Author photo of Kelly McWilliams
February 2022

Kelly McWilliams: Face-to-face with the past

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Author Kelly McWilliams talks about the deeply personal experiences that shaped Mirror Girls and what it’s like to write what scares you.
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Mirror Girls blends historical fiction and horror to tell the story of Charlie and Magnolia, biracial twin sisters separated at birth after their parents’ murder, and the unforeseen consequences of their unlikely reunion 17 years later.

Author Kelly McWilliams spoke to BookPage about the deeply personal experiences that inform the novel and what it’s like to write what scares you.

Can you introduce us to Charlie and Magnolia?
Magnolia has been raised to believe she’s a white Southern belle, with no knowledge of her racial heritage. When her grandmother admits the truth on her deathbed, Magnolia’s reflection suddenly disappears from every mirror: She’s unmoored after the loss of her self-conception.

Charlie begins the story in New York City, living with her Black grandmother. It’s the dawn of the civil rights movement, and she dreams of being a protester and fighting for justice. But then her grandmother falls ill and wants to be buried in the place she was born: the rural town of Eureka, Georgia, where Magnolia still lives on an old plantation.

So, at the start of the story, both girls have just lost crucial aspects of their identities. Charlie has lost her life in New York, where it was safer (though not fully safe!) for her to defy the racist status quo. Magnolia, in turn, is reeling from the revelation that despite her skin tone, she’s not, in fact, white. Both girls desperately need to find each other in order to construct a new, mixed-race identity from the ashes of their old lives.

You’ve said that your debut novel, Agnes at the End of the World, was inspired by a dream you had. How did Mirror Girls begin?
Mirror Girls is more personal than Agnes, and I think I’ve been making my way toward writing that story for a long time—possibly decades. I grew up in a mixed-race family, and families like mine always have to fight to be seen as family. I can’t tell you how many times people challenged the fact that my brother and I were blood related, just because our skin tone is different. Mixed-race families have to affirm their existence over and over to a society that often chooses not to reflect us. This story was inspired by my own childhood, my own life.

“I grew up in a mixed-race family, and families like mine always have to fight to be seen as family.”

I was also inspired by the photographs of twin sisters Marcia and Millie Briggs, who made the news as infants because one baby presented as white (complete with red hair) and the other as Black. While I found these sisters sweet and inspiring, I recognized that the world was quite puzzled and uneasily fascinated by their existence. The subtext was: What does race even mean if twins can be born with such different racial presentations? And I thought, well, I know the answer to that! In order to survive a world that is still inhospitable to mixed-race families, I had to learn the answer to reconciling my own identity, and it was hard. That journey to self-acceptance felt like a story worth telling.

Mirror Girls has quite a few excellent names for both people and places. How do you find the right names?
For the most part, I just wait for names to come to me—and I know in my gut when I’ve found the right one. Sometimes it’s instant; other times it takes months.

I struggled mightily with the name of the plantation in the book for one horrible reason: There are so, so many plantations that still stand in the South, if only as historical destinations or people’s inherited homes, that I kept imagining names that had an analog in real life, which wasn’t ideal. I probably Googled 10 different names (many ending in –wood) until I found one that didn’t already belong to some plantation somewhere. It gives you a sense of the devastating scale of slavery to have that particular problem.

Both of your novels feature sisters as co-narrators. What elements of sisterhood did you want to explore in Mirror Girls that you didn’t touch on in Agnes? Do you see any commonalities between the two pairs of sisters in each of your books?
I’ll be honest: When I wrote Agnes, I wasn’t quite ready to take on the subject of mixed-race identity. It was too raw and personal for me at that moment in my life. Nevertheless, in that earlier novel, Agnes and Beth also lose their received identities—as oppressed members of a fundamentalist cult—and must fight to claim a new life and to redefine themselves. Part of that journey means understanding each other as sisters, despite their radically different temperaments and despite the fact that, while Agnes escapes the cult, Beth initially chooses to stay.

Charlie and Magnolia fight a parallel battle in the land of Jim Crow, which frankly has always seemed to me much like a malignant cult. In a cult, oppressive leaders tear down their members, trying to bend them to their will. During Jim Crow, Black people were told that we’re second-class citizens, that we don’t deserve what white folks have. Jim Crow explicitly targeted the Black sense of self, trying to force us to accept a damaged reflection of ourselves. To survive, Magnolia and Charlie must affirm, over and over again, their own worth—but they can’t do it alone. Their sisterhood, across class and the color line, becomes a key piece of their identity. Family and familial love is the greatest antidote to a world that insists, at the top of its lungs, that Black girls don’t count and don’t matter.

In addition to exploring sisterhood, Mirror Girls also dives deep into daughters, mothers and grandmothers, and the ways each generation’s actions ripple outward and affect future generations. What drew you to exploring these ideas in this story?
Every Black family in America suffers from intergenerational trauma, especially along our maternal lines. I heard somewhere that 95% of Black Americans are direct descendants of enslaved people, and the crux of chattel slavery as an institution was the separation of children from their mothers on the auction block. That’s an ever-present truth, an inherited cultural memory for every Black mother.

“Family and familial love is the greatest antidote to a world that insists, at the top of its lungs, that Black girls don’t count and don’t matter.”

But intergenerational trauma also takes very personal forms. On the day I was born in a hospital in Maryland, my mother was recovering from a cesarean section when a nurse took me for a checkup. My mother is obviously Black, but I’m extremely light. That nurse didn’t bring me back to my mother; they brought her a Black baby boy instead! Despite our identifying wristbands, that nurse just could not believe that we belonged together. My mother injured herself hollering in the hallway for me, and that story became a huge part of our family identity. In fact, when I gave birth, I remembered what had happened to my mother and worried that if my daughter’s skin tone didn’t match mine, there’d be trouble. It’s a terrible thing to fear that the world will deny your family their basic right to be a family.

Of course, terrible things happen to Black mothers in hospitals every single day, considering the horrible mortality rate. I firmly believe that every bit of maternal suffering causes intergenerational trauma down the line. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters bear so much of that pain. But we also tell the stories that help us to make sense of those traumas. It’s our heritage, and it’s also what we must pass down to help our descendants survive.

Mirror Girls is set in Georgia in 1953, with lots of references to Charlie’s life in Harlem. What sort of research did you do for the book? Were you able to do any travel- or interview-based research?
While deciding on a setting, I read Remembering Jim Crow: African-Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South, which is a collection of oral histories. Hearing those voices, I knew I would set the story during this time of struggle, when survival depended in part on Black folks’ own belief in their self-worth. At this time, elders worked so hard to imbue Black children, who were looked down upon by white society, with a sense of pride.

What I really loved about those oral histories, though, was the amazing specificity. Who knew that Coca-Cola once advertised itself in the South for being a “whites-only” drink in some states? And the segregated water fountains just came up over and over as a source of humiliation. It was really a deep laceration to the soul, to be segregated in those mundane ways.

I had desperately hoped to get down South for this project, but the pandemic prevented me from traveling. I did reach out to a sensitivity reader from the South to help with my understanding of the place.

As for interviews, I guess I did sort of interview my own family! We have a family legend that our last enslaved ancestor, a grandmother, walked off a Georgia plantation after emancipation, which is why I set the story there. Black families have long memories, but you do sometimes have to specifically ask the elders in your life to tell them. There’s quite a bit that the older generation often keeps to themselves because the stories are so painful to speak out loud.

I loved the book’s references to three real-life figures: Caleb Hill, Walter White and Ella Baker. Why was including each of these figures important to you and to the story?
My book is in part about an imagined lynching, that of Charlie and Magnolia’s parents. I included Caleb Hill’s name and tragic fate because it’s so important that we remember that lynchings really happened, en masse, in the real world. Caleb Hill died at a time when New York’s NAACP headquarters was keeping very careful track of Southern lynchings, so it was also the exact type of event that would have formed a bridge between the South and New York at the time. Northern brothers and sisters never stopped decrying Southern brutalities, and lynchings especially.

“Knowledge is power, and feeling empowered leads to feeling less scared, in the end.”

As for Ella Baker, she’s Charlie’s role model, because she’s not only an activist, she’s also a leader in a sexist time. I imagine Charlie following in her footsteps.

Finally, as I’m a woman light enough to pass for white, Walter Francis White is perhaps my very favorite historical figure of all time. Naturally, he becomes Magnolia’s as well, as she’s establishing her identity as a biracial person. Walter White could easily pass, but he chose not to. This brother had blond hair and blue eyes! In his early years, he acted as a sort of spy, investigating Southern lynchings for the NAACP. He put himself in grave danger pretending to be white to extract information from murderers. There’s a story that, at one point, he had to jump onto a moving train to save his own life. I just love that though he could have chosen the easy way out—pretending to be white to further his own opportunities—he dedicated his life to the Black community. And he used his light-skinned privilege to do something good for others.

Your first book combined the “cult escape” narrative with a pandemic story, and Mirror Girls seamlessly blends historical fiction and horror. What do you enjoy about stirring different genres together? Are there other genres you’d love to combine in the future?
I love to stir up genres, and I think it’s because I genuinely feel that life is too messy to be captured by one genre alone. There’s also a tension that two distinct genres place on each other that leads to fruitful and interesting narratives. Genre mashups also help you to avoid writing plot points that are too cliché.

I do have some combos I hope to write one day! One is a Western combined with a spy novel (actually based on the life of Walter White), but my next project is a single genre: a contemporary social satire. Genre mashups, while rewarding, are hard to pull off, and I need a short break!

In an interview, you once said that you tend to write what scares you. Do you ever have to take a break from writing because you’ve scared yourself? What makes you feel brave?
The things that scare me exist in the real world: patriarchy, white supremacy and racism, and I’m thinking about and dealing with them every single day. In a weird way, writing about those things is itself my break from the awfulness of reality. Writing what scares you is oddly therapeutic, the way nightmares are. I have to work through my thoughts about these heavy topics in order to stay grounded in my real life. It’s like a very demanding form of self-care.

When I’m finished with a book, I’ve usually worked out some of the troubles in my own head and squared my thoughts on these heavy topics and how we should respond to them. Knowledge is power, and feeling empowered leads to feeling less scared, in the end.

What will you take away from the writing of this book?
When I was in middle school, I struggled to look into mirrors, because I just could not square the racial identity that I hold so dear with my own light face. By the time I hit my 20s, mirrors and I were on better terms, but in another, deeper way, I was still avoiding a certain type of mirror: my own writing. I did not write about white passing or light-skinned existence or the struggles of mixed families. Or, I suppose, I was writing about those things, but they were extremely sublimated.

Now, in my 30s, I finally feel strong enough to write more explicitly from my own personal experience. It’s been absolutely revelatory. I’ve never felt so at peace with my own racial ambiguity, and I’m finally beginning to process and even speak about the core traumas of my mixed childhood. My book is dedicated to mirror girls of every color, everywhere—and come to think of it, that includes me.

Read our starred review of ‘Mirror Girls.’

Author photo of Kelly McWilliams courtesy of Black Forest Photography.

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