Interview with Kelly McWilliams, Author of Agnes at the End of the World

Kelly is a mixed-race writer who has always gravitated towards stories about crossing boundaries and forging new identities. For this and so many other reasons, young adult literature will always be close to her heart. She is a graduate of the Walnut Hill School for the Arts and Brown University. Her upcoming novel, AGNES AT THE END OF THE WORLD, benefitted from a We Need Diverse Books Mentorship.

Kelly has crafted stories all her life, and her very first novel, DOORMAT (2004), was published when she was just fifteen-years old. DOORMAT became a Junior Library Guild selection and led to a feature in Seventeen magazine. Kelly has previously worked as a staff writer for Romper, covering issues important to women and families. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, cooking (with mixed results), or hiking. She lives in Colorado with her partner and young daughter.

Photo Credit: Black Forest Photography

Can you describe your book in 3 words?

Cult, virus, escape!

I can’t wait to read Agnes at the End of the World! What was the hardest scene to write —and where did you get the inspiration to finish it?

During the course of revisions, I completely rewrote my first chapter over twenty times, and then close-edited it so heavily I basically have it memorized. In that first chapter, Agnes sneaks out in the middle of the night to smuggle in her brother’s insulin. The cult she lives under forbids medicine of any kind; and her sister Beth catches her in the act. There’s a lot going on in that scene, which is why it kicked my butt! To stay inspired, I took breaks–both from the first chapter and from the novel as a whole!–whenever I needed to. Writing can be draining as well as exhilarating. Sometimes, you have to put your work aside for morale’s sake.

Who is Agnes? What can you tell us about her?

Agnes is a teenaged girl raised in a fundamentalist, apocalyptic cult hidden in the Arizona desert. She’s the oldest of six children, and feels responsible for the life of her youngest brother, Ezekiel, who needs the insulin she smuggles onto the compound to survive. Agnes wishes she didn’t have to break the rules; she wants nothing more than to be a faithful, obedient daughter of God. A handsome Outsider boy and a mysterious plague play large roles in her discovery of the truth.

What’s your favorite quote from Agnes at the End of the World?

“Agnes, are you in rebellion?”

This is the first line of the book, and the question Beth asks Agnes when she catches her sneaking out! It’s also a key theme. How and when will Agnes rebel against cult doctrine? And who will she become once she’s free?

Which one of your book characters do you wish you were more like?

Two sisters, Agnes and Beth, share the narration of this book in dual perspectives. Where Agnes is strong, selfless, hardworking, and full of a powerful faith in human goodness, Beth is sarcastic, at the mercy of her tumultuous emotions, and occasionally weak under pressure. I would love to be more like Agnes, but I fear Beth was so easy to write because I’m more like her, in fact. Oh well, at least she’s fun!

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever researched for this book?

Cults are fascinating. During my research, I discovered that while most people believe they’d have no problem escaping from a cult, we are, in fact, all vulnerable to brainwashing and cult manipulations. Most malignant cults use the same techniques to weaken people’s minds. For instance, constant repetition of key phrases, sleep deprivation, and gaslighting are all common.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on a YA historical fiction novel set in the American South, as well as a secret (meaning just extremely underdeveloped!) novel for adults. I’ve never worked on two projects at once before, so wish me luck!

What YA books would you recommend to our readers?

I highly recommend the upcoming FRAGILE REMEDY by Maria Ingrande Mora, DIG by A.S. King, and, though it’s technically an adult novel, CIRCE by Madeline Miller (it’s an amazing coming-of-age story!).

If you left on vacation tonight and could only take one book, what book would you choose?

Bellwether by Connie Willis. I’m reading it now and couldn’t put it down if I wanted to! I’d describe it as a sweet, sci fi romantic comedy.

About this book :

The Handmaid’s Tale meets Wilder Girls in this unique, voice-driven novel from Kelly McWilliams.

Agnes loves her home of Red Creek–its quiet, sunny mornings, its dusty roads, and its God. There, she cares tirelessly for her younger siblings and follows the town’s strict laws. What she doesn’t know is that Red Creek is a cult, controlled by a madman who calls himself a prophet.

Then Agnes meets Danny, an Outsider boy, and begins to question what is and isn’t a sin. Her younger brother, Ezekiel, will die without the insulin she barters for once a month, even though medicine is considered outlawed. Is she a sinner for saving him? Is her sister, Beth, a sinner for dreaming of the world beyond Red Creek?

Agnes at the End of the World

As the Prophet grows more dangerous, Agnes realizes she must escape with Ezekiel and leave everyone else, including Beth, behind. But it isn’t safe Outside, either: A viral pandemic is burning through the population at a terrifying rate. As Agnes ventures forth, a mysterious connection grows between her and the Virus. But in a world where faith, miracles, and cruelty have long been indistinguishable, will Agnes be able to choose between saving her family and saving the world?


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