Interview: Kathi Appelt

The Underneath cover (1).jpg

I was beyond thrilled when I heard that Kathi Appelt was interested in stopping by the #MGBookVillage to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of her exceptional novel, The Underneath. I have a number of favorite books, as I know many book-lovers do, but whenever I talk about The Underneath, I always describe it as one of my favorite favorites. The characters, and the place in which their story unfolds, have remained vividly in my mind ever since I first met them, and they have beckoned me back for re-readings on multiple occasions. Getting a chance to interview Kathi about this marvelous, magical book was an honor and a treat. Read the interview below, then check out The Underneath‘s brand new book trailer and enter the exciting Tenth Anniversary Giveaway!

~ Jarrett

. . .

First of all, Kathi, thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village during your celebration of The Underneath’s ten-year anniversary. It is an extraordinary novel, and one of my personal favorites. Reading it ten years ago helped convince me that I was, deep down, a children’s book author. 

Jarrett, many thanks for taking time out for me. I know you’re a very busy person, so visiting with you, even in cyberspace, means a lot to me. And I’m so moved to think that my book had even a small part in opening the door to your own authorship.

So: ten years! How have things changed for you in the decade since The Underneath was released? 

Well, I wish I could say that I’m older and wiser, but the only thing I know for certain is that I’m older.

The Underneath was your first novel, and it’s by no means a straightforward one. It’s layered, complex, delicately twined. Did you set out to write it as such, with multiple strands of stories braided together, or did the project change and grow throughout the writing process?

It started out as a short story that I had written about a boy who rescues a cat from a creek. It was based on a true event, when my son Jacob discovered an abandoned kitten in a park where we were camping, when he was about nine years old. I had a photo of him on my desk, holding that kitten, and it served as a reminder while I worked my way through the pages.

The thing is, it was actually fine just as a short story. In fact, I still have it in a file somewhere. But I kept thinking that there was more to it. It just felt like there were stories within that story that were waiting to be uncovered. Then I had the great good fortune to attend “Write Fest,” which was being led by Cynthia Leitich Smith at her house in Austin. It was a week-long workshop and in order to be accepted, we had to turn in a minimum of 80 pages. The short story was maybe 8. So, in my desperation, I just kept “pulling” at it. I began to think of it as taffy. You know, the way that you make taffy is to pull on it until it stretches, and then you double back, and pull it some more? That’s how it felt. I finally managed to out eke out 80 rushed pages. And I will confess that I widened the margins and increased the size of the font in order to get there. But Cynthia, as well as the other participants (including Laura Ruby, Sharon Darrow, Sean Petrie, Katie Davis, et al.) encouraged me despite the hot mess that they very graciously read.

I also had a lot of encouragement from my agent, Holly McGhee, who must’ve read at least ten drafts. Holly is the author-whisperer, at least she is for me. But she is also the one who called one morning and said, with a great deal of enthusiasm in her voice, that she thought I should let the boy in the story go. Wait! What? It was that boy who gave me the story to begin with, and he was so much like my son that to cut him out was deeply painful. But it was also the exact right thing to do, even though it meant slicing out about 100 pages of text. Since extended narrative is hard for me (see below), losing that much was tough. It took me a while to wrap my head around it. However, as I began the process of trimming, what I realized—and what Holly had seen—was that taking the boy out allowed the animals’ stories to deepen. It was the exact right thing to do.

And then my editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, brought her gentle touch to the table. What she did was to help me illuminate and more fully understand Gar Face. She encouraged me to see him in a more three-dimensional way, as opposed to the Cruella de Vil approach that I had originally taken with him. (Not that I don’t love Cruella).

Altogether, it took over three years and about 30 drafts to finish it. In fact, that’s about what it takes for all my novels. I keep thinking that I should be getting better at this, but nope. Three years, thirty drafts seems about right. 

You wrote poetry before The Underneath, and the novel is, of course, deeply poetic. How did your background in poetry influence your approach to writing longer prose narratives?

So, here’s the thing . . . extended prose is really hard for me. I started out, as you know, writing poetry and picture books, and eventually I wrote a collection of short stories, Kissing Tennessee, for young adults. But in all those cases, everything I wrote seemed to naturally end around the bottom of page three. Some of the short stories were a little longer, but not really much.

I had always wanted to write a novel, but oof, those long narrative passages? They eluded me. And I admit, they also terrified me somewhat. I was never sure that I could maintain the tension required to get through more than a handful of pages. And then, I was working through some of the poetry exercises in a wonderful book called In the Palm of Your Hand, by Steve Kowit, and I discovered prose poetry. Chunky, paragraph-like passages that resemble flash fiction. I fell in love. I even wrote a memoir, My Father’s Summers, using them. That memoir gave me courage. It made me think that I could write a novel, but in order to do it I’d have to honor my natural proclivity for “short.”

With the exception of Maybe a Fox, which I wrote with Alison McGhee, that’s how I’ve written all of my novels—in short, chunky passages. I call them “S.S.S.’s,” which stands for “Short Significant Scenes.” They work for me.

It’s not that I can’t write longer passages, it’s that they go against my grain. So, one of the things that I encourage writers to do is to truly consider where their natural proclivities lie. It could be that I’m a little attention-deficit, and the short chunks of text just fit my nature? I can’t say for sure. And maybe, as I get even older, I’ll write something in a different format, but for now at least, short suits me. 

There is a wonderful passage in The Underneath that reads, “Humans are designed to be with other humans…They need each other’s laughter. They require each other’s sorrows. They are made to swim and cook and hunt and gossip together. Mostly, they need each other’s stories, stories of love and wisdom and mirth.” With this in mind, what is it about animals’ stories that particularly attract you? What do you think readers can learn from being made to empathize with animal characters?

Of course, animal characters are basically humans in animal skins, aren’t they? For them to work, they have to have human thoughts, human feelings, human ideas. But that’s not completely true, is it, because an animal character still has to have what I call the ish factor. That is, a bear character, while basically endowed with human emotions and feelings, still has to be bear-ish. Likewise, no one would buy a kitten character that didn’t resemble a toddler, but they really wouldn’t buy one that wasn’t kitten-ish.

So, one of the beauties of writing animal characters is that we get to enter into a way of looking at the world from the very ground or water up. We get to imagine what a swamp looks like from the alligator’s point of view, just under the surface of the dark water. We get to consider the way it feels to fit just underneath the ear of an old hound dog, as only a kitten could feel.

Likewise, there is the character’s animal response to consider. In other words, we can assume that a kitten would respond to a lizard in a different way from a human, right? We can assume that a bear would growl and attack if someone got too close. We can imagine that a snake would strike if provoked. Whenever I write an animal character, I do a lot of research. I want to know what they eat, when they sleep, what kinds of nests they build or not, whether they live in packs or if they’re loners. The traits of the animals in my stories always inform the story itself. Ranger, a bona fide hound dog, chained to a post for years and years, would howl out his sorrow in the way that only a hound could. To hear a hound bay like that is to understand the blues in their truest sense. And the whole forest would know it, especially the mama cat, who would recognize that anguish.

I also think that animals do elicit a kind of empathy from us that we don’t necessarily share (unfortunately) for fellow humans. I can’t explain why. But I will say that when the book came out, I got a number of angry letters and emails about the way Ranger was treated in the book. I always reassured these folks that no animals were harmed in the writing. But the thing is, Gar Face’s treatment was similar. He was also struck in the face. He was also a prisoner, albeit chained by his own hate. Still, I’ve never had anyone write to tell me that they were unhappy about the way he was treated. And maybe that’s the difference, eh? Ranger’s imprisonment was not of his own making. Gar Face’s was. Nevertheless, it’s been a curious thing to me to see how differently readers have responded to both characters.

Courtesy Atheneum Books for Young Readers

When I think about The Underneath, the characters, of course, leap to mind – Ranger, Puck, Gar Face, Grandmother. But the setting in which these characters’ stories unfold has remained in my memory and imagination perhaps even more strongly. Can you talk about the importance of place for you as a storyteller? 

I’m so glad you mentioned that. For me, there are three major things that inspire us, and they all begin with the letter P: People. Places. Pets. Those are the three major things that we hang our hearts on. And more and more, I’ve realized that Place creates the solid foundation for the story to both emerge and realize itself. Place has the ability to organize the story in that it gives us a landscape for specific sounds, obstacles, animal and human populations, flora and fauna, weather, even laws, economics, and traditions. Place a character in a fully realized place, and it gives you an immediate way to enter into what and how the characters will respond.

I know that characters are a fine way to begin a story. I’ve written stories that were very character-centered, but even those almost always eventually have to merge with setting. I’m often frustrated by stories that feel removed from place, as if they could happen anywhere. There’s some value in those stories, I think. But I also really feel that place, if it’s used well, is as much of a character as the actual characters. One story that readily comes to mind is E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. Dang, she did a great job with that island. Her main character was, in a million ways, an island within an island, and Emily did such a bang-up job of creating that place that we know, instantly, that the story was shaped, organized, fully realized by the setting, including the way that its smallness cornered the hero and her family. There was no escape, even when they weren’t on the island itself. Brilliant, really.

Another great example is Rita Williams Garcia’s Clayton Byrd Goes Underground. That story depends so much on the New York subway system. Clayton has to physically go deeper beneath the surface of his own grief in order to find his way out. He’s taunted, not only by a group of menacing kids, but by his lack of understanding about what is true and what is not. His resentment toward his mother is like the trains that barrel through those tunnels—hard and fast. The only place that story could happen was in the subway. Rita knew that, and she uses her knowledge of the city and the trains to give the story a pungency that we can almost smell, and the moment that Clayton goes down there, we’re instantly worried that he may never find his way out, at least metaphorically. So good, that Rita.

So, yes to Place and all it has to offer to us as storytellers. 

Over the course of the next ten years, The Underneath is certain to reach and resonate with many, many more readers. What do you hope they take away from your story?

My hope has always been that readers will see, in the twin stories of Ranger and Gar Face, that they can always, no matter how difficult their own stories are, make a good choice. Even in the face of darkness, they can turn their own faces toward the light.

*********************************************************************

Kathi Appelt photo 2015_credit Igor Kraguljak (1)Kathi Appelt is the New York Times best-selling author of more than forty books for children and young adults. Her first novel, The Underneath, was a National Book Award Finalist and a Newbery Honor Book. It also received the PEN USA Award. Her other novels include The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, a National Book Award finalist, and Maybe a Fox, one of the Bank Street Books Best Children’s Books of the Year. In addition to writing, Ms. Appelt is on the faculty in the Masters of Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in College Station, Texas. To learn more, and to find curriculum materials and activity pages, visit her website at kathiappelt.com.

Check out the new trailer for The Underneath !

GIVEAWAY: Fifteen lucky winners will receive an autographed paperback copy of THE UNDERNEATH. In addition, one Grand Prize winner will win a classroom set of 20 copies of the book PLUS a 30-40 minute Skype visit for her/his school, classroom, or library with award-winning author Kathi Appelt. Enter here!

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