Interview with Kathi Appelt

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Kathi Appelt is the New York Times best-selling author of more than forty children and young adult novels. Her first novel, “The Underneath,” was named a National Book Award Finalist, a Newbery Honor Book, and the PEN USA Literature for Children Award. That was followed by her novel “Keeper,” which was named an NCTE Notable Children’s Book and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Her memoir, “My Father’s Summers” won the Paterson Prize for Young Adult Poetry. Ms. Appelt was presented with the A.C. Greene Award by the Friends of Abilene Public Library, which named her a “Texas Distinguished Author.” Her novel, “The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp,” was named a National Book Award Finalist and won the Green Earth Award, the Texas Institute of Letters Award, and the Judy Lopez Memorial Award. Her picture book, “Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers,” illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein, won the “Growing Green Kids” award from the Junior Master Gardners.

Her most recent picture book, “Counting Crows,” illustrated by Rob Dunlavey, was a finalist for the Writers League of Texas Award, and her newest novel, “Maybe a Fox” co-written with Alison McGhee, won the Jean Flynn Award given by the Texas Institute of Letters, and was also named to the Texas Bluebonnet Master List. She and her husband Ken live in College Station, TX with five adorable cats, Django, Peach, Mingus, Chica and Jazz. For more information, check her website: www.kathiappelt.com.

Julia Shelton: Where is your favorite place to write?Kathi Appelt: I am a porch dweller. We have a large screened-in porch on the back of our house and I can spend hours out there. I do have a studio, with a desk, but mainly I like to sit on the sofa with my laptop and work. I think of it as “sinking in,” both into the sofa and into my stories.
JS: How do you motivate yourself to write even on the most stubborn of days?KA: Years ago, I made a commitment that I would write five minutes a day, no matter what. That was thirty years ago, and I’ve never broken that commitment. Some days that’s all I write. But the thing is, it’s not the time that is an issue, it’s the getting-to-it. Once I make it past the five-minute mark, I’m usually good to go. Not always, just usually.
JS: Who are your author inspirations? Are there any books or characters that have influenced your writing?KA: Oh boy, this is hard because it changes from time to time. There are books that definitely serve as constants to me—Beloved, by Toni Morrison; Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell; Missing May, by Cynthia Rylant. I think of those books as timeless. A recent book that I can’t get out of my head is Pushing the Bear, by Diane Glancy. And I love the poetry of Mary Oliver.
JS: Is it hard to breech the theme of grief in books for young audiences?KA: I think it’s hard to breech that theme in any story. But I also know that a book is a safe place for kids to experience a range of emotions. Have you heard of a phenomenon called “emotional rehearsals”? The idea is that a reader can weep for a character in a book—the emotion is real, the sadness is real, but the character is not. Nevertheless, when a reader then loses someone matters to them, they understand how that feels. In other words, when true sadness occurs, for whatever loss, they’re better prepared to handle the emotional side of it because of the experiences they’ve had with a book.
JS: Were there any parts of “Maybe A Fox” specifically that were hard for you to write in terms of deep emotions or feelings?KA: There were several challenges with Maybe a Fox, but yes, the hardest was trying to wrap our heads around the notion of losing a sister. Both Alison and I have younger sisters, and thinking about losing one of them, especially in a tragic way, was a brook that was hard to bridge.
JS: Do you have any scenes or types of plot that are your favorite to write? Or perhaps do you prefer to write dialogue or descriptions, etc.?KA: I enjoy trying my hand at pretty much everything. I don’t think I’m all that great with dialogue, but I still enjoy it.
JS: I read in an old interview that you like to write three pages at a time. Does that method still work for you today?KA: Yes. Give or take a page or two. I write in what I think of as SSS’s—Small Significant Scenes. If they aren’t significant, they have to go.
JS: What did it look like writing a book with another author (Alison McGhee)? Were there challenges or advantages that stood out to you?KA: There were plenty of joys and plenty of challenges. Mostly, we had to learn to write with each other, as opposed to next to each other. In the end, it was a wonderful experience. And the truth for me is that Alison is likely the only person I would ever consider writing with, largely because we worked it out. Our friendship remained intact, and that mattered more than anything else.
JS: What advice do you have for switching between multiple points of view in a story?KA: Buckle up. It’s like waiting for all the bumper cars to crash into each other. And they all do, eventually.
JS: Do you enjoy playing with foreshadowing in your stories? KA: I really enjoy the world-building that happens in a story. Even in a realistic story, the world has to be imagined and then executed. Figuring all of that out is a puzzle I like to figure out.
JS: The sincerity of the melancholy feeling was very realistic in “Maybe A Fox.” There was no way to separate the happiness from the sadness. It was very true to the bittersweet nature of life. KA: I think most of us have experienced loss of some sort in our lives. And the truth is, without sadness, it’s hard to appreciate joy. The two are mates. You can’t have one without the other.
JS: In another interview you said, “animals have a sort of freedom that humans don’t.” I love that and could absolutely see how that played true in “Maybe a Fox.” The voice of the mother fox was almost otherworldly. Did you strive to give the foxes’ voices a mystical quality to them?KA: Alison is largely responsible for the voices of the foxes. And I think that most of her work has that quality.
JS: How do you nail down and make all the aspects of the worlds in your books a reality for the reader? Do you make lists about them or timelines about how their stories are going to go before writing? Or do you just dive on in and let their stories come to you?KA: I usually start by just plunging in. But eventually, I have to stop and create a chart of sorts. Otherwise, I get completely bogged down. I am also a major revisionist. Most of my books take twenty to thirty total overhauls. The early drafts of Maybe a Fox are hardly anything like the actual book. There are only a few things that stayed constant through the entire process—Jules and the Fox being two of them. And the Slip being another. But aside from those, a lot of changes were made.
JS: What do you aspire to see for your writing in the future?KA: I’d like to write a play or a screenplay. I’d also like to return to poetry. I started out as a poet, but I haven’t written much of it in the past few years.
Missed our review of Appelt’s Maybe a Fox? Check it out now!

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