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'God Spare the Girls' author on the book 'I could have used at 20'

By Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
Kelsey McKinney's "God Spare the Girls" is the July selection for the Texas Book Festival Club with Austin360.

“God Spare the Girls” started as a bit of a professional-development project.

Washington, D.C.-based journalist Kelsey McKinney has spent years as a features writer for the likes of The New York Times, Deadspin, Vanity Fair and Defector, where she currently is a writer and co-owner.

“When I first started, I was trying to shift my reported work more into reported features, and I was realizing that my ability to describe things was very bad,” she said during a phone interview. “I started working on this as practice for writing beautifully, which is not often encouraged in the economic form of journalism.

“The more I did that, the more I kept doing that, and then suddenly I had all of these notepads, and these two girls that I was obsessed with, and a terrible rough draft.”

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Fortunately for readers, McKinney took her rough draft and revised it (and revised it) into her much-celebrated debut novel. The Texas-set story of two sisters in a family splintered by revelations of their pastor father’s misdeeds has won kudos from Oprah Daily, Lit Hub, Shondaland and Bustle, among other outlets. It’s the July selection for the Texas Book Festival Club with Austin360, and McKinney will discuss it virtually July 29 with “God Land” author Lyz Lenz.

"God Spare the Girls" is set in Texas.

McKinney sets sisters Abigail and Caroline in the evangelical world she, too, was part of as a child. Rendering that culture meant capturing some distinctive details as an author. But McKinney notes it was most crucial to steer clear of skewing too far into caricature.

“What I was more concerned with is being fair to those experiences. I didn't want to write a book that was mocking of what people believed. I wanted to write something a little more complicated than that,” she said. She also wanted readers who were still in that world to recognize it, but not be so offended that it derailed the story for them.

McKinney artfully shows readers how Abigail and Caroline initially exist as less-powerful satellites orbiting around the men of the church. In one small, telling passage, the girls’ father pours his wife a cup of coffee in an attempt at a peace offering: “He tore open a couple of Splenda packets for his own. Caroline then waited for him to reach for the fridge. He didn’t. He stared at his wife’s cup as if it might tell him the answer.”

The siblings also navigate their own relationship as sisters who love each other fiercely, but also push each other’s buttons. McKinney said depicting that bond sometimes worried her.

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“I was most nervous about how my sister would take it,” she said of concerns that readers might think the novel mirrors more than her evangelical childhood. “The sister relationship is the heart of the book. Before I went out to agents with the book I gave it to her and said, ‘Read this, and if you don’t want me to send it, I won't.'” (She got the go-ahead.)

Part of McKinney’s work on early drafts also included reckoning with the big-picture questions her characters wrestle with, including the boundaries of faith and the importance of choosing one’s own path. Above all, “God Spare the Girls” invites introspection.

“I wrote it because it was a book I could have used at 20,” McKinney said. “It could have changed my life.”     

If you go

Kelsey McKinney will talk about “God Spare the Girls” at 7:30 p.m. July 29 as part of the Texas Book Festival Club with Austin360. Free registration at www.texasbookfestival.org. Join the book club on the fest’s website or through the club’s Facebook page.