Helen Frost

When My Sister Started Kissing author, Helen Frost, shares her writing process and how her life experiences influence her work.

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“Strong girls give me hope.”

Tell us about a time when your strength was tested.

Interesting to think about this—do we begin with strength, or do we find it as we go along? I think most of us become stronger because we have to, in those testing times.

For many years, I moved from one place to another quite frequently, sometimes great distances. It was exciting and scary—and I know it was also strengthening.

Here are a few examples:

In my mid-twenties, I moved to Scotland and found a job as a teacher and housemother at a progressive boarding school, something like the famous school Summerhill. I loved it and learned a lot from living in that community, so different from my own schooling. I don’t recall feeling brave or strong at the time, but maybe I was.

A few years later, in 1981, I went to Alaska with almost no money, and lived through a very cold Fairbanks winter before accepting a teaching job in the small (25 people) community of Telida. It was not accessible by road, and there was one phone shared by everyone; this was before the internet, so I communicated with my family and friends in other places through radio and once-a-week mail. I could have been very lonely, and sometimes I was, but as I was accepted into the community, and it came to feel like family, it wasn’t so much that I became stronger, but that I came to experience strength as a shared quality. I still do—each of us is as strong as our connections to one another.

In cross-cultural living situations, as Scotland and Alaska both were for me, though in different ways, you learn humility and find strength at the same time. You have to ask deep and difficult questions— “who do you think you are?”—and be open to changing the answers. Other people may need the kind of strength you have, and you learn to offer it in ways that can be accepted, at the same time you learn to recognize and receive what you need from others.

After I got married and moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, such strength was called on when I joined with other artists to help young people in our community confront a culture of violence and, using the arts, try to figure out ways of becoming strong and staying safe within it. At times, I felt like the adults were standing outside in a lightning storm, inviting the lightning to strike us and leave our young friends alone, or perhaps to let art be a lightning rod that would ground us all in a time of danger and protect the young people in their future lives.

The ultimate goal, of course, was, and is, to change the culture of violence, and I know that some of those young people have become adults who are doing just that.

What is your favorite book about a strong girl and why?

I don’t know about favorite—there are so many—but I will mention a book I just finished, a debut novel by an author I expect we will be hearing more from and about. A Girl Like That, by Tanaz Bhathena, is set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and is both culturally specific and disturbingly recognizable to an American reader. You learn on the first page that the story is likely to break your heart, and you let yourself fall in love with the characters anyway, because the author’s voice carries such authority and authenticity.

And that, in a roundabout way—because certain elements in A Girl Like That remind me of an earlier version of my story—brings me to When My Sister Started Kissing.

First, thank you for including it on your Girls of Summer reading list. What a great community of books and readers! I’m very happy to be invited to tell you a little more about my book.

I wrote more than half of the “seed story”—a discovery version of what eventually became When  My Sister Started Kissing—set in a high school, full of social media gossip and intrigue, mean girls, sexual aggression, and dangerous betrayals. I don’t think I chickened out: I knew enough about all those things to write the story, but there’s another thing I also know well—the world of teens whose basic instinct is to treat each other as decently as they know how, and struggle to figure out how to do that. In a major revision, I started asking myself about each incidence of meanness or aggression: “What if this didn’t happen?” and then, as the story changed, I questioned, “’Is there still a story here?”

It was a new and challenging revision process, and it took a long time for me to be satisfied that it worked. When My Sister Started Kissing is a gentler story, more nuanced than the earlier version, with the sisters’ family dynamics more important, and the characters (especially the boys) kinder and more fully developed. Yes, I learned as I wrote, there is still a story here, and I know how to tell it.

You write about sisters so well, and also about how we grieve.  Did you have sisters in your own life?

Yes. I grew up in a close and loving family, with seven sisters and two brothers, the fifth of ten children. I still maneuver around the verb tense in responding to that question: I have or had seven sisters. Eight of my nine siblings are still living, and the ninth, a beloved sister, is, and always will be, completely present to me. Her passing was another time in my life when strength was called forth, drawn from and shared with others.

Are Claire and Abigail anything like your real relationships?

I recently came across the notebook where I was free-writing explorations of family relationships, and I was surprised to see that, on those pages where I was first thinking about what would become When My Sister Started Kissing, I had been thinking about my grandmother’s marriage to a widower who had two small children. It would have been less surprising if I had been writing about my own marriage and step-mothering, and my stepson’s relationship with me and his new baby brother. There are always so many layers to these things.

And yes, there was also fertile ground in my recollections about my sisters’ (and to a much lesser extent, my own) teenage kissing and all the surrounding drama. I was interested and nosy, and I have a good memory that I can check through conversations with my sisters and brothers, who may remember the same things through different lenses. Such conversations can be both poignant and hilarious.

But Claire and Abi are not based on anyone in particular; they are imagined on their own terms.

What is the best piece of advice you were given as a girl?

I’m sure I was given lots of good advice, but the advice that comes to mind was something I rebelled against. My father told me that teaching is a good career for a woman because you can do it wherever your husband is. I growled about that at the time, and almost did not become a teacher because of it, but as it turned out, I loved teaching, and the essence of my dad’s advice has actually proven to hold some truth: teaching and writing have both offered flexibility that has been very helpful in my life for all sorts of reasons, marriage and motherhood among them, but certainly not alone.

As a writer?

I love William Stafford’s famous reply to the question of what to do about writers’ block. “Lower your standards,” he advised, and I’m pretty sure he intended the ambiguity in that: “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” is the obvious meaning. But also, a standard can be a flag, a self-definition. Don’t be too sure of who you are and what you are doing as you are attempting to do it. Approach your writing with humility.

How did you decide on the different poetic forms to use in the book?

There’s a lot of trial and error as I try to figure that out. Thinking about the characters’ lives and voices and ages, putting just enough pressure on my language to make it strong and clear, without squeezing the life out of the story. When it’s working, poetic structure makes the story sharper and stronger. When it’s not working, I hope I have the sense to abandon it.

And how did you come to the decision of giving the lake itself a voice? 

I think of the lake as the voice of Claire and Abi’s mother. At the end of the first poem, their mother breathes her last breath into the lake. Ten years later, the lake is, on one level, a semi-omniscient observer who can help fill in some details about what is happening. Equally important, it represents the steady loving presence of the girls’ mother, who loved poetry—hence the lines of poetry that serve as the acrostic armatures in the lake poems.

In most of my books, there is someone or something like that, a protective presence as the characters go through their challenges: Joe, in Keesha’s House, the custodian in Room 214, the animals in Diamond Willow, Archie the cat (and the skunk) in Hidden, the long slow movement of salt in Salt, Aunt Lucy in Applesauce Weather—you get the idea.

Thank you, and may you all have a strong and wonderful summer!