Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Interview with Kathi Appelt!

I'd like to take a moment to thank the wonderful and fabulous Kathi Appelt for allowing me to interview her. As I've said, she's my first victim… :) … and what a victim she is!

Her numerous picture books include the fantastic Bubba and Beau series; she's a non-fiction pro (Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers, Down Cut Shin Creek: The Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky, and My Father's Summers), a poet (Poems From Homeroom: A Writer's Place to Start) and an accomplished short story writer (Kissing Tennessee) … but she hasn't stopped there.

Her most recent crossover hit sticks her right in the middle of my preferred genre, Middle Grade, with a magical-realism animal fantasy 'The Underneath'. And she has blasted into it with this debut MG novel, earning a Cybil nomination as well as a National Book Award nomination - just at the time of this writing.

JKB: First off, congrats on your successes thus far! Did you expect all this craziness for 'The Underneath'?

KA: I've learned through the years that each book, once it leaves our hands, has the likelihood of taking on a life that you the author can't anticipate. The best is when someone points out something in a book that I never thought about. For example, once when I was doing a school visit in Canyon, Texas, a fourth grade girl asked me why I had so much dancing in my books.

Until that moment, I hadn't even thought about that, but her question made me stop in my tracks and go, "yep, I do have a lot of dancing." That said, I have been overwhelmed by the response to The Underneath. I lived with the book for so long, and felt so personally connected to it, that it was almost like sending an old friend out into the world. I'm so gratified by the affection that so many people have given it. It's been sweet.

JKB: I know you said "Something else I should probably mention was that my agents, Emily E. van Beek and Holly McGhee had challenged me to write a book that would "crack open the heart."" How did you feel when they challenged you to this? Did you know your challenge would be a MG?

KA: I honestly thought that I'd write a YA first. I didn't set out to write a MG. Almost all of my work, with perhaps the exception of Down Cut Shin Creek, has either been for toddlers or teens, with not much in between. So, it makes me happy to have a true middle grade book on my hands.

JKB: You've authored many picture books, NF, poetry and short stories…did you feel like 'The Underneath' was your next logical step? Did you always plan to have a MG on your radar?

KA: I wrote The Underneath for myself as much as anyone. For years I had wanted to write a novel. It didn't really matter to me what genre it fell into. I had written in almost every other category, but the novel kept eluding me. I just couldn't seem to get my head all the way around one.

So, yes, I had planned to write about a dozen novels, but it took forever for me to figure out how to do it. And let me just say that I had a lot of help from my friends!

JKB: You use a very spare yet beautifully descriptive voice in 'The Underneath'. You've said: I hope that my writing has become more "true." By that, I constantly work to let my own voice shine through. Calling on voice is in some ways like calling on the muse. It's a slippery thing, and not a little magical. Have you depended on your characters in 'The Underneath' to help bring your voice out, or have you actively worked outside of your stories to bring voice along as well?

KA: Voice is a hard thing to pin down. There is your own authorial voice, the one that you bring to the table, the one that comes from your own nuances of language, your own sensibilities, your own tastes; and then there are the voices of the characters. I think that the task in both instances, is to strive for authenticity. When I'm working with a character, I try to keep asking, "what is true for this one?"

And then you just have to keep pecking away at it. I did a lot of rewriting on this novel. Tons of it. And in a million ways, the job of revision is to winnow out those aspects of the story, as well as the language, that occur as either superfluous or inadequate. Finding the way to the center or heart of each character takes a lot of chipping away I think.

JKB: You've also mentioned that you struggle with story lines…having many characters, many ideas and a beautiful background, but slowing to a halt when you get to that pesky plot. How have you learned to determine what is 'enough' of a story to make you begin to write it?

KA: Once I establish the main character's motivation, then I can begin to move forward; but that same motivation must be compelling, something that will push the character from start to finish. The other thing that I think helps is to figure out what is at stake. If there is not enough at stake for the character to act, then I have to rethink everything.

JKB: It seems like every story I write there are pieces of me scattered throughout, like tiny jewels. I know you've made reference to Ranger being based off a dog you had when growing up (that coincidentally raised a litter of kittens!) What part of 'The Underneath' did you connect the most with? The part that disturbed you the most, but you had to write anyway?

KA: The part that I connected with most were those instances of good mothering. I felt like a sister to the little Calico cat, as well as to Grandmother and then later to Night Song. I understood their longings and their responsibilities, I even understood Grandmother's sense of betrayal. Of course, Gar Face's cruel treatment of Ranger was the hardest part to write. I felt as though I was suffering right along with him.

JKB: That is very cool...and having read The Underneath, I can certainly agree with you. The mothering part is very touching. Now - research. Ah, Research. When writing 'The Underneath' what did you do about travel? Did you do online research or speak with people living there? Any pitfalls you've found in the research process that you've learned to watch out for?

KA: I didn't have to travel too much. There is an ancient Caddo site only about 80 miles from me in tiny Alto, TX called Caddo Mounds State Park, and I was able to spend some time there. But I found a lot of information in books or on-line.

JKB: What do you view as your major hurdles when you're bringing the first draft up to speed? The second? At what point do you let your agents/editors see the book?

KA: My major hurdles are getting over myself and all my idiosyncracies. The first draft is always the hardest one for me, trying to figure out what everyone is supposed to do, where they're supposed to go, etc. I enjoy revision. It's that initial getting it all down that causes me the greatest anxiety.

Once I have a draft, I'm glad to go back to it. In the case of The Underneath, my agents basically saw it in every incarnation imaginable. They were both extremely supportive and patient, and they gave me a lot of editorial help. It wasn't until about the fourth or fifth draft that they took it out to the wider world.

JKB: I love to know what 'feeds the muse' of fellow writers…be it running, painting, playing with your kids, etc. What feeds your muse?

KA: Coffee. And also other writers, other books, my cats, my students (not necessarily in that order). I also enjoy a quiet walk now and then to sort of clear out the cobwebs.

JKB: As a newly-agented writer, I'm fascinated by the agent process…as well as that beeee-autiful 'Well yes, I AM going to be published!' eureka moment. What's your favorite part?

KA: I love it when a book is accepted for publication.

JKB: You've been with your agents a long time (Pippin Properties). In what ways during your creative process do you depend on their viewpoint to help you grow as an author?

KA: I depend upon them to remind me to write excellent books, to remind me that kids deserve the best out of me, but also I need them to remind me that I can do that--that I can write excellent books.

JKB: Revisions. Revisions. Revisions. You said you must have rewritten The Underneath two or three times, going through at least ten revisions. What were you changing? Updating?

KA: In the early drafts, there was a whole story strand that involved a young boy and his family who lived along the banks of the creek. As the story evolved, that strand came out of the book. I also did a lot of rearranging. One of the great things about writing it in small chapters was that those same small chapters made it easy to move scenes around. And I did. I moved them around a lot. One of the issues that I had to keep addressing was the one about time. With the two strands of the story constantly moving back and forth in time, I had to pay attention to where I was in the story or risk losing my place.

JKB: You're just escalating success-wise with every book (or at least it seems like from the outside looking in). Do you feel more pressure, rather than less, to make the next bigger and better and just … more … of everything? Does the pressure to outdo yourself ever go away?

KA: I hope the pressure doesn't go away. I think it's important for anyone, regardless of whether you're a writer or a dishwasher, to continue to seek out ways to improve your work. It's how we feed our creative souls. It's necessary.

JKB: I'll let you off with an easy one for your last question. J What's your most recent favorite book? And why?

KA: It's a book that will be out next year, The Chosen One, by Carol Lynch Williams. I can't get that book out of my head, and actually I don't want to get it out of my head. It's fine writing. A jewel.


Thank you so much again, Kathi, for letting me place you on the spot here! I wish 'The Underneath' every success, and am rooting for you – and ready to volunteer to beta read your next book!

Kathi's been all over the internet lately. I'm attaching a couple other links with other questions from other interviewers so you can get a full fix of 'The Underneath'. I highly recommend them!

BLBooks Day one

BLBooks Day two

Cynthia L Smith


pseudosu said...

What a great interview!
Thanks to you both!

Heidi said...

What great insight into the entire process!

I love the part about finding the character's motivation, and needing to make sure the stakes are high enough.

Also, how crazy the editing and rewriting process can be! Very enlightening!

This sounds like a fantastic book. Thanks both for such a great interview!

JKB said...

Pseu - :)

Heidi - It is such a great book. I think very highly of it...it'll become a re-reader, which is a sign of success for me. :)

Kerri said...

That was one of the best interviews I've read in a long time. Great questions and answers. I especially love the one about voice- what an insightful answer.

Robert Lau said...

..INSIGHTFUL!!...penetrating the working innards of the Author's mind.

I agreed with Kerri 100%...INTELLIGENT for want of a better word.


Robert Lau

JKB said...

Kerri - Thanks! I think there are some gems here for writers. She was so wonderful!

Robert -Thanks man! I would highly recommend the book!