Asteroids / contemporary YA / Debut Club

Debut Club: Katie Kennedy Dishes About LEARNING TO SWEAR IN AMERICA

Katie spoke with fellow author Tanaz Bhathena about her new book, a contemporary YA novel just published by Bloomsbury. Katie’s a member of the Sweet Sixteens, an online group for YA and MG authors debuting in 2016. Tanaz rolls with the Swanky Seventeens.


3. Learning to Swear in America Book Cover.jpgAn asteroid is hurtling toward Earth. A big, bad one.

Yuri, a physicist prodigy from Russia, has been called to NASA as they calculate a plan to avoid disaster. He knows how to stop the asteroid: his research in antimatter will probably win him a Nobel prize–if there’s ever another Nobel prize awarded.

But Yuri’s 17, and having a hard time making older, stodgy physicists listen to him. Then he meets Dovie, who lives like a normal teenager, oblivious to the impending doom. Being with her, on the adventures she plans when he’s not at NASA, Yuri catches a glimpse of what it means to save the world and save a life worth living.

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2. Katie Kennedy author photo.jpg

Katie Kennedy is a college history instructor. She used to teach in a fire station. When the alarm rang, the entire class jumped up and ran out of the room. She became an LPN in order to write more accurate medical scenes. She has been lost in Moscow, and rousted by the KGB for sitting in Red Square to eat her ice cream. She has been bitten by a fish.

She can be reached on her website at or on Twitter: @KatieWritesBks.


Tanaz: Your protagonist, Yuri, has a PhD in Physics and is also a vulnerable and endearing 17-year-old boy. What inspired you to come up with his character? Is he based on someone you know in real life?

Katie: No, but he has a literary uncle. The first book I wrote was an adult thriller—and the MC was a Russian physicist. The characters aren’t the same person, but I was writing down a somewhat familiar pathway.

Tanaz: One of my favorite parts about the novel is how well it combines science with humor. Do you have a background in physics or astrophysics? If not, what was the research process like?

Katie: Oh, no, I definitely don’t have a background in astrophysics—I teach college history—so I did lots of reading. I intended for the asteroid to increase in speed at the midpoint, to give them less time to deal with it. Then I discovered that this is not a thing that happens. I needed to change the laws of nature, and who even do you see about that? It was a head-scratcher.

So I read hundreds of pages of astrophysics on an emergency basis—I had half a manuscript! And somewhere in the fine print, I found my answer. I ran through the house, waving a print-out over my head and shouting, “I found a way to obliterate the planet and nobody could stop it!” My husband gave me a real long look.

Tanaz: Tell me a bit about your writing journey. How long did it take you to write LEARNING TO SWEAR IN AMERICA and find a publisher?

Katie: It took about nine months to write the book—which is my sixth, by the way. When I started querying, the rejections were instantaneous. I mean that literally—I sent out five queries, and by the time I hit send on the fifth one, I already had two rejections. I got rejections from agents who don’t send rejections. I say that I got preemptive rejections from people I hadn’t queried—and I’m not entirely sure that’s a joke. And all the feedback was that they hated the concept. Hated. And what even do you do about that? That’s not something you can fix.

I got forty rejections really fast, and only had a few more agents I wanted to query. I was just in despair—and then an agent I really liked requested the full. A month later I was on vacation with my family in Hannibal, Missouri, and I was standing on Lover’s Leap when my phone pinged.

Here’s a tip: if you’re querying and you get an email while you’re on Lover’s Leap, don’t check it.

It was an R—but two hours later, I got a full request from Kate McKean, who’s now my agent—and is absolutely terrific.

I revised with Kate for several months, and then lengthened the manuscript at Bloomsbury’s request.

Kate called to tell me that the editor had offered—and two hours later my nephew died unexpectedly. The best day in a decade turned into the worst. Kate had told me to keep my email open for the next couple of days while she negotiated the deal, but I had to drive twelve hours and then go to a funeral, and frankly I didn’t care about the book right then. So I just told her that I trusted her and she should do what she wanted. I wound up with a two-book deal.

Tanaz: What’s your favorite (non-spoilery) Dovie / Yuri quote or scene from the novel?

Katie: I’m kind of partial to the prom scene—possibly because it was one of the first scenes I wrote with them together.


Favorite writing snack?

Dark chocolate Kisses.
You’ve worked as a college professor, an LPN and even taught at a fire station. But what was the oddest job you ever had?

One summer three other people and I moved all the books in the University of Illinois law library—and then put them all back.
A character in your book you are closest in personality to?

Lennon, Dovie’s brother. We have a similar level of smartassery.
Music to write by? Or silence?

Oh, silence. It can’t be quiet enough. I’d stop the sound of my own breathing if I could.
The end of the world is near. Do you pick destruction by an asteroid or a zombie apocalypse?

 Definitely an asteroid. Unfortunately, that’s also more likely.

In the novel, Yuri asks Dovie to teach him swearing in English. But what is your favorite Russian swear word? 

Svoloch. It means “bastard,” and it’s remarkably fun to say. Give it a try!


 4. Tanaz Bhathena.jpgTanaz Bhathena was born in Mumbai and raised in Riyadh, Jeddah and Toronto.

Her short stories and essays have appeared in various publications, including Blackbird, Witness and The Lit Hub. Her debut YA novel, QALA ACADEMY, unravels the rumors and realities that led up to the moment when an Indian girl and boy are caught together in a fatal car accident in Saudi Arabia. The novel is set for publication in fall 2017 by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers/MacMillan.



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