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Thursday, November 20, 2008

WBBT: Through the Eyes of Beth Kephart and a Book Giveaway

I am honored to have Beth Kephart here with me today. Simply honored.  Beth is a 1998 National Book Award finalist in non-fiction (for her beautiful book about her son! A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage), a National Endowment for the Arts grant winner, and a Pew Fellowships in the Arts recipient,  And this is just a shortlist of her awards.  Wait until you read her interview and see what else she has done!

Beth has an incredible gift of seeing the little things that matter. I've decided she is a writer with a pure artisanal mindset -- she hand selects each word before painting layers of meaning and imagery onto paper.  

Beth has written non-fiction for adults, memoir, and even co-authored a business fable.  She entered the world of YA in 2007...check out her awards.

HOUSE OF DANCE was nominated for the ALA Best Books for Young Readers List and a Cybils award.

UNDERCOVER is a New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age list, Capitol Choices for Children and Teens list, Bank Street College of Education's Best Children's Books of the Year list, Top Book of 2007 by Amazon.com, Top Book of 2007 by Kirkus Reviews, Best Book of the Year by School Library Journal, October 2007, and Tween Pick at Family Circle Magazine. Undercover has been nominated for an ALA Best books for Young Adults Award and a Cybils Award.  

Important Note: We're having a Book Giveaway Contest for a copy of Undercover (courtesy of Harper Teen).  Details at the end of the interview.

I have been so fortunate to get to know Beth over these past few weeks, and I can only say her kindness and generosity of spirit emanate through her words.  If you have a chance, stop by her blog and say hello.  I know she'll welcome you.  

Without further ado, I'd like to introduce you to Beth Kephart...

HWM: Beth, you’ve written non-fiction/memoir books for adults and have transitioned into books for teens. How did you get your “break” into YA books?
Beth Kephart: I’ve always written the story that has felt most urgently in need of telling. Early in my career I was wrestling with questions about mothering, about being a friend, about being a wife, about the imagination, about veering toward middle age. I wanted to better understand, and I wrote toward understanding. With my sixth book, FLOW, I was still keen to explore the personal in a book, but I wanted to give that first-person pronoun to a river, and so I did, writing a history-infused autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River.

All along, of course, I was raising a son who loves to write and teaching other young writers the craft. In 2001 I was asked to chair the Young People’s Literature jury for the National Book Awards and so read, at that time, some 160 books created for that market. In my remarks on the evening of the awards, I spoke about what mattered in literature for the younger reader.

A few years later, Laura Geringer, then with her own imprint at HarperTeen, wrote me a long, beautiful letter, asking me if I’d consider writing a novel for teen readers. She’d read some of my books; she knew that I taught children writing. It took me a long time to figure out what I might actually write about; I was helped in this by Laura, who asked me the question, Who were you, Beth, as a teen? Once I had the story in mind, I couldn’t stop writing, and once I finished UNDERCOVER, I wanted desperately to write a next book and a next one. It’s been an extraordinary journey with these four books for teen readers.

HWM: What do you consider makes a successful memoir? How did writing memoirs help you transition into writing fiction?
Beth Kephart: Hmmm. I am never good at judging what makes any book commercially successful, but I do have very clear ideas about what makes a book successful as art. The memoirs that I believe should live forever come from an authentic place; that is, the story is real and alive and absolutely essential (as opposed to being endowed with a glittery marketing hook). That’s number one. Number two is craft. Memoirs, especially, turn on craft. Structure, flow, language: Those matter tremendously in memoir.

Every book, truthfully, is its own creation, its own challenge. I never feel as if I “know” how to write any book I’m writing. I struggle through. I’m not sure that anything I might have learned in writing memoir helped me to write fiction. In fact, I spent a lot of time trying to make sure that my fiction didn’t sound like my memoirs. I needed a very different voice, and a very different kind of pacing.

HWM: I'm impressed that you also run a marketing communications firm. How do you keep the balance with all the writing you do (for both business and YA)?
Beth Kephart: Most of the time, the business rules. There will be stretches (as there was these past five weeks) where I am juggling eight or so different clients, all with very different projects and needs. I don’t write during those times, and I read far less than I want to read. I owe my clients my full attention, and I owe my household as well, as this business of mine employs just one other, who happens to be my husband.

Then there are times when the business slows down a bit, and when that happens, I typically use the 4 AM to 8 AM timeframe to attend to the literary projects I wish to work on. Sometimes I’ll win a grant, and then I can work full time on a writing project for a spell—get down to the libraries that I need to get to, take trips I need to take. Many of my books require enormous research, and if I can’t get into the libraries, the books have to wait. Often I’m brokenhearted while I’m waiting.

The one literary thing I make sure to do every day is my blog. I spend at least an hour each day planning it, writing it. It keeps my mind sharp for the times when I can return to books. And it keeps me connected to people like you, who love books and writing as much as I do.

HWM: You have two published YA books out: Undercover and House of Dance. I loved your story (via the HarperCollins site) on what inspired Undercover. What has surprised you about this book?
Beth Kephart: I was, I am happily surprised by the response. I knew going in that I wasn’t writing a “commercial” book, that there was nothing the least bit Gossip Girl about this, nothing scandalous that would titillate mass audiences. I felt, I feel, so enormously graced that UNDERCOVER found a home with so many readers and was named to so many best of the year lists.

HWM: What inspired House of Dance?
Beth Kephart: Again, many things. HOUSE was born of my own passion for ballroom dance and my sense that dance can heal. It was born of memories of my grandmother dancing, of the sudden death of a dear friend, of the protracted dying of my own mother. I wanted to write my way toward an understanding of who we must be in the company of those whose lives are fading. HOUSE was an enormously difficult book to write, emotionally.

HWM: Which protagonist is most like you? Who was the hardest character to write about?
Beth Kephart: Wow, well. I am there, in all of my narrators. I am the outsider-poet-skater of UNDERCOVER (who learned to skate, by the way, on a pond). I am the caretaker Rosie of HOUSE. I am the heartbroken daughter of NOTHING BUT GHOSTS. I am the anxiety-ridden, but seemingly solid Georgia of THE HEART IS NOT A SIZE. Characters are only difficult when you don’t truly know them. I try to know my characters. I live with them. I am them.

HWM: Your writing captures the poignancy of the moment beautifully. When are you happy with the emotion conveyed in a scene?
Beth Kephart: Thank you, Vivian. I write every scene at least two dozen times. I am only happy when it feels true and when it reads lyrically. I read the passage aloud toward the end of the drafting. I listen for any off rhythm, any redundancy, any flatness. And then I ask myself: Does it mean what it is meant to mean?

And when I am done with all that, an editor will take a look. And sometimes the passage can be made better.

HWM: Language, in the form of lyrical prose, dances through your books for adults and teens. Did you find you needed to change your writing style to write for teens?
Beth Kephart: Yes, I did. While poetry remains embedded in the YA novels, it moves at a different pace. I let things linger longer in the memoirs. There isn’t room for that in the fiction that I write for teens.

HWM: Do you have other people read your manuscript before sending it on to your editor?
Beth Kephart: Sometimes my agent will take a look. Sometimes I’ll send a chapter to a friend. A long time ago I sent whole manuscripts to a few friends like Susan Straight, Alyson Hagy, Kate Moses, and Rahna Reiko Rizzuto. I don’t do that anymore. I haven’t for a long time. I want to respect my friends’ time, their own pressures.

HWM: A new book will be released in June 2009 called Nothing But Ghosts. What is the book about?
Beth Kephart: NOTHING BUT GHOSTS is a mystery and a love story, a tale about a rising high school senior who is dealing with the death of her mother as well as the apparent disappearance of a recluse at a nearby garden. At its heart likes a rather fabulous, fashionable librarian who helps the heroine piece together fragments of the past.

HWM: I understand Harper Teen bought your fourth book, The Heart is Not a Size (February 2010). What is the inspiration behind this book?
Beth Kephart: The inspiration for HEART is a mission trip that I took with my family to a squatter’s village in Juarez. Here the story is about two best friends, Georgia and Riley. Georgia secretly suffers from anxiety attacks. Riley is hiding her anorexia. Their week in Juarez changes them both and threatens to destroy their friendship.

HWM: What new projects are you working on that you can share with your fans?
Beth Kephart: I have been working on a novel that takes place on a single day in Philadelphia in 1876. I love this novel, but it needs another draft. I need to find the time to write that draft.

HWM: Do you outline or free form?
Beth Kephart: Never an outline! Always free form.

HWM: Where do you do your best writing?
Beth Kephart: Usually when I’m curled up on the couch, under a blanket, at four in the morning, with a pen and paper. Of course, the next day I’ll hate what I wrote during that precious hour and start all over again.

HWM: What is your writing process or ritual?
Beth Kephart: Hmmm. I’m not sure. I think about the song I want to sing, if that makes sense, and the story I want to tell. And then I work to fit the two together.

HWM: What was the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Beth Kephart: To remember that your book is your book. That in the end you must be most true to yourself.

HWM's Curiosities

HWM: What is your most memorable fan moment?
Beth Kephart: My goodness. I’m not sure that I have fans. I have very generous readers, though. Okay, I will reveal this. When FLOW came out, no one thought anyone would pay a speck of attention to such an unusual, lyrical book. But then the Philadelphia Inquirer called and ran a story on the Sunday before I was to give two talks. The first talk was at an interpretive museum and I figured on maybe five people, but so many people came that many had to be turned back. The next talk was at the Philadelphia Free Library, in a big upstairs room that held perhaps 200 people. It was the hottest day of the year, and I expected absolutely no one to come. No one. Well, the room was wall to wall, standing room only, and indeed there were people holding open the doors of the elevator that led to that room, so that they might hear. I have never in my life had such low expectations for an event and had those expectations turned so completely upside down. Afterward many of us went for an evening boat ride down the Schuylkill. It was an extraordinary night. And after that I went on to give at least three dozen talks on behalf of that little book.

HWM: If you found a way to go back to your teen years as one of your characters, who would it be and why?
Beth Kephart: I’d return to Elisa. I’d help her believe in herself, find her own beauty, far sooner than she was able to.

HWM: What makes you laugh?
Beth Kephart: My son’s text messages. My husband’s commentary on Dancing With the Stars.

HWM: If you were a superhero, what powers would you want and why?
Beth Kephart: I would like to be endowed with the power to eliminate the hurt we do to one another.

Thank you, Beth!

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Upcoming Event:
Monday November 24, 1:30 PM
Marriott Rivercenter, Salon E, Third Floor
101 Bowie Street, San Antonio, TX
Sport Stories = Life Stories with Beth Kephart, Matt de la Pena, Justina Chen Headley, Catherine Gilbert Murdock, and Lea Clifton

If you plan on attending this event, please stop by and say hello to Beth.  (And to readergirlz diva Justina Chen Headley.) 
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Harper Teen has donated a hardcover copy of Undercover for a Book Giveaway Contest!  Click here to read an excerpt.  

All you have to do is answer the following question in the comments section: What is the most gratifying plot twist you've encountered in a novel this year?  Edited to Add: No spoilers, please!

The deadline for this contest is Friday, November 21st at 11pm EST.  The winner will be announced on Saturday, November 22nd.

Good luck!

28 comments:

blueviolet said...

The most recently read one that I can remember is The Thief Maker by D H Schleicher.

...and I do love a good plot twist!

Thanks for the giveaway!

doot65{at}comcast[dot]net

beth said...

Thanks for the interview! It's so good that I'll have to re-read it again soon.

As for a plot twist...

Joanne Harris's Gentlemen and Players...when you find out who the killer is. Quite brilliant.

TadMack said...

"I try to know my characters. I live with them. I am them."

People have trouble coming to grips with that in fiction writers, but I really do agree! No good writing takes place without the truth coming in there somehow.

This is a great interview, I'll have to look for Beth's other books.

mari said...

The one at the end of The Thirteenth Tale. Not really a plot twist but a complete surprise. Not going to say more for those who have not read. A great book!

I loved House of Dance and would love a chance to win a copy of Undercover. Thanks. :)

Kelly Fineman said...

Phenomenal post, Vivian. Really top drawer.

Most gratifying plot twist this year? Wow. That's a tough question to answer without being spoilery. I'll say the sudden rule change in The Hunger Games, and leave it at that.

Vivian said...

Sara with the polar bear icon,

I didn't want you to worry if you don't see your comment.

You're still entered.

I just removed your comment because of the spoiler.

tapestry100 said...

Wonderful interview! Thank you!

I'd have to say my most gratifying plot twist of the year came with Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader. I wanted to go back to the beginning and reread and see where the clues were hidden and how it all came together.

Sara said...

Out of the books I've read recently, the best plot twist was probably in Identical by Ellen Hopkins.

PJ Hoover said...

I love Beth and am so happy both you and she are part of my writing world! You guys rock!

I already have Undercover, but might as well enter (I could donate it to the library if I win).

Plot twist? I'll go with The Adoration of Jenna Fox (though I saw it coming). Still it worked great!

See ya!

carolsnotebook said...

I'd love to be entered. As far as plot twist, Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. I had read it before, but it was still great.

Little Willow said...

Great interview, ladies. Considerate and detailed questions and answers make for a very lovely piece.

Beth, you are early to rise! 4 AM - you beat me.

The plot twist in Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn = Yowza.

Susan (Chicken Spaghetti) said...

What a lovely interview. Thanks, you two.

The most interesting plot twist? When the squirrel puts the "broken" toy back together in Mo Willems' beginning reader "I Love My New Toy!" I didn't see the twist coming--at all.

"A Slant of Sun" and "Seeing Past Z" are books I've recommended over and over.

S. Krishna said...

I'd have to say it's the twist at the end of Whacked by Jules Asner - whew, didn't see that one coming!

m. thompson said...

This was a fantastic interview. I've already read and loved both Undercover and House of Dance, so no need to enter me in the contest.

She seems so down to earth and with all that talent, I am impressed.

Sarahbear9789 said...

I am going with the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow. It was like woah! on this one chapter.

holly cupala said...

How's it going, Vivian? I can't believe you want to do the 5K in the middle of WBBT. You inspire me! Drop by to let us know how things are going.

Melissa Walker said...

Beth never ceases to amaze me with her grace and kindness. Her superpower response gave me chills. Sigh. I may have to re-read UNDERCOVER soon.

As for plot twists, I quite liked the tangled road of Elizabeth Scott's LIVING DEAD GIRL

katayoun said...

great interview and GREAT giveaway, undercover is on my wishlist and i am keeping my fingers crossed!!
as for the plot twist i must say all the answers that were revealed at the end chapters of mcdonald's river of gods.

Beth Kephart said...

I have been in the city today—the wind blowing, the snow flecking out of the sky. What a warm thing, then, to return home to these comments and to Hip Writer Mama's enormously gracious hostessing. Feels like home.

valerie hobbs said...

Thanks for introducing me to a writer I hadn't read yet. Kephart's books sound fabulous and I completely agree that writing from the heart is the key to a great book!

Merissa said...

How fun! This is going to be hard. I think I'll say... the end of The Westing Game (which I just reread). I love that book.

lanna-lovely said...

Awesome interview, I love Beth's answer to the superheroe power question - selfless and not the typical answer. :)

Hmm... probably the end of Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, I guess it's just because I could relate to it and it really showed how big an impact we can have on someone elses life, with every chapter and new thing we found out it showed that and, damn I can't really explain properly without spoilers. It's like more than just a story, because with each new twist and realisation the characters are going through, you're learning from it too. :)

-Lanna

Paradox said...

I can't say exactly what it is... but it's in Gone by Michael Grant. That was one AWESOME book!

Em said...

Wonderful, wonderful interview! I feel as if I know Beth better, not only as a writer, but also as a friend.

As for plot twists, Paper Towns by John Green. It didn't go where I was expecting it to go and it was all the better for that. Great book if you haven't already read it. :)

stacey @ bookthirty said...

I've seen some reviews that say the YA book A Drowned Maiden's Hair was too predictable, but me? I was sincerely tickled by a few of the plot twists! It was a great book!

stacey(dot)bookthirty(at)gmail(dot) com

Vivian said...

The contest is officially closed. The winner will be announced later.

Thank you for entering!

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Thanks for this interview! I am enjoying getting to know Beth through the Kidlitosphere.

Charlotte said...

Thanks to the both of you for this lovely interview!