[1st Books] Julie Kibler: Reading, Writing, and (not quite as much) Arithmetic

This week's guest author, Julie Kibler, began writing Calling Me Home after learning a bit of family lore: as a young woman, her grandmother fell in love with a young black man in an era and locale that made the relationship impossible. Like so many of us, Julie struggled at first to call herself “writer,” but now her debut novel, which Kirkus calls "an engaging tale," is an Indie Next pick and a SIBA Okra Pick. Enjoy her post! - Meg

Julie Kilber Calling Me Home CoverPeople often ask if I always thought I’d be a writer. Looking back, I try to remember one moment when I declared, “I want to be a writer when I grow up.” Seven years ago, I said, “I’m going to write a book.” But that wasn’t it. I’ve simply always assumed I would write in some form or fashion, whatever else I happened to be doing.

The thing that seems more important is that I was always a reader.

I don’t remember learning to read, though I clearly remember reading the word “Heidi” on a read-aloud record album when I was four or five. I was proud I’d managed to read such a strangely spelled word all by myself. (Perhaps the illustration of the pretty girl with braids climbing a mountain helped.)

Around the same time, my grandfather owned a stack of Dick and Jane-style books, used as part of his therapy following a stroke. When he cared for me, I suspect he held me on his lap, turning pages, though he couldn’t speak the words aloud. Perhaps he waited for me to identify the objects in the pictures, then pointed to the words that represented them. And perhaps this explains why, in early elementary, I had a desperate affection for my reading and writing workbooks from the same series. I mean, I really, really loved them—so much, I buried my nose in the crevice between new pages, simply to inhale their aroma.

By third grade, in the midst of moves to strange new places with strange new children who spoke and dressed differently from me, I’d developed a fairly controlling relationship with books. I didn’t want anyone losing mine. I made a card catalog and alphabetized my books, boxing and unboxing my “library” each time we moved, and forcing my new friends to check them out with the homemade cards I inserted in pockets taped to the covers. If my books weren’t returned on time, I even levied fines.

As a fourth grader, new to Boulder, Colorado, I visited the public library each week to borrow as many books as the wide-eyed librarians would allow. I adored the biographies written for children—cheerful books with bright red and orange and green covers. Dolly Madison. Amelia Earhart. Martha Washington. Harriet Tubman. I wanted to know them. I was excited each time I found one I hadn’t yet read. I also discovered the Little House series and other novels I’d disappear into for hours when the world around me was too exhausting.

I clearly remember my schoolteacher, Miss Wotipka, letting me get away with reading for hours in the pillow-filled claw-foot bathtub in the language arts area of my open-concept school. Though we were supposed to complete a certain number of centers in each of the four academic areas each week, I rarely bothered with math or science. This progressive school didn’t issue grades. In my narrative report cards, Miss Wotipka noted that I needed to do more math and science, but she never fussed at me. Instead, she nudged me to write in journals and rewarded me and a few other girl readers with lunchtime trips for pizza and candy at Happy Joe’s. I’m uncertain what we were being rewarded for now, but I’d venture a guess it was for reading a certain number of books in a month. I obviously excelled at that contest.

Julie Kilber Author Photo Calling Me HomeAfter years of doing exceptionally well in language arts, English, and journalism classes, I finished college then wandered aimlessly through social services jobs and customer service positions obtained with my extremely useful English degree. Finally, I decided to pursue my master’s degree in library science in 2004. I wasn’t sure I wanted to actually work in a library, but I liked the skill set.

In my last full semester of library school, I woke one morning with an idea for a novel, and immediately recorded pages of notes.  Though that novel went unwritten, it was the first of several ideas, and eventually I found the “right one”—Calling Me Home.

I struggled at first to call myself “writer.”  Though I wrote for hours each day, I identified as an editor and researcher instead—the freelance work that paid the bills. There was an air of legitimacy to these.  But one day, I realized that if anyone was going to take me seriously—even if I was never published—I must start saying, “I’m a writer.” So I did. Eventually, it seemed as natural as any other title.

Now I’m making the transition from “writer” to “author”—and I struggle once again. The word feels strangely pretentious for now. I suspect one day I’ll surprise myself, when it rolls off my tongue with ease. Between you and me, I intend for it to be my last job title.

So, did I always want to be a writer? It’s hard to say. The moral of this writer’s tale, however, seems obvious:

Writers don’t make books. Books make writers. - Julie

This post originally ran on 1st Books: Reading and Writing with Friends, hosted by Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters (a writing group novel), the forthcoming The Wednesday Daughters, and other novels (all available from Random House/Ballantine). 1st Books features award-winning writers blogging about how they got started writing and publishing, as well as other readerly and writerly delights.

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