Zibby is joined by Kai Harris to discuss her debut novel, What the Fireflies Knew, which is the first fiction title out from former podcast guest Phoebe Robinson’s new imprint. Kai shares how this book grew from a short story she had started while working on her master’s, which parts of it were inspired by her own life, and the two pieces of advice that strengthened this project. Zibby also asks Kai about how she accurately captured the sisterhood dynamic and the importance of representation in stories.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kai. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss What the Fireflies Knew.

Kai Harris: Thank you. Thank you.

Zibby: Kai, as you know, when I finished this book, I had to DM you right away. I was sitting there with my hand over my heart just holding your book being like, wow. I had to reach out. It was so good. I feel like I just went on such a journey with your characters. It was so emotional and immersive and beautiful. I just loved it. It was so good.

Kai: Wow, thank you so much. Thank you. It was really cool to get that message. Thanks.

Zibby: I’m sure you get it a lot, but for my own two cents. Let’s back up a minute. What the Fireflies Knew, please tell listeners what this is about.

Kai: The book is a coming-of-age story. It’s about a young girl named Kenyatta. Most people call her KB. She’s ten going on eleven years old. She is sent to Lansing, Michigan, to go and stay for the summer with her grandfather who she doesn’t really know. Her mom brings her and her sister there after the death of their father. They think they’re just going for a visit, but they end up staying for the summer. The book is just the story of that summer of KB trying to navigate shifting relationships and the trauma from her father’s death. Her sister is a new teenager. KB’s trying to navigate the ways that their relationship is shifting. It’s a lot of learning and figuring out, some catching bugs, trying to make friends. Like I said, it’s just really the story of that summer as seen and told through KB’s perspective.

Zibby: I loved how at the end you were like, I didn’t lose my sister, I found her. There was so much about that sister bond and when one grows up. You can just feel them, like magnets repelling. They come together. Then they go apart. It’s either one or the other. Oh, my gosh, that sisterly story at the heart of this book was so powerful and real. I know in the acknowledgments you said — now I want to hear where this all came from — that this was loosely based on parts of your life and that you did — I’m so sorry — lose your father and that you lost your grandfather, which then made me even more sad because I was imagining him being this grandfather. Tell me about where this book came from.

Kai: This book started out as a story that I wrote when I was in my master’s program in Nashville, Tennessee. When I wrote the story, the story was pretty based on my own experience. I was trying to write a story set in a place that felt really familiar to me. I decided on Lansing, which is where my grandfather lived. I visited him sometimes during the summer. My relationship with my grandfather is completely different than what KB experienced. I visited my grandfather often. We had a really great relationship. It was different in that way, but the setting was true. In that story, there were just a couple scenes. There’s the scene where KB learns to catch a firefly. That scene, which is still in the book, was the first scene that I wrote when it was still a story. Then the scene where KB finds a caterpillar and then wants Nia to find caterpillars with her, that was the other scene that was in the story. The story was pretty much made up of just those two moments. All of the plot that’s in the book right now was not in the story. After I wrote the story, I had several people saying to me that they really loved KB and they wanted to hear more of her story. I was like, okay, maybe I’ll write a book. The first thing that I did pretty quickly was, I wanted to move it away from my own personal experience.

For the book itself, the main thing that is autobiographical is just the setting. I wanted to keep that setting of Lansing, Michigan, where I spent so many summers and KB goes because the setting just means a lot to me. It was really cool to develop a character and put her in a place that meant so much to me and then see her fall in love with it and get to know it and that sort of thing. That’s pretty much the main thing that I would say stems from my life. The rest of the book ended up becoming really fictional. I do have a sister, but we’re not really anything like KB and Nia. I’ve had a lot of people ask me, is this like you and your sister? It was so realistic, this dynamic. I think that what happens is, it’s easy to create that dynamic because I do know what it’s like to have a sibling. I have a sister. She is older than me. My sister, she’s less than two years older than me. We’re really close in age. We have a really close relationship. We’re still really close. It’s a bit different, but just like you said, that feeling of, no matter what happens, I need to have this relationship with this person. KB and Nia, they go through everything together. Like KB says, they share the same memories. They’re navigating the same traumas and all of these things. I would say that lots of KB’s experience is familiar to me, but it’s not mine. It’s not my story. I kind of started with a base that was mine and then wanted to create something fictional that would hopefully turn out to be more universal.

Zibby: Do you feel like now they’re your friends, though? Don’t you feel like they’re family friends or something?

Kai: Yeah. It’s funny because it feels like they exist. It feels like they exist somewhere, like KB exists somewhere in the world. That’s a really cool feeling. I didn’t expect to get to know her as much as I did. I said something one time during an event. I wondered if I sounded so weird when I said it. I was saying something about hearing KB’s voice. That was the experience that I was having, especially in later drafts of the novel as I was continuing to revise. It became really easy for me to read over a part of the novel and then just immediately say, oh, KB wouldn’t say that. That’s not her voice. That’s not the way she talks. That’s not the way she thinks. By the end of it, I was so deep into her head. Yes, she absolutely felt like someone that I knew really well.

Zibby: She feels like that to me too.

Kai: That’s great.

Zibby: Sometimes I say this. Now I sound really ridiculously crazy. Who’s to say how things get created in the universe? Imagination, dreamland, reality, I don’t know, there are a lot of unanswered questions. These characters that come out of these novels, sometimes I feel like my whole room is just characters dancing around like little ghosts.

Kai: You know, it could be. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Zibby: Tell me about the use of language in the book because that’s also beautiful. You obviously made a bunch of decisions on how to have the dialogue and the narration and all of that. Talk to me about that.

Kai: This was a big part of the project, is the language and KB’s voice. It went through a few different stages. When I first started writing, it wasn’t as fully deep in KB’s voice as it is now. I think that originally, I was a bit nervous. I wasn’t sure how it would be received to have the whole story first-person perspective from this young black girl. Everything is through her voice. Everything is just the way that she speaks. I didn’t know how that would come across. One of my really big inspirations when I was writing this book was Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. That book, KB actually picks up and reads it at one point in the novel. I had her read that book because it meant so much to me as I was writing. That’s one of the first books that I had ever read that was so immersive in terms of voice and language. I remember reading it. It was interesting because I could imagine that for some readers, it’d be really difficult to follow. It wasn’t just grammar or whatnot. It was words that were spelled differently to show the way that they’re being spoken. I really fell in love with that, this idea of just displaying it so authentically as it is. I wanted to do that.

Another thing that happened was I had a mentor who had read an early version of the book. She saw that, at the time, I was shying away from going all in. I was doing these little things to indicate that KB says it this way, but that’s not the way that it should be said. My mentor was like, “Why are you doing that? You don’t have to explain yourself. You don’t have to explain KB or the way that she speaks. How she speaks is how she speaks. Put it on the page like you want it to be.” That really changed things for me. After that point, I stayed so committed, again, to just hearing her voice and putting it down on the page as it was. It was a really cool experience because to me, that’s what makes the book what it is. I wanted to create what I refer to as this unfiltered black girlhood experience. I say unfiltered because we are in the first person. We’re present tense. Everything’s so immediate. The reader doesn’t know much that KB doesn’t know. Everything is just the way that she sees it, the way that she experiences it. There’s no filter. We’re right there. We’re just seeing the world through the eyes of this character. Those were some really tough decisions to make because, honestly, I didn’t know how it would be received. That’s probably going to be something that I’ll continue to think about and worry about even now after the book is in the world. I’ve had enough people say to me such kind and amazing things about KB’s voice specifically that I think that I made the right choice.

Zibby: You totally made the right choice. It’s literature. It feels like a work of literature, being so immersive this way. It was beautiful. It’s like I was visiting Canada or something. You just have to get used to it on the page for two seconds, and then you’re in it. Then you’re in her head. You get the whole thing. It makes it all the more powerful, I think. I thought it was great.

Kai: Thank you.

Zibby: Canada, that was not a good analogy at all. Forget I even said that. Sometimes I say the wrong things, but I think it worked really well from a literature standpoint. Let me just say that.

Kai: I get the gist of what you’re saying.

Zibby: There were so many passages that I dogeared and that I loved, the things about her mom. What you were saying, also, about not finding out, as the reader, I didn’t know. We don’t know why her mom is gone. We don’t know what happened with her mom and her grandfather. We don’t know. You have to keep reading and getting the clues and figuring it out. It’s like that show, Are You Smarter Than a Third Grader? or something. I’m like, can I figure this out before she does? I had my hunches, but I maybe I was wrong.

Kai: I’m so happy you said that because that was what I was hoping for. I wanted it to be the case that we as adult readers experience what it’s like trying to gather information as a child. We don’t get anything but the same breadcrumbs that KB gets. I wanted to really highlight this reality that our kids are right there. They’re in the middle of these things. They’re noticing things. They have questions. I wanted to put the reader in their shoes and say, okay, I don’t know exactly what’s going on. I have this piece of information. I have this piece of information. Maybe this is what’s happening. KB’s going through that same process as well.

Zibby: It’s like watching a movie, but the whole time, the camera’s at the height of the child. We never get the whole thing. We just get this point of view. Then we have to make sense of everything. The parts on love and loss, especially written as if it was KB’s loss and how a child makes sense of loss, oh, my gosh. There was this one thing that Granddaddy says, if I could read this tiny, little part. “‘You’re welcome,’ Granddaddy says,” because she says, “Thank you for a perfect birthday.” “He pauses, then continues, ‘You know, it’s good to talk about the people that’s gone, Kenyatta.’ Now I’m positive he can read my mind. Granddaddy fixes his eyes right on my eyes. I concentrate on the dark spots as he talks to keep from looking away. ‘When we lose someone we love, it’s easy to just pretend they was never there to try and make it easy, but it don’t work cause they was there, and now you got a big old hole where that person used to be.’ Granddaddy reaches across the tables and taps his finger against my shirt right above my heart, then moves his hand toward mine like he gonna grab it, but he don’t. ‘You gotta fill that hole with the memories else you might lose them for good.’ Granddaddy don’t say nothing else after that, so neither do I.” Aw, it’s so sweet. It’s all about how she’s willing to talk about things. Maybe other people in her life aren’t. I don’t want to give anything away. Not that it’s such a plot-centric — it happens in the beginning. Just that feeling that everybody has, do you talk about the person that you lose? Are you afraid to bring them up? Will the memories just get lost? What if you never talk about them?

Kai: That was another thing I really wanted to explore, is just the way that grief works in this family and showing that everyone is dealing with the grief and the loss and the trauma differently. All of them are. KB, it’s throwing her off that other people don’t want to do the same things that she feels like she needs to do to heal, to move forward, or to keep moving forward. She’s like, obviously, we need to do this in order to feel better, in order to keep these memories. She’s very confused because her older sister or her mom — she’s seeing people deal with this differently. I think that that’s the way that it goes, at least in my experience and I’m sure lots of people’s experiences. We all kind of need different things in those moments. There’s no straightforward, here’s what’s going to work. I wanted to show what that looks like for one family in particular to just see them all grappling with this, but also to really show the ways that they can help each other if they let themselves be open to it. Something that is interesting is KB, at the beginning of the novel, she kind of thinks that she’s going to just do things the way that everyone wants her to do them. She’s understanding the rules of her family. She’s like, oh, we don’t talk about this. We don’t show emotions in these ways. She’s trying to tell herself that she’s going to follow the rules of the family and just do things the way other people do them, but then she doesn’t do that.

For the whole rest of the novel, she doesn’t do that. She does things her way and the way that she needs to do them for her own healing, for her own journey. What ends up happening is she affects other people through doing that. She shows the people in her life another way to grieve, another way to navigate. She takes Granddaddy’s demeanor, and she gives him different options. She shows him that even if you’ve done something that you regret, you can still get back from that. Here’s how. Here are the ways that you can still connect even if it feels scary. She shows Nia, yeah, maybe it feels easier to run away, but here’s what could happen if you stop running away. Here’s what could happen if you talk about things and if you give something to people when they need it. In that way, KB almost functions as a bit of a guide in her family. She’s the youngest person. She’s shifting away from what has been handed down to her in terms of, here’s how we deal with things. She’s saying, you know, but that doesn’t help me feel better, so I’m going to try a different way. It ends up impacting everyone.

Zibby: Wow. I love how you handled it. Another really amazing thing I thought about the book was the role of books in the book and the role of books in KB’s life. You start off by talking about Anne of Green Gables. That really takes you all the way through to the end. It’s this narrative through line, and even the way libraries affect her and when she stops in at libraries and how libraries have helped her, how they helped her family when they were in between homes and how it helped her when she had that one moment where she had to regroup, if you will, and all the books that helped her and her mother’s love of reading and all of that. You don’t see young characters in books with such a huge focus on reading. Tell me about that decision. I’m assuming — I shouldn’t assume. Was this how you were as a child?

Kai: Yeah, your assumption’s right. I loved books growing up. I would choose to be in the house reading a book over doing almost anything else when I was a child.

Zibby: I would still choose that, by the way.

Kai: Yes. It was rough because my sister would be like, “Come outside. We’re doing this amazing thing. Why are you in the house?” I’m like, “Here’s what’s going on in my book right now.” I don’t know that she understood that for me, those things were happening too. I was in those worlds. I was immersed. It was really hard to put it down and just go do something else. It absolutely is authentic for me as well. I wanted KB to have a love of books because — several things. First of all, I gave it to her because it was something of mine that was, again, special to me. I wanted her to have that trait as well. I think it also explains a lot about her personality, the way that she speaks, the way that she sees the world. It has a lot to do with the ways that she becomes really, I don’t want to say obsessed with this idea, but she’s overly concerned with this concept of a perfect family. She imagines what things should be like. She tries to figure out how she can create that for herself or for her own family. That’s all a part of it. I loved what I was able to have her think about and experience because of the books that she was reading. It wasn’t intentional, actually.

When I first started writing, I got to that — I’m in the first chapter. She’s reading a book in the backseat of the car as they were driving to Lansing. I just picked Anne of Green Gables because Anne of Green Gables was my favorite book when I was that age. I just gave her my favorite book. I wasn’t thinking anything about themes or how this is going to connect to anything else later. I just needed her to have something to read. As I was writing and she kept reading this book — I still have an old copy of Anne of Green Gables, so I was going back through it. Then I’m realizing, look at what she’s reading right now. How would she think about this? How would this connect in her mind to everything that she’s going through? There were so many connections. I was able to thread that through. Also, it was important for me to show that as the novel progresses, she also starts to notice the ways that she’s not just like the characters in her books. It’s important for her when she picks up Their Eyes Are Watching God from Granddaddy’s bookshelf. She starts reading it. She notices things that feel a bit more familiar to her in terms of the way that the characters speak and what the characters look like. She notices, okay, obviously, this character becomes an adult. There are things that aren’t exactly like my life, but she can also see some reminders of her mother. I think it’s important because, just as I was saying that Anne of Green Gables was my favorite book growing up, I kind of also had this moment of noticing, these are the ways that things are different.

For a long time, I would read these books and I would be like, oh, I wish my life looked like this. It was interesting what I was meaning to myself when I was saying that. A lot of times, it was about whiteness. I imagined that being white would automatically create certain circumstances in my life. I loved The Secret Garden as well when I was growing up. I just imagined that if I was white, I would’ve had a castle and a garden. I don’t know. I was just like, here’s where the issue is. That’s obviously problematic. We don’t want kids to grow up thinking that there’s anything wrong with their lives. We want them to see their lives represented, see themselves represented. I wanted to show some of that in KB’s journey. Anne of Green Gables is always going to be her favorite book. She loves that book. She learned a lot about herself and her circumstances and the world around her through reading that book. I think it’s really cool as she starts to pick up other books and she is able to deepen her understanding of herself and of her family and realize, oh, yeah, okay, my experience is a normal experience. My experience is a valid experience. Things are different for different people, and there’s still good there. That’s one of my favorite parts about the book too, is how many other books are in the book. I’m glad that you asked about that.

Zibby: I just wrote this memoir. It’s coming out in July.

Kai: I saw. Congratulations.

Zibby: Thank you. I have so many other books that I mention that were so important to me growing up and through my life that I have a whole book list at the end, like a reading list. Originally, I wanted to put it on — here, I’ll just show you. This is so random. I don’t even know why I’m doing this. I found this. This was my reading list from school. I kept a list of all my things from 1986. I’m much older than you, I’m sure. First, my mom had to write it. Then I wrote it. Isn’t that crazy?

Kai: Wow, that’s really cool that you still have that.

Zibby: I know. My mom saved it and just gave it to me, so it’s all a credit to her.

Kai: That’s very cool.

Zibby: I kind of wanted it to be formatted that way, but that was too hard. Yes, the books that mean a lot really highlight certain periods of time and bring back the whole thing. I absolutely loved that in your story. I feel like KB — I would like to find out what happens next summer. Do you think you could maybe do little short stories for subsequent summers? I think that would be so neat. Maybe it’s ten different summers. I want to watch her grow up.

Kai: You know, I want to see her grow up as well. I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. Right now, I’ve been still writing a lot. I think that what I’m really interested in right now, I keep being drawn to writing these stories about black girls and black women, but at different stages of life. That’s been really interesting to me. The book I wrote right after this book is from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old black girl who is in high school and navigating a situation there. It’s, in some ways, very different than this book, but in some ways, it’s still that experience. There are certainly some commonalities. That’s been really cool. Then I’ve started writing something that’s told from the perspective of a slightly older black woman who’s young twenties. I think that eventually, I really want to write books for children as well. I’m just really immersed in this viewpoint of wanting to show and tell these stories from the perspectives of black girls and women and staying as authentic to their voice and their viewpoint on the world as I possibly can. There’s just something really precious about telling these stories.

I can imagine that KB might come back around. I love her. It’s very endearing to me that this is my debut novel. I’m really happy that this is my debut novel because at some point, I almost gave up on this particular book. I was trying to find an agent for a long time with this book. Then I found an agent, and things went well from there. Before that point, it had been years. I kept saying out loud, I don’t think that this book was meant to sell or to do anything or to go anywhere and to be on shelves. I think this was just something I really needed to write for me. I thought that because it was so personal. The journey of writing it, the fact that it came from a setting that was authentic to me and that I hid little pieces of myself in KB’s character, it felt really personal. I thought maybe that was it. Maybe that was the point of me writing this. It was the first time I wrote a novel. I was like, yeah, okay, that’s what this was for. Having that not be the case, instead, having this be my debut novel is so amazing because no matter what else I write, no matter what else I do, this will be my first novel. It’s KB’s story. That’s so precious to me because I love her so much.

Zibby: It’s amazing. I interviewed Phoebe Robinson on the podcast about her book. I was so excited to see what was going to come out of her publishing company. This is just so exciting. This is great. Did you have the best time working with her?

Kai: Oh, my gosh, it’s been amazing. I keep saying it’s a dream come true. I can’t think of anything better than that cliché because that’s just all I keep thinking about. Phoebe’s amazing. I still, to this moment, every time I am in her presence, I’m fangirling. At this point, it is what it is. Everyone has to accept it. I just can’t get over it. The fact that she started this imprint and then wanted my book as her first fiction title really blew my mind. I just believe so much in the vision of the imprint and what she’s intending to do. The team at Tiny Reparations has been amazing. It’s been so cool to be able to work with — my editor is a black woman. That was such an amazing experience, feeling like we — I didn’t feel like I had to explain myself in ways that I was expecting to have to. I didn’t have to defend choices in ways that I was expecting to have to. That was such a freeing experience. It’s just been amazing. Phoebe’s amazing. The team is amazing. I hope that I’ll be able to work with them again.

Zibby: So great. I hope you’re entering all the awards. I’m serious. This should win something. It’s great.

Kai: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on. Thank you for this really memorable read. I’m going to be recommending it now that I finished it. Sorry it’s late, but sometimes I can’t get to books before they come out.

Kai: Absolutely. I really appreciate that. I was so excited to talk to you today. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care. Bye.

Kai: Bye.



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