I am honoured to be able to treat all of you to my amazing recent chat with Beth Kephart, for the Winter Blast Blog Tour. In my opinion, Beth is one of the most gifted authors writing for young adults right now. Her books are richly poetic and I love every one of them. Lots. Read my reviews: of Undercover, House of Dance, Nothing but Ghosts, and the upcoming The Heart is Not a Size.
Welcome to Shelf Elf Beth!
You wrote a post at your blog recently about the huge popularity of series like Gossip Girl, The Luxe and The Clique, which you described as “write-by-numbers” books. I feel like your YA novels exist at the completely opposite end of the writing spectrum, with their richness of theme and immaculate poetic language – almost like antidotes to Gossip Girl. What’s it like to write books like yours when it seems like so much publicity and media pushes girls towards the write-by-number reads?
Oh, what a great question (and what a hard one, too). I was responding, in my blog, to the fascinating New Yorker piece by Rebecca Mead titled “The Gossip Mill,” which featured Alloy, the entertainment packaging company behind the wildly popular series you mention here. I was wondering out loud whether I would have the skill to write such concoctions, and I was deciding, rather assuredly, that I would not. I write what I know how to write. I write the stories that interest me, the characters I understand, the scenes that are most alive and vivid, either in memory or in the imagination. My novels are about young people facing the big questions—identity, loss, secrets, anxieties—and it is difficult for books that dwell in those themes to gain traction against books that have been explicitly conceived and crafted for a well-researched market. My books are not advertised or toured; they must be discovered. My books are not off-the-chart sellers; I am in jeopardy, with each new book I write, of finally being told, You know, you are just not hitting the numbers; you are no longer an author we can support. (Indeed, I have been told that; miraculously I have been saved again and again by an editor willing to take a risk.) My writing life is full of uncertainty, therefore, but I know of no other way to work the page.
If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people / hobbies) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?
This young girl who became a character in Heart:
Dance, in all its beauty:
Chanticleer (the setting of Ghosts), and the young writers and readers who teach me:
Kids learning to see the world:
Dreams keep me alive:
Your books are, in my opinion, about how everyday life can be miraculous – full of mystery and beauty and sadness all at once. I think that Nothing but Ghosts is about this in so many ways. You write, “Beauty and sadness can both live in one place.” I think this is a huge truth contained in this novel. If you could identify other “truths” that readers might discover in Nothing But Ghosts and The Heart is Not a Size, what would they be?
The importance of being an authentic self. The power of honest conversation. The understanding that emerges from well-told stories. The danger of secrets. The power of friendship and love.
In Nothing But Ghosts, Katie struggles to live with the loss of her mother, and can’t accept that a person as vibrant as her mom could be there and then just be gone. Is this emotion something you’ve experienced in your own life?
Absolutely, yes. I think the first time I felt this way was when my grandmother passed away. I was nine years old and had loved her dearly. I kept looking for her in the cloud forms; the truth is, I still do. When my uncle—an utterly lovable eccentric who let me know, always, that I was loved—passed away years later, I was devastated. My mother’s own passing, three years ago, was complex and terrible and cruel; in her final months, I was with her every day. The absoluteness of loss is something I do struggle with. I’m not sure that I’ll ever entirely accept it.
If you could give Katie and Georgia advice, at any point in their stories, what would it be and when would you give it?
What an interesting question. As the writer writing these stories, I do feel as if I am advising my characters all the way through—that they go where I urge them to go, though sometimes it takes them awhile to get there. With Katie, who has isolated herself in a certain respect after her mother’s passing, I would urge her to trust her friends more than she does—trust them with her heartache, allow them back in to her life. With Georgia, who knows that her best friend, Riley, has stopped eating but doesn’t confront her about it until it is almost too late, I would say, Speak sooner than later. Trust that you will work through the consequences.
The Heart is Not a Size follows a group of teens who experience a life-changing trip to Anapra, in Jaurez, Mexico. Tell us more about your travels to Anapra and how that journey influenced you personally, and as a writer.
With my husband, son, and some two dozen others, I traveled in 2005 to Anapra, a squatter’s village. Our goal was to help build a community bathroom in a place heavy with dust and nearly absent of running water, where the houses are built of such found materials as mattress springs and shredded tarp. Despite the fact that I never slept, that the temperature was impossible, and that I swallowed more dust than my body weight, it was one of the most beautiful trips of my life. You hear all these terrible things about Juarez—the murders, the drug wars, the desperation. You imagine that such extreme poverty will produce a bitter, burdened people. But in fact the people that we met were full of soul and laughter. The children would emerge from their one-room houses in gorgeous, colorful clothes. The families would gather to help us build. I loved the teens we traveled with. I loved the people we met. I took photograph after photograph, and Georgia, my character in Heart, is a budding photographer, too. She is seeing that world the way that I saw it. The journey gave me unexpected hope. It gave me a newness to which to attach my writing.
Is there a topic or genre that you have thought you might like to try writing in the future?
In September 2010, I have an historical novel due out from Egmont USA, that takes place on a single day in Philadelphia 1876, at the Centennial Exposition. I loved writing this book which is titled Dangerous Neighbors, and have loved the process of returning to Laura Geringer, who edited my first three books at Harper, for the collaboration. Dangerous Neighbors is about twin sisters, one of whom has died. It’s about a massive fire that threatens to bring the Exposition down. It’s mostly about guilt, though, and loss, for Katherine, the protagonist, believes she is responsible for her sister’s death and no longer wants to live in this world.
At the moment, I’m about three chapters away from finishing a novel for adults, which has been a fascinating, utterly absorbing process. It’s a deeply researched book inspired in large part by an asylum known in Philadelphia as Byberry. I need to wait to finish this novel before I can determine if there’ll be interest on the part of a publishing house.
When I finish that novel, I have another novel, which I’ve been writing for I think forever, that concerns a young woman who finds herself pregnant and sent to a cortijo in southern Spain to live out those difficult months. It’s the story of a friendship that emerges between the old cook at the cortijo (a Spanish Civil War survivor) and the young woman. There’s a lot of history in this book, a lot of research, and so it has taken me a while.
What is the most difficult part of writing for you, and what aspect of writing is the most fulfilling?
The most difficult part of writing is working on a project for years and years, as I do, with the grave uncertainty of whether or not anyone but me will ever love the book, will ever publish it, will ever buy it. It is a lonely and trembling enterprise. The most fulfilling is finding a way to tell the story you want to tell and finding those readers with whom the story resonates.
When I’m finished reading your books, I keep thinking about the main characters. They stay with me. I feel like your characters are going places in their lives, going to be change-makers and risk-takers and people who live life with everything they’ve got. Do you imagine your characters’ futures? If yes, where do you see Katie and Georgia and Riley down the road?
My main characters are always in large part rustled up from parts of me, so that I know them well. I knew Elisa, that young, struggling poet of Undercover. I knew Rosie, desperate to do right by her dying grandfather in House of Dance. I knew Kate of Ghosts and I am so very like Georgia of Heart. They live with me, these characters. I know who they were, and I know who they’ve become. They’ve become a woman who feels blessed, every day, to be alive. A woman who struggles, every day, to be a better person. A woman who wishes, every day, that she could seize the world with words and photographs—hold it, own it, yield it back to others.
You seem like the kind of person who might have a motto, or at least, might be able to identify some wise words to guide your life. If you have a motto, tell us about it. If you don’t, what might be some possibilities for you?
Wow, no. I don’t have a motto. I don’t think that way, perhaps don’t have the mind for one. But if there’s one thing that I go around telling myself every day, it’s these two words: Pay attention.
Thank you for being here Beth, for your words and your photographs!
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