August 31, 2011

Kristen Tracy ’94

By José Martinez '11

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Kristen Tracy likes writing, but she loves telling stories.

That makes sense, since some of the things that happen to her could double as creative writing prompts. As a kid, she fell underneath her school bus. She also herded cows among boxes full of bees in her grandfather’s pasture. Once, while hiking alone in Alaska, she happened to take the path to a meeting with a bear.

In other words, Tracy has plenty of fodder for her novels. And she knows it — her first middle-grade novel, after all, was “Camille McPhee Fell Under the Bus.”

“I was never going to write a good vampire or science fiction novel because I just don’t have those impulses,” Tracy says. “But I figured out that my personal anecdotes were worthy of making it into these stories; they could hold readers’ attention and make them laugh. That was a big breakthrough.”

It is the breakthrough that every writer looks for, actually. After she finished an English degree at LMU, Tracy declined a teaching job at Hawthorne High School, electing to attend Brigham Young University for a master’s degree in American literature. Later, she got a master’s degree in poetry at Vermont College and a Ph.D. in English from Western Michigan University. Then she started winning fellowships and writing middle-grade (ages 8–12) and young adult fiction (12 and up).

“I had teaching contracts to go back and teach at Western Michigan,” Tracy says. “I rejected those, and I cleaned out my savings account. I said, ‘I’m going to write a young adult novel about a girl who lost her virginity underneath a canoe.’ ” “Lost It” was not your standard debut novel. But its unconventionality struck a chord with readers. The book became successful and the first of six books Tracy eventually put on shelves.

At the root of Tracy’s success is her confidence in her stories — she grew up often feeling trapped in a small Mormon farming town, population 841, and turned to her imagination for respite.

“My personal curiosity is what fuels me,” Tracy says, harkening back to her childhood adventures. That trait ultimately provides readers with a glimpse into the adolescent and teenage psyche that’s uncannily accurate and, despite the angst, fun — especially when coupled with the Herculean effort Tracy puts into her writing. When writing “Camille McPhee,” she wrote 12 to 14 hours a day and researched “like a crazy person.”

“When I’m under deadline, I write hours a day, in a panic. I write hard,” she said.