I am honored to have Beth Kephart here with me today. Simply honored. Beth is a 1998 National Book Award finalist in non-fiction (for her beautiful book about her son! A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage), a National Endowment for the Arts grant winner, and a Pew Fellowships in the Arts recipient, And this is just a shortlist of her awards. Wait until you read her interview and see what else she has done!
Beth has an incredible gift of seeing the little things that matter. I’ve decided she is a writer with a pure artisanal mindset — she hand selects each word before painting layers of meaning and imagery onto paper.
UNDERCOVER is a New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age list, Capitol Choices for Children and Teens list, Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books of the Year list, Top Book of 2007 by Amazon.com, Top Book of 2007 by Kirkus Reviews, Best Book of the Year by School Library Journal, October 2007, and Tween Pick at Family Circle Magazine. Undercover has been nominated for an ALA Best books for Young Adults Award and a Cybils Award.
HWM: Beth, you’ve written non-fiction/memoir books for adults and have transitioned into books for teens. How did you get your “break” into YA books?
Beth Kephart: I’ve always written the story that has felt most urgently in need of telling. Early in my career I was wrestling with questions about mothering, about being a friend, about being a wife, about the imagination, about veering toward middle age. I wanted to better understand, and I wrote toward understanding. With my sixth book, FLOW, I was still keen to explore the personal in a book, but I wanted to give that first-person pronoun to a river, and so I did, writing a history-infused autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River.
All along, of course, I was raising a son who loves to write and teaching other young writers the craft. In 2001 I was asked to chair the Young People’s Literature jury for the National Book Awards and so read, at that time, some 160 books created for that market. In my remarks on the evening of the awards, I spoke about what mattered in literature for the younger reader.
A few years later, Laura Geringer, then with her own imprint at HarperTeen, wrote me a long, beautiful letter, asking me if I’d consider writing a novel for teen readers. She’d read some of my books; she knew that I taught children writing. It took me a long time to figure out what I might actually write about; I was helped in this by Laura, who asked me the question, Who were you, Beth, as a teen? Once I had the story in mind, I couldn’t stop writing, and once I finished
HWM: What do you consider makes a successful memoir? How did writing memoirs help you transition into writing fiction?
Beth Kephart: Hmmm. I am never good at judging what makes any book commercially successful, but I do have very clear ideas about what makes a book successful as art. The memoirs that I believe should live forever come from an authentic place; that is, the story is real and alive and absolutely essential (as opposed to being endowed with a glittery marketing hook). That’s number one. Number two is craft. Memoirs, especially, turn on craft. Structure, flow, language: Those matter tremendously in memoir.
Every book, truthfully, is its own creation, its own challenge. I never feel as if I “know” how to write any book I’m writing. I struggle through. I’m not sure that anything I might have learned in writing memoir helped me to write fiction. In fact, I spent a lot of time trying to make sure that my fiction didn’t sound like my memoirs. I needed a very different voice, and a very different kind of pacing.
HWM: I’m impressed that you also run a marketing communications firm. How do you keep the balance with all the writing you do (for both business and YA)?
Beth Kephart: Most of the time, the business rules. There will be stretches (as there was these past five weeks) where I am juggling eight or so different clients, all with very different projects and needs. I don’t write during those times, and I read far less than I want to read. I owe my clients my full attention, and I owe my household as well, as this business of mine employs just one other, who happens to be my husband.
Then there are times when the business slows down a bit, and when that happens, I typically use the 4 AM to 8 AM timeframe to attend to the literary projects I wish to work on. Sometimes I’ll win a grant, and then I can work full time on a writing project for a spell—get down to the libraries that I need to get to, take trips I need to take. Many of my books require enormous research, and if I can’t get into the libraries, the books have to wait. Often I’m brokenhearted while I’m waiting.
The one literary thing I make sure to do every day is my blog. I spend at least an hour each day planning it, writing it. It keeps my mind sharp for the times when I can return to books. And it keeps me connected to people like you, who love books and writing as much as I do.
HWM: You have two published YA books out: Undercover and House of Dance. I loved your story (via the HarperCollins site) on what inspired Undercover. What has surprised you about this book?
Beth Kephart: I was, I am happily surprised by the response. I knew going in that I wasn’t writing a “commercial” book, that there was nothing the least bit Gossip Girl about this, nothing scandalous that would titillate mass audiences. I felt, I feel, so enormously graced that UNDERCOVER found a home with so many readers and was named to so many best of the year lists.
HWM: What inspired House of Dance?
Beth Kephart: Again, many things. HOUSE was born of my own passion for ballroom dance and my sense that dance can heal. It was born of memories of my grandmother dancing, of the sudden death of a dear friend, of the protracted dying of my own mother. I wanted to write my way toward an understanding of who we must be in the company of those whose lives are fading. HOUSE was an enormously difficult book to write, emotionally.
HWM: Which protagonist is most like you? Who was the hardest character to write about?
Beth Kephart: Wow, well. I am there, in all of my narrators. I am the outsider-poet-skater of UNDERCOVER (who learned to skate, by the way, on a pond). I am the caretaker Rosie of HOUSE. I am the heartbroken daughter of NOTHING BUT GHOSTS. I am the anxiety-ridden, but seemingly solid Georgia of THE HEART IS NOT A SIZE. Characters are only difficult when you don’t truly know them. I try to know my characters. I live with them. I am them.
HWM: Your writing captures the poignancy of the moment beautifully. When are you happy with the emotion conveyed in a scene?
Beth Kephart: Thank you, Vivian. I write every scene at least two dozen times. I am only happy when it feels true and when it reads lyrically. I read the passage aloud toward the end of the drafting. I listen for any off rhythm, any redundancy, any flatness. And then I ask myself: Does it mean what it is meant to mean?
And when I am done with all that, an editor will take a look. And sometimes the passage can be made better.
HWM: Language, in the form of lyrical prose, dances through your books for adults and teens. Did you find you needed to change your writing style to write for teens?
Beth Kephart: Yes, I did. While poetry remains embedded in the YA novels, it moves at a different pace. I let things linger longer in the memoirs. There isn’t room for that in the fiction that I write for teens.
HWM: Do you have other people read your manuscript before sending it on to your editor?
Beth Kephart: Sometimes my agent will take a look. Sometimes I’ll send a chapter to a friend. A long time ago I sent whole manuscripts to a few friends like Susan Straight, Alyson Hagy, Kate Moses, and Rahna Reiko Rizzuto. I don’t do that anymore. I haven’t for a long time. I want to respect my friends’ time, their own pressures.
HWM: A new book will be released in June 2009 called Nothing But Ghosts. What is the book about?
Beth Kephart: NOTHING BUT GHOSTS is a mystery and a love story, a tale about a rising high school senior who is dealing with the death of her mother as well as the apparent disappearance of a recluse at a nearby garden. At its heart likes a rather fabulous, fashionable librarian who helps the heroine piece together fragments of the past.
HWM: I understand Harper Teen bought your fourth book, The Heart is Not a Size (February 2010). What is the inspiration behind this book?
Beth Kephart: The inspiration for HEART is a mission trip that I took with my family to a squatter’s village in Juarez. Here the story is about two best friends, Georgia and Riley. Georgia secretly suffers from anxiety attacks. Riley is hiding her anorexia. Their week in Juarez changes them both and threatens to destroy their friendship.
HWM: What new projects are you working on that you can share with your fans?
Beth Kephart: I have been working on a novel that takes place on a single day in Philadelphia in 1876. I love this novel, but it needs another draft. I need to find the time to write that draft.
Beth Kephart: Never an outline! Always free form.
HWM: Where do you do your best writing?
Beth Kephart: Usually when I’m curled up on the couch, under a blanket, at four in the morning, with a pen and paper. Of course, the next day I’ll hate what I wrote during that precious hour and start all over again.
HWM: What is your writing process or ritual?
Beth Kephart: Hmmm. I’m not sure. I think about the song I want to sing, if that makes sense, and the story I want to tell. And then I work to fit the two together.
HWM: What was the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Beth Kephart: To remember that your book is your book. That in the end you must be most true to yourself.
HWM: What is your most memorable fan moment?
Beth Kephart: My goodness. I’m not sure that I have fans. I have very generous readers, though. Okay, I will reveal this. When FLOW came out, no one thought anyone would pay a speck of attention to such an unusual, lyrical book. But then the Philadelphia Inquirer called and ran a story on the Sunday before I was to give two talks. The first talk was at an interpretive museum and I figured on maybe five people, but so many people came that many had to be turned back. The next talk was at the Philadelphia Free Library, in a big upstairs room that held perhaps 200 people. It was the hottest day of the year, and I expected absolutely no one to come. No one. Well, the room was wall to wall, standing room only, and indeed there were people holding open the doors of the elevator that led to that room, so that they might hear. I have never in my life had such low expectations for an event and had those expectations turned so completely upside down. Afterward many of us went for an evening boat ride down the Schuylkill. It was an extraordinary night. And after that I went on to give at least three dozen talks on behalf of that little book.
HWM: If you found a way to go back to your teen years as one of your characters, who would it be and why?
Beth Kephart: I’d return to Elisa. I’d help her believe in herself, find her own beauty, far sooner than she was able to.
HWM: What makes you laugh?
Beth Kephart: My son’s text messages. My husband’s commentary on Dancing With the Stars.
HWM: If you were a superhero, what powers would you want and why?
to Add: No spoilers, please!