In the ultra-competitive literary landscape, hundreds of debut novels are published each year to little fanfare. It's extraordinary for a new author to get one major review, let alone the string of significant acclamations tallied up for the first novel by Kelly Kerney '02. Born Again, was published by Harcourt in September and has received excellent reviews by the San Francisco Chronicle and Entertainment Weekly, was starred by Kirkus Review, and is scheduled for review by The New York Times in October. Following the often hilarious journey of a young Christian fundamentalist named Mel who comes to terms with Darwinism, Born Again has been praised by renowned authors such as Margot Livesey, William O'Rourke, and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo.
As a student, Kerney began to consider a career in writing, and the empowerment she felt from a Bowdoin professor triggered the interest. Anthony Walton, Bowdoin's Writer-in-Residence in the English department — the sole name appearing on the dedication page of Born Again — is the backbone of Kerney's budding career.
"I always loved to read and knew I wanted to be an English major in college," said Kerney. "I never thought I could write (professionally) until I worked with Professor Walton. He opened my eyes to contemporary literature, and the more I read, the more I believed that I could do it."
Walton's gentle nurturing of Kerney included reading suggestions that allowed the young author to teach herself and develop her own interests and writing style. Never one to be overly critical of Kerney's writing, Walton was a constant source of encouragement during her days at Bowdoin and while she was preparing her first novel. Professors Dave Collings, Pete Coviello, Frank Burroughs, Matt Greenfield, and Michael Harper also inspired and energized Kerney during her undergraduate years.
"She has always maximized the opportunities that have come her way," Walton said. "She worked very hard at Bowdoin, as hard as any student I have had the pleasure of working with, to get better as a writer and an intellectual. Then she lasered in at Notre Dame, taking advantage of the professors there, and even more importantly, the time that a graduate program in writing affords a young author to study and practice, growing so quickly that she was awarded the Sparks Fellowship, which gave her the opportunity to spend a year working on nothing but her fiction."
Kerney's writing blossomed as a graduate student, but the seed was planted during her years at Bowdoin, despite a rocky start. Admittedly behind when she first arrived on campus, Kerney gained ground quickly with the help of her roommate, Liz Shesko '02, and the benefit of Bowdoin's academic environment.
"I felt that I was at a bit of a disadvantage coming from the public school system in Ohio as compared to so many kids who were educated in private schools," said Kerney. "The first semester was very difficult, but [Liz] walked me through the process. I felt like I came from a sheltered background in some ways, but it was so liberating to be surrounded by so many like-minded peers. Although Bowdoin is relatively small, it seemed huge to me."
Kerney hit her stride once immersed in Bowdoin's English department as she began to sharpen her skills with the assistance of her professors. Calling upon the small class size and the numerous opportunities to interact with the professors in the department, she "felt energized by the ability to work so closely with so many talented people."
After Bowdoin, Kerney headed to graduate school at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a fellowship and later a post-graduate fellowship from best-selling author Nicholas Sparks. In the summer of 2003, one year into her graduate work, she began her first novel, which unfolded in a way she did not expect.
"I never planned for there to be this big Darwin debate in the book," admitted Kerney. "That only entered the picture a year later, as I was reading Origin of Species on my own. At that point, I began to write a journal from Mel's perspective, which later became narrative."
What developed was a work of fiction derived from Kerney's childhood experiences. "This topic was very close to me," she said. "I didn't realize I was so different until I arrived at Bowdoin." Although it would have been easy to draw solely from her experiences for material, she was careful to avoid doing so too often.
"I didn't want to take sides on the topic," said Kerney. "Instead, I wanted to get to a level where readers can see both sides and a balance between the ideas. I wanted to show a more well-rounded view of what people are arguing about, using Mel's experiences to showcase that, because I don't think the dichotomy is productive."
"I admire the fact that she has the courage of her convictions," said Walton. "She's one of those writers who will write what she thinks and believes, and can get it on the page incisively and with elegance."
It's a challenge for any author to tackle such a sensitive topic, but for a young author to do so in such an eloquent and fresh manner speaks volumes about her talents and her future.
Posted September 14, 2006