Monday, May 4, 2009
Book Launch: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Today I'm delighted to introduce you to a marvelous debut, and its author Jacqueline Kelly. This is sure to become a much talked-about middle grade novel!
Congratulations, Jacqueline, on the publication of your terrific debut novel, THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?
Hi Janet, thanks so much for your wonderful review of the book. You yourself know, as a writer, how gratifying it is to see your work enthusiastically received. I am just so pleased to have my first book in print.
The work was mainly inspired by the old house I own in Fentress. The house is about 140 years old, and I bought it from the grand-daughter of the man who built it, a Mr. Harwood. The Harwood name is well-known in central Texas. The house was built for an expanding Victorian family, and has many bedrooms and bathrooms. It was originally situated on 600 acres of cotton. I bought it in the mid-1980's, and then promptly ran out of money to fix it up. Old houses are an addicting habit, and shockingly expensive to fix. The house remains to this day a fine example of moldering splendor and faded glory.
One very hot summer, I was lying on the day bed under one of the wheezing window units, and I wondered how people stood the summer heat before air conditioning, especially the poor women, who had to wear corsets and many layers of clothing. The first line of the book sprang into my head, and the whole family, including Calpurnia, came alive at that moment to answer my question for me.
By the way, I did make a promise to the house that if the book made money, I would restore it to its former beauty.
Your research enhances the story. How difficult was it to find this level of detail?
Not as difficult as you might think. For some reason, this period of time has always interested me, and over the years I have soaked up many of the details of daily life found in the book. My mother’s description of her mother’s childhood was helpful. Then, of course, there’s the internet. Most of my online research consisted of seeking out old family photographs from that period. There’s something about them that I find so appealing. Having your photograph made in those days was a very important event. I looked at those faces and wonder about the stories behind them. About half-way through my writing, I stumbled across a photograph of a young girl that reminded me so much of my mental picture of Calpurnia. This girl has a very open, appealing face. You can just see her curiosity about the world written in her expression. I will post her photograph on my website which should be up and running any day now. I also found a picture of an old man with a long white beard, who reminds me a bit of Granddaddy. There’s also a famous portrait of Darwin in late-life, and I realized towards the end of the writing process that much of Granddaddy’s appearance is based on this portrait.
Do you have a vision of Calpurnia’s future (without giving too much away)?
I originally wrote an epilogue for the story, but removed it at the suggestion of my editor, Laura Godwin at Holt. It explains what eventually happened to every member of the family. Now that there is some talk of a sequel, I can see the wisdom of Laura’s suggestion. I can see Calpurnia in her 20's, all clad in white, marching arm-in-arm with other suffragettes for the right to vote. Other than that, I can only say that we don’t need to worry too much about our girl. She will be all right.
I loved the characters, especially Granddaddy. Can you tell us more about your character development?
My parents and I left New Zealand when I was very young. I never met my maternal grandfather, and my paternal grandfather was on the other side of the world. Since I essentially grew up without a grandfather, I had to create my own. Granddaddy is a combination of my own father and a couple of my friends. One of the things I love about Granddaddy is that he does not treat Calpurnia as a child. He cannot even see that she is just a young girl. If she is going to study Science with him, then he expects her to approach the subject rigorously, as a true, single-minded Scientist. Standards must be maintained!
How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?
This is my first book for readers of any age. It started out as a short story that I submitted to my writing group some years ago, and they pronounced the fateful words: “We think this should be a novel.” My reaction to that was no, no, it can’t possibly be. You’re wrong.
Can you describe your path to the publication of THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE?
I turned the short story into the first chapter, and added a couple more chapters. I entered my paltry thirty pages or so in the Writers’ League of Texas annual Agents & Editors Conference. To my huge surprise, I won the contest. The judge was an agent Marcy Posner, who wanted to see the rest of the manuscript. I mumbled something about how it “needed a lot more re-writing” before I could show it to her. Lies, all lies. It took me a couple more years before I got the finished book to her, but she stuck with me and eventually sold it Laura Godwin at Henry Holt. Laura had a non-fiction book about Darwin for young readers coming out in 2009, and my manuscript caught her eye. This year is the celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday, and the 50th anniversary of the publication of his great work, ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, so Darwin is everywhere you look.
Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
Boy, do I. The best piece of advice I can give is that if you don’t have a writing group, you must either find one or form one. Right now. This instant. Many beginners are self-conscious about showing their work, but you have to get over this, and you have to be able to learn to take criticism of your work, as well as learn to critique others’ work. In a kind and helpful fashion, of course. I can’t stand writing groups that rip each other into little bitty shreds. What’s helpful about that? Not a thing. I belong to a fabulous writing group that’s been meeting for almost eight years. We call ourselves the Fabs. We all get along terrifically, and we have so much fun it’s ridiculous.
I understand that you have a medical background as well as a legal background. Can you tell us more about your personal life and its influence on your novel?
Actually, neither of these had that much to do with CALPURNIA. What really influenced the book is my undergraduate degree in biology. We did field studies that still influence the way I look at the world when I go outside for something as simple as taking a walk. I often just sit on the front porch of the old house, as Calpurnia does, and wait for something to move and catch my eye.
What are your plans for the future, goals, etc? Do you have any new writing ventures underway?
I’m presently working on a sequel to THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS. This was my favorite book as a child, and I can’t believe I’m trying to write a sequel. Such audacity! Kenneth Grahame’s language is so gorgeous that it’s intimidating. I re-read his book every few years and I am swept away by it every single time. It is that rarest of books, one that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. My book is entitled THE WILLOWS REDUX, and I will be thrilled if it’s half as good as the original.
Where can readers learn more about you and THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE?
I am building a website that should be up shortly, www.jacquelinekelly.com. I can’t answer all mail, but I love getting letters if you’re of a mind to send one. The address is 300 E. 8th Street, Suite G-159, Austin, TX 78701.