Today I am joined by award-winning fiction writer and memoirist, Beth Kephart. Ms. Kephart, author of Going Over, Handling the Truth: On Writing of Memoir, Flow, Small Damages, Nest. Flight. Sky., and many other wonderful books, has been kind enough to answer a few questions. Please welcome her.
1. You write both memoir and young adult literature. Is there, for you, a connection between these two genres?
I believe all literature is connected. All of it is about a yearning of some kind, about heart, and about voice. I've written in all genres—memoir, short stories, poetry, history, that strange river book, FLOW, young adult literature, a book about the making of memoir, essays, even a corporate fairytale. I find that every genre is ripe with challenge, and every genre is bridged to the next. No matter what we are writing (even when I’m writing for corporate America), we are trying to tell a story that matters in a way that transcends.
2. Many readers associate YA literature with vampires, dystopian societies and fantasy. While you write within the YA genre, you do not follow many of the current conventions. Instead, you write, much like Harper Lee, about real-life experiences. What makes you shy away from convention?
In the end we must write what interests us, what keeps us deeply engaged. It's just too hard, otherwise. My young adult literature gives me room to stretch into eras and places I long to visit—or have visited. It has taken me to Spanish Civil War Seville (Small Damages), to 1983 Berlin (Going Over), to 1876 Centennial Philadelphia (Dangerous Neighbors), and to Florence, Italy during the height of an epic flood (the forthcoming One Thing Stolen). It's taken me to the remnants of a psychiatric institution (You Are My Only) and to an impoverished neighborhood of 1875 Philadelphia (Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent), to a squatter’s village in Juarez (The Heart is Not a Size), and to a Main Line Philadelphia garden (Nothing but Ghosts). It has been, at times, highly autobiographical (Undercover). It has been written as apology (House of Dance). I'm interested in history and in real emotions, in the ways that time and place and incident shape people. That same interest informs the memoirs I write, the books I read, the classes I teach. It is, to return to you first question, all integral.
3. Your work has been described as poetic. A good example comes from a passage in your novel, You Are My Only:
"A room that isn’t mine. The sound of toss and dream, and sheets like the
fried bottom of a pan. At the far end of the room, in a square: sun like it’s been poured into a glass of milk and swallowed – a blank face in a square space of scratch and rake and air clot.”
What inspires you to use such lyrical language in your fiction?
I smile and beg the forgiveness of any reader who just read those words and said, “huh?” For indeed those sentences would look odd out of context. But in this case they are the words of someone who is re-emerging after a terrible nervous breakdown following the kidnapping of her child. She’s trying to reconstruct language, trying to make sense of her world. Those are her first attempts at language, but she is only halfway there. I’m very interested in reformulating language in general, in breaking the rules. But I only do it with characters and scenarios that earn the fracturing. I try not to fill a book with sentences like those. There are other characters. There are healings.
4. No one could ever accuse you of talking down to your readers. While your novels are considered YA, they are written with as much sophistication as any piece of adult literary fiction. Readers respond to your style, and seem to feel relieved that they are not being talked down to. When you began writing, did you make the conscious decision to write for teens as though you were writing for seasoned readers?
I have spent way too much time with young people to imagine writing in any other way. I put everything I have, everything I know, and everything I can find out into my books for teens, because I believe in young souls, I teach them at Penn, I meet them at the Fairmount Water Works, I hang with them in classrooms. Why would I do anything other than write toward their profound intelligence? Now I’m not the most popular writer on the planet (oh, the understatement of it all). And so my style is not for everyone. But I don’t write for sales, I don’t write to be famous. I write to leave a certain kind of book behind, to be found by the readers who want that kind of story. So that yes, this is a deliberate choice, but also: I would be entirely unhappy writing any other way.
5. You teach creative nonfiction at Penn. Do you hold an M.F.A?
I do not. I am entirely self-taught. I went to Penn, but my degree is in the History and Sociology of Science. I had not even met a “real” writer until I was a young mother. I then went with my family on three separate vacations—to Spoleto, Prague, and Bread Loaf—that also (not so incidentally) gave me time with writers like Rosellen Brown, William Gass, and Jayne Anne Phillips. Books have been my great teacher, in the end. Those in my classes at Penn, or those who read Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, can attest to the idiosyncratic nature of my approach—and expectations.
6. How do you begin writing a novel? Do you use an outline, or do you prefer to let a story take a more spontaneous course?
I walk around with an idea in my head for a very long time. Usually it’s just an image, or a sound. When I feel brave, I’ll put a few words down, then let them be. When I return I’m terrified. I never know what I’m doing, really, not at first. And the process is protracted since I run a marketing communications business and teach and write reviews and essays for the Chicago Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer. Often months will go by and all I have is a page.
7. When you are in the middle of writing a novel, do you become fully consumed by the story? Do you think about your story from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep, or do you find that a certain amount of distance is necessary?
I think the answer to this question is found, in part, in the answer to the question above. Part of my heart is always preoccupied with the story. But the days are often unforgiving in terms of time.
8. What advice would you give to young writers?
Live first. Read widely. Believe in the stories you tell. You’ll have to fight them first. You’ll have to fight for them always.
9. If you could invite five authors to a dinner party, who would you choose?
I imagine that these souls have to be living? I’m just going to do this very quickly now, because if I think about it too long I’ll go crazy: Alice McDermott, Michael Ondaatje, Colum McCann, Stacey D’Erasmo, and my dear friend Alyson Hagy. I have the great, great privilege of being friends with many of the writers I love, and so I get to spend real time with them, in other venues; that’s the only reason there aren’t more people crowding around this particular table. The mix I’ve suggested here would have, I suspect, a fabulous conversation. I’d just sit and take notes and hopefully remember to pour the wine. I’d also be having a minor panic attack, hoping that the meal I’d prepared had turned out.