Friday, May 20, 2022

Kelly Sokol Interview - Breach

Photo Content from Kelly Sokol

Kelly Sokol is the author of Breach and The Unprotected, which was featured on NPR and named one of Book Riot's 100 Must-Read Books of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood. She is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author and MFA creative writing graduate. Her work has appeared in Alpinist, UltraRunning Magazine, The Manifest-Station, Connotation Press, and more. She teaches creative writing at The Muse Writers Center. When she is not reading, writing or parenting, Kelly dreams, in color, of the mountains. She can often be found running in the backcountry. She resides in Virginia with her family.

Greatest thing you learned in school.
I didn't have the language for this until I was in graduate school, but I was four when I first learned that books would be my greatest teachers. A master work of fiction always has something to offer, and the insights they provide will differ depending on what I'm experiencing in my life. I can return to a novel time and again to take a deep dive to see just how an author crafted a story. I am so thankful for all of the educators and librarians who put books into my hands over my lifetime, and grateful that my parents allowed me to discern what I needed to read and when. Now it's incredible book bloggers and reviewers, my creative writing students, and my own children who provide the most wonderful book recommendations.

Beyond your own work (of course), what is your favorite book and why? And what is your favorite book outside of your genre? 
Picking a favorite book of all time is like picking a favorite child! It's a tie; and I really mean it. The two novels I come back to time and again are Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguru. My love for Jane Eyre is absolutely in spite of the wife in the attic. I first read it in middle school and loved the dark, stark narrative voice. Bronte's use of the natural world as a mirror for internal struggle, that lightning struck tree, stunning. Ishiguru's A Pale View of Hills moves through time and memory as the human brain actually does. Trauma's effects on memory, the ways we rewrite our pain consciously and unconsciously, are so present in this novel.

Reading across as many genres as possible makes me both a satisfied reader and a better writer, so I try to take it all in. I also teach fiction writing, and my students all work in different genres. Just this spring I had two students writing historical fiction, one writing high fantasy, another writing YA, so they have me happily reading across genres. All that said, I think Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin was the first literary fiction novel infused with pulpy sci-fi elements that I'd ever read. The novel challenged me and I read and re-read it to try and understand just how Atwood created a story so unusual and so compelling. Annotating The Blind Assassin is what made me seek out an MFA. I have so much fun unlocking fiction.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
Any time a reader tells me she connected with one of my characters, it makes me giddy. At a reading shortly after The Unprotected was published in 2017 I was approached by a friend. I had just read a difficult scene in which the main character was experiencing terrifying intrusive thoughts about the wellbeing of her newborn baby. This friend and I had walked and hiked together regularly for years and our kids were roughly the same ages--about 11 and 9 at the time. I thought we talked about everything, but I was wrong. She said she had no idea that new mothers besides her ever experienced thoughts like that. She was so relieved to understand that she had not been alone. And yet, she'd held onto that experience like a shameful secret for so many years. Fiction is a lie that tells a deep truth. I can't imagine anything better than when that truth resonates with a reader.

Has reading a book ever changed your life? Which one and why, if yes?
I feel really sad for anyone who hasn't had the experience of a book permanently altering how they see the world. The feeling when you know your time with the characters is thinning and all you want to do is taffy it out. The moment when you close a book after reading the end and you have to sit quietly with it for some time. Books are magic.

Reading fiction was my first lesson in empathy--the first opportunity I had to step into the life and perspective of someone completely different from me. I read The Bridge to Teribithia by Katherine Patterson in fourth grade. I felt like I was part of Jesse and Leslie's world. Teribithia was as real to me as the woods around my house at the time. The schoolyard taunts sounded just like the ones I heard. And my little girl heart broke with Jesse's as his best friend was ripped from this life. Eleven years later, I turned back to this book several times after my little brother died. His death felt as senseless and undeserved as Leslie's did to Jesse, and the experience of grief in fiction helped me to access and understand my own grief. Both of my daughters read The Bridge to Teribithia as part of their elementary school curriculum and we were able to sit with the gift and weight of that book together.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
You are the only person who can tell the story inside of you, just as I am the only person who can tell the story welling up inside of me. In some ways there's truth to the saying there's nothing new under the sun. The human condition has been explored endlessly--love, betrayal, death, birth, struggle, endurance. But one singular voice, one specific lived experience, one distinct lens can change everything. I begin every semester of any creative writing class I teach by asking the entire class to write about the same prompt. Invariably, each writer's story is different. Who cares if there's nothing new to write about? Your voice is new and different and worthwhile. Show us what keeps you up at night. Show us what interests you, what scares you.

Can you tell us when you started BREACH, how that came about?
Novels always begin with characters for me. If I don't feel invested in the character, I won't care what she does or what happens to her. I discovered Marleigh Mulcahy, and this whole novel sprung from a writing prompt given to a group of writers one hot summer night in July 2017. My friend and mentor Janine Latus led a class called Write Now. My first novel THE UNPROTECTED had debuted that spring and I was working back into the creative process again.

Janine gave us a verbal cue: home. For fifteen minutes we sat silently scribbling. One of the writers had a plastic water bottle that expanded in the heat enough to crackle. I began writing a prose list that sprung from that sound. A young woman swirling the last sips of warm water to spit toothpaste out on the ground. One hand held the water bottle; the other braced the young woman against the trunk of a car. The car had an "I heart my sailor" sticker stuck to the rear windshield. Small boys slept inside the car. And on it went. I had to figure out who this woman was, how she'd arrived at this desperate moment, and what she was going to do next. It wasn't long before I could hear Marleigh and see her, and I knew I was onto something the moment she made a decision that I didn't expect. She took control of the plot. BREACH was always Marleigh's story.

Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from Breach.
From their earliest moments, Marleigh Mulcahy and Jace Holt have lived difficult lives. My favorite scenes in BREACH are the moments of light, happiness and love. Both of these characters have fought to the bloody knuckles for every happy moment they share. Here are my three favorites.

First, Marleigh thought, "She wanted to wake him and share the starry night sky he'd given her." Marleigh was not prepared for a night beneath the midwestern summer sky. Tens of miles from the nearest source of light, the milky way twists endlessly overhead. Shooting stars rain. Satellites arc above. Jace has just shared a painful secret with Marleigh, and he sleeps beside her, unburdened, as she delights in the Nebraska night sky.

Second, when Jace is with Marleigh, he is all sensation and energy and impulse. She brings every feeling to the surface, and no one has ever had that power over him before. He said, "Holy shit is right. I can't decide if I should cry or smile. I want to shout and dance and put my fist through a wall and stomp and shoot off fireworks and turn a goddamn cartwheel." Who wouldn't want to evoke that kind of feeling?

Finally, after Marleigh sat with Jason atop Scotts Bluff and watched the sunrise, she realized, "She felt limitless with Jace by her side." That's how love makes us feel: bold, empowered, limitless.

  • 1. I lived in the Ocean View section of Norfolk for four years, not far from where Marleigh would have grown up.
  • 2. When Marleigh meets Jace, she's working three jobs: managing the gym for Pops, waitressing/bartending and tattooing. She's also going to school to become a dental hygienist.
  • 3.When Marleigh meets Jace Holt, he is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician in the Navy. EOD technicians are trained to detect, disarm, and dispose of explosive threats. Navy EOD is competitive and requires lengthy and rigorous training. Training includes: nine weeks of dive school, 42 weeks of EOD training, parachute training and EOD tactical training.
  • 4.BREACH contains a lot of snake imagery, particularly rattlesnakes, masters of camouflage in dry, dusty terrain. Jace tells Marleigh not to worry about a snake he's shooed away, saying the snake's "hardly Unhcegila." The Lakota people were native to the American midwest, and their mythology includes unhcegila, an ancient and dangerous water monster that took various shapes including serpentine.
  • 5. Unusual rattlesnake fact: Female rattlesnakes give live birth. They do not lay eggs.
  • 6. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument--where Jace and Marleigh picnic with Jace's family--is a real place. It's located in Harrison, Nebraska. Full skulls of extinct mammals from the Miocene era were located there in the early 1900s. Chief Red Cloud of the Lakota Sioux also befriended rancher James Cook there.
  • 7. I trained weekly at a small boxing gym for two years, and I sparred twice. I learned what Mike Tyson meant when he said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." And I was wearing head protection!
  • 8. As a boy, Jace grew up with an imaginary companion, Bear Dog, who kept him company and protected him. Prehistoric bear dog dens were found at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. Bear dogs were the size of large wolves.
  • 9. Hormonal birth control pills have a real-life use failure rate of as much as nine percent.
  • 10. Virginia Beach, Virginia has the largest concentration of United States military service personnel outside of the Pentagon, with nearly 90,000 active-duty military service members representing every branch of the U.S. military.
Meet the characters
When I write a novel I make notebooks for my primary characters. This is a tip I received from Darcy Steinke. In the early draft stages, I sit with a glass of wine or cup of tea and sit with my characters. I do this in the evening. It's more meditation than writing time.

I sketch out what the insides of their middle school lockers looked like. (I also do this with refrigerators, characters' underwear drawers, you name it.) I made lists of the contents of Marleigh's locker. Why? Because this is one of the first times in youth where we have control (limited as it might be) over a physical space and its contents. None of these details make it into the novel, but they teach me who this character is. The knowledge of Marleigh suffuses the work as a result.

Marleigh was organized. Her text books stacked spine and title out. Her books were scuffed and the spines stretched out of shape. They were always bought used, never new. Slid longways beside the stack of books, ready to be pulled out and used at a second's notice is Marleigh's sketch book, with two charcoal pencils held in the metal spirals.

She stuck a small round mirror onto the back, lower corner, of the locker door so she could check her makeup. Marleigh is 5'3", and her locker was on the upper row. In her makeup pouch she kept a dollar in quarters, for any emergency Diet Coke vending machine needs. Above the mirror hung a print out of her soccer schedule. A large keychain dangled from the top handle of a purple soccer bag stuffed above her books, with keys to her parents' home, Pops's OV Box n Go as well as his apartment, and the tattoo parlor where she apprenticed. Marleigh, though she works as a tattoo artist, has only one tattoo. "A delicate black outline of a woman's hand, fingers crossed in hope, nails slim and long and black. The words, bruised but not beaten thin as lace stretched up the pale underside of her forearm."

To gain an understanding of Jace Holt, I thought about his truck, a 1995 Ford F 150 that he received as a high school graduation gift from his aunt and uncle. His truck was red, the color of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers and pretty much the unofficially official state color. (I was born in Omaha, NE.) This truck was the first significant possession Jace ever owned and he treasured it. The glove box held unopened cans of Kodiak chewing tobacco. Jace rarely dipped, but every guy in his class walked around with a tin in his back pocket hoping to achieve the tell-tale faded white ring from wear against the denim. Underneath his registration and the folder of basic truck information, he had a filleting knife and a duck call. At his feet, pushed gently beneath the truck's bench seat was a warm six pack of beer, and occasionally a bottle of something strong and brown. This truck gave Jace freedom. The opportunity for escape, and he and Marleigh share some of their most significant moments in the truck. Marleigh thought, "She could ride in this truck with him and never stop, just the two of them in his cab pointed at the horizon. She slid both of their hands up her thigh, just a little, instead of talking."

Your journey to publication.
Thank you for asking about this. It's important for writers to know that there are multiple paths to becoming traditionally published. BREACH is my second novel. My first novel, THE UNPROTECTED, was published in 2017 by Skyhorse. A misperception exists that once an author signs with an agent and that agent sells her novel to a reputable publisher and that book more than earns back that the author has been granted the keys to the publishing kingdom. Publishing her next novel will be so much easier than the first. That was not the case for me.

I was ecstatic when I signed with an agent who then sold my first novel to an acquiring editor. That euphoria faded by a month or so after my publication day when my editor switched publishing houses and my agent suddenly stopped agenting. I was, once again, the only advocate for my book in the world. The lesson was painful, but I only needed to learn it once.

With BREACH I spent most of a year querying agents. This came after the three years of writing and rewriting and beta reads and really digging in to get the story right. I received a lot of heartening interest--several full manuscript reads, etc.--but no offer of representation. BREACH didn't fit many of the manuscript wish lists agents posted on Twitter and elsewhere, but I was confident this story would connect deeply with readers and deserved a place in the world. My early readers, colleagues, and students all felt the same way. And my first, and only, experience with an agent was so damaging that I wasn't sure just how much time and energy and emotion I wanted to pour into that endeavor. I shifted my search to publishers who accepted manuscripts directly from authors. Two immediately signaled interest, and I ended up signing with an independent publisher with editors deeply committed to this novel.

Nearly five years have elapsed from first putting pen to paper to seeing BREACH on bookstore shelves. My daughters were in elementary school when I began this novel. My youngest is finishing ninth grade now and my oldest is looking at college. But they've never doubted my work and the ultimate payoff of perseverance. And come to think of it, I've known my characters Marleigh and Jace just as long as I've known my husband! He, too, has never wavered in his support of me and my writing.

Writers, please, make your books the very best they can be. Take constructive criticism when you get it. Try suggestions on for size; some may actually improve your work. But never stop writing. Never give up.

Writing Behind the Scenes
I'm a consistent four-to-five day a week writer. I think it's important for every writer to find the practice that best suits her. I'm an early morning writer. (If I tried to stay up late and write, I'd never get anything done.) And my weekends belong to sports--either my daughters' soccer or my trail runs. On the weekdays, I spend the hour when only my dog Bella and I are awake with my coffee and my newest creative work. I pick up from the day before and see where my characters take me. I'm fresh from sleep and can usually slip right into the work.

After that peaceful hour comes the frantic teen-rushed-breakfast-where's my uniform/water bottle/iced coffee/why are you wearing my shirt-get out the door on-time madness. When my house empties for the day, I spend an hour or two revising a manuscript. Then I head out for a run. My time running on trails balances out my mind and my body. After a few hours at my desk I'm desperate to move. I finish my writing day with reading and research for my next project. Reading is my reward for my writing efforts. And I have to save reading and research for last because I can spend all day doing that.

I finish my work between 1 and 2pm. On my teaching days, I head to the classroom. On my non-teaching days, I answer emails and play around on social media. Since I'm in publication month, I have some interviews in the afternoons as well. Once, I thought I had to spend eight hours a day fully immersed in my work or else I wasn't doing it right. My body and brain don't work that way. And, I love the busyness of this season of my life--the soccer tournaments and team dinners, walks with my girlfriends, a sunset glass of wine with my husband. My life is richer when I allow space for all of it, and I'm a better writer, too.

Every story begins, for me, with a character. A close second place is the novel's setting(s). Characters and the places they inhabit are always in some measure of comfort or conflict. Not every character is able to live where she would be most comfortable. And conflict makes story interesting. I love sussing out the details of a place that inform the reader how a character feels about her environment. What does she notice? What does she purposefully ignore? It's truly dorky good fun.

The boundary between battlefield and home front blurs. Are there wounds love can heal?

Marleigh Mulcahy grew up in a boxing gym, the daughter of hard-drinking parents who didn't keep a stable roof overhead. In the cinder-block Box-n-Go, amidst the sweat and funk, she meets EOD specialist Jace Holt, a highly and expensively trained bomb diffuser with three successful deployments behind him. With a heady mix of hope, carelessness, and a ridiculous amount of courage, they begin a family. When Jace returns to active duty, a roadside bomb resurrects ghosts from the couple's past and threatens the life they've built.

An unflinching and timely gaze into the marriage of an enlisted special operator and his wife, Breach is the story of betting it all on love, a couple's determination to change the trajectory of their lives, and one woman's promises to the man she loves and the children they're raising.

What choices will a desperate mother make to keep her family whole?

You can purchase Breach at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you KELLY SOKOL for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Breach by Kelly Sokol.


  1. It's a slideshow of landscape photos from around the world. Changes every couple of days.

  2. Cartoon lions (I am a Leo) :)