WBBT: Writing with Jacqueline Kelly

I was pleased when I heard The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate was on the Mock Newbery reading list in my fifth-grader’s class. Spy Girl loves science and I’m hoping she’ll enjoy reading this book as much as I did.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate has only been out since May, and already, it has garnered much recognition with good reviews: Booklist, Starred; Bulletin-Center Child Books; Chicago Tribune; Horn Book; Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review; New York Times; Publishers Weekly, Starred; School Library Journal, Starred Review; and Washington Post Book World.

And this just in! The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate was just picked for the Lone Star List (recommended reading list for Grades 6-8 from the Texas Library Association) for next year. Congratulations, Jacqueline!

Author Jacqueline Kelly (Photo credit: Deanna Roy) graciously agreed to stop by and talk about her debut novel.

[Quick Update: Jacqueline stopped by and left a comment: I have had bookmarks printed with the cover on them, so if you'd like a signed bookmark, or several for your students, just let me know how you'd like them signed and where to send them. jackie.callie@sbcglobal.net]

Please welcome Jacqueline Kelly…

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HWM: How did you get your “break” into getting published?
Jacqueline Kelly: I entered a partial manuscript in the Writers’ League of Texas annual Agents & Editors Conference competition a few years ago and I won. Marcy Posner is the agent who judged the final round and she picked me as the winner. She has been representing me ever since. I love working with her, she’s very funny (and funny is good!).

HWM: Your writing is beautiful — poetry and rich imagery really set the stage for the science, explorations, and wonderful characters. Did you have to experiment with the use of language or did you already have an idea of how you were going to write this book?
Jacqueline Kelly: I have taken various short writing classes and seminars over the years, but what has been most helpful to my writing is simply being a voracious reader my whole life. I’ve run into a few people along the way who want to be writers but don’t read much. I don’t get this. Plus it’s not going to happen. I always tell young people when I talk at their schools, you can’t be a good writer without being a big-time reader.

HWM: What inspired The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate?
Jacqueline Kelly: The entire book was inspired by the huge 150-year-old Victorian farmhouse in Fentress that I fell in love with and bought many years ago. It had been built by the Harwood family and had never been out of their family until I bought it. Falling in love with old houses is an extremely expensive habit. Unfortunately, I ran out of money before I could completely fix it up, and the house is inadequately air conditioned. Some of the rooms have old window units and some don’t. I was lying under the AC in the parlor one really hot day wondering how people stood the heat in the house a hundred years earlier, with no air conditioning at all. The house suddenly started speaking to me about life in those days; the whole family, including Callie, sprang to life at that moment. I originally wrote about her in a short story, but my writing group told me that I had to turn the story into a novel.

(By the way, I promised the house that if I made money from the book, I would fix it up and restore it to its former glory. So keep that in mind this holiday season.)

HWM: Callie is a charming, intelligent girl with a lot of spunk. How did you go about creating her character?
Jacqueline Kelly: Callie is a combination of me and my mother. We both hate to cook, sew, and do any kind of housework. It must be genetic. I also need to add that my mother is very funny, and not at all like the mother in the novel.

HWM: I love how you describe Callie’s relationships with her family members–most particularly, her relationship with her grandfather. Most children’s books tend to gloss over family relationships. Why did you feel it was important to show the different connections?
Jacqueline Kelly: The family connections mean a lot to me for a couple of reasons. I’m an only child, and although I loved growing up as one, now that I’m an adult, I wish I had brothers and sisters. I just don’t understand people who are on bad terms–or no terms–with their sibs. I also grew up half a world away from my grandparents, and only saw them once a decade or so. I would have loved the chance to know my grandfather better.

HWM: Who was the hardest character to create? The easiest?
Jacqueline Kelly: I found the hardest characters to work on were the four brothers apart from Harry and Travis. I found it difficult to give them each a separate personality. The easiest to create were Callie and Granddaddy. I could hear them carrying on long conversations in my mind.

HWM: Will we see more of Callie?
Jacqueline Kelly: I’m not yet sure if I’m going to write a sequel. I had a good idea for one a few days ago, but I don’t yet know if it’s enough to propel me all the way through another book about her.

HWM: What do you focus on in your school presentations?
Jacqueline Kelly: At school visits, I talk a lot about where the writer gets her ideas for stories. I also try and get the group to compose a 5-10 minute short story out loud with me, and I work in brief talks about character, tension, description, etc., all the elements a writer has to juggle in her story.

HWM: What has been the biggest surprise of your writing career?
Jacqueline Kelly: The biggest surprise of my writing career has been how much fun it is to meet fans of the book. People have just been lovely with their praise.

HWM: What other writing projects are in the works?
Jacqueline Kelly: I’m working on The Willows Redux, a sequel to The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. It’s “comfort” literature, and one of those rare books that can be enjoyed by both kids and adults. Unfortunately, I’m finding that not many kids these days are reading the original, which is a shame, as it’s a great book with wonderful characters. But I’m having too much fun to stop writing!

HWM: What is your writing routine?
Jacqueline Kelly: I try to write each morning between 9 and 12, but my schedule frequently won’t permit it. I work either in long-hand or on a laptop, it doesn’t really matter to me. I carry around a small notebook in my purse so that I can jot down ideas and lines that come to me out of the blue. If you’re an aspiring writer, you should always have at least a file card in your pocket so you can grab hold of the good ideas as they fly by.

Thank you so much, Jacqueline!

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Other places to find Jacqueline Kelly:
Jacqueline Kelly’s website
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate facebook page
MacMillan author interview
School Library Journal interview
Book Nut (Melissa’s Book Review) interview
GMA’s Picks for Teen Summer 2009 Reading

[Quick Update: Jacqueline stopped by and left a comment: I have had bookmarks printed with the cover on them, so if you'd like a signed bookmark, or several for your students, just let me know how you'd like them signed and where to send them. jackie.callie@sbcglobal.net]

For more WBBT interviews, click here to go to Chasing Ray’s Master Schedule.

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Vivian Lee Mahoney

Consider yourself warned: I write books about rebels. I'm also a postergirlz for readergirlz, a literary advisory group for teens. Who knew going back to the teenage years would be so rewarding?

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