Kathi - I first became aware of your work when I picked up a copy of your non-fiction book DOWN CUT SHIN CREEK - The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky. Co-authored by Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer, the front cover shows a bundled up woman with full saddle bags riding a mule across snowy fields in the 1930's, delivering library books to rural communities. (I could so imagine myself doing this.) How did you come to write this book?
CUT SHIN CREEK was a true labor of love. The book was actually one of those "happy accidents" that happens once in a while. In a million ways it felt like it was "given" to me. My son was working on his 9th grade research paper and he asked me to help find some things on the WPA. Of course, if you do an internet search on the WPA about a million things show up. But right up front, I saw the site that Jeanne had posted. It wasn't anything that Jacob could use, but I bookmarked it anyways.
Later, I went back and just felt enchanted by it all. As a child, the two things I loved more than anything in the whole world were horses and books. And here, right in front of me was this program that had horses and books. I contacted Jeanne, and we started a conversation. Then she invited me to come to Kentucky and roam around in the state archives and several university libraries. Then we had the good fortune of meeting Grace Lucas, who was one of the packhorse librarians. That was an amazing wonder of a moment. She let us come into her home and talked to us for a couple of hours. A sweetie pie.
I initially thought I wanted to write a picture book but there were so many wonderful photographs that it just seemed like a photo-essay was the way to go. And I really wanted to include Grace's story - which is actually the part in the book called "the way it might have been." I'm happy to report that a picture book now exists, written by Heather Henson, called THAT BOOK WOMAN. It's simply beautiful, with art by David Small. I'm so glad that these brave women have their stories out there. We can all learn from their dogged determination.
Kathi - when I first read your middle-grade novel, THE UNDERNEATH, I found myself swept away. I walked into my critique group and said "Read this book. It's destined to become a classic." Tell us a little about your inspiration for this story.
THE UNDERNEATH started as a short story about a boy who rescued a cat from the creek that ran by his house. It was loosely based upon an experience that my son had when he was about 8 years old and befriended a kitten that had been abandoned. The story kept whispering to me, as if it had things about it that needed exploring. I like to think of THE UNDERNEATH as taffy. I kept pulling and pulling at it, stretching it out. Three years and twenty something drafts later, it became the story that it is. In the meantime, I wrote the boy right out of it. Hopefully, I'll think of a different place to put him.
I know that earlier in your career, Kathi, you have written many picture books. How is the process different for novels?
Picture books are still my first true love I think. For me, I can carry a "whole" picture book in my head around with me. For a novel, I can only wrap my thoughts around different bits and pieces at a time. So, it's different in that my focus switches here and there. Plus, it takes me a long, very long, time, to write a novel.
Can you give us a glimmer into your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I'm not sure I know what a pantser is, but I will say that I spend a lot of time trying to figure out where my story is going to end. If I have the end in sight, I can get there. I do keep a kind of informal outline, one that is malleable and that I can bend or change. It helps me to have at least that broad map, so that I don't get stuck or so that I don't write myself right off the cliff.
In your novel THE UNDERNEATH, the setting of the Texas swamps and bayous plays almost as big a part as the characters. What drew you to write about this?
I lived in East Texas for a short time, but it doesn't take a long time to really let that area get under your skin. The piney woods, with its beautiful trees and its swampy bayous and creeks, has a kind of dual enchanted/creepy feel about it. Mucking about in there makes you think that anything could happen in those woods. They feel ancient and removed from the rest of the world. I love it there. I think there are other stories to be found there.
Kathi - I think we both share a love of animals - particularly cats. How difficult was it to write about the perilous circumstances of Ranger, Mama Cat, Puck and Sabine in THE UNDERNEATH?
It was hard. I cried a lot. The animals' story is based upon an incidence in my own childhood. We had a big old dog named Sam, and one day a very small calico cat wandered into his domain and started eating out of his food bowl. It seemed dangerous for her to do that, but she and Sam became best friends. A few weeks later, she had four kittens and Sam became the hound-dog papa. So that was based upon a very real happening in my life.
Tell us a little about your new novel - KEEPER. It appears to me that perhaps setting will play a large part in this book, also. Can you enlighten us?
KEEPER is set along the Texas coast. My grandmother lived in Galveston, so I've wanted to write a story set there for many years. In the story, I actually made up my own town. Galveston is so associated with storms now that I felt that putting my story there would call up too many storms. The hero of my tale is ten-year-old Keeper, who believes that her mother is a mermaid. Keeper has been living with Signe, a young woman who has taken care of her since her real mother swam away. The story is Keeper's quest to find her real mother.
In KEEPER, it looks like once again an animal will be involved prominently in the plot. Explain how you feel about animals in stories, and how they may or may not enrich our experience.
Oh, I love animals in books. My favorite book as a child was BLACK BEAUTY, and if you'll recall it's told in first horse point of view. In addition, I think that using animals as characters gives all of us an opportunity to see the world from different angles. One of the main characters in KEEPER is Captain, a seagull who loves watermelon. When Captain is narrating, he's primarily looking down. It's hard to have flying humans in books, so why not a seagull? It opens up all sorts of possibilities.
One of the things I love about your writing, Kathi, is your unique voice. In fact, reading your novels - your use of repetition, your poetic language - has been an inspiration for me to find my own writing voice. Can you give writers any kernels of wisdom to take home?
The main thing is to trust your own way of saying things. And instead of listening to the chatter around you, listen to you heart. It will always lead the way. Always.
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Kathi - Thank you so much for stopping by with your words of advice and inspiration!