups. Barnhill said that while her big success so far has been with novels for younger readers, she's always written short stories.
"I like the form a lot," she said. "It's nothing like writing a novel. It's much more like writing a poem, so I enjoy it for that reason."
And Barnhill offered a surprising admission: While her readers may luxuriate in the images she produces with her writing, they are not images she has seen.
"I'm not a visual thinker at all," she said. "I am an aural thinker. And it's extremely rare for me to have visual images in my imagination, or whatever. I think in sound."
She said her editing process, particularly for short stories, involves reading drafts aloud, over and over again.
"The one I am working on now, I have probably read out loud 50 times. I don't know, a lot!" she said. She reads to her dog, Sirius Black, "an excellent audience."
In addition to the dog, the New York Times best-seller Barnhill already has a big audience, and it's likely to get bigger. Film versions of her last two books, "The Witch's Boy" and "The Girl Who Drank the Moon," are both in development as movies.