Kelly Braffet is joining us today to talk about her novel The Unwilling. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A penetrating tale of magic, faith and pride…
The Unwilling is the story of Judah, a foundling born with a special gift and raised inside Highfall castle along with Gavin, the son and heir to Lord Elban’s vast empire. Judah and Gavin share an unnatural bond that is both the key to her survival…and possibly her undoing.
As Gavin is groomed for his future role, Judah comes to realize that she has no real position within the kingdom, in fact, no hope at all of ever traveling beyond its castle walls. Elban—a lord as mighty as he is cruel—has his own plans for her, for all of them. She is a mere pawn to him, and he will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
But outside the walls, in the starving, desperate city, a magus, a healer with his own secret power unlike anything Highfall has seen in years, is newly arrived from the provinces. He, too, has plans for the empire, and at the heart of those plans lies Judah… The girl who started life with no name and no history will soon uncover more to her story than she ever imagined.
An epic tale of greed and ambition, cruelty and love, this deeply immersive novel is about bowing to traditions and burning them down.
What’s Kelly’s favorite bit?
In both my last book, Save Yourself, and my new book, The Unwilling, there are moments where I break away from my primary point-of-view and jump into that of another character. Both times, I did it because there was part of the story that could only be told by a side character, and both times they’ve ended up some of my favorite parts of the book. Why? I think partially it’s because writing an entire novel from inside one – or even two – characters can get a little claustrophobic, and breaking out of that character can feel like a breath of air. It’s something different and refreshing, like a salad in the middle of a week-long fried-shrimp binge.* In Save Yourself, that salad was the two scenes told by Caro, a waitress who I swear is going to get her own book one day. The Unwilling is a fantasy novel, and this time around the salad scene is a hunt scene, which we see through the eyes of the heir’s younger brother, Theron. You know the phrase “the heir and the spare?” Theron is the spare. He’s supposed to command the army, but he’s nearsighted and uncoordinated and better suited to his tinkering workshop. The hunt is the first time he’s directly interacted with his father in years. The object of the hunt is a deer; to say that the deer dies is not much of a spoiler, but there are aspects of that scene that really would be spoilers, so I won’t say much more except that the hunt is not what Theron thinks it will be. It is, however one of the most gruesome scenes in the book. It’s also one of my favorites.
*My husband: Don’t you mean “a fried shrimp in the middle of a salad binge?”
Me: Um, no.
My husband: You and I are very different people.
Why? Well, for one thing, I love Theron. His mind works completely differently than everybody else in the book. He’s logical, but almost naïve; going into the hunt, he thinks of the hunt more in terms of the mechanics of the arrow than in terms of the death of the deer. (This illusion is thoroughly dispelled, by the way.) There’s this old writing school bit about how your characters need to change over the course of the story, which I mostly don’t think about – but if you’re looking for the moment in The Unwilling when Theron changes, it’s the hunt. Going into the scene, just as he thinks he knows what the hunt will be, he thinks he knows who his brother and father are, and he thinks he knows how the kingdom operates. He’s wrong about all of these things. The deer dies, and Theron survives, but it’s Theron who ends up with blood on his glasses.
Without a doubt, that scene is hard to read. The truths about his world that Theron is forced to reckon with are hard, too. The violence isn’t meant to be gleeful or gratuitous; the scene would literally not work without the death of the deer. If we don’t see what Theron sees, we don’t feel what he feels, and his response doesn’t feel true. I absolutely understand that some people will find that scene difficult or off-putting. Every reader brings their own history and experience to the table when they’re sitting down to read a book; there are definitely books that I’ve put down because a specific scene was too much for me. But that scene, while grim, accomplishes exactly what I wanted it to, and in a relatively short span of pages. I love the bit where Theron thinks about the mechanics of the arrows, and I love the bit where he thinks about his brother, the messy way his envy, admiration and love are tangled together. I love Theron, and I think that I tried to capture what was surely the most difficult day of his life with empathy and clarity.
Kelly Braffet is the author of three novels, and her writing has been published in The Fairy Tale Review, Post Road, as well as several anthologies. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. She currently lives in upstate New York with her family. Her new novel, THE UNWILLING, will be out February 11th from Mira Books.