Kirstin Cronn-Mills writes poetry and young adult novels. The Sky Always Hears Me and the Hills Don’t Mind (Flux) was published in 2009, and it was a 2010 finalist for the Minnesota Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Her second novel, Beautiful Music For Ugly Children (Flux), will release in October 2012.
Tell us about your relationship to your art.
My art is both work and play, and it annoys me and saves me all at the same time. My grandmother and father taught me to love language and the way words can fit together, so that’s why I began my writing life as a poet. I’d say poetry’s still my first writing language, though I’m rusty since I write more fiction now. Very often I think I should knit instead of write—it’s so much easier to finish a sweater than it is to finish a novel, and there are patterns! You know when you’ve got it right! But I keep going back to writing, and I feel strange if I haven’t written for a while.
Aside from my love of words, books were also my first friends. Stories were always there when I needed them. Now I write with the hope of my book(s) being someone’s friend(s). It’s the highest honor I could have.
What's a project that has been exciting you lately?
That’s a hard question! Every project I run across excites me. I probably get most excited about the projects from the women in my critique group. We have seven members who write fiction, nonfiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, kidlit, and various things in between. Right now I’m also excited to try an adult novel, though I’m also petrified! But it’s fun to think about switching genres. I’ve also got plans for an illustrated YA novel. I write a poem on a monthly basis as part of a poetry newsletter, so the rust is slowly flaking off that part of my brain, too.
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
I graduated with my Ph.D. about a month after we conceived, so when everyone was saying “Congratulations!” for finishing my degree, I kept thinking about the baby, who was still a secret at that point. It was disorienting! My son was born six years to the day (Sunday) and date (August 16th) that I moved from Nebraska to Minnesota. When he was in utero, I knew two things about him—he was busy, and he was happy. During the last 13 years, he’s proved me right. He’s a funny, quirky, sports-minded child who loves to read, and being his mother is the most important thing in my life.
He’s also the individual who challenges me most in my life, and he forces me to grow and change and adapt. I like that fact, even when I won’t admit it. I often miss my baby/toddler/elementary school kid, but I really like my middle schooler, and I can’t wait to see what my high school guy will become. Sounds like a total cliché, doesn’t it? But it’s true.
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
I was a poet from the time I was little until I finished my master’s degree, and I didn’t really have a process—I could write anywhere, but my favorite time was late at night. I did find a favorite pen when I was a junior in college, but that’s about it for rituals or process during that part of my life.
Now my writing time has changed, partially because I’m a mom with a job and partially because I write more fiction now than poetry. Fiction is harder to work on for ten minutes at a time, but it’s possible. I’ve learned to write in the middle of the storm of family life, whether it’s at the kitchen table, on the couch, or sitting by the soccer fields. I can also switch into “writing mind” pretty quickly, so if I have a couple minutes while I’m waiting somewhere, I can jot notes for a chapter or jot down a poem draft. I rarely close myself off to write unless my son is gone. If I do grab some alone time, I light a candle, turn on some music, pour myself a beverage, and dive into whatever project I’m working on.
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
I love to brainstorm with my husband and son—“hey, if you had a character doing this, what do you think would happen next?” All three of us are big readers, so everyone understands the elements of fiction and what makes a good story. Poetry is still a private pursuit for me.
I think my kid is a little embarrassed by me. He never knows what to say when someone says, “Hey, I read your mom’s book!” There are only 3 of us in the world with our last name, so he can’t escape. However, he likes that he’s gotten to have lunch with one of his favorite writers in the world because that person is also a Minnesota kidlit author. So there are trade-offs!
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
My art is incredibly important to me, but my kid comes first. That being said, I also make sure I nourish my art, because if I don’t, I get crabby and become a less than optimal mother (am I ever an optimal mother? It’s debatable, especially if you ask my kid).
Are your children ever subjects in your art?
My son is one of my main models for my guy characters. He doesn’t appear in any books, but when you write young adult fiction, it’s great to have a young adult in your house, especially a funny boy—I think boys are the most hilarious creatures on the planet! I love to write about boys as well as write in their voices, so it’s great to have a research subject in the next room.
How does travel figure into your art? Do/did your children come along? How has that worked out?
My husband loves to travel, so we take as many trips as we can. Our family trip to the Black Hills inspired the setting of my third novel, but other than that, I haven’t incorporated any of our travels into my work. On the other hand, my son has a photographer’s vision—he notices things that most people don’t—and he’s naturally curious, so talking with him while we travel often provides some wonderful insight. So who knows?
What about promoting the arts with your own children--any fun projects to share?
My son loves to tell stories, but he doesn’t like to write, which makes me sad. He also dislikes art class and has no rhythm (he tried the stringed bass for a year, but keeping time was not his deal). So, instead of creating together, we share our love of reading (and listening to music), and I’m happy with that.
How do you escape?
I don’t. : ) But I do try to exercise as often as I can, and I try to read books for pleasure (not studying them for structure or reading them for a class) at least once a month. Because I have a full-time teaching job, writing is my escape. It feels like playing.
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
Don’t quit reading, don’t quit writing! Read to your baby in the womb, then even more while you’re nursing or rocking or playing, even if you’re reading Jane Eyre. Babies don’t care—they just want to hear your voice. Take notes or draft paragraphs while the baby sleeps. Write a hundred words a day, or even fifty. Little bits add up.
However, holding a baby or playing with a child is WAY more important than work, and our sweet peas are only little once. We need to take all the time we can to enjoy them. Again, it sounds like a cliché, but it’s true! There’s time for productivity and twenty-hour writing days when they’ve left for college.