Mary Gordon, in her book, Final Payments, wrote about a woman in her 40s who was making observations and decisions as if she were in her 20s (because she had been a caretaker for her father until he passed away when she turned 40) . On one occasion she introduced two friends of hers to each other. She was surprised to learn that the friends didn’t get along – that each friend spoke to a different side of her. As you write about young adults from an older vantage point, can you say how that vantage point helps or hinders your views and your writing of young adults? What are one or two of the views of young adults that you know you never entertained when you were a young adult yourself?
I’m not quite sure how to answer this question. Perhaps it is best just to say that I spend a lot of time around young people—I teach them, travel with them, seek them out, correspond with them, read their work—and so I am always learning. At the same time, young people are almost always smarter than I am. My younger characters are always quite smart, quite perceptive. They reflect the young people I know. I don’t judge their views, I guess I’m saying, and so I don’t compare them to what I myself thought years ago. I’m just interested in who they say they are, who they hope to be.
George Bernard Shaw said “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh." Many of your writings put children in really tough situations. Pregnancy in your book Small Damages; the death of a sister in Dangerous Neighbors; the pending death of a grandfather in House of Dance? Yet you use dance, music, skating and poetry to tell your story. Is the appeal of the beautiful things in life that they help us cope with the sad or is the appeal of the sad that they make us appreciate the beautiful.
This is a beautiful question, and of course the answer is yes and yes. There is tremendous beauty, always, no matter what is happening. We have to look to see it. Consider the way the Japanese turned toward the flowering of the cherry trees in the wake of the terrible tsunami a few years ago—and found beauty. Consider all that Abigail Thomas finds to celebrate in her memoir, A Three Dog Life, despite the tragedy that has forever dramatically changed her husband.
Have you ever thought about having a male protagonist for one of your young adult novels?
Funny you should ask. I do have a book I loved writing, called Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, which takes place in 1871 Philadelphia, features the William of Dangerous Neighbors' fame, his best friend, Career, and flashbacks of William’s brother, Francis. This is a story set in Bush Hill, featuring Eastern State, Baldwin Locomotive Works, the river, George Childs, and other intimations of that era. I loved writing William’s story.
Can you comment on the creative process that drives your works, especially the young adult fiction. You wrote you don’t like outlines. But do you have a general idea of how the story is supposed to work and fill in the details as you go? Or do you create certain characters, set them in motion and see what story makes sense depending on how the characters interact. Or is there a middle approach? Anne LaMott, in her book, Bird by Bird, wrote how she uses an artistic approach. She just splashes some ideas on a page and constantly reshapes them to create her story?
I feel poorly equipped to explain the process, or even to categorize it as a process. I grow obsessed with something. I follow the tangents, look for the heart, play with words until I have a voice I like, and go. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not writing anything right now, and so it all seems very far away, very distant. At this moment in time, it is hard to remember or imagine how stories get written. There’s something mysterious about it.
You’ve written “I write every scene at least two dozen times. I am only happy when it feels true and when it reads lyrically. I read the passage aloud toward the end of the drafting. I listen for any off rhythm, any redundancy, any flatness. And then I ask myself: Does it mean what it is meant to mean.” Is writing a science or an art?
Not a science. Hopefully an art. I’m seeking music, in the end. I do not lean toward formulae.
Your blog says you try to create 5 metaphors daily. What are your 5 all-time favorite metaphors?
The fun is in the making of the metaphors—in the mental exercise. I would never catalog the metaphors, though sometimes they appear on my blog, as part of the story or thought I am writing. They emerge, I wrestle with them, I let them go. And then I wake up to a new day.
I love your love of words. Here’s a sample from your first column for the Currents Section of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In the high heat of this summer I find myself again returning to Chanticleer — walking the garden alone or with friends. The sunflowers, gladiola, and hollyhocks are tall in the cutting garden. The water cascades (a clean sheet of cool) over the stone faces of the ruins and sits in a black hush in the sarcophagus. Bursts of color illuminate the dark shade of the Asian Woods. The creek runs thin but determined.
I don't know why I am forever surprised by all this. I don't know how it is that a garden I know so well — its hills, its people, its tendencies, its blocks of shade — continues to startle me, to teach me, to remind me about the sweet, cheap thrill of unbusyness, say, or the impossibility of perfect control. We do not commandeer nature — gardeners know this best of all. We are born of it, live with it, are destined for return.
Dust to dust, yes. But why not?
I used to love reading writers like Russell Baker in the NY Times and Bill Lyon and Steve Lopez in the Philadelphia Inquirer for their lyrical way with words or their ability to tell a story. Can you say what columnists you liked/like for the way they write as opposed to the content? Is there room for lyricism in today’s information driven online journalism?
I think that some of the best writing we have today lives inside the pages of The New Yorker. Those movie reviews, those book reviews, those essays and profiles — many of them thrill me. At Salon.com and Slate.com and so many other web magazines, beautiful writing is getting done. I was delighted to be asked by Avery Rome to write for the Inquirer. I hope to have more opportunities. If I do I will again just find my way—write what feels right, wait for the response, and not put a label on it.
Judge Norma Shapiro, the first female Federal Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, remarked that it’s crucial for women to network – to form a network of mentors. What networking advice would you give aspiring writers? She also said “conversation is not successful because of what you’re saying. It’s successful based on what the other person is hearing.” I would think the toughest thing about fiction is getting the dialogue correct. Each character has her own way of speaking and her own way of listening. How do you get the dialogue right?
Your book, Handling The Truth is about the process and benefits of writing memoir. You’ve written six memoirs yourself. You also teach a course on memoir at the University of Pennsylvania. Colleen Mondor, who wrote her own 2011 memoir, The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska, wrote on the Amazon.com review page of your book:
“Drawing on the work of dozens of great authors (Annie Dillard, Mary Karr, Jeanette Winterson) as well as student comments, Kephart dives deeply into all that memoir can offer writers while acknowledging the pitfalls of oversharing and naming high-profile memoir abusers. Her insights are thoughtful and erudite. Real writers, she says, do not write to trump or abolish. They write . . . to rumble or howl, or because language is salvation or because they’ve been alive or because they have survived. As instructive as Kephart’s book is, it is not a how-to but rather a careful argument for the value of memoir, a form that allows writers to know themselves and readers to join them in the journey. Intense, provocative, endearing, and kind, Handling the Truth recalls Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird (1995). The appendix alone is a reading course not to be missed. Delightful.” --Colleen Mondor
If you were to suggest an approach to writing memoir, what would it be? Or are the approaches as different as the memories and the writers themselves?
There is no prescription for how to write a memoir. Indeed, one of my favorite things is to seek out all those memoirists who have upended conventions and expectations with the form. Graphic memoirists. Second-person memoirists. The Maggie Nelson fragment-based memoirists. The important thing is stay clear from pure autobiography as you write, and all of my workshops, my videos, my memoir newsletters explore approaches that take writers away from autobiography toward memoir. http://junctureworkshops.com/
Is there a right age or time to write a memoir?
I have worked with children as young as eight on memoiristic exercises and taught adults in their eighties. What we’re doing with memoir is freezing time and searching for enduring patterns. We can start to do that sort of work very young. And it’s fun when we do.