Monday, January 31, 2011

Voices You Should Hear: Kathi Appelt - Award-Winning Author & Friend

I consider Kathi Appelt to be my mentor. 

Around ten years ago, my son was in school, and I was floundering around, looking for a new focus for my energies. I'd found a pile of unpublished children's stories written by my mom before she'd passed away a few years earlier; Kevin struggled in school, and I wrote little stories to try and help him. I'd always wanted to write, but never thought about writing for children...and there I was, living in the wilds of Texas, knowing no one in the writing world.

A mutual friend said, "You need to call Kathi. She's a successful writer, and she'll know how you can start."

I don't like picking up the phone and bugging people I've never met, but Kathi's generosity and warmth radiated right through the lines, and I felt I had a friend from that moment. She suggested I join SCBWI. I did, and that action launched my career. Eight years later she encouraged me to apply to Vermont College of Fine Arts. I did (again), and graduated last July with my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and that action changed me forever.

Kathi is one of the nicest people on the planet. She also happens to be a supremely talented writer. Her awards accolades are so long - for picture books through novels - you'll have to visit her website to see the long, long list. Her first novel, written for middle grade readers, The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008), was a finalist for the National Book Awards and was a Newbery Honor Book, and her second novel, Keeper (Atheneum, 2010), received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers' Weekly, School Library Journal and the Horn Book, and is a Best Book pick from Kirkus and SLJ and will, I know, garner even more accolades in coming months. I love it when good things happen to good people, who also happen to be deserving of all the good things going their way.

It's a true pleasure to host Kathi on my blog. (And that sweet picture of Kathi was taken by her husband, Ken, who is her soul-mate, and as great as they come.)

JF:  You are, I think, at heart a poet. Your picture books are lovely examples of this; as readers we are enthralled by the poetic beauty of your language in both The Underneath and Keeper. Can you tell us what kind of transition you made as a writer when you decided to write novels?

KA:  The transition wasn’t easy for me.  I was used to writing pieces that basically ended at the bottom of page three.  Or sooner.  But I wanted/yearned to write a novel for many years, it’s just that the form kept eluding me.  I felt humbled in the face of extended narrative. So, I kept pecking away at it.  First I wrote a collection of short stories, Kissing Tennessee, and I used those to explore point of view, tense, theme, etc.  The stories are “linked” by an event and place, which gives them the feel or sense of a bigger piece.  Sort of like “united we stand.”  I remember that one of those stories was about 20 manuscript pages and I had this enormous feeling of jubilation, as if I had cracked some sort of code.  Of course, it got whittled down in the editing process, but I definitely felt as though I had passed some sort of marker.

Right after that, I started exploring prose poetry, really as no more than an exercise.  But as I worked on these fat, chunky poems, I began to recall the summers of my childhood and eventually I wrote an accidental memoir, My Father’s SummersThe prose poems felt like snapshots, square on the page, not at all chronological, images really.  But when they were strung together, they made a solid book. 

The two efforts—the short stories and the prose poems—gave me the courage to try something longer.  I told myself that I could get there, I could write an entire novel in very short scenes. 

All those years of writing short did not mean that I couldn’t write something longer.  What it meant was that my natural inclination is to write in short flashes.  I decided to honor that natural bent of mine, to use it. 

That doesn’t mean that the idea of a novel or longer work doesn’t terrify me.  It does.  But I keep chanting:  short significant scenes.  And that’s what gets me there . . . eventually.

You were a teacher and administrator for years at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Please tell us about that experience. How did it influence your writing?

VCFA is like my campfire, or maybe I should call it my “storyfire.”  Since the dawn of time, humans have been gathering around campfires and sharing their stories.  It’s what we do.  We’re built for it.  To be able to gather around a particular storyfire, one that provides heat for stories that are uniquely spun for children gives me sustenance, but it also inspires. 

I remember feeling, and I still do, that my place on the faculty had to be “earned.”  When I first started there, I was in the midst of Tobin Anderson, Marion Dane Bauer, Alison McGhee, Norma Fox Mazer, my heroes.  It made me feel like I had to write stories that were just as important, just as ground-breaking as theirs in order to keep my place at the fire.  It was both exhilarating and terrifying.

When I became a mother, I read somewhere that being a parent was a “terrifying beauty.”  That’s not too different from the way I feel about being on the faculty at VCFA. 

Add to that the fact that we have the smartest students!  My first semester there, one of my students was Candice Ransom.  She had published over 80 books when she became my student.  What could I teach her? That was my huge concern, so I just point-blank asked her:  what can I teach you?  Her response was typical Candice:  “whatever you have to give.” 

She turned out to be one of my favorite students of all time.  Why? Because we learned so much together. 

In fact, I’ve learned from every one of my students, and I still do.  I really believe that the best way to learn any craft is to teach it, and that has certainly been true for me. 

The three forces that surround the VCFA storyfire—the faculty, the students and our child-readers—make it both intimidating in its fury and comforting in its warmth.  I feel so lucky that I get to stand at its hearth.  And even though I’m on leave for now, that fire sustains me.

I began writing for children partly because my son needed stories and partly because my mom wrote them. Where did you start your career – what pushed you to begin?

My sons too, were the spark to begin writing for kids.  I always knew I’d write something.  I started out wanting to write songs, but since I wasn’t all that musical that turned out to be a dead end, especially when all I seemed to come up with were barroom ditties that I really couldn’t sing for my mother.  When the boys came along, I rediscovered the wonder of children’s books.  I owe Jacob and Cooper a huge debt of gratitude for leading me to my heart’s work. 

Do you have “favorite” writing teachers? Who has influenced you most in your career?

I’ve been so lucky in teachers, yes.  I have three who have been instrumental in my work:  (1) Elizabeth Harper Neeld, who continues to be my mentor and excellent friend; (2) Venkatesh Kulkarni, who demanded that I push beyond my self-imposed barriers; (3) Dennis Foley, who is my champion and something of a muse and who has taught me more about teaching than anyone else.  They’ve all three been instrumental for me.  I owe them big time.

Your love of, and understanding of, animals is so clear from The Underneath and Keeper. I know you have cats; please talk a bit about your relationship with animals.

As a Unitarian Universalist, one of our key principles is to consider the interrelationships between all beings, the interconnected web of life.  As long as I’ve been on the planet, I’ve had pets—cats, dogs, lizards, a variety of rodents, fish, horses—so I’ve grown up with animals.  I think of them as intermediaries in a way, between what we consider domestic life and wild life.  They have something important to teach us, and they require a certain kind of stillness on our parts in order to consider what it is we’re supposed to learn, the major thing being kindness.  And perhaps loyalty.   

I can’t really imagine life without cats especially.  We currently have four gifted and talent cats:  Jazz, Peach, Hoss and D’jango.  I’ve never had a cat like Jazz.  She’s as close to a familiar as any animal I’ve ever met.  When I’m home, she’s rarely more than ten feet away from me.  Even when she’s sound asleep, if I step out of the room, within five minutes she’ll be right there beside me.  I love this about her, as if we’re connected at some cellular level.  It’s very sweet. 

Would you be willing to share something about your writing habits? Do you write every day? Do you use any special tools? Techniques? Inspirations?

I do write everyday, although some days I only write for a few minutes.  I would say that deadlines serve as a great inspiration for me.  I always appreciate a deadline.  They should more aptly be called lifelines I think.  Without them, I begin to feel a little lifeless. 

Years ago a friend/mentor encouraged me to make a commitment of time to write everyday.  I chose five minutes because I knew that was what I could definitely commit to…without cheating.  That was well over twenty years ago, and I’ve never changed that.  It’s surprising, actually, how much you can achieve in five-minute chunks of time. 

I also drink quite a bit of coffee, work the daily NY Times crossword puzzle, listen to music and read copiously.  And okay, I’m an internet junkie, so if I really need to get some work done, I ask my husband to disable our modem so that I can’t spend hours on Facebook or the political blogs (which I love beyond compare), or which makes me wish I could do something cute and crafty. 

This past year I bought a Flipcam, and I’m learning to make my own small “movies,” which I’ve found is a new kind of storytelling for me.  I’m not very good at it, but I really enjoy it.

(Kathi is super-good at her Flipcam interviews, as the one she made with me attests. But back to my interview with her!)
Personally, I cannot wait for the next novel to come from your pen. What can we expect?

Hah!  That is the million-dollar question. Let’s just say it involves aliens and French horns. I have a June 1 deadline to turn in the first draft, so ask me after that.

Aliens and French horns. Wow. I cannot wait.

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