August 2020

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley reveals why ‘Fighting Words’ is the book she was put on earth to write

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I never intended to write Fighting Words, except, of course, that I always did.

In the fall of 2018, I finished the third draft of a historical novel and sent it to my editor. I planned to rest while she read it, because I wanted to come at the next draft with fresh eyes. It’s what I usually do.

Then I watched some news on television. When I tell this story, I no longer share which exact news report tipped me over the edge into rage, because I’ve found it derails the discussion into whether my rage was justified or whether the report was real. It doesn’t matter. Something happened in the world, and I’d. Had. It. I felt angrier than I’d ever allowed myself to feel.

The next morning, still on fire, I sat down to my computer and opened a new document. I typed a furious one-word title: WHATEVER. By. Kimberly. Brubaker. Bradley. 

And then I let loose. I didn’t think. I wrote. As fast as I could, without pause, making absolutely everything up as I went along. 

My new tattoo is covered by a Band-Aid, but halfway through recess, the Band-Aid falls off.

That’s the first sentence I wrote that day. It remains the opening line of Fighting Words. Della’s voice, pure Appalachia, tough and wise, came from a place I’d never accessed before.


Children who have been abused often can’t allow themselves to feel anger.

That day, I did.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Fighting Words.

I wrote 19 pages (for me, a remarkable output would be 10 pages). The next day I wrote another 20 pages, and by evening, I’d actually completed a narrative arc—beginning, middle, end—though what I was writing was not entirely clear. 

It had no chapter breaks. There wasn’t much plot. Anytime I didn’t know what happened next, I skipped a line and started a scene I did know. I littered the pages with XXXX, which is what I type when I’m missing facts.

Please understand that the contents of those 39 pages were not in any way a novel. Nor was it an outline. It was a hot mess.

Still furious, I emailed what I had written to my editor and to my agent. 

Twenty years ago, when my debut novel had just been accepted by a young editor at Random House named Lauri Hornik (now president of my publisher, Dial, always my champion and trusted friend), I sent her the nearly finished draft of a second book. It was about childhood sexual abuse. She responded thoughtfully: “You’re not ready to write this story yet. Try again in five years.”

It took me 20.

So, on some level, the story was always in my mind. But on every other level, Della caught me entirely by surprise. I did not expect her story, not that day, not ever.

I loved her. I knew before the end of my second writing day that I’d fight for Della even more fiercely than I’d fought for Ada Smith, the heroine of The War That Saved My Life, who was born with a clubfoot. I felt the sort of protectiveness for Della and Ada that one feels toward one’s own abused and neglected inner child.

In fighting for Della, I fought for myself. The story of Fighting Words is informed by my own personal experiences, which is all I’m going to say publicly about that. Forever. 

I gave everything I had to this book—not just in the opening salvo, but in the seven-and-a-half full drafts I wrote over the next 10 months. It was the hardest and fastest I’ve ever worked on a novel. 

After Jessica Garrison, my beloved editor, read those first pages (which she’d later describe as “lightning in a paper bag”), she called, excited, and asked, “What the hell is this?”

I answered, “I swear I can make it into a novel. I swear I will do the work.”

She said, “We’re in.”

I pushed her a little bit. Could I keep the suicide attempt? The meth explosion? The word “snow” substituting for profanity 86 times? THE TATTOO? Because if I couldn’t—

“Yes, yes,” Jessica said impatiently. Then she held me to my word and made me do the work and held my hand while I was doing it. And she worked alongside me just as hard.

I gave everything I had to this book—not just in the opening salvo, but in the seven-and-a-half full drafts I wrote over the next 10 months. It was the hardest and fastest I’ve ever worked on a novel. 

I told the folks at Dial that I hope they like me, because after this book I will never leave them. They are stuck with me now.

I told friends when I sent them copies so they could consider writing blurbs of recommendation that this book is the hill I’m willing to die on.

This book means the world to me. 

It is—and I say this without a smidgen of exaggeration—the book I was meant to write. The work I was put on this earth to do.

I’m hanging my winter coat on the hook in our fourth grade classroom when my teacher, Ms. Davonte, gasps. “Della,” she says, “Is that a real tattoo?”

It’s so real it still hurts.

Della, like Ada, is more than a survivor. Della, like Ada, manages to bloom. Both characters are uniquely themselves, and though as a child I was not like them, they all understand each other well, Della and Ada and my long-ago self, and when they’re together they laugh and dance and run.

Fighting Words was the hill I was willing to die on, but I didn’t die. I bloomed. 


Author photo  © Amy MacMurray

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Get the Book

Fighting Words

Fighting Words

By Nancy F. Cott
ISBN 9781541699335

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