Whether starting means picking up the pen or sitting down at a laptop, even if one’s passionate about a project, writing a novel is no easy feat. And as many writers can relate, spouses Kelly and Jay Long were certainly familiar with the cycle of writing part of a story, reaching an impasse and shelving it for later. However, when the two met, their creative support for one another managed to break through previous hangups about finishing stories and “Briar Coats and the Tunnel of Styx” was born under the mutual pseudonym of K.J. Long.
The story follows Briar, a boy living in a city of mangrove trees who yearns to explore. When he meets Verity, a person who looks like him despite a mysterious green glow, he is taken on an adventure that leads him to learn that the world is much bigger and wider than he ever realized. In advance of the holidays, Between The Lines had a talk with both Longs to learn what inspired the tale, how LGBTQ audiences can find relatable messaging in the story and why this is certainly not the last piece readers can expect from K.J. Long.
What was the inspiration for this book and how did you decide to write it together?
Kelly: I actually started this book maybe four years ago and I was watching a lot of nature documentaries and a ton of underwater stuff and I just thought, “How amazing would it be if you could swim free underwater?” Obviously, scuba divers do it, but I can’t do that, so it got me thinking and just doing some research into different amazing facts about the ocean and that led me to a whole realm of water mythology from different cultures around the world. I loved how so many different cultures have similar mythology; it got my imagination going. Then, life got in the way and this summer, with COVID, we had a lot of extra time and the dream got resurrected because of Jay helping me (laughs) and really believing in me and helping me edit and make the whole thing happen.
Jay: It was really exciting! During COVID, I really wanted to read what she wrote — she has another couple of books — and I really loved the story of Briar and the fantasy aspect. I started reading it and we just started workshopping it and it was so natural and fluid. New ideas just came out of it; we’d sit at the kitchen table for hours just talking about it in different realms and scenarios and plots that we could do. It just got a life of its own.
I’ve heard from couples who team up for creative projects that sometimes it isn’t always a smooth process, did you experience any elements of that on this project?
Kelly: We’ve been working on our next novel now and Jay really led the world-building of that one, so it’s kind of fun because we can take turns. I think when you write alone, you can get exhausted, worn out or even get writer’s block. But being together, we kind of keep each other motivated, so it’s pretty easy to talk through an idea. And usually, we get so hype about it that we’re like high fiving (laughs). There are definitely times, too, where you write something and fall in love with what you wrote, and we have to edit for each other and sometimes cut something that one of us really loved.
Jay: I’m more guilty of feeling emotional about the editing process than Kelly (laughs), but if something just doesn’t work you’ve got to set it to the side and maybe it can work later. That was new to me, working with someone [and] to have to share that part of it, because I get so possessive (laughs) over certain parts of the book. It worked out really well, though. It’s never been a really big issue of ours.
So how did creative writing come into both of your lives? I recognize that both of you have had experience writing articles in the past.
Kelly: It’s funny because when we met, we both were hanging out with a group of friends one or two times and we brought up that we both wanted to write. It was like, “Oh, really?” So, I think it was an instant attraction when we first met because of that shared goal. I had experience writing. When I was 21 in grad school and an intern over the summer, I had a dream about a zombie apocalypse, and I sat down and wrote half a book that I shelved later. So, my journey with writing has definitely been writing a whole book and putting it in a trunk, writing another book and putting it in a trunk. I was writing romance, I was writing young adult, I was writing women’s fiction or whatever really piqued my interest at the time. And then when I really asked myself, “What do I love doing? What are my favorite books? How do I want to spend my time?” Middle-grade was the obvious answer because all of my favorite books are in the middle-grade genre or young adult. [Around the age] of 9 or 12 when you’re really discovering yourself and you just get to make up your whole world.
Jay: My background is being an attorney and mostly legal writing and, specifically, tax writing. As a hobby, I started to stories and never really finish them, just different stories that would pop in my head. At one point I tried to write a fun autobiography (laughs), but I never really followed through with it. I never had anybody supporting me and encouraging me and really wanting to read what I was writing. And then as life got in the way, those things got shelved and I met Kelly and we talked about our love of writing and spent so much time talking to her about her ideas and my ideas and she was really encouraging for me to continue to write and start writing again. And when we started dating, we had a Google Drive [of stories] and we would work on different things together. From that, her encouragement lit this flame that was put out for a long time.
At the beginning of the story, there is a message that talks about acceptance. What is a message that you hope readers, perhaps LGBTQ ones, of this book might take with them?
Kelly: I think the book is not centering so much around LGBT, partly because there are a lot of middle-grade authors doing it and they’re so good at it. I think, for me, really the message of the book is an underlying theme of generation and planning and Briar’s really learning that there’s this big whole wide world that’s waiting beyond what he’s ever known — especially because he lives in a city that is really secluded. I think that’s similar to, if you’re an LGBT person you just grow up in this little realm learning, “Oh, I can’t be trans.” Or, “I can’t like girls because that’s not what my friends do or like.” So holding onto that idea that there’s something so much bigger out there and so many cultures and people with different expectations and beliefs that you can find.
Jay: I would have to agree with that. The character of Briar was coming to terms with this new world and his new identity. It kind of coincided with me coming to terms with and coming out as a trans man, which was very, very difficult for me. And I was able to pull strength from writing Briar and writing about how he’s navigating two worlds: one under the sea and one on land. What I got from that is it’s not easy (laughs) to transition. You can do it, and you may mess up and want to back out, but you’ve got to keep going forward. And that’s the message that I hope others can also take: you can be more than what you are. You can show the world that you’re more, and it’s OK to be different. It’s OK to change.
To purchase “Briar Coats and the Tunnel of Styx,” learn more about K.J. Long’s upcoming works and to meet the authors, visit kjlongauthor.com/home.