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Interview: April 15, 2021

THE GIRLS IN THE STILT HOUSE weaves a beautiful and harrowing story of two teenage girls cast in an unlikely partnership through murder. In this interview conducted by reviewer Bronwyn Miller, Kelly Mustian talks about the inspiration for her debut novel, why she decided to set it in 1920s Mississippi on the Natchez Trace, her virtual book tour and how much it means to her to be able to talk to readers from all over the world about the book, her amazing experience volunteering at the Mooresville Public Library in North Carolina before the pandemic hit, and her next novel in the works, which is set mostly in Depression-era Mississippi.

The Book Report Network: Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel, THE GIRLS IN THE STILT HOUSE! How long had you been ruminating on telling this story before you set about writing it?

Kelly Mustian: Thank you! The idea for this book sprang from a long-held memory of an old, broken tomb with a cracked lid in an overgrown cemetery. I held that image in mind, coupled with a desire to eventually set a story on the Natchez Trace, for many years before I finally sat down to write this novel. And then the real rumination began. I worked on this story for a few years before I was ready to call it finished.

TBRN: You grew up in Natchez, Mississippi, at the southern end of the Natchez Trace, where the book takes place. Did you always know that you would eventually write a novel set there? Did your upbringing in Natchez impact your writing or influence the kinds of stories you want to tell?

KM: The Trace was an integral part of my coming of age, and it is rich in history and myth. I think it was inevitable that I would set a story there, and I plan to return to it in future books. Growing up where I did has everything to do with what I write and the stories I want to tell. Bearing witness, writing what I know, and speaking to one span of time in one particular place, as Eudora Welty did with her beautiful book of photographs (ONE TIME, ONE PLACE) of Mississippi in the 1930s --- those things are at the heart of this book and much of what I write.

TBRN: In your Author’s Note, you mention how you “wanted to use the landscape, both physical and cultural, of 1920s Mississippi to convey something universal --- the contrast between beauty and brutality inherent in our world, and sometimes in ourselves.” The setting is so vivid and rich that readers can picture every inch of that swamp and feel the humidity. Did you recall those sensory details from memory, or did you revisit the Trace before or during the writing of this novel?

KM: My memories of the physical landscape of my childhood are still very strong, and that memory informed much of the novel. But I did not live near a swamp. While the swamp in THE GIRLS IN THE STILT HOUSE is fictional, it was loosely inspired by a swamp a couple of hours from Natchez. Several years ago, while working on another project, I took a trip back to the Trace and visited that swamp. It was that trip that helped me to imagine the swamp in the story.

TBRN: You have that personal connection to the area, but what made you decide to set the story in the 1920s? How much research was involved in your writing process?

KM: I grew up pestering my elders to tell stories about their childhoods. And because I was born long after my mother thought she would not be having any more children, and my grandmother was a late arrival as well, a lot of the stories I heard went back to the 1920s, and even earlier. So I feel at home in that decade, and in the Depression years of the 1930s, which is the period in which my new project is set.

As for research involved in the writing of THE GIRLS IN THE STILT HOUSE, there was a lot. It’s important to me to get even the smallest details right, and I work hard at doing that. But I often first write things the way I think they were, or the way I hope they were, and do the meticulous research later, because I’ve wasted a lot of writing time in the past researching scenes that I ended up cutting later.

TBRN: Ada and Matilda are close in age, both on the wrong side of the poverty line. Neither have people looking out for them, for the most part, yet they are different. When you were writing two characters close in age and in similar situations, was one easier (or more difficult) to write than the other?

KM: In a way, I think their being so different, almost opposites with regard to personality traits, made it easier, or maybe more natural (because writing is never easy), for them to play off of each other. So much could be revealed about each character by the way they reacted to life and to each other. I think of Silas House’s novel, THE COAL TATTOO, and the opening pages that offer one of the best introductions of characters that I’ve ever read. I learned everything I needed to know about the opposite natures of his two main characters by reading about one woman watching her sister dance. And there is definitely an emotional dance going on between Ada and Matilda in THE GIRLS IN THE STILT HOUSE.

TBRN: After Matilda learns of the violent attack on Leeta’s boyfriend, she finds herself crying out in anger: “Not afraid. Not broken. Angry.” Those same words could apply to the Black Lives Matter movement. During the writing of this novel, did you have any idea how much of what Matilda experiences would be so relevant to what is going on today?

KM: I wasn’t thinking in those terms, although I know that much of what was going on in Matilda’s world lingers in our world today. I listen and continuously learn from movements like Black Lives Matter, and I couldn’t begin to judge the relevancy of any of my words to their experiences. But as for Matilda as a character in the story, when she thought “Not afraid. Not broken. Angry,” in my head, at least, she really was afraid, and not so far from broken, but she was fighting against that, bolstering herself and pushing herself forward with her anger.

TBRN: When you started writing THE GIRLS IN THE STILT HOUSE, did you know where the story would end up? Ada was so in awe --- and so in need --- of Matilda at the beginning of the story. Did you intend for them to end up on equal footing, or did this just happen organically in the writing?

KM: I started out knowing that Ada would look up to Matilda and be more of a follower than a leader. It’s a trademark of Southern Gothic fiction, which I grew up on, to incorporate societal twists and hidden social commentary in stories, and I think I borrowed a bit from that genre in the girls’ relationship. It’s always interesting and gratifying to me to learn how readers’ impressions differ about characters and their story arcs. I love that each reader brings something new to the interpretation of a story.

I didn’t really see Ada and Matilda as ending up on equal footing, though looking at that question now, I suppose they almost did, considering their different places in that society. It was important to me to show that for a character as beaten down by life and as emotionally stripped as Ada had become, what might seem like the smallest of steps to us would have been enormous strides for her. And in Matilda’s case, no matter what leaps she made in her world, there would still be those who would hold her back. So I’ll rethink my view that they did not exactly end up on equal footing. Maybe they did, all things considered. 

TBRN: Was this always the title?

KM: This novel has had several titles, including the first working title, which a writer friend of mine loves to call it still: Untitled Swamp Novel. When my publisher acquired it, it was titled Night Song of the Swamp, a collaborative effort between my agent and me. But what I originally titled it, the first non-working title, was A Jury of Trees. I still love that title. More savvy heads prevailed, though, and The Girls in the Stilt House has been very good for this book. Maybe I’ll resurrect that old title and give it to a short story in the future.

TBRN: With the publication of your first novel, you are doing a lot of (mostly virtual) events. What does it feel like to finally be able to talk to readers about your work?

KM: After all this time, it feels almost surreal. I’ve attended a lot of author readings at bookstores in the past, but the combination of me being the author this time and the new reality of reading in close-up view on a Zoom screen and hearing readers discuss my book is beyond anything I could have imagined. One positive outcome of this new format is that I’m able to converse at these events with readers from far-flung parts of the country in one “room” and hear their thoughts about the story. That’s been an amazing experience. 

TBRN: THE GIRLS IN THE STILT HOUSE would be great for a book group discussion. Are you interested in talking to book groups? If so, how can they set up a meeting with you?

KM: I love talking with book groups. I’ve done that before with short stories and works-in-progress, and those have been some of my favorite events. I’m looking forward to some upcoming book group events via Zoom, and even more so to the time when we can meet together in person again. Book groups can reach me through the contact form at my website ( or through Molly Waxman at Sourcebooks.

TBRN: 2020 and 2021 have had their share of challenges, to put it mildly. Pre-COVID, you were a volunteer at the Mooresville Public Library, near your home in North Carolina. What was that experience like?

KM: Libraries were instrumental to my growth as a child and a young adult, and I love being able to give back in some way now. I hold a professional certificate in genealogical research from Boston University, and I volunteered in the special collections room at a local library, giving workshop presentations on genealogy topics and helping patrons with their own research. It was an amazing experience. I get cheerful holiday messages from a man who allowed me to help him search for, and find, great-grandparents born into slavery, and I worked with a woman who needed help discovering the identity of her birth father. Libraries do more than we sometimes realize.

TBRN: What have you missed the most during the pandemic, and what are you most looking forward to doing once we are all in a better place?

KM: Getting a real haircut after cutting my own hair for a year will be nice. I’ll be fully vaccinated soon, and there are so many things I want to do --- see friends and family, stroll through bookstores and libraries and see my own book on the shelves, return to my usual writing residency. And there’s a brand new baby in my family whom I can hardly wait to hold.

TBRN: Are you currently working on a new novel? If so, can you tell us something about it?

KM: I’m working on a new novel set mostly in Depression-era Mississippi, with a second storyline in a later decade. Drawing from my genealogy studies, this one is about two sisters who discover that they are not biologically related and what happens when one secretly excavates the unknown past of the other.