Bryn Greenwood: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

Bryn Greenwood: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
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Bryn Greenwood is is a native and fourth generation Kansan, who holds two undergraduate degrees in literature as well as an MFA. Her latest work, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (St Martins Press, 2016) has captivated romance readers despite its atypical heroes.

MW: How would you describe All The Ugly and Wonderful Things to someone who hasn't read yet?

BG: I love the idea of people going into my book without knowing anything about it, so I frequently mumble vague things like "a little girl whose father is a drug dealer." If pressed, however, I tend to think of it as a story about a lonely girl, a lonelier man, and the lengths they go to in order to create a family where they are loved and accepted.

MW: Did you set out to write a romance novel when you conceived these characters?

BG: No, that wasn't my intention, which is good, since I don't think All the Ugly and Wonderful Things succeeds as a romance novel. From early in the drafting process it was clear that there was this central relationship, but it misses the mark on the most common romance elements. I believe my publisher classifies it as literary/coming-of-age. That said, I'm thrilled that many romance fans have connected to the story. At its heart is a love story that asks readers to hope for a happy ending for two mismatched outcasts.

MW: You've had some negative feedback from readers about Kellen's size and you responded in a blog post. What do you make of the outcry and how is Kellen's size important?

BG: My suspicion is that some readers went into the book expecting a traditionally gorgeous, toned romance novel hero, and instead they got Kellen, who is six-and-a-half feet tall, over three hundred pounds, with a beer belly and greasy hands. I sympathize with readers whose expectations are overturned in ways they maybe don't like, but I also feel that Kellen's physical form is important to the story. He isn't the kind of guy women drool over, but he represents strength and safety to the main character, Wavy. More than that, he's proof that it's safe to eat, when Way has spent most of her life afraid of eating in front of people.

MW: The POV switches in the novel are intriguing, just when you think someone is a background character, the following chapter switches to their POV. Can you tell us how you chose who would have a voice and why?

BG: I'm not sure I even believe in background characters. Every character who shows up in my novels is somebody with a story, and because I'm a compulsive writer, I tend to write down those stories, just in case I need them later. I like to pivot to characters on the periphery of the main story, because they frequently have perspectives I want to see. That's how I chose many of the secondary narratives for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. Who could give me a new or unique perspective on the central story? Some of them are people who know the main characters well--like Wavy's cousin or Kellen's business partner--but others are strangers who meet Wavy and Kellen in passing. Conversely, I passed over the POVs of some of the central characters, because I feared they would derail the story I was telling, or because I felt their narrative was one that most readers could imagine on their own. For example, I skipped Wavy's Aunt Brenda, because she essentially stands in for us as a society. We know what she thinks, because it's what we think when we read terrible things in the news.

MW: In a lot of ways, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is a dark novel and what should be the most controversial element is actually the lightest and purest part, providing a respite from all of the failed relationships in the novel. How have readers responded to the controversial subject matter? How did publishers react?

BG: So far, the response to that controversial element has been tempered by the scope of the story. In light of all the dysfunction in Wavy's life, a lot of readers end up feeling that any loving and supportive relationship is valuable to her, even if we would normally consider it troubling. We may not approve of all the decisions Kellen makes, but he is consistently committed to trying to improve things for Wavy and her little brother.

There are some readers who come away deeply disturbed by the story, and there are other people who feel strongly that this kind of story shouldn't even be told. I disagree. Not everybody has a nice, neat suburban childhood, but they deserve to see their experiences mirrored in fiction as much as anybody. When I see people saying, "This book should never have been published," I feel more resolved to continue writing stories that reflect the experiences of people who've lived through unpretty things. I won't shut up just because it makes some people uncomfortable.

In terms of publisher reactions, there were a few editors who suggested it would be better if Wavy were older and Kellen were younger. Of course, that would be a very different book, as the age of consent in Kansas is sixteen.

MW: In your author's bio, it states that you are the daughter of a "mostly reformed drug dealer," is there an autobiographical aspect in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things?

BG: I don't consider it autobiographical at all, but my personal experiences have informed some of the layers and details in the book. My father was a meth dealer, and he lived on an armed compound in the country, and he had a whole assortment of hangers-on. I experienced and witnessed a lot of wild things. As a young woman, I also had a habit of dating much older men, which started when I was all of thirteen and fell in love with the kind of guy you wouldn't want your thirty-year-old daughter dating. I have fond memories of that relationship, which I suppose made it easier to deal sympathetically with Wavy and Kellen's situation.

MW: Who are some of your favorite authors? Books? Characters?

BG: One of my absolute favorite series of books is Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books. I have loved those since I was a child, and they have not lost one bit of their power. The most amazing thing is that the series has grown with me, and I've had the pleasure of seeing Tenar and Ged progress through full lives. Other writers who have stuck with me for years are Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Mary Renault, and Anthony Trollope. His The Way We Live Now has one of my favorite fictional characters: Marie Melmotte. She is so passionate and reckless and fierce. In terms of more recent favorites, I like Alissa York, Carol Emshwiller, Emma Donoghue, Mary Doria Russell, and Sherri L. Smith. I love writers who surprise me, whose characters step outside of themselves or rise above their natures to do something different.

MW: What's next?

BG: I tend to have way more ideas than I could ever hope to write in this lifetime, so it's a struggle to narrow it down. My current obsession is how we deal as a society and as individuals with the invasive presence of media. So I'm writing about a small town that decides to police themselves entirely through the public broadcast of live surveillance camera footage. No matter how we think we might be prepared for that, there are always secrets to be uncovered. I'm also working on a project that asks: In an era of Photoshop and CGI, what's the value of unaltered reality?

You can find out more about Bryn and her work at or on Amazon All the Ugly and Wonderful Thinks is available online and at all major book retailers.

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