Fingers on Fire

Kathi Appelt at the National Center for Children’s Illustration, Abilene. Photo by Sujata Shuhane

First, Kathi, CONGRATULATIONS on the Newbery Honor and National Book Awards! I first heard about The Underneath at a conference in Utah last March, where illustrator David Small showed some of his drawings. He was so proud to be part of your lyrical and haunting book. I have two questions:
How is it that the same author who writes the funny and charming Bubba and Beau books can write something so much darker? What was the spark for writing The Underneath?

I’m not sure that there was single spark to be honest. I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but I could never seem to find my way past the first fifty or so pages whereupon I found myself hopelessly bogged down with no idea about how to go forward and no clear ending in sight.

The Underneath began as a short story about a boy who rescued a cat from the creek that ran in front of his house. In that story, the cat became the ultimate hero. I kept thinking that there was more there, that there was an underlying story that needed telling. But from the very early drafts, the cat always saved the day at the end. So, at last I had a story in which I knew the ending. It was then a matter of getting there. Twenty drafts later . . . the boy who started the whole thing left the scene, but the cat who saved the day was still there.

As far as Bubba and Beau go, I still think that they are two characters with needs and wants and emotions, same as my swamp critters. Arthur Howard’s wonderful art fills in the spaces there that words don’t. So, even though the story seems light and airy, I think that the art gives it another layer of meaning that is not readily apparent at first glance. I think this is true of most picture books. The art completes or subsidizes the story, enriches it.

You are right about the darkness, however. I didn’t set out to write such a dark tale, and I’m still a little startled by that aspect myself. I don’t know if I have an answer about that other than to say that I had promised my agent that I would write a book that could crack open the heart. While I feel that my Bubba and Beau do that in a sweet way, the heart is enormous in its capacity for feeling and while I felt I had put my finger on some of that feeling in Kissing Tennessee, I somehow knew that there were other areas to explore, other chambers to venture into.

The thing is, can we ever really appreciate the light and cheerfulness of characters like Bubba and Beau if we don’t ever realize the other side of the coin? Maybe we can get part way there, but can we truly appreciate it or really understand the good fortune, the gift of light and humor without knowing about loss and sorrow? To me everything comes from either a place of love or fear, the great opposites. And yet, those two factors are twins aren’t they? It’s impossible to experience to any depths one without the other.

In my own work, it wasn’t like I made a decision one day to mine the darkness in a story about a pair of kittens and an old hound dog, but once I found them I did very conscientiously decide to follow their story to the very deepest place that any of them could go.

In your acknowledgements, you thank Rose Eder for not letting Ranger die. I, too, am eternally thankful to Rose! Please talk about the process you went through to make this decision.
Rose Eder Rose’s dog, Bear

Rose. She is so tender, and such a dog lover. I actually turned to Rose because she knows so much about dogs, thank goodness. And also because she’s a poet in her own right. I have a set of friends whom I consider my “wisdom council,” and Rose is one of them. In an early draft, Ranger died. I had written a lovely scene in which he meets up with the calico cat, his best friend, on the other side, accompanied by the humming bird. To me, Ranger’s death at that point seemed essential. But Rose was adamant that Ranger’s death wasn’t warranted. She wasn’t the only one who felt that way, but she was so certain about it that I paid attention. Her challenge to rewrite the story so that Ranger survived was a worthy one. I’m so glad for it too. I think she probably saved the book along with the dog. But, also I think she might have stopped having a beer with me on Friday afternoons if I had let Ranger die. (Note: she did not complain about the mother cat being dispatched!)

I do want to reassure readers that no animals were harmed in the writing of this book. I have received a couple of very “passionate” notes about how cruel I was to the animals, but I promise that I’m an animal lover through and through. The animals in the book are fictional. I promise.

Now more about you: were you a flashlight-under-the covers or a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid?
I actually did practice “flashlight theology” as a child. But I also enjoyed the outdoors. I’m not too keen on bugs, Elise Broach’s beetles notwithstanding.

Your amazing mom gave you one-third of a blank, sheet-rocked garage wall on which to explore your creativity when you were a kid. What is one thing you remember drawing on that wall?
I remember drawing a heart on the wall in seventh grade with the initials K.C. + M.H. (for Michael Harrison—wow, what a crush I had on him!)

Do you still draw in the journal you keep now? What kinds of things go in that journal?
Yes, I draw sometimes. Mostly I draw maps of the places that appear in my stories. I’m hardly an artist. Stick figures seem to defy me. But I like the maps. They help me feel grounded in the place of the story.

What was the nudge/spark that set you in front of that blank paper to write for children and young adults?
Two nudges actually: Jacob and Cooper Appelt. Son #1 and Son #2. Before they arrived, I had no real awareness of children’s books. My intention before children was to become an academic. I was interested in rhetorical theory and had a light longing to be a speechwriter. When the boys came along, I discovered children’s books with them. A great love story ensued.

Who are the writers you read to be inspired?
There are so many wonderful writers out there, present company included, that this is always a
hard question. Writers whom I’ve studied closely would be Cynthia Rylant, Bret Lott, Toni Morrison, Kate DiCamillo, Alison McGhee, Susan Straight, Kimberly Willis Holt, Louis Sachar, Margaret Mitchell. The list goes on.

Do you have any special writing talismans/tokens in your writing space? I have a real-live cat who has quite a bit of Siamese in her. She is my muse. Her name is Jazzmyn. Jazz. She follows me from room to room, but whenever I’m in my office, she’s there. Not sure I could write without her.

Do you have daily writing habits? If so, share!
Years ago, I made a commitment that I would write at least five minutes a day. I’ve never broken that commitment. And I’m gentle on myself. Some days I only write five minutes. And I count things like my grocery list. I figure that if I’m putting words on a page, regardless of whether it’s a slip of paper or my computer screen, I’m writing.

I love the title concept explored by Carolyn See in her Making A Literary Life: What do you do that helps you sustain and nourish your literary life?
I read a lot, naturally. I like to take long walks. I make willful choices about my circle of friends. And I teach. As much time as teaching entails, I know that I am a better writer and a better person because of my students.

And I have the most wonderful teaching colleagues at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My fellow faculty mates have taught me so much. Plus, they raise the bar with each of their books. I feel I have to continuously work on my chops to remain in their company.

What’s the worst writing advice you ever received?
Hmm . . . I try to forget bad advice. . . Maybe it had to do with outlines. I think there was an era twenty years or so ago that encouraged writers to forgo outlines, to let the character lead the writer through the story. But wow, am I ever a believer in outlines now. I did a lot of writing without them, but seriously, I abandoned a lot of stories that might have come to some reasonable place if I had only used an outline. That’s not to say that I don’t pay attention to the characters, but a map is handy even for the most strong-willed of them.

I’m also not convinced that “write what you know” is very good advice. Sometimes I think you have to write in order to figure out what you know or what you need to know. So, I’m not sold on that old chestnut.

What was the scariest thing you’ve done as a writer?
In a moment of desperation, I asked my agent if I could send her 25 pages a week of my novel in progress. I told her she didn’t have to read it; but I needed the deadline. I felt that if I weren’t held accountable for it, I’d never finish. She agreed. That writing became The Underneath. So, for three months or so, I sent totally raw, rough pages to her, material that I could hardly bear to re-read. Thank goodness she said yes. But it was scary. There was the possibility that she would read it and think, “what am I doing, representing Kathi Appelt?” and cut me loose. In some ways, she had more faith in me than I did. I’m forever grateful.

What are you proudest of in your work?
I am proud when my students tell me their success stories. I love it when someone whom I’ve worked with gets a story published. It’s truly validating.

I’m also proud of the picture book semester that I helped create at Vermont College. I think picture books deserve intensive study and the course is there now to provide that. It makes me smile to think about it.

How do you know when you have a story just right?
Oh boy, that’s a hard one, because often I think I’ve gotten it right and my editor says, “sorry, go back to GO.” Maybe it’s when I feel that I know a character well enough that his or her actions seem completely inevitable, even though they may be surprising. Does that make sense?

How long was it between “I’ve got an idea” to “We’d like to publish your book”? And what happened in between those moments?
It took me a long while to get started because most of my time then was spent raising my boys. I used those early years to read voraciously. I also took as many classes in writing for children as I could find and afford. I attended SCBWI meetings and conferences. I immersed myself in the field. From the time I began submitting stories, to the release of my first book was about six years or so.

What, if anything, in the writer’s life has caught you by surprise?
I would say that the biggest surprise has been the amount of travel that I’ve gotten to do. I never in a million years would have guessed that becoming an author for children would mean that I would get to travel all over the world. I’ve visited schools or spoken at conferences in almost every state (still missing Maine and Connecticut, y’all). In April, I’m visiting an American School in Singapore.

A series of questions about work habits:

  • Computer or long-hand?
  • Computer. But I still keep a journal by hand.
  • Coffee or tea?
  • Definitely coffee. But I do enjoy iced tea.
  • Quiet office or music going?
  • Quiet.
  • Desk: neat or tidy?
  • I let it pile up. Then I have to clear it off or the cat starts wreaking havoc. Hoss prefers tidy and helps keep Kathi’s desk neat.
  • Essential writing snack food: cheese, pecans.

Last month, Susan Patron revealed a talent for creating flaming desserts. What is one of your talents we may not know about?
Singing in the shower.

Is there anything you wish I’d asked you? If so, what is it?
I’m thrilled that you didn’t ask my weight. It’s always too much.

I do have a motto for writers: “write like your fingers are on fire.” I think the faster we write, the better we write, the more we get out of our own way. That’s not to say that there’s not a place for deliberation, there certainly is, but once you get going, the go, baby, go. And don’t stop till you get there.

Kathi, thank you so much for spending time with us. I want you to know that I am taking your motto to heart. Got the fire extinguisher under the desk, just in case.

No Responses to “Fingers on Fire”

  1. diannewrites

    Thanks, Kirby. I enjoy reading your blog throughout the week and especially enjoyed today’s interview with Kathi! She’s an amazing writer and mentor. 🙂

  2. kcushman

    Great interview, Kirby. And, Kathi, I’m so glad Ranger did not die. I must admit I read the end of the book first to make sure he survived. Life is too short for me to be mourning fictional canines.

  3. Julie Larios

    Ah, my two favorite K’s – Kirby and Kathi! Thanks to you both – good Kirby questions, and very Kathi answers.