Welcome Kelis Rowe, author of Finding Jupiter, Crown Books for Young Readers, 2022. Kelis is presenting at the 2023 Texas Library Association (TLA) Conference, April 20-21*, and at our Austin SCBWI’s 2023 Writers & Illustrators Working Conference, April 29-30. “Kelis Rowe is a stay-at-home mom and former homeschooler who writes Black young adult summer love stories. A lifelong James Taylor and Beyoncé fan, Rowe’s debut novel, Finding Jupiter, is a contemporary literary romance about a James Taylor and Beyoncé fan and a champion swimmer bonding through shared grief and falling in love. It incorporates journal pages of art and found poetry from the pages of classic novels including The Great Gatsby and Their Eyes Were Watching God. After Pitchwars competition success, Finding Jupiter sold in a 7-way Big 5 auction the same year Kelis made her then 12 year old son a big brother!”
Where did you grow up, and how did that place (or those places) shape your work?
I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in the “poor part” of Whitehaven. That distinction is important because I went to magnet schools with Whitehaven kids who were the children of doctors and judges. Growing up in a bubble, where everyone from the orthodontist to the mailman is Black, class lines are rarely blurred. Some aspects of all my work will always examine classism in Black America.
Did you always want to be an author, or did that come later?
I wanted to be a fashion model and an airline attendant and get out of Memphis. After graduating high school, when I learned the devastating news that I was too tall to qualify to be a flight attendant, I applied to college. I was an honors student, so acceptance at the local Catholic University in Memphis was swift. Writing poetry was always part of my life, and I have a past life as a blogger. When readers started to ask when I was going to write a book, I started to dream. I thought I’d be the Black woman David Sedaris, then I discovered YA fiction and here we are.
If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?
Teenager and toddler wrangling, coffee mainlining after school drop-offs and a mad dash to do anything on my writing to-do list before toddler pick-up at noon. Then PM coffee mainlining and a mad dash to do anything on my writing to-do list before teenager pick-up after the toddler wakes up. Bra optional, yoga pants required, perhaps a procrastinatory episode of a pre-recorded soap opera at some point during the day. Evenings, I try to be available for whatever attention and cuddles my kids need. Once they’re in bed, I spend unholy amounts of time in bed on my laptop watching 90’s teen dramas on Hulu. Rinse. Repeat. On days that I have school author visits and have to wear makeup and a bra, I feel adult and professional. Those are cool days.
How does your everyday life feed your work?
I love being available to my family. I’ve been a stay-at-home mom since my teen was born and needed spinal cord surgery as a newborn. Writing my debut novel and having a baby the same year it sold, during the pandemic, I found myself a working mother for the first time. It’s hard to find time to write (see previous answer), but I really, really like making money and making my kids proud. Knowing that book-writing allows me to do both of those things and still be able to be with them all the time, drives me to do what I can to keep all our cups full.
Tell us about some accomplishments that make you proud.
• Selling my first novel in a seven-way “Big Five” auction—I will always smirk internally about that.
• Staying married, cultivating loving relationships with my kids—damn proud.
• Remaining optimistic about the everlasting power of the written word and about the world we are fighting to leave for the amazing kids in this country who will 100% be okay is a daily, hard-fought accomplishment that I’m proud of.
What surprises you about the creative life?
Nothing, really. I’d been a workhorse since I was old enough to work and even after having a child with special needs, I knew I’d always go back to work whenever I could stop homeschooling. Writing Finding Jupiter—I was going to self-publish it on Amazon, then find a copywriting job and start a candle business. My field, market research, had changed in the decade-plus that I’d been out of the game, so I was always going to do something creative and entrepreneurial. I still want to start a candle business.
When a reader discovers your work, what do you hope they find?
A novel unlike any YA romance they’ve read before with characters that stay with them well beyond the final page, and some aspect of their own humanity. Those are things I’ve found in the books that have made the dopest impressions on my life.
Any favorite inspirational mentor quotes?
“Yes, you’ve hit that crunch moment where it’s crucial that you get as productive as possible! Keep at it!!!”
This is from a screenshot of part of an email from my amazing agent. I screenshotted it the moment I read it with plans to frame it and hang it on the wall above my desk whenever I get an office. It’s from March 1, 2021 and I was furiously working on book edits. I took a screenshot of it because I feel like I live in that crucial moment. I sold my first book at 42 and had a second child the same year—the first year of the pandemic. Everything feels urgent. It’s challenging to keep going in any of the directions I need to at all times.
Observations regarding your experience with a publisher auction?
If you’re ever fortunate enough to find yourself in this situation, you’d better believe the hype with your whole heart. Your novel is as hot as boiling water during auction, but it won’t be published for two solid years. And however it sells when it launches, a new book is being launched the following Tuesday and every Tuesday after that. We create art for consumption, so it’s challenging to not judge it based on sales. But there are only so many spots on the bestseller lists. And a relatively small group of tastemakers decide which books to hang stars on, nominate for awards, promote on TikTok, etc. Love the book you wrote and remember why you wrote it. Believe the hype from auction like it’s fresh hype everyday, regardless of who is talking about it. Because you will be promoting it for the rest of your life and it is “happifying” to promote a book that you truly believe is impactful.
Favorite James Taylor and Beyoncé lyrics?
“Whenever I see your smiling face, I have to smile myself because I love you… No one can tell me that I’m doin’ wrong today, whenever I see you smile at me.” —James Taylor, “Your Smiling Face”
“The hearts I have touched will be the proof that I leave, that I made a difference and this world will see I was here… I did, I've done everything that I wanted and it was more than I thought it would be, I will leave my mark so everyone will know I was here…” —Beyoncé, “I Was Here”