I love checking out author websites. It’s my little way of peeking into an author’s writing life and finding out a little more about the writer as a person. I know, I’m strange that way. Anyway, it was such a treat to explore Kerry Madden’s website, which I pretty much think is eye candy.
Kerry kindly agreed to an interview with me. When I asked her to send me an author photo to post with her interview, she sent me a copy of this lovely painting of her by illustrator Liz Jones that she has on her website. It made me so happy. Isn’t it lovely?
Kerry has written four books (Offsides, American Girl: Writing Smarts, Gentle’s Holler, and Louisiana’s Song) so far, with one book to be released in 2008 (Jessie’s Mountain), and another she’s in the process of writing.
Kerry’s books in the Maggie Valley series have been well received. Touching, funny, sweet, insightful are just a few words that come to mind when describing these books. This series is a beautiful family story…of strength, love, and character…all told through the eyes of Livy Two.
Here are the honors for Gentle’s Holler: New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing; Chicago Public Library “Best of the Best” Bibliography, 2005; Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2005; Maine Book Award Nomination, 2006; Schneider Award Nomination, ALA, 2005; Finalist, PEN USA in Children’s Literature, 2006; and Mark Twain Nomination, MO Assn of School Librarians, 2005. Louisana’s Song honors: Finalist, Southern California Independent Booksellers Association (SCIBA) Award; California Readers Collections of 2008.
Kerry has alot of great stuff to share…I’m afraid of saying something about a project she’s working on about a famous author of one of my favorite books that I probably read about a gazillion times as a teen…so please stay awhile, and read what she has to say.
HWM: What made you realize you wanted to write children’s (MG/YA)books? How did you get your “break” into children’s books?
Kerry: Right after 9/11, I was so heartsick and heartbroken at all the sadness and destruction, and I was writing such junk to make a living – ghostwriting for clients, writing soap opera “shadow episodes” with ridiculous lines like “That bathrobe looks VERY familiar!” I knew I had to write about something that mattered – something that I loved –and I love the Smoky Mountains and kids.
In 2003, I went to a Writer’s Day presented by SCBWI, and Melanie Cecka spoke. She asked us not to hand her our manuscripts, but if we sent them to her, she would read them. I sent GENTLE’S HOLLER to her immediately, and she emailed me four months later. (This was after many had rejections because I dashed off/sent off such clunky, corny drafts.) I spent a lot more time with the draft I sent to Melanie.
HWM: You’re written four books so far, with a new book to be released in 2008…which book did you have the most fun writing?
Kerry: I loved writing OFFSIDES, because it was the first one, and I had no idea what I was doing, so there was a great innocence to the whole process. I feel like the Smoky Mountain trilogy is one big book, and I have loved the research and meeting the people of Maggie Valley. Writing GENTLE’S HOLLER was truly like sticking my face in a field of wild flowers, and I really was excited to discover I could actually write for kids. OFFSIDES was for adults with a lot of YA involved, but with Livy Two, I could tap into being a kid again – a real kid – whose childhood was nothing like mine, but who loved books and music.
HWM: Tell me what inspired your novels.
Kerry: Growing up on the gridiron of college football inspired OFFSIDES. I wasn’t a jock or a cheerleader, and I had no place in that world other than a responsible girl babysitter. My husband’s family inspired my Smoky Mountain Weems’ family novels as I tried to imagine what it was like to grow up with so many siblings. Authors like Betty Smith, Harper Lee, Mark Twain, Catherine Marshall, S.E. Hinton, Carson McCullers, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lois Lowry, Mary Stolz, Jean Little, Mary Calhoun and others also inspired me as a young girl and teenager. Their stories made my life less lonely, and I read much of them out loud to my little sister. My brothers wouldn’t have put up with being read to…
HWM: When did you know you had the right ending for your books?
Kerry: I knew I wanted to leave GENTLE’S HOLLER and LOUISIANA’S SONG with a question, and I knew I wanted JESSIE’S MOUNTAIN to have a kind of conclusion at this moment in the Weems’ family. I hope to write more Weems’ family stories but it seemed to right to leave them alone for now where I can imagine them playing or racing around their Smoky Mountain holler.
HWM: Which character is most like you?
Kerry: I suppose Livy Two because she longs for adventures. I love being on the road and meeting new people. We took our kids to Turkey last summer, and that was a wonderful adventure, seeing the kids reinact the battle of Troy at the real Troy, climbing the walls at the Temple of Athena in Assos. I was a bossy kid, though, like Becksie, and shy like Louise. But books and adventure were what I longed for as a child, and I knew the world was a bigger place than college football (my father’s profession) and I just had to figure out how to get there.
HWM: Who was the toughest character to write about?
Kerry: Daddy or Tom Weems. Not before the accident – but after the accident. In one pitiful draft, Daddy was “healing in the smokehouse” and my editor, Catherine Frank, said, “Come on! What’s happening with him?” My agent, Marianne Merola, who is also a wonderful reader/editor, asked the same thing. I had to deal with it.
I began reading books about traumatic brain injury, and I went to visit a rehabilitation place for brain-jured patients and watched them in their different therapies. It was a huge help and gave me the confidence to write about something I’d never experienced in any degree except for my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s. I also interviewed a woman whose daughter had suffered a traumatic brain injury, and she was a huge help telling me what to read and so forth.
HWM: Which book, if any, would you change if you had the chance, and why?
Kerry: I don’t think I’d change any of them. I’d fix two irritating mistakes in Louisiana’s Song. I’ve learned that cypress trees don’t grow in the mountains, and I have Louise peeking out behind one because she loves Vincent Van Gogh, and I was thinking of his cypress trees. There is also a movie reference that I got wrong – “A failure to communicate” is from “Cool Hand Luke” and not “Hud” – and I knew that, but I got it wrong in the thick of revision. Another writer said little gremlins sneak into our stories, which is exactly right…these are not huge gremlins but I am aware of them.
HWM: What do you enjoy about writing historical fiction? Would you like to try another genre and if so, what?
Kerry: To be honest, I didn’t even know I was writing “historical fiction by setting the books in 1962, 1963, 1964.” Now I do, and I’m so glad I did because I loved doing the research of that time. I also didn’t know I was writing “middle-grade” – I thought it was YA…but I was soon set straight by another author who said, “You are writing historical middle grade fiction!”
OFFSIDES, I suppose, was historical fiction, coming-of-age…I am now working on a contemporary novel for kids called “The Fifth Grade Life of Jack Gettlefinger” and I’m enjoying it very much. I also write essays and plays, so I think I will always be exploring other genres.
HWM: I would imagine you need to do quite a bit of research to write historical fiction. What secrets can you share on how to get into character, figure out voice, and plot for your novels?
Kerry: I grew up drawing pictures of huge families and pictures of the mountains. I adored the film, COALMINER’S DAUGHTER. I thought it was so beautifully portrayed, and I’ve watched it every few years since it came out…I was obsessed with Flannery O’Connor and her stories and how she did it with dialogue and setting, and I went to visit her home in Milledgeville. I’ve done the same with Harper Lee, since I’m now writing her biography for teens.
I think going to the places, returning to the places – even if it’s just in your head – helps with voice and story and character. I studied the birds of the Smoky Mountains and flowers, too. I played the music of the region over and over, listening to Raymond Fairchild, the Carter Family, Sheila Kay Adams, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Patsy Cline.
I drown myself in the world of my characters – their music, their food – I’ve learned to make a mean applesauce cake, but I’m useless at stack cakes. I try to live in their world as much as possible, and when I go back to the South, my eyes perk up, listening.
This will sound like a huge generalization, but in Los Angeles, I’m sometimes around people, myself included, who talk deals and contracts and advances and who got what and who didn’t, which is the business here, but in the South, we talk about tomatoes, sourwood honey, and which back roads to take where – in a way I feel more connected to life in the South.
I guess I want my own front porch. When I was stung by yellow jackets last summer in North Carolina, I was in pain but trying to mask it, and the woman at the Stop & Go who sold me Benedryl said, “Bless your heart.” I almost burst into tears.
HWM: Do you outline or free form?
Kerry: I write free form until I get into trouble, which I always do, and then I outline. It works.
HWM: Where do you like to write?
Kerry: I love going away to write because the distractions of family life melt away, but I usually write in my office in our house until the kids come home from school.
HWM: What is your writing process or ritual?
Kerry: I just try to get to it. Coffee or tea usually. Sometimes a candle, but that’s dangerous with all the paper around my desk, so not often. I play the rain machine if the dogs next door are going insane. Long walks in between with the dogs and a child or two…I love to keep writing at night if the family is away…I can write for longer stretches if I’m alone, but it’s much harder if I can hear them stomping around upstairs.
HWM: How long does it take you to write the first draft?
Kerry: At least a year…I rewrite and revise as I go so it takes longer. It also takes me several huge revisions to get to the workable draft. I’m weak on plot, so I have to really insist on getting my characters into trouble.
HWM: What has been the biggest challenge of your writing career and how did you tackle it?
Kerry: I think I am living it right now. I am writing the biography of Harper Lee for teens, and I am terrified I won’t be able to pull it off. I’m at the stage right now where I have to stop researching and write her story as best I can for kids. I have been to Monroeville, Alabama twice now…I have hundreds of pages of notes, interviews…and an outline…and forty pages. I just feel a tremendous responsibility to honor her life, her story, and make it accessible to kids. And she’s not talking, but she doesn’t do interviews…anyway, it looms.
HWM: What has been the biggest surprise of your writing career?
Kerry: The day Diane Keaton said she wanted to option my first novel, OFFSIDES, and make it into a movie. I was beyond excited to meet her. I had to drive to West Los Angeles, and I hoped not to wreck my car before I got there. She was lovely, and she tried for four years to help get OFFSIDES on the screen, but it didn’t happen. But it was always kind of stunning to go to meetings with Diane Keaton. OFFSIDES was pitched as a kind of “football coach great Santini from the daughter’s point of view.”
HWM: If you could share any unique writing tip to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Kerry: Don’t quit. I know that’s such a cliche, but truly it is everything. Don’t take things personally, and it’s impossibly hard NOT to take a rejection personally, but just submit your manuscript elsewhere. Or, if it’s not good enough, find the courage to make it better.
I also think a strong writing group is a great thing. I’ve been in one since 1991, and those women are my best friends and strengths. We’re all published now in different genres, and when we started nobody was published. And be happy for others who get published…show up, buy their books, be generous.
HWM: What was the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Kerry: Laurie Halse Anderson said it best at the same SCBWI Conference where I met Melanie Cecka:
1. Find the stories hiding in your heart and write them down.
2. Polish your stories with the too
ls of our craft.
3. Submit your work intelligently and professionally.
HWM: Why do you blog?
Kerry: It started because I didn’t know how to update my website. Then I invited kids to be the “Writer of the Day.” I think I do it to connect with people. I love putting up pictures now especially of our travels. I encourage kids to have big adventures.
HWM: How much time do you take to write one of your posts?
Kerry: That depends on if pictures are involved, but I usually take an hour…I don’t like to slap up something fast. Some of my blogs have become essays published in the LA Times and Washington Post.
HWM: What is your favorite post?
Kerry: All the pictures from Turkey…and my son’s love of Halloween.
HWM: If you found a way to go back to your teen years as one of your characters, what would you do differently?
Kerry: I would learn to sing and play the guitar and banjo. I would love to do be able to play either and sing…
HWM: What makes you laugh?
Kerry: Smart people…funny conversations. We had supper in Alabama with a couple who asked me where I met my husband, Kiffen. I replied, “The University of Tennessee where we were students.” They looked at each other gravely and then back at me. Finally, the wife shook her head and said, “Well, we play y’all on Saturday.” I laughed, but they didn’t. I was back in football country where football matters, but it was funny and they laughed too, eventually. Then they explained, “We tailgate.” And that me laugh again.
HWM: If you were a superhero, what powers would you want and why?
Kerry: I’d be Saturn Girl, because she’s from the planet, Titan – she’s also telepathic, and loves Lightning Lad. And Emmett Weems loves her.
Excerpt from Offsides (William Morrow, 1996)
Excerpt from American Girl: Writing Smarts (American Girl, 2002)
Excerpt from Gentle’s Holler (Viking, 2005)
Excerpt from Louisana’s Song (Viking, 2007)
Excerpt (this may change before publication) from Jessie’s Mountain (Viking, to be released in 2008)
Lectitans WBBT interview with Kerry
Today’s WBBT interviews:
David Mack at Chasing Ray
Paul Volponi at The Ya Ya Yas
Elizabeth Knox at Shaken & Stirred
Ellen Emerson White at A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy
Jack Gantos at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
David Levithan at Not Your Mother’s Book Club
Micol Ostow at Bildungsroman
Laura Amy Schlitz at Miss Erin
Kerry Madden at HipWriterMama
Sherman Alexie at Interactive Reader