Sometimes I read a book that is so moving I have to get in touch with the author for an interview. The Underneath is one such book. Both a National Book Award honor book and a Newbery honor book, this story is so powerful that at times I had to put it down--but it was also so heartfelt I had to pick it back up. I am honored that Kathi Appelt agreed to be interviewed for the blog.
When and why did you start writing for children?
I started writing for children not long after my second son was born in 1984. Before that, I thought I wanted to be a scholar and write academic papers and books--you know, "scholarly" stuff.
I was in love with the thought of being a college professor. That all changed when I became a parent and discovered how much I loved reading with my little boys. They're big boys now, and I still love reading with them. The huge irony of this is that now I teach at Vermont College of Fine Arts, so I feel like I get to do the two most wonderful things in the world--write children's books and teach at the college level. Life is good.
Also, at one time, I considered writing songs, but since I'm not much of a musician that hope was quickly dashed, especially since all I seemed capable of writing were barroom ditties that I couldn't sing for my mother (or anyone else, for that matter). Nevertheless, when I wrote THE UNDERNEATH, some of the parts I most enjoyed writing were Ranger's songs.
What is the most valuable advice you can give to a newly published writer?
Remember that you are your book's best p.r. person. Your publisher can only do so much for any given title. It's important to do school visits, to talk to college classes, and even to teach a class at your local community college or community center. Attending conferences, speaking, doing book signings (even when the only people who show up are your cousins)... These are all important.
I think it's also helpful to consider "niches," unusual places where your book might find an audience. Too often we limit the notion of where our books might find homes to schools, bookstores and libraries. And yet, I've seen my books in national park gift shops, hospital gift shops, on-line at animal rescue sites, etc. Your publisher will appreciate leads like this when it comes to marketing. And it's fun to try to figure out where you might place a particular title.
Folks keep telling me that a blog is helpful too, although to date I've resisted that. Probably to my detriment. I recently signed on to FaceBook, however, and I really enjoy being part of that community.
THE UNDERNEATH was the first time I ever created a book trailer. My son composed the music for it, and it turned out to be a lot of fun to put together. I found I enjoyed becoming a "filmmaker" and look forward to producing more of these. I have a picture book due out in 2010 that I can't wait to do a trailer for. It's all in rhyme, so it should be fun to set to music. And the art, by Kelly Murphy, is truly beautiful. I think it will lend itself to this type of promotion.
What is one of your favorite children’s books that you'd like to recommend?
Oh boy, that's a hard question because I love so many of them. But if I could only take one with me to a deserted island I think I'd have to choose MISSING MAY by Cynthia Rylant. That book works on so many levels and it's so life-affirming. I'd miss it if I didn't have it with me.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a draft of my next novel, KEEPER. It's still got miles to go, but for me the first draft is always the hardest, so I'm glad to get that done. I'm getting ready to embark upon a new collection of short stories, along the lines of KISSING TENNESSEE, which will be for upper middle grades. Who knows what will come after that? I'd actually love to return to picture books. It's been quite a while since I worked on one of those and they're really my first love.
What is your favorite dessert and why?
I love bread pudding with hard sauce. Why? Because it's bread pudding with hard sauce.
Kathi Appelt's Biography
I was born on July 6, 1954 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. My father, Bill Cowgill, was stationed in the Army there, a member of the 82nd Airborne. He and my mother, Patricia, were both still teenagers when I made my fortuitous appearance. By fortuitous I mean that I couldn’t wait to get to the hospital and was born instead in the front seat of my father’s Ford. Waiting is still not my strong suit!
We only lived in North Carolina for a short time and then moved to El Paso, TX and finally to Houston, which is where all my relatives are from. Both of my younger sisters, Patti and B.J., were born there, and Houston is where we grew up.
In our house on Mayo Avenue, we had a garage with unfinished sheet rock on the inside walls. On one side of the garage was my dad’s work bench where he kept all his tools. But the other side was just a big blank wall. My mother divided it into three sections. As soon as my sisters and I could hold crayons, we were allowed to express ourselves on that wall in any color or form that we wished.
If you stood back and looked at the wall, it was like a record of my growing up. Down at the bottom was just a lot of scribbling, but as I grew, the drawing took on new and clearer forms. You could tell the drawings that were done when I was happy from the ones I did when I was sad or angry. The garage wall was a perfect place for expression. Once I started actually writing, on paper, I no longer needed the wall. But I still think of it as the place where my earliest writing took place. It was like my first journal, a record of my feelings and experiences.
I still keep a journal. Like the garage wall, it’s a place for catching all my thoughts, and sometimes my dreams. It’s often the first place that the idea for a new story or poem occurs. Because I don’t have any particular rules about writing in my journal, sometimes I’m surprised by what shows up! I also get ideas when I walk. I enjoy taking long leisurely walks. They help me clear my thoughts, but they also give me an opportunity to take a good look at the world around me.
Most of my books and poems come directly from my own life because that’s what I know best and feel most strongly about. Sometimes I write from a place of joy, as in my book The Thunderherd, which is about horses. I’ve loved horses since I was very young, and The Thunderherd was an opportunity to express that love. Of course horses and cowboys go together and for most of my childhood years, I really wanted to grow up to be a cowgirl and ride the range. This long-held dream turned into Cowboy Dreams.
As much as I loved horses, however, I was afraid of bats! Because writing helps me overcome my fears, I decided to write a book about bats: this became Bat Jamboree, followed by Bats on Parade, and Bats Around the Clock. Writing those books helped me see bats differently and even to laugh about my fears. Now I appreciate and love bats almost as much as horses.
Nowadays my favorite animal is cats, and I’m thrilled that my first book featuring the furry felines, At the Alley Cat’s Meow, will be released in the fall of 2002.
My family plays a large role in my writing life too. My husband Ken is a high school English teacher and a musician, and he has always encouraged me in my work. We were married on a cold, icy day in January, 1979. On the day we were married, Ken’s grandmother Emma told us that being married on a rainy day meant that we would be “showered with blessings,” and she was right! And two of the best blessings that we have are our sons, Jacob and Cooper. Jacob was born in 1982 and Cooper was born in 1984. Both of them are musicians like their dad.
Even though I had thought of myself as a serious writer for years, I doubt that I would ever have written for youngsters if I had not become a mom. It was through reading to my Jacob and Cooper that I became reacquainted and then enchanted with childrens’ books. We spent many happy hours reading together when they were little, and we still enjoy a good book together now that they are almost grown. Both of them are now in college!
And watching them grow reminded me so much of my own childhood. People often ask me if I write about my sons and for the most part I don’t. I figure they’ll have to tell their own stories. But I do get ideas from them, and mostly those show up in my poetry. When Cooper was very small, he loved to put rocks in his mouth. If I didn’t keep my eyes on him, he’d pop them in his mouth faster than I could blink. This turned into my poem, “The Pebble,” which is in Just People.
I used to think that a real writer had to have lots of exciting, maybe even dangerous, adventures in order to have something meaningful to write about. Now I know that the best writing is about the people, places, pets, and objects that surround us and that we meet every day. I’ve discovered that writing about them is the absolute best way to really know them and in the process to come to know ourselves a little better. I now know that writing is really a way of seeing. I’d like to encourage you to get out your old journal or start a new one and see what shows up.