Exploring the PRITTY Universe: An Interview with Keith F. Miller Jr

Keith F. Miller, Jr. is an award-winning educator, artist, and researcher who studies healing literacies and their role in supporting BIPOC communities in healing, growing, and thriving through trauma. The founder of Healing By Any Means, LLC, Keith’s work powers people, projects, and healing-centered research in service of systems and narrative change through the arts. He is an executive producer of Pritty: The Animation and current M.F.A candidate in creative writing at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY. 

On November 14, 2023, HarperTeen published his debut novel, PRITTY, which inspired the animated short film of Kickstarter fame. His sequel, TOGETHA, will be published in early 2025.

PrideIndex interviewed Keith via email. Here’s what he shared about his influences, the inspiration for this amazing novel, and what’s next in the PRITTY universe.

PrideIndex (PI): Why did you become a writer?

Keith F. Miller, Jr (KFM): I’m not sure I had much of a choice. I was often overwhelmed with the world around me when I was younger. I was obsessed with why people did what they did, how they could be unimaginably cruel in one moment and impossibly tender and vulnerable in the next. And because I was a very shy and quiet kid, especially when I first moved to Savannah, GA, when I was six, I often felt more compelled to watch, listen, speak, and risk the consequences. Then, in middle school, I had an English assignment where the teacher asked us to create a poetry notebook, as she exposed us to other literature and forms. I developed an obsession with Edgar Allan Poe, which nearly gave my mother a heart attack when she read how dark my poems were initially. But soon, I found that written words were often the only way I could grapple with the hurt and healing I saw everywhere around me. And so, I never stopped. I believe I keep writing to this day, crafting stories across forms and mediums, from poems to novels to collages because I yearn to make it all make sense, the pain and pleasure of living. In Audre Lorde’s essay, “Poetry is not a Luxury,” she writes: “Poetry is the way we help give a name to the nameless so it can be thought.” That is true of all art, and for those of us who self-identify as artists (and even those of us who don’t), it is the thing that keeps us living even when, at times, doing so feels unbearable.

PI: Name three people who have had the most influence over your artistic style.

(KFM): Colin Channer
When I accidentally stumbled upon Colin Channer’s Waiting in Vain, I decided then and there two things: 1) I wanted to grow up and become a man like Fire, one of the main characters, an irresistible Jamaican and British poet with a reckless, seductive charm and dauntless tenderness and 2) I wanted to one day write like him. I guess that is when you could say I became obsessed with love stories and romance (at the time), but I was mesmerized by how every single word had a purpose and a rhythm, like poetry. At the same time, he crafted these incredibly complex characters you loved and ached for because you saw yourselves in them.

Jesmyn Ward
When I read Salvage the Bones and Where the Line Bleeds, I remember sitting between reading sessions, often lost in thought. I liken her writing to River Delta clay. You need time to process and feel it between your fingers; work it in your palms for understanding. She also is one of the most powerful writers of intimacy and connection I’ve seen, like Colin Channer. So, when I find myself overwhelmed or stumped with how to convey a situation or a setting, I often revisit her books as a sanctuary of practice and process.

N.K. Jemisin
I consider N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood Duology, One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (book one of the Inheritance Trilogy), and the Broken Earth Trilogy are masterclasses in worldbuilding, character development, and technique. Her ability to create incredibly complex human characters has brought me to tears. I aspire to convey my characters and the worlds they inhabit with the same tenderness, so they act as a mirror of possibility, hope, and understanding to those who encounter them. And whenever I find myself doubting my path or skills as a writer, I read her work and use it as a reminder that it doesn’t matter how good I feel I am or am not in this moment if I can get people to feel deeply the way she does, that will be enough.

PI: Talk about your debut novel, PRITTY. Where did you find the inspiration for it?

(KFM): Briefly, PRITTY follows two boys who get caught in the crossfire of a sinister plot that threatens everything they love and may cost them their own chance at love. It is the first of its kind, specifically in Young Adult Fiction, that centers on Blackness, queerness, and resistance, but without the trope of gay angst or traumatic coming-out narratives. In this book, no one labels themselves anything because they don’t have to–they are, period. And I wrote it to reconcile two things: 1) to create a nostalgic salve for many of us who have grown up experiencing harm and indoctrinated shame for loving beyond the binary and 2) to acknowledge what I’ve learned as an educator of Gen Z and Gen ɑ who already embrace the spectrum of gender identities but often wondering, “But how do I love, especially when the world around me says I’m not worthy of it?”

The inspiration for PRITTY found me almost 14 years ago in New York City when I had a brutal night terror. Still, despite the horror and suffering I witnessed, I saw this group of boys who protected and loved one another in ways I literally didn’t have words for. I woke up in tears (usually the gateway to a good story, LMAO). And, when I couldn’t shake the feeling and yearning of wanting to get to know who those boys were, I opened my phone and began just writing about the characters I saw on the way to and from work while on the train. Eventually, I had thirty pages. Then, I kept writing a little more until a pen pal of mine, who didn’t identify as a reader, asked to check it out, and I just kept adding chapters until I was at 100 pages. Around that time, my mom also asked about the novel, and during a very dark time in our family, it became the one thing she looked forward to each week. Ultimately, I finished the first manuscript, which was 280+ pages, because of her.

PI: Share your writing process for PRITTY and how long it took to complete it from start to finish.

(KFM): I started to rewrite PRITTY nearly three years ago while pursuing my MFA. I was fortunate to encounter Yahdon Israel, a professor and writing mentor within the program who pushed me to re-imagine the story and transform the way I told it. That was my first introduction to craft and technique and a game changer for me. From that initial experience, completing the manuscript took me about 3-4 months. When I got my agent, revision with her took an additional 2-3 months. When I signed with HarperCollins, it took another year and some change before it was ready to be packaged and put on shelves.

Overall, PRITTY has been nearly 14 years in the making, and I would like to summarize that process by sharing a conversation I had with Yahdon after he read the first 30 pages of my manuscript. He asked me how old I was when I wrote the novel and was not surprised at all to learn that I was 21/22. He explained that first novels often read like autobiographies and that books written when we’re younger often obsess over who hurt us. However, as we get older, our perspective shifts, and we begin to understand the world’s complexity and expand our focus to wonder who hurt them. For me, I needed the 14 years to live, to discover my healing practice, then use art, even to heal my trauma from growing up, so that I could know what I’d written: a healing-centered story meant to hold space for what hurts and what heals.

PI: What would you like readers to retain from it?

(KFM): Whatever lessons they feel are most important. The powerful thing about art is that, as a creative, we fashion it into being from our thoughts and experiences, but when we release it to the world, it takes on a new life and meaning through the lens of others. I’ve had people reach out to me and share how PRITTY helped them feel seen and healed through past trauma from relationships and how it helped them forgive themselves and others. I’ve also had people reach out to me and say how the novel allowed them to better understand those precious to them, in some cases, those who had recently passed away. Then, some explain the many ways the novel felt, like the hug they needed, the hope they once had, and the fearlessness they want to embody to live and love freely. I wrote PRITTY to heal from my trauma and envision a world that feels within reach if we’d dare to allow ourselves to love fully and openly–and heal in the process. But I’ve found the readers to be much smarter than me, to connect and imbue the text with a meaning that transcends anything I could have hoped for. We are all different, so I want them to retain the bits of the story that make them smile, move them to tears, and remind them that they are precious and worthy of protection–and then some.

PI: Writers sometimes share their own experiences in storytelling. This story is supposed to be a YA fiction book. Did you use any factual events to complete this story? If so, what percent of the story is true?
(KFM): My answer to this question is simple: I’ll never tell. HAHA. However, although I may have experienced similar things, I didn’t try to recreate my early childhood experiences. I simply listened to my characters and used what I knew as context for connecting the dots so that I could write from a place of knowing. When I began to do that, I realized that I was able to release my hold on the story and be transformed by it. In doing so, the book helped me heal from traumatic experiences because it isn’t a fictional autobiography; it’s a story and world of its own, with universal characters no matter who you are. When that’s the case, what I’ve been through and factual elements don’t matter; they serve as an emotional color palette with Savannah, Georgia, as a backdrop and healing-centered canvas.

PI: You’ve recently published the novel and are currently developing Pritty: The Animation. What’s next for PRITTY?

(KFM): I was fortunate to sign a multi-book deal with HarperCollins, meaning PRITTY will be a multi-book series. Book two is slated to come out in January 2025. I plan to continue the series, expand the PRITTY-verse as traditional novels, and, ideally, venture into graphic novels and other forms. Of course, like all writers, my hope and dream is for PRITTY to make its way to the big screen in various formats. We’re still fundraising for the animation, which has been a long, humbling journey. And there are other possibilities we’re working toward. I can’t wait to be able to share more novels and stories that build on and expand the world and these characters people love so much.

PI: What are you working on right now? Where do you see yourself in the future?

(KFM): As I’m answering these questions, I’m in the final stages of editing book 2 of PRITTY and, once done, will begin working on some other exciting stories, including the first book of a Black sci-fi series, among other things. My goal is to keep writing stories across forms and genres that, like my younger self, help us better understand ourselves and the world around us. All of us are healing from something, even if we don’t know exactly what it is. So, with that in mind, I have two hopes: 1) to become everyone’s new favorite writing teacher to help them figure out how they heal and 2) create more opportunities for creatives across mediums to understand the traditional publishing process better, prepare for the rigor of life as an author, and, in doing so, ensure PRITTY paves the way for many more stories like it, demonstrating how we heal–and teaching others how to do the same.