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A Reiss-ing star at Mills

(Courtesy of Kathryn Reiss) Blackthorn Winter is one of the books that Kathryn Reiss has authored.
(Courtesy of Kathryn Reiss)
Kathryn Reiss has published nineteen books and is writing a twentieth. 

For nearly 30 years, Kathryn Reiss has been a Mills professor, mother and prolific young adult author, and she shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Author of 19 books, Reiss has just self-published her most recent novel and is putting the finishing touches on her 20th book, a contribution to the American Girl series.

Balancing professional and the personal is a way of life for Reiss since coming to Mills in 1988, and has been an especially handy skill in delegating time to her commissioned American Girl novels, her personal projects and her career as a professor. Though never any less of a challenge to keep up with, her hectic career is a childhood dream come true for Reiss.

As a kindergartner, she was already seeking feedback from her parents on her early written works and convincing friends to be her pretend-students during games of school.

“I always wanted to be both [a teacher and a writer] since I was six,” Reiss said.

Reiss wrote her first novel as a 23-year-old college student in 1981, when she was studying abroad on a Fulbright scholarship in Germany.

“Everything was in German and I didn’t have anything left to read in English. Sometimes I just wanted something to kick back and read. I wanted a good mystery novel,” Reiss said. “I remember telling myself ‘You always say you’re going to write a book someday, and this would be a good time!’”

The manuscript that emerged would be published as “Time Windows” nearly 10 years later. Shortly after its publication, two more of her manuscripts were picked up for publication and she was approached by American Girl to join their roster of novelists.

Reiss continues to pursue both passion and pragmatism, publishing her original creations and her work for the American Girl series with astonishing regularity, all while maintaining a rigorous teaching schedule.

“I’ve become very compartmentalized and very strict with myself,” Reiss said. “I’m always working, but I’m not always teaching.”

During the time that she is on campus, however, Reiss is devoted to giving her students the full measure of her attention and time. This devotion has clearly paid off, as many of her former students have already gone on to make a mark on the world of young adult literature.

Carly West, who was a graduate student in Reiss’ classes in 2007, is a published young adult author and freelance writer.

“She was incredibly supportive,” West said. “She was so wonderful about being sure that I felt empowered to write what I wanted to write.”

Though “young adult” wasn’t what Reiss had in mind when she sat down to write her first book, over the years she realized that writing for teens and children was where her interests truly lay.

“I didn’t know the term YA [at first]. I didn’t really think about who my reader was because I was writing for myself,” Reiss said. “I didn’t really know I was a YA writer until I was published. I just like teenagers; I like the teenage voice.”

Her passion for and experience in writing young adult fiction has been a great gift to many Mills students, whose interest in genre fiction and writing for young people is often dismissed as not literary enough by much of the academic world.

“She’s just a real champion of YA writing,” West said. “She was doing it before a lot of people were getting the credit they deserved for it.”

Reiss’ legacy of encouraging the legitimacy and value of young adult and genre fiction continues to this day.

“In college and upper level writing, people tend to focus on literary fiction,” Melissa McDaniels, a sophomore who is currently in Reiss’ advanced young adult fiction workshop, said. “Her class definitely made me more confident to write genre fiction.”

In the past, Reiss has tried taking time off from teaching at Mills to focus on her writing career, but quickly realized that working at Mills kept her motivated.

“I missed Mills terribly,” Reiss said. “I think I’m invigorated by my students.”

Reiss is proof that writers really can have it all: With a little patience and a lot of work, writing is as viable a career as any.

“None of my books have been a bestseller, but I make a living,” Reiss said. “I think a lot of people just want to get published, but I’ve been published for twenty years, and have twenty books out and you have to keep working at it.”