YEM Author Interview: Kellie M. Parker speaks about where the idea for her book “Thin Air” came from

Kellie M. Parker is the author of This Air. Thin Air follows a seventeen-year-old boarding school student Emily Walters, who  is selected for an opportunity of a lifetime. The novel explores loyalty shifts and secrets. YEM was able to speak with Kellie about her writing process, picking Paris as the destination in her book, and writing a thriller.

YOUNG ENTERTAINMENT MAG:  When did you first know that you wanted to be an author?

KELLIE M. PARKER: Although I grew up reading all the time and scribbling stories for fun, I never seriously considered writing a novel until I was in graduate school studying nautical archaeology in Texas. I’d done a lot of traveling by that point in my life, and on a visit to Big Bend National Park, my imagination got swept up in the idea of what a great setting it would make for a story. After scratching out a poorly-written romantic suspense, I set it aside for several years when my kids were born. But as they grew out of the toddler years, I found myself yearning to fall back into a story again, and I started my first young adult novel. Writing became my go-to “brain break” and favorite new hobby. Once I had a full manuscript—and had spent a few years polishing and improving it—I knew it was time to dip my toes into publishing and start querying literary agents.

YEM: Your idea for Thin Air is so interesting and is really captivating. Where did it come from?

KELLIE: Thank you! My literary agent actually pitched the initial concept when she suggested I write about a group of teens on a class trip, trapped on an airplane with a killer. I mulled the idea over, but I didn’t get excited about it until one day when I was thinking about one of my favorite middle grade novels, The Westing Game. From that book, the idea of a diverse cast of characters—each with their own secrets—competing for a prize was born. And when I combined that concept with a Clue-like mystery, where everyone would be a suspect, all the potential for conflict in the story sprang to life in my mind.

YEM: What was your writing process like?

KELLIE: I’m a “pantser” by nature, but as anyone who writes mysteries or thrillers will tell you, that method can get a writer into trouble fast. So I’ve tried to modify my ways by doing a lot of brainstorming first and coming up with a bare-bones outline of the major plot points. For Thin Air, I used Pinterest to choose images for each of my characters, and then I created an Excel spreadsheet listing all the pertinent details about them. Once I had figured out each of their internal motivations, secrets, and goals, that helped me think through potential points for external conflict in the story. And since the story is centered on Emily as my point-of-view narrator, I structured the plot mainly around her and her conflicts. After jotting down my notes and a one-page outline in a notebook, I started the first draft and was able to write through my outline in about three months. After letting the story sit for a few weeks, I reread it and did my own revision before sending it to critique partners and my agent. After a second edit and more polishing, it was ready for submission to editors. The entire process from idea to submission took about ten months.

YEM: Is any of the book or the characters based on your life at all?

KELLIE: Happily, I have never been trapped on an airplane with a killer, but I have flown quite a bit, and I relied heavily on my own airplane experiences to imagine how awful Emily and the others’ situation would be. Writers are often told to write what we know, and I think that bits of me worked their way into almost all the characters. A lot of them are overachievers, which I definitely relate to, along with their drive to succeed academically. Emily is more extroverted and “popular” than I was in high school, but she shares my loyalty to friends, desire to do the right thing (eventually…cough, cough), and quirky sense of humor. And like Simon, I’ve carried an emotional support book around with me on numerous occasions—just not a math textbook!

YEM: What made you choose to pick Paris as the place that your characters are flying to?

KELLIE: Great question! Honestly, Paris was the first (and really only) destination that popped into my head. When I was a child, my family lived overseas in Italy for a few years, and we were able to visit Paris. I loved the history, the sights, and of course the crepes and hot chocolate. I still have a mini-Eiffel Tower from that trip tucked away in a cabinet. I’m also a huge fan of road cycling, and I watch the Tour de France every summer with its sprint finish on the Champs Elysees. From a practical standpoint, I knew the story would take place almost entirely on the airplane, so I needed to find a direct flight that would last several hours. Originally, I had intended for them to fly out of JFK in New York, but I quickly realized the story needed the extra two hours they’d have if they left from O’Hare in Chicago. 

YEM: What was the hardest part of the writing process?

KELLIE: I tend to struggle the most with writing the first draft. As I mentioned above, I’m usually working from a one-page outline that hits only the major plot points, along with my character notes. So I know what the next target is that I need to reach by a certain page count, but I have to come up with all the intervening events to get there. Sometimes I’ll reach a point where I have to step away from the laptop, dig out pen and paper, and jot down a list of ideas for what could happen next. Usually, this brainstorming will get my creative juices flowing again until I figure out the next scene.

YEM: What do you hope your readers can take away from Thin Air?

KELLIE: A couple of things! Heading into the book, Emily has made some bad choices, which leaves a lot of room in the story for her to either grow as a person or stagnate. She’s got a friendship she can either choose to fight for or leave, and as the situation deteriorates on the plane, she has to choose how she’s going to deal with it—be brave and face it or give up. I hope readers realize that, like Emily, their choices are powerful, and I hope they find the courage to do the right thing. And if they’ve made choices in the past they regret, I hope that they’ll own their mistakes and find grace. 

YEM: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to become a writer?

KELLIE: Ah, I love this question! If I could sit down with every would-be author over a hot cup of tea and tell them one thing, it would be this: don’t give up. Although I’m an avid reader, as I mentioned above, I never studied creative writing in school. Everything I’ve learned about the craft and publishing has been through books, conferences, writing groups, and networking with the amazing online writing community. Oh, and LOTS of practice. If I can do it, so can you. But I can’t tell you how many times I thought about giving up. For almost all of us except a rare few, the path to publication is strewn with rejections and failure. You can either quit, or dust yourself off and keep going. It’s okay to decide this isn’t right for you and move onto something else! But, if you really want to be an author, what’s going to get you there isn’t talent—it’s perseverance and stubborn determination. Don’t give up.  

YEM: Is a thriller something that you have always wanted to write?

KELLIE: Interestingly, my first two YA manuscripts, which died on submission, were both fantasy stories. My agent recognized space in the market for thrillers and my ability to write suspenseful scenes and cliffhanger chapter endings, so she recommended I give a thriller a chance. I adored reading mystery books like Nancy Drew as a kid, and as I got older, I dug into sci-fi type thrillers like the ones by Michael Crichton and Preston and Child, so writing one myself felt, in some ways, like a natural extension of what I already enjoyed. And it proved to be not only successful, but a lot of fun to write.

YEM: What is another genre you hope to explore someday?

KELLIE: I’d love to dip my toes back into YA fantasy, as fantasy was my other favorite genre to read growing up besides mysteries. I have plans to rework one of my previous manuscripts, and I’m excited to jump back into that story when I have the time.

YEM: Is there a quote or scene in the book that is your favorite?

KELLIE: Oh, this is such a tough question! There are a few scenes I love because I know what’s coming next, and they set up the twists so well. There’s one scene that literally makes me wince every time I read it. (Sorry, my lips are sealed as to which one.) And I’m a sucker for romance, so I love Emily and Liam’s scenes. But here’s a quote that always stands out to me, because it captures the stress of the situation so well and Emily’s determination:

“I have no idea what’s keeping me together now, beyond the hope of seeing my mom again and the chance to reconcile with Nikki. Picturing their faces grounds me a little, like glue pulling some of the cracks back together until I can breathe without shattering. I can do this—for them.” (p. 258)

YEM: What are you planning on writing in the future?

KELLIE: Right now, I’m working on another YA thriller, but this one has more speculative elements along the lines of a Preston and Child book. I can’t say much about it, but I’m really enjoying these new characters and this story, and I think readers will love it too!