[Editor’s Note: This interview follows Anne Willkomm’s interview of Kathi Appelt, found here.]
While reading The Underneath by Kathi Appelt I was struck not only by the incredible writing —one reason you should read her book—but as I read chapter after chapter, I began to realize each one was in of itself a piece of flash fiction. I had the great pleasure of interviewing her, and I asked her about The Underneath, her use of the short chapter structure, as well as a few other questions.
Kathi Appelt is the award-winning author of more than thirty books for children and young adults. Her picture book, MISS LADY BIRD’S WILDFLOWERS: HOW A FIRST LADY CHANGED AMERICA (HarperCollins, 2005) was given the “Growing Good Kids Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature” and the “Teddy Award,” given each year by the Writer’s League of Texas. In 2003 Appelt won the Irma and Simon Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature, given by the Bank Street College of Education, for her picture book BUBBA AND BEAU, BEST FRIENDS (Harcourt Brace, 2002).
Her first novel, THE UNDERNEATH, a haunting story of love and survival in the pine forests of East Texas, has been described by reviewers as a “classic.” It received a National Book Award Finalist, a Newbery Honor Book, and most recently awarded the PEN USA Literature for Children Award.
Ms. Appelt was recently presented with the A.C. Greene Award by the Friends of Abilene Public Library, which named her a “Texas Distinguished Author.”
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 and her husband Ken live in College Station, TX with four adorable cats, Django, Peach, Hoss and Jazz. They are the parents of two even more adorable sons, Jacob and Cooper, musicians who both play the double bass. For more information, check her website.
The Underneath is a novel told in a series of short chapters. How did you decide to use this structure?
Over the years, I had written in practically every genre except the novel. I had collections of poetry, non-fiction, picture books, you name it, but the novel kept eluding me. And then I wrote a memoir called MY FATHER’S SUMMERS, which I wrote in prose poems. To me, prose poetry is not too different from flash fiction. Perhaps you can take a few more liberties with things like pronoun agreement and punctuation, but for all intents and purposes they’re fairly similar.
Writing that memoir, which was the longest book I had written to date, gave me some courage. I finally told myself that I could write a novel if I wrote it in small, significant scenes, similar to the way I had written MY FATHER’S SUMMERS, in chunks.
What is the benefit to writing each chapter as you did? What are the limitations?
There are several important benefits. One is that the form is very flexible. I could easily move chunks of text, making the chronology of the story less important, and allowing the story to move back and forth in time in a way that made sense. The smaller chapters or scenes are also amenable to young readers. Reading a chapter is not such an arduous task for an emerging reader.
Also, the small chapters made transitions less important than normal. Often writers get bogged down in the transitions, and then, and then, and then. With the small scenes, the gap between chapters actually served as invisible transitions. This allowed me to manage the pace of the story a little better, as well as to keep track of the timeline, even though the timeline was not chronological. And speaking of gaps, as I moved the text around, and as the story grew, having these small scenes helped reveal where there were gaps in the story, places where I needed to fill something in.
Another advantage of this type of flash-cum-novel is that it really lends itself to an omniscient narrator, which is the most traditional of all the storytelling voices. Aside from my memoir, I haven’t tried this style in any other point of view. But for that wonderful omniscient voice, this form is perfect.
A novel told via flash fiction scenes like this can grow outward in all directions. It feels organic in a way. As the writer, you can continue to write the scenes, then place them either in front or back or in the middle depending upon where they can individually have the biggest impact.
If there are any limitations, I would say that you have to be careful that you don’t leave critical information out. Often, the shorter form allows us to keep from getting mired down in back story, but it also makes it easy to overlook information that absolutely needs to be in the story. So the challenge is to show that information in an interesting way. Again, the narrative voice of the story teller is helpful in this regard.
If you were to give advice to a flash fiction writer who wanted to use his/her craft and create a novel, what would it be?
say to start out by not worrying too much about the structure of the book, to
begin by writing scenes that illuminate your characters, and then to let the
plot of the book emerge from those scenes. At some point, you’ll want to
pay close attention to the plot, but the initial writing that features your
characters will give you some ideas about where the story is supposed to go and
mostly it will allow you to really learn about your character and what that
character is all about. At that point, some sort of outline is likely
required, but even that can be flexible.
You’re in the middle of a second novel. Are you using the same structure?
Absolutely. It’s the only way I know how to write anything is with extended narrative.
You write for a predominantly a young adult and picture book audience. What is the key to writing for this age group? How are you able to bridge the gap so that your work, like The Underneath, is equally enjoyable for adult readers?
The key is always to respect the audience. I think when you respect your readers, regardless of what their ages are, your work will ring true for anyone. And I would also say to avoid didacticism. Too often writers begin with a message or a moral, and forget that what we’re really interested in is our fellow creatures, whether they’re people or animals. We want to know what makes the heart tick. Write a story that has a huge heart and your readers will find it.
Who are some of your favorite YA or picture book authors? What draws you to their work?
Favorites: Cynthia Rylant, Alison McGhee, Kate DiCamillo, Tobin Anderson. I love the intelligence in their work.
I think as writers, we form attachments to certain characters in our work. Who is your favorite character in The Underneath, and why?
I would have to say that Puck is my favorite. I love his inimitable mischievous self, but also his determination to find his sister and Ranger. But I have to say, though I’m not a dog lover necessarily, I really love Ranger. What a good dog.
Writers of struggle with titles – at least, I know I do. How do you decide on titles for your books? For The Underneath?
Hah! My agent actually came up with the title for The Underneath. But I think each book has its own “title story,” to be honest. My second novel has always been Keeper, and that’s what it’s going to continue being. The Underneath had about a dozen different titles before settling on the last one. So, it just depends upon the book I think. Sometimes, I actually think up the title first and it’s the title that gives me the impetus to write the book. This is especially true in picture books, but actually I had the title for Keeper from the very beginning, so maybe that’s not true.
How do you continue to grow as a writer? Is it through your writing, your teaching, or some other venue?
I would say it’s a combination. I love to teach, and I also love to write. I learn so much from my students and my colleagues. And I believe that writing is definitely an area where there are no absolutes. We can always learn something new about it, as well as about ourselves.
If you could give only one piece of advice to your writing students, fellow writers, or even aspiring writers, what would it be?Don’t let anyone talk you out of it first of all. And second of all, write like crazy. Write all the time. Write your heart out.