Interview with Kelly Vincent, Author of Ugliest (The Art of Being Ugly Series)


Thanks for visiting YAOTL, Kelly, and for telling us a bit about Ugliest ("Life, academics, and activism. Facing hate and bigotry, can this agender teen make a difference in LGBTQ+ rights?")

So much of Nic’s story is inspired by your own story. I was so struck by the portion in the author’s note in which you described growing up and being told life would be easier if you would just “choose not to be different.” Can you speak to that a bit?

This was a massive frustration for me when I was a teenager. From early elementary school, some kids mocked me a lot and made me feel bad about myself. So before I was a teenager, I really preferred adults over kids because they seemed more reasonable and less mean. But as I got older, so many adults in my life were blaming me for the bullying and constantly telling me how I was living my life wrong. I had such a sense of who I really was, even though I had also completely internalized the idea that I was inherently wrong. There was constant turmoil in my brain about this—I knew they were wrong and that I was right to be who I was, but all the constant criticism still made me feel like an absolute loser. The way I categorized the way people made me feel when I was growing up was “subhuman” (even back then). If I were a kid today, I might have been diagnosed with autism and possibly more of the adults around me would have cut me some slack. And maybe there would have been opportunities for me to learn how to “be normal” a bit more without losing who I was. But back then, I didn’t have any of that. And not all kids are going to get that explanation even today, especially in smaller towns.

I was immediately drawn in by the moral dilemma here: stop speaking up or be expelled. I think it’s a dilemma many of us have faced, in some form or another the past few years: Be quiet or face a firing, etc. Keep mum on your personal politics, etc. Even though we all know that silence, at least in some way, is complicity. Is that what helped shape this installment?

I have had an oversized sense of justice for my whole life, where unjust things drive me completely crazy. Although I do know that life is full of gray areas, so often things seem black or white to me—totally wrong or totally right. (Honestly, I suspect that this is related to being on the spectrum.) So I have stood up for things to my own detriment a handful of times, including a recent time at a job that I ended up having to leave. I should have learned my lesson prior to that, but I still had this faith that when it really came down to it, people would do the right thing. They didn’t. They don’t. I should have known better—I’m fully aware that Nazi Germany was a thing. Most people act only in self-interest most of the time, unfortunately. But that doesn’t change the fact that if no one stands up ever, things will never get better. It also doesn’t change the fact that people do sometimes stand up for right and also win—Danish people got together and saved almost all of Denmark’s Jews in World War II, the only occupied European country to do so. When I first started the book, I was struggling with how to end it positively because it just didn’t seem realistic that Nic and friends could change things in Oklahoma. But my friend reminded me of the Don’t Say Gay protests in Florida, and I remembered some of the young people who’ve been fighting against the casual acceptance of gun violence, and I realized that change is possible, even if it’s hard and not guaranteed. So I tried to frame the story like that—the kids knew it was a risk, but they decided they would be on the right side of history and not have to live their lives regretting giving in to hate.

The scene in which the TikTok is filmed is absolutely cathartic–it ends in tears, actually. So often, we see and discuss the more toxic side of social media, but here, you’re highlighting the more positive side–the fact that it can give so many a voice, and expose us to viewpoints unlike our own. What made you write about this side?

So many kids who growing up feeling really different think they’re the only freak on the planet. Although social media has a lot of negative effects on people, especially younger people, the fact that it shows people life outside their own small worlds can change everything. It can help kids decide how to handle their differentness—whether that’s telling a few people or a lot of people about it, or keeping it inside but knowing that they’re not actually a freak after all. Knowing you’re not alone can be life-saving.

They say you can’t go home again, but in a way, you did go back to Oklahoma–you went back on the page. How did it feel to return to that setting? Especially when you were in complete control over what could happen there the second time around?

This was definitely a bit trippy, honestly. Ugliest is the third in the series and the first one was largely autobiographical (with some tweaks to make it work as fiction). Writing the first book really was a lot like experiencing some unpleasant things all over again. But the second book and Ugliest were mostly fiction so they were different—empowering, even. Because it was like writing what I could have done if circumstances had been different. But it’s still hard to write about something so deeply personal and associated with trauma, especially when most of the awfulness that happens in the book is truly happening in red states now. I happened to be in Oklahoma visiting family while I was finishing up final edits on the book, and it also happened to be right after the Nex Benedict story broke (he was the trans teen in Owasso, Oklahoma who was assaulted in a school bathroom and punished for it, and then died the next day). Owasso’s only fifteen miles from where I grew up, and stories like Nex’s are the whole reason I knew I needed to write this series. Being there was a really emotional time for me.

Each book teaches us something–about ourselves, about writing. Especially storylines and characters we keep revisiting over years, in a series. What has Nic taught you?

Writing Nic, a better version of myself, has taught me that it’s worth it to be true to yourself, to whatever extent that it’s safe to do so. But it’s also made me realize the most important thing is to be true to yourself inside your own head. For anyone who knows they’re queer in some way, recognizing it inside yourself is more important than getting everyone around you to see who you truly are. It’s not that it isn’t important to be out, but if it’s not safe, you can at least understand yourself and try to move beyond feelings of inferiority and wrongness. I felt like I was failing at being human for more than 40 years of my life, and even though most people in my life don’t get my pronouns right (which is really frustrating), the mental health benefits of understanding that it’s not that there’s something wrong with me, but that my body just doesn’t match who I am. I think it’s kind of like having a visual disability or birthmark—people look at you, judge you, and come to conclusions about who you are and what your life is like just based on these visual cues, but these things don’t actually define you at all.

What was the toughest part of writing Nic’s story? The part that made you smile while you were typing it?

In Ugliest, some of the hardest stuff to write was Nic trying to deal with the disappointment of having their gender-neutral room taken away while watching the same thing nearly destroy their friend Mack. Writing the walk-out scene felt amazing. I loved writing Nic getting swept up in something so big and important, and feeling truly powerful for the first time in their life.

Ugliest is the third in a series. The stakes keep ramping up for Nic. Will there be another installment?

I was originally planning two more books—one for Nic’s senior year and one for their first semester or year in college—but Ugliest feels like the right place to end the series. I’m still thinking of writing a novella about Nic’s start in college, but it’s not a definite thing right now. But also, who knows—I change my mind all the time. I may end up coming up with another big story for Nic.

What do you hope readers take away from Ugliest?

I want people who are in places that are suppressing and stripping the human rights of LGBTQ people to fight back in any way they can. Voting. Using people’s correct pronouns. Shutting down discrimination and bullying. Being more than a performative ally. We need to get people to remember that it’s fine for people who are different from them have the same freedom to live how they want. There isn’t only one right way to exist. Seeing a pride flag is neither indoctrination nor recruitment.

Where can we find you?

My website is and I’m also active on Instagram at @kvbooks (books! cats! random weird life things!). You can find links to other things at



  1. Sounds like a very valuable addition to fiction that addresses a reality for many teens today.


Post a Comment