By Abbey Pour and Nicholas Wynn
On March 16, local author Kristen Simmons visited McNicholas to speak to students on her experiences with writing, her work in psychology as a mental health therapist, and her new novel, Pacifica.
“[Writing] is just something you do…. I wanted to write and loved writing, it felt like something I had to do, and it made me truly happy,” Simmons said.
Simmons has published 13 total books, 6 young adult novels and 7 adult novels. Article 5, published in January 2012, was her first young adult novel, and her latest young adult novel, Pacifica, released March 6, 2018. Simmons’s novels are available for checkout in the McNick library. To purchase copies of her books, students should talk to school librarian Chelsea Almer or visit Simmons’s website.
Almer said that she hadn’t met Simmons before her visit. Almer’s friend Dave Richardson, who works at Blue Marble Books in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, knew Simmons and asked Almer if she was interested in hosting Simmons at McNick. Almer enthusiastically agreed, and Richardson made the visit possible. “She’s the whole package,” Almer said. “She’s a younger person… but she’s done a lot in her young life.”
Most of her young adult novels focus on different dystopian worlds that force her characters to fight for their lives. Some are set in the future, but “my books aren’t about the future to me; they’re about the present,” Simmons said. She explained that she interprets history and current events through a “lens of fiction” as a way to help process the world around her.
Simmons said she has been writing for as long as she can remember. She was enrolled in a special writing program in elementary school where she learned to “write whatever you want. Just go. Don’t worry about grammar,” she said. She finished her first whole novel while in college, but when she contacted literary agents for publication, all of them turned her down. She had promised herself that she would one day hold her own published novel in her hands, so she persisted. After ten years of five different novels being rejected, she succeeded in publishing Article 5.
“If what you want doesn’t align with what people say you’re good at, you don’t need to stop trying,” Simmons said. “If you have this passion inside you that does not quiet when everyone tells you ‘no,’ keep at it…. Keep going and going every time a door shuts.”
With a B.A. in Psychology, a Master’s degree in social work, and the desire to help people, Simmons became a mental health therapist to work with survivors of trauma and abuse. She worked with teens, people experiencing homelessness, people who had run away, veterans, individuals with PTSD, and domestic abuse survivors. “Mental health has always fascinated me,” Simmons said. “A lot of the social work I did inspired me to write,” she added.
“[Psychology] has taught me an enormous amount of character building for my stories,” Simmons said. “[Helping people] moving from their lowest place into a position of thriving is a really powerful experience, and I was honored to share that experience with them…. There’s something really powerful about being with someone [fighting mental illness].”
To further her career as an author, Simmons left her full-time job six years ago and began writing full time.
Simmons said that researching is her favorite part of writing because she gets to learn more about the world and experience things she otherwise wouldn’t be able to. “I want to have experiences so that you as readers can feel like you experience them too,” she said.
For students aspiring to become authors, Simmons had “two pieces of advice… The most valuable things you can do is read a lot and write a lot.” She said that reading helps in “building empathy. It gets you inside the head of someone else,” whereas “writing is a muscle” that needs to be exercised like any other muscle. “Really do some self-exploration,” she added.
Senior Gabby Scorti, who attended Simmons’s talk, said that she liked how connected Simmons was to her stories. “I thought that her story and concepts for her books were very interesting. Everything from her life was somehow connected to her stories in her books,” she said.
Almer thought Simmons’s visit was wonderful. “She was very open…. She has a lot of energy,” she said. “She’s a good person to get to know…. I was honored to have her here,” she added. Almer said that her favorite part of Simmons’s visit was hearing her process and how she gets her ideas. “I just thought that her visit was really successful and I’m glad so many students came…. I wish her the best.”
“I think Kristen Simmons was super nice,” junior Julia Straub said. “She was very personable and seemed extremely passionate about writing.” Straub added that she was surprised at how difficult it was to make money as an author. “I had no idea how hard it was to make money as an author, so I sympathized with her in that aspect,” she said.
Junior Cooper Billies, said that he loved how she spoke on her many rejections but chose to never give up. “It is crazy how much perseverance she has,” he said. He added that he also liked how Simmons takes the time to research for her novels, actually taking the time to learn before writing.
“I really liked her because I thought she was really relatable and a good person and she actually really cares about her work,” senior Claire Dotson said. Dotson said she related to Simmons advice to “follow the calling you feel you have for yourself. Take stories that you learn and make them into your own.”
Originally from Nevada, Simmons now lives in Cincinnati with her husband and 5 year-old. “I really like so much in Cincinnati,” she said. “I love that there’s a lot to do here, but without the rush of a big city.” Simmons said she enjoys “working out, hanging out with my kid…and [visiting] little independent restaurants.” Her absolute favorite part of Cincinnati, she said, is “Fiona!”
Some of the best work comes from a really vulnerable place, Simmons added. “Strong writers really get in touch with the experiences they’ve had over their lives, even when those experiences are painful.”