The University of Michigan-Flint wasn’t the first school that author Kelly Coon (BA English ’00) considered. Kelly was expelled from her first college, a very conservative religious institution in South Carolina. She looks back on that expulsion with pride. High tuition costs at another private college prompted the Flint-area native to enroll closer to home at UM-Flint. Third time’s a charm and Kelly graduated with her bachelor’s in English (Specialization in Writing) in 2000.
“My professors at UM-Flint really believed in me. Dr. Jacob Blumner took me aside and said, ‘I bet you’ll be published before you’re 30,’” Kelly remembers. “I held him in high esteem and kept that memory when I was getting nowhere with my first novels, not being able to get a literary agent.”
The words of her professor proved to be an important motivation for Kelly, as she experienced 106 rejections over ten years while working to get a novel published. She accomplished her goal in October 2019, as Gravemaidens was published by Delacorte Press/Penguin Random House. A sequel is forthcoming.
Gravemaidens is a young adult fantasy novel set in the city-state of Alu, where beautiful young girls are chosen to go with the dying ruler into the afterlife. The story focuses on sisters Kammani and Nanaea; younger sister Nanaea is chosen to die with the ruler, while Kammani will do everything she can to save her sister by healing the ruler. It’s a tale that draws heavily on themes of sisterhood and feminism—an intentional choice by Kelly, who was raised in a heavily patriarchal environment.
“The church I was raised in was almost cultish. Whatever the pastor said was law and women were meant to stay home and raise children,” Kelly explains. “For me, feminism just means a woman being free to pursue whatever she feels inclined to pursue, whether that is staying home with her children or going out to find a career. It’s important that I reflect that in my stories—girls pursuing their dreams and attaining them.”
On Dec. 4, Kelly will return to UM-Flint for a talk and Q & A from 2:30-3:45 in 301 French Hall. Though the talk takes place during an Intro to Creative Writing class session, all students are welcome. Later that day, Kelly will conduct a reading and signing at Totem Books (620 W Court St.) from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. Kelly, who now lives near Tampa with her husband and three sons, has not been to campus since graduating in 2000.
“I grew up absolutely dirt poor in Burton, Michigan. My mom didn’t graduate from high school. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I’m excited to look at these students and say, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’ This is thrilling for me.”