Sometimes a casual aside illuminates what lives inside someone.
“I answer questions better when I can tell stories,” author K.B. Hoyle says early in a sequence of interviews, first over Zoom, then email.
She offers these words, something between a clarification and an apology. But they glide naturally along the arc of her life, providing the why behind whatever she does. Faced with a question or occasion for uncertainty, a gap between the world as it is and should be, Hoyle picks up her pen and writes until breaking light.
This pattern reveals itself in her growing catalog of YA novels. Hoyle’s latest, Son of the Deep, reframes Hans Christian Andersen’s iconic fairy tale The Little Mermaid.
But Hoyle isn’t only concerned with narratives that bear her name. In her regular column at Christ and Pop Culture, she sifts through the stories we tell ourselves, examining everything from Doctor Who and Abbott Elementary to Dune and Hallmark Christmas movies to understand the plots and character types we embody.
Lately, Hoyle is occupied with another avenue for storytelling: Owl’s Nest Publishers, the independent press she started with Katie Stewart. The pair and their co-laborers have trained their focus on a new generation of readers, working to feather their world with the branches and leaves, mud and matter of lives freed to grow into the shapes of beautiful stories.
Owl’s Nest brims with promise but emerged in response to a long disappointment in the same direction. Pursuing the novel life for almost fifteen years, Hoyle watched the publishing industry zig and zag in disservice to the stories she wanted to tell.
Hoyle entered the YA world in the shadow of Twilight and an unsettling trend. Stephenie Meyer’s series swept more adult women into the genre, and stories changed with the audience, Hoyle said. Faithful portraits of teenagers in all their messy, hopeful glory gave ground to adult themes and strangely mature characters—the literary equivalent of watching 28-year-olds play high-schoolers in big-screen comedies.
This movement not only changed the words appearing on pages, but many elements binding YA stories, Hoyle said—everything from the physical size of books to their price point skewed toward adults.
Bearing witness to what the industry asked—and stripped—from authors in order to chase the market, Hoyle felt this world’s walls closing in on her. She wanted more than fevered cycles of querying agents and shelving worthwhile ideas, working to exhaustion only to be left waiting.
As rock bottom pressed heavily upon her convictions about how God made her, Hoyle talked with Stewart and a path opened before them.
“Maybe God wants me to be a person who actually opens those doors for other people like me,” she said.
Owl’s Nest, as they envision it, humbly yet confidently steps toward a breach with good stories in hand. The press solicits fiction and poetry for readers aged 8 to 18. It isn’t a Christian publishing house, but a “virtuous” one, Hoyle said.
Hoyle and Stewart want to sidestep the mistakes of other indie presses—working debt-free, for example. But their primary concern is creating “long-term relationships with authors in a way that you don’t see anymore,” Hoyle said. This pursuit will nurture storytellers who can grow alongside their audience, Owl’s Nest believes.
“We want to invest in authors so we can offer readers storytelling experiences that we think are invaluable,” Hoyle said.
This statement hits close to home and the heart of Hoyle’s work. When so-called YA stories unfold at levels beyond the experiences of actual teens, readers lose valuable time right when their moral imaginations seek shape. Owl’s Nest hopes to publish well-crafted stories that meet young readers where they are.
Son of the Deep swims the relay’s first leg. The idea sparked after Hoyle viewed filmmaker Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 vision of Cinderella. Rather than darken each frame in the fashion of Hollywood fairy tales, he exploded all that was beautiful in the original story, she said.
In The Little Mermaid, she discovered a fairy tale spiritually consonant with later works like C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. Handling Andersen’s work with imagination and care, Hoyle reversed the lead roles while playing in time with the original story’s beats.
Son of the Deep sets its fated romance between royal youth—the daughter of a human king and son of the ocean’s lord—against a torn and fraying world. The separation between heaven, earth, and the bottom of the deep blue sea is magnified. Rulers in each realm preserve safety through fear, and reconciliation seems impossible.
Hoyle masterfully carves a path through Son of the Deep, and because she makes readers feel at home on land or at sea, they naturally rise and fall with the waves her characters ride.
She assigned her title character a troubadour’s vocation; he retells the glories of his people—and learns of their faults—through story and melody. His calling and commitment to art reflect Hoyle’s own and, in one crucial moment, yields a proverb on the page: “All our lives are stories. Each important—worthy of songs.”
“These sorts of orations, culturally and historically, have been associated with the deeds of great men,” Hoyle said, drawing a line between her lead and the ancients.
“But all of us live storied lives, and in God’s economy, ‘greatness’ looks far different than the deeds that are lauded by men. Each one of us is deserving of an oration or a song.”
Hoyle can’t help but further this idea—and the spirit animating her life’s work—in another of the book’s standout sentences: “It is never only a story.”
“Stories are never just stories; they form us,” Hoyle explained. “That formation can be overt and intentional or the slow work of carving out and shaping our attentions, tastes, desires, and character . . . But no, there’s no such thing as a story that is only a story.”
Living in and for stories shapes Hoyle’s own. Telling tales sharpens her sense of place and eye for detail. Hoyle jokes she’s “a bit of a detective . . . an astute judge of character, and I have a sometimes freakishly sharp memory.”
Something as simple as a walk in the woods becomes an “exercise for the mind,” a chance to consider “how the wind looks and feels through the trees, the angle of the sun at certain times of the day, what it sounds like for feet to hit the forest floor,” she said.
Questions and choices inevitably present themselves, she added: “How long does it take a person to get winded walking uphill? Reach out and touch the tree—the next one. What does that feel like? Do I notice the sweat on my face when I’m talking, when I’m happy or upset? There are always details to notice, and you can’t—and won’t—always be writing these things down, so you just store them in your memory.”
Hoyle’s museum mind catalogs mannerisms and constructs rooms for behaviors, she said. Writing makes her a better, more empathetic judge of real-life characters, but has led her to adopt a more reserved personal posture.
“I don't form close relationships with people until and unless I feel certain of their character,” she added.
Stories shape the vertical dimension of Hoyle’s life too, affecting her worship. “I have learned more about God by reading stories” than nonfiction books about the divine, she said. Hoyle’s novels, and this step of faith called Owl’s Nest, exist to afford young readers the same story-shaped moments she enjoyed, to dream, to grow, to experience God.
In some books, she absorbed elements of the world around her; in others, she visited a more whole, just plane of existence. Together, they spurred her to close the distance with her words and way of moving through the world.
This is why Hoyle cares about writing better stories—and cares that we tell one another good stories. Presented with questions of right and wrong, color or gray, she recalls and rehearses the stories she knows. Then she answers in the language of a story that swept her away, one greater than even she alone could imagine.
Cover image by Matias North.