K.J. Reilly Interview - Four for the Road

Photo Credit: Katherine Reilly

K. J. Reilly graduated from Boston University with a BA in psychology then headed to New York City to work in the marketing research departments of several of the largest advertising agencies in the world. She loves reading, writing, dogs, sailboats, cycling, children of all shapes and sizes, and growing her own food. She is the author of Words We Don’t Say. Four for the Road is her second young adult novel.


Greatest thing you learned at school.
That books are everything. There was no Internet when I went to school, so that statement is not an exaggeration. We were almost completely dependent on gatekeepers—teachers, schools and books almost completely controlled what we learned and what we had access to learn. That’s not true now that there’s almost limitless information available at our fingertips 24/7. But for me, everything came from teachers and libraries and books; they were everything to me.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
Hearing from readers who were impacted by one of my books. As a writer, your success is measured by numbers—sales numbers, rankings, things like that. But behind those numbers are real people. Readers. I’m asking them to spend a few hours with my characters and story, and that’s a big ask. There are so many books to choose from and so much competition for our time, so I’m so grateful to the readers who give my books a chance. I’ve always said that even if I only impact one person, make them feel better in some way, it makes all the hard work of writing a book worth it.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
Life! We’re all pulled in so many directions and time carries such a premium. It’s an asset just like money—and we get to choose how we spend it. When you choose to spend time on one thing—whatever that might be—something else is left undone. A writer is dedicating a lot of time to something that may not sell, which means it won’t be read. If a manuscript doesn’t get published, it can feel like it was a waste of time to write it. Yet writers want to write, love to write—live to write—so there’s this dichotomy of hope and drive pitted against self-doubt and the thought, Should I be spending my time on something else? Or, What if it’s not good or doesn’t sell? Am I wasting my time? For me, that’s distracting.

Has reading a book ever changed your life? Which one and why, if yes?
That’s a definite, Yes! In fact, I’d argue that there are so many books that have changed my life in some way, that I can’t pick one. Of course, that change was often on a micro level, but there are the books that had a huge impact, and for me those were the books I read as a teen. Classics like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, or Animal Farm. The work of Hunter S. Thompson. The poems of Emily Dickenson. Wuthering Heights. Of Mice and Men . . . But also the work of more commercial writers as well. The Stand by Steven King had a huge impact on me—as well as more literary books. The collective works of Anne Tyler, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison . . . Snow Falling on Cedars by David Gutterson. I was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn. Many teen books I read when I was older had a huge impact on me as well—for example, A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. These were all eye opening and transformational for me.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
It connects us as humans. It’s our shared community of heart. We are all armchair travelers, and not just geographically. Stories escort us through ideas and places and time.

Can you tell us when you started FOUR FOR THE ROAD, how that came about?
At the time, so many horrific things were happening in the world, and there was so much loss and grief it felt overwhelming. I became interested in dissecting a “worst possible situation.” One where someone suffered a great personal loss under circumstances that rendered it an unthinkable injustice. I wanted to examine something that wasn’t only profoundly sad, but something that was profoundly unfair, then explore what that might do to a person; how it might push a good person to do something horrendous. Beyond that, I wanted to see if after an experience like that, there was a way to heal and actually end up whole again—or at least “okay.” Since I don’t outline when I write, and I don’t have an agenda or a pre-planned ending because I want organic, authentic heart and emotion on the page, I just started with that—a good kid who was horribly wronged and hasn’t been able to recover; and I chose a grief situation that was further complicated by guilt.

After I create the characters and put them in a situation together, I let them respond—and I’m always surprised by what they do. There are so many examples of this in Four For The Road. When Asher goes to the grief group for the first time, I didn’t know what would happen. Then when he’s asked how his mom died and he blurts out, Me. I killed her—I was shocked—and that took the story in a very specific direction. Then when Asher reacts the way he did when he meets Evelyn for the first time—that took me by surprise, too. I had no idea how he would respond when he met Jack Daniels either—I just let the moment happen as I was writing. I also had reservations about how to handle the moment when Asher would have to face Grace. So I relinquished that to him as well, and the way he responded—the way Grace responded—not only surprised me, it made me feel good to be a human being and to have spent time with these characters. That probably sounds a little unhinged, but it’s true.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your characters?
That to be creative you have to let go and trust your instincts, then trust the process. That the best “real” people in books, are exactly like the best real people in life; they are interesting and flawed and complicated, and just trying their best to find their way through the tough stuff.

Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from FOUR FOR THE ROAD
Okay, this is a bit tricky because I want to avoid any real spoilers! And also because some moments taken out of context lose their power. Having said that, here are few of my favorites.

To start, the tail end of the scene below is early in the book after Asher has left a counseling session that did not go well and he feels entirely alone and misunderstood. He’s racing out of the building and decides to reach out to Sloane (who he just recently met).

I need to talk to someone who understands. Someone who is not in my school. Someone like me.
I take out my phone. Text Sloane. What are you doing? My heart is racing.
She writes back immediately. Hiding in the girls bathroom.
I take a breath. I’m not alone.
I type, How long have you been in there? as I slam through the exit and step outside. I lean against the building and take big gulps of cool spring air. My hands are shaking as I look down at my phone.

No response.
I ask again, How long have you been hiding in the girls bathroom?

Three dots dance on the screen. She’s typing.
Sloane writes, Ever since my dad died.

The chapter ends here. It was exactly what Asher needed to hear. He is not alone in his grief.

Here’s another spoiler-free quote I love:
By the time I put the postcard in the mailbox, my head hurts and my feet feel like I have concrete in my shoes, but the postcard is as light as air. Almost like it has wings and feathers and can fly to Henry’s house all by itself.

This statement does some heavy lifting in the story, too. And this is another powerful and compelling moment for Asher—mailing that postcard to Henry means that he might actually do the thing he’s been thinking about doing, and in that moment he feels the weight of it (illustrated by the concrete in his shoes) as well as a loss of control (the wings and feathers). The reference to the lightness and wings and feathers of the postcard suggest that by taking a step to set his plan into motion, it takes on a life of its own. In this case, that’s both exciting and terrifying.

Here's another: It’s a passage that illustrates Asher’s overwhelming fear that in addition to losing his mom, he could lose someone else he loves. He’s grappling with the reality that no one is safe and he can’t protect anyone. While that was true even before his mom died, there’s an assumption of immortality that’s gifted to young children that Asher has now lost. In this scene, it’s clear that he doesn’t know what to do with that.

When I get home I go straight to the garage and take the wheels off Chloe’s bike. Not just the training wheels but the real wheels too. Then I hit the bike with a hammer and smash it into a thousand little pieces because there is no way that I can be sure that Chloe won’t ride her bike on the wrong part of the road or on the wrong road or right down the double yellow line on the center of some highway with her eyes closed. When my dad hears all the noise in the garage he sticks his head in and looks around and when I look up at him he looks really tired and worn down and his hair is kind of sticking out all over the place and then I hear him sigh right before he asks, “What happened to Chloe’s bike?”

I just stand there and say, “It looks like someone broke into the garage and took the wheels off and smashed it.” Then I put the hammer down and we both stare at it.

The hammer, not the bike.

Then there’s the scene where Asher hugs Sloane for the first time. It’s a transitional moment as it simultaneously demonstrates his feeling of connection to her, and his perceived disconnect from the rest of world. It isn’t a romantic hug, but rather a protective one. But in the moment, it is everything.

She’s frailer than I thought she would be, and there’s more motorcycle jacket and leather boots than actual girl, but she fits perfectly in my arms. It feels like we are the last two pieces needed to finish a jigsaw puzzle. And not the corners or edges or the obvious pieces either. Me and Sloane are the plain pieces in the middle of the puzzle that are a solid color like the sky, two of the pieces you tossed off to the side and never thought would fit anywhere.

Then there’s this:
Then when she’s sleeping, I find Sloane’s hand under the sweaters and jackets piled up between us on the back seat, and hold it.

When she wakes up, she gives my hand a squeeze. I pull my headphones off and whisper, “Is this okay?” and she smiles and says, “Yes.” Then I lean in close and tell her that sea otters hold hands when they’re sleeping so they won’t drift apart, and her lips turn up in that half smile.

This is soon after the (previous) hug, and it inches them a little bit closer to romance—but even still, Asher references them saving each other. It also demonstrates just how aware he is that he needs someone to keep him from drifting in the wrong direction. This is a level of self-awareness that’s necessary to affect actual change.

What is the first job you have had?
In high school I got a job working the four to midnight shift at the U.S. Post Office sorting mail – which sounds horrible, but it wasn’t. We worked on a line—literally an assembly line as the mail flew by—and we had to sort it by size. Everyone else was much older than I was, but we got along, laughing and joking, so it wasn’t like working, it was like a night out with friends.

Best date you've ever had?
Getting ice cream at Emack and Bolios in Boston when I was a junior in college. It was a first date. We both got two scoops of Grasshopper Pie. It was magical. And ended well. Post script: We got married.

What is the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning?

What is your most memorable travel experience?
Scuba diving in the Bahamas when I was sixteen. You’re weightless underwater and the only sound is your own exaggerated breathing. When you physically experience a coral reef like that, it’s impossible not to be wowed.

What's your most missed memory?
Peace and alone time. With all we’ve gained from technology in terms of learning access and connectivity, we’ve lost something in terms of having the space to quiet our minds. So many of us are suffering from over-stimulation, from the constant pressure that we could be—should be—doing more. Prior to social media and computers and smart phones, things ended—the school day, the work day . . . stores and banks actually closed. People only called when they had something important to say. Your ability to connect to the outside world shut down. There was an off switch. Today, everything is limitless and constant. That’s wonderful and empowering in so many ways, but it leads to stress. We have to learn to manage that pressure and it can be really hard.

Have you ever stood up for someone you hardly knew?
I try to do that with my writing. Hopefully by writing books, I’m giving strength to people who are in pain, and providing perspective to people who may know people in pain. That’s why hearing from readers is so important to me. It’s validation from those people I’m standing up for who I don’t know at all, so it’s feels good to hear, “Your book spoke to me.”

Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of a heart break or have never loved before?
Definitely, true love! I will look to Henry in Four For The Road to defend that answer. He had a lifetime of true love—true love with heartbreak. Heartbreak that from his perspective was clearly worth it.

When you looked in the mirror first thing this morning, what was the first thing you thought?
I should smile at the person looking back at me. We could be friends. She looks like a nice person.

What do you usually think about right before falling asleep?
George Costanza. I’ve been watching old reruns of Seinfeld before I fall asleep, and there’s something so comforting in George—maybe it’s just the feeling after a long tiring day that there’s someone more helpless than me. Or maybe it’s just that despite his numerous sit-com level flaws and life errors, he still manages to be loveable.

If you had to go back in time and change one thing, if you HAD to, even if you had “no regrets” what would it be?
I would worry less. Stuff matters less than we think. Besides, we tend to worry about all the wrong things—we worry about things we can’t control.

First Love?
A tiny, adorable grey kitten with white paws I named, Muffin.

First Heartbreak?
When Muffin ran away and didn’t come back. L

If you could be born into history as any famous person who would it be and why?
Beatrix Potter. I would love to have lived in the English countryside in a garden and be inside the head and heart of someone who wrote and illustrated those stories. I love bunnies and flowers, and the world she created feels like the happiest place in the universe.

Most horrifying dream you have ever had?
That I have to land a 747 by myself.

I can’t parallel park a car or drive in reverse without hitting something, so me landing an aircraft is probably not going to end well. Luckily I wake up before I find out what happens.

What is one unique thing are you afraid of?
A bicycle crash. I ride just about every day and I know what a high speed crash can do. That scares me – just not enough to get me to quit or slow down.

What is the weirdest thing you have seen in someone else’s home?
There are a number of scientists in my family, so I would have to say petri dishes and decaying flesh. Mold samples. Algae. Skulls. Tibias. Dead birds, animal carcasses—un-plucked and still furred and feathered, that sort of thing. Stuff stored in the fridge and freezer right next to the mayonnaise and ice cream. Freaks me out every time.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower meets The End of the F***ing World in this dark young adult comedy about four unlikely friends dealing with the messy side of grief who embark on a road trip to Graceland.

Asher Hunting wants revenge.

Specifically, he wants revenge on the drunk driver who killed his mom and got off on a technicality. No one seems to think this is healthy, though, which is how he ends up in a bereavement group (well, bereavement groups. He goes to several.) It’s there he makes some unexpected friends: There’s Sloane, who lost her dad to cancer; Will, who lost his little brother to a different kind of cancer; and eighty-year-old Henry, who was married to his wife for fifty years until she decided to die on her own terms. And it’s these three who Asher invites on a road trip from New Jersey to Graceland. Asher doesn’t tell them that he’s planning to steal his dad’s car, or the real reason that he wants to go to Tennessee (spoiler alert: it’s revenge)—but then again, the others don’t share their reasons for going, either.

Complete with unexpected revelations, lots of chicken Caesar salads at roadside restaurants, a stolen motorcycle, and an epic kiss at a rest stop minimart, what begins as the road trip to revenge might just turn into a path towards forgiveness.
You can purchase Four for the Road at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you K.J. REILLY for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Four for the Road by K.J. Reilly.

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