The summer she started eighth grade, Kelly McWilliams read more than 100 full-length novels. She spent the summer before ninth grade writing her own.
By the time the next summer rolled around, she had secured a literary agent and scored a book deal with Random House with a first run of 26,000 copies. Now she’s preparing for the Sept. 14 release of her debut novel "Doormat," which asks teenagers, "What would you do if your best friend got pregnant?"
McWilliams, now 16, kicks back on the sand-colored leather sofa in the family room of her family’s Scottsdale home. Her dark hair is pulled back, revealing her freshfaced beauty. She concedes she hasn’t been writing very long compared with most published authors.
"I didn’t really get into writing until the eighth grade, but I have always been into books," McWilliams says. "Looking back, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love reading."
"Doormat" is the story of two teenage friends named Jaime and Melissa, the boundaries they struggle with and the tough decisions they face.
When McWilliams decided to write the book, she wanted to keep it to herself for as long as possible. "I would go up to my room and write in private, but my parents thought I was up there reading," she says. "I was really nervous about showing my work to my parents until I had it exactly the way I wanted it."
It is understandable McWilliams wanted to put forth a solid writing effort for her parents. Her mother is Jewell Parker Rhodes, a professor with Arizona State University’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and author of several awardwinning novels and short stories. Her father is Brad McWilliams, who works as a systems analyst for IBM — and is also a seasoned book editor.
Rhodes says they were both proud and surprised the day their daughter
asked, "Want to read my novel?"
They read "Doormat" and said they were thrilled to discover it was not only well thought out, but also well written. "This is her success — her book and her voice," Rhodes says. "I read it and realized she is a much better writer at her age than I ever was."
With her parent’s encouragement, McWilliams went out and found a literary agent, who cautioned her the book’s controversial topic might be a hard sell in the young adult genre. But McWilliams made sure "Doormat" did not shy away from or candy-coat the complex issues surrounding teen pregnancy. Characters in the book have widely differing opinions on the subject.
"It’s not a clear-cut issue," McWilliams says. "I think scare tactics can be a big hindrance to educating young people. But it is also important kids know they are ultimately responsible for their own choices."
Rhodes is pleased with the responsible way her daughter handled the subject matter. "Kelly doesn’t demonize it or glamorize teen pregnancy," Rhodes says. "She doesn’t hit the reader over the head with it. I think her book offers a healthy sense of perspective."
And Rhodes is far from the one who thinks so. Not only did "Doormat" find a publisher in Random House, it was also selected as one of about 200 books to be part of the Junior Library Guild. More than 17,000 young-adult titles were considered. Because of the honor, 4,000 copies of "Doormat" will be available in public libraries throughout the nation.
McWilliams is excited by the success of her first effort, but says it is the result of hard work and a lot of luck. "When I was writing this, I wasn’t thinking of getting it published or about how successful it might be," she says. "I just thought about the writing — about getting the characters right."
Writing aside, McWilliams enjoys typical teenage pastimes: Talking on the phone, hanging out with her friends and shopping. She’s also looking forward to doing some reading — particularly the fantasy novel her 13-year-old brother, Evan, is writing. And she’s working on her next novel.
True to form, she isn’t ready to talk about it in detail — even with her family.