It is a remarkable treat to be hosting Kathi Appelt today for a Winter Blog Blast Tour interview. Kathi’s latest novel, Keeper, is a magical, beguiling story of loss, love, family, and the sea. Every page is a treat. Read my review here, and then come on back for the interview.
How would you describe Keeper in one sentence?
Hmm . . . can she answer this in one sentence . . . okay: At ten years old, Keeper, born in the sea, believes that her real mother is a mermaid, and when trouble on the home front arises Keeper is certain that only her mermaid mother can set things aright again, so she makes the perfect plan, including setting out in a small boat all by herself and her Best Dog in search of that mermaid mother.
How’s that for a run-on clause-filled sentence?
It might be better to simply say, Keeper is about a small girl who believes in magic, but she needs a little evidence to make it so.
I think now would be the moment to pause and gaze upon the beautifully dreamy cover:
What helps you to keep writing everyday?
Years ago I made a commitment that I would write every single day, even if it was only for five minutes. I have kept that five-minute promise for well over twenty years. Some days that’s all I write. But the power of the five-minute rule is that once I sit down to write for five minutes, I usually write more. It’s the sitting down that is hard.
Keeper is such a poetic, meandering type of story, with different threads and backstories that stretch in the past. Where did the idea begin? Was it a phrase, a particular scene, or a character that came to you first?
I had an image of a small girl spinning in a wooden bowl. It came from my experience when I was very young. My grandmother had a large wooden salad bowl, and she used to let my sisters and I sit in it and she would spin us around and around on the kitchen floor. And I think it must have been my grandmother (who was a terrific spinner of tales as well as bowls) who suggested that we could sail away in that wooden bowl.
So, that image came to me early on. In fact, the very first scene that I wrote was the one where Keeper remembers being in that bowl in the water, and Meggie Marie is spinning her around and around and laughing.
I also want to say that my other grandmother lived in Galveston, so I spent a lot of time there when I was growing up. She actually owned a dog named BD (which stood for Bird Dog), and she also had a sea gull who crashed into her kitchen window during a storm. My grandmother managed to bandage the gull’s wing, and the bird and BD became chums. So that part of the story is based on a real event.
(Kathi in Galveston – photo credit for this photo & author photo: Ken Appelt)
There are three particularly fine beasts in this book: Captain, Sinbad and B.D. What’s different about creating a complex animal character compared to a human character?
When I write a dog character, I don’t want the dog to be a human-in-dog’s-clothing, even though to a certain extent there’s some of that anyways, rather I want the dog to feel dog-ish on the page. So I spend a lot of time studying dogs, their mannerisms, their sounds, their habits, the foods they eat, the ways they interact with other dogs, all of that.
I also think about the choices that my beasties have. As someone who lives with cats, those same cats only have choices within the confines of my house. They don’t go outside (except when Jazzmyn aka vixen of the cat clan darts out the door while I’m bringing groceries in or something), so the choices they make are contained. Would they run away if they could? Maybe, and that’s a choice to ponder too. With BD, he has a choice everyday. He lives on the beach, but he could easily race away, never to return. Same with Sinbad. Both of them always return to Keeper and Mr. Beauchamp, even though neither one has to. That tells me that those animals, regardless of their needs, return for other reasons besides food and shelter. Maybe they return because they enjoy the company of their humans, and perhaps they even love their humans in their dog and cat ways.
Captain’s choices have more to do with food and BD than with the people in the story.
So, with the animals, there’s always the question of what is pulling them to remain true to their humans (and to each other). Which leads to the next question: do their humans deserve the companionship of these animals? And that allows me to know something about the humans in the story. Are those same humans worthy? Or not?
So, in some ways the animal characters serve as mirrors for the humans. They tend to reflect back the best and worst of the human characters—just as they do in real life.
Which one of the animals in Keeper is your secret favourite? (We know you have one!)
I am crazy about Captain. He just makes me smile. And also, I share his love for watermelon. (Let’s just say that I totally understand his attraction for it).
Your book explores how truth and myth aren’t always easy to separate. Tell us more about what you hope Keeper might reveal to readers on the themes of truth and myth.
I’m not sure you can have one without the other—truth and myth. I think that truth arises from myth, or it can arise from myth. Would we keep looking for the Kraken if there weren’t so many stories about it? I can’t help but believe that some of the discoveries that we’ve made about the deep blue sea come from our true wondering about whether or not a giant squid ever lived or continues to live there. (Don’t you love it that squids have the world’s largest eyes?)
Myth leads to reality.
On the other side of the coin, I believe that myth always starts out with something that is likely true. Perhaps there is/was an abnormally large human-like creature in the woods of East Texas that is now known as Big Foot. But in reality the very first sighting might have only been a large bear whose shadow was magnified by the moon’s shine, caught out of the corner of the eye of a hunter who was drunk on moonshine, and both of those shines turned the large bear into something bigger and scarier.
Reality becomes myth.
The real wonder of being a human is our ability to make stuff up. So far as we know, we’re the only animals who do it. We’re the story animals. And we have an enormous capacity for blurring those lines between reality and myth. I love that about us.
Are you a landlubber, or a sea-lover?
I love being at the seaside, but I’m happiest on land. I tend to get seasick by just standing in the waves, and I’m not a strong swimmer. I have no desire whatsoever to go out to sea. No luxury cruises for this girl.
And actually, my own innate fear of the water is partly what inspired me to put Keeper in that boat in the first place. It makes me a little queasy to think about it. When I’m thinking about my characters, I always consider the twin sisters of love and fear. Those are the great opposites. Everything we do comes out of one or the other or a mixture of the two. I continually ask what is pushing my characters—and the push has everything to do with love and fear. In order to invest my characters with emotions that feel true, I have to tap into my own emotions to a certain extent. It was scary for me to think about a little girl being alone on a boat. I would never have had the guts to do it. But Keeper loved her family so much—the family in the world unto itself—that she stepped outside of her fear in order to make that same world right again. I believe that our lives are always about the balance of love and fear and how they play out from day to day.
If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?
Susanne Langer changed the way that I consider the impact of form on emotion and feeling. Her book, Feeling and Form, has always provoked me and asked me to think deeply about art and its inherent power.
Rudyard Kipling: When I was a child, my father loved to recite the poetry of Kipling. He loved the solid rhymes at the ends of the stanzas, and the ways that the poetry “marched” in its militaristic style. It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I really discovered Kipling’s stories and novels, and I have to say that The Jungle Book was a transformative book for me. I still love it.
Not only do I just love the story itself, this book helped me understand where I came from as far as being a child of the South.
Is there a topic or genre or historical period that you have thought you might like to try writing in the future?
I’d love to write a straight-ahead contemporary YA novel, maybe a romance? My fear here is that I’d likely have to deal with technology and I haven’t quite figured out how that plays out in the lives of contemporary teens, or even if it matters. But it seems to be such a large part of teens’ lives today that I don’t think I can dismiss it.
I wouldn’t mind writing a space travel book. I loved those when I was a kid. Maybe growing up in Houston, when NASA was just coming on line is part of that. I used to dream that I lived on the moon . . . with a whole herd of moon ponies.
What is the most difficult part of writing for you, and what aspect of writing is the most fulfilling?
Getting the first draft on the page is always the hardest part for me. I have to force myself to write quickly so that I don’t spend hour upon hour rearranging the five words I’ve actually written.
What part of this novel are you most proud of?
My hope is that my readers will reconsider magic, both real and imagined. One of my goals with Keeper was to show that magic may not be real, but that believing in it can offer up possibilities. In so many ways, I feel that love is magic, and believing in magic allows love to occur. I want all of us to hold out for the possibility of magic, and thus the wonder of love.
I am also proud of the relationship between Mr. Beauchamp and Jack. While it has come under some criticism, the reason I wrote it into the story is because my own sons have a relative who is gay, and that relative never showed up in their stories when they were in those middle grades. Yes, there are plenty of gay characters in YA (or there are now I should say), but aside from a small cameo appearance in The Van Gogh Café, by Cynthia Rylant, they were never ever present. I attempted to make Henri and Jack’s affection for each other so matter-of-fact that it was just that—matter-of-fact. And unless a child reader was really looking for it, they might miss it entirely. I’m tired of gay characters being absent in our stories for younger readers, as if they were absent from our lives. My son’s gay relative has been important to them. Not invisible at all. So why should they be invisible in their books?
So perhaps, overall, it’s ambiguity that I was hoping to achieve. Is Keeper’s mother a real mermaid? That question is never really answered. Are Jack and Henri lovers? Who knows? Is Sinbad a hundred years old? Those questions are for the readers to ask, and when they find their own answers, then hopefully the book will change for them as they themselves change and grow.
Where do you picture Keeper in five years? (By the way, I’m convinced there is a whole gang of us who would happily read a book about Keeper as a fifteen-year-old. YA all the way! Just saying).
What a great question! Something else that wasn’t answered in this story was: is Keeper part mer herself? Perhaps as a fifteen-year-old, she might have her own romance—perhaps with a merperson who distinctly isn’t her mother? Someone who is tall, dark and handsome, say? It could happen. Now you’ve got me thinking . . . .
Thank you so much for being here Kathi. It was wonderful to learn more about Keeper and your writing practice.
Be sure to visit the other interviews on the WBBT circuit today: