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Interview: Beth Kephart

January 27th, 2008 (01:37 pm)
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Beth Kephart has written poetry, memoirs, and more. Her most recent works, Undercover and House of Dance, are novels for teens. We discussed the difficulties of putting pen to paper and sharing personal stories with the world.

You have noted that some real-life experiences inspired characters and events in your novels. Is it harder to imagine the lives of others or to immortalize those you've known?

Perhaps the hardest thing is to find fluency between the known and the imagined - to move seamlessly between what has been lived and what has been projected. When you draw from real life for the purposes of fiction, you have to be willing to discard details that have mattered deeply, to blur edges of the truth, to shape newly. You have to be willing to get lost, to not know. When you imagine you have to take another kind of risk, the could-it-actually-happen-like-this-feel-like-this risk. You're high on a tightrope, the entire book through.

In UNDERCOVER, the kernel of truth was that I have always been a facilitator of one sort of another. Someone who forges bridges, connects people or possibilities, while often standing off in the margins. Guys I often liked myself, hoped for for myself, would come to me, earnest and honest, asking advice on how to attract the true girl of their dreams. I grew up to be a consultant, a ghostwriter for executives, a whisper in an ear. This, and the fact that I ice skated and that I had a wise English teacher, is the real life stuff of UNDERCOVER. But certainly my real high school teacher would not see herself in UNDERCOVER's Dr. Charmin, and certainly I never knew a Theo. And Elisa, finally, is far more talented as a poet than I ever was.

It has now been ten years since the release of A Slant of Sun, five since Still Love in Strange Places. How has your writing style changed over the years?

Wow, well, that's an incredible question. I try not to think about this too much, try not to categorize my own work, put it into any sort of box. My first book was never intended to be a book; it was a series of essays that I was writing for my son, that I would read to him so that he would know just how much he taught me, how deeply he is loved. The publishing of SLANT came from a simple, naïve desire -- to bind those pages into a book and to throw a party for all those who had made such a difference in our lives. STILL LOVE IN STRANGE PLACES began as a novel about El Salvador and became, over 15 years, a memoir, for there was an instance where the risk of imagining seemed too great, the possibility of getting some part of it wrong too extreme. So I started over, and simply wrote the truth.

The young adult novels -- they are different. They come to me more quickly, they feel somewhat lighter on their feet, I feel more free when I write them, for I am not bound to getting the truth just right (my memoirs tend to be deeply researched, in addition to being deeply lived), nor must I look over my shoulder, wondering who might read them, who might misinterpret them, who might judge them. Memoirs are such tricky business -- they have to be truthful, yes. But also, at least for me, they cannot hurt anyone.

Every book requires its own voice; I think that's true. So that when I wrote FLOW: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PHILADELPHIA'S SCHUYLKILL RIVER, I moved into deeply poetic, sometimes tangled terrain, for this is a book in which a river tells her own story. When I wrote ZENOBIA, a corporate fable, I adopted a whole new sound. Right now I'm writing an historical novel for adults, and here again the language is entirely new (and of course I'm back inside deep research once again).

It's a privilege experimenting with it all.

Do any of your family members regularly read your work?

Jeremy, my son, is an amazing writer and often, especially with the young adult novels, I'll read him a passage, typically of dialogue, and ask him: Does this ring true for you? He often has a grand suggestion. He's also fabulous with titles (he named STILL LOVE IN STRANGE PLACES, for example).

My father has read FLOW and ZENOBIA. My husband read STILL LOVE IN STRANGE PLACES, after I begged him to, for STILL LOVE is about his country, his family, our marriage, and I wanted every detail in that book to be right, wanted no chance of post-publication regret. After STILL LOVE was published, it was read by all my in-laws, and fortunately they all love the book. My husband also read ZENOBIA, a requirement of the job, so to speak, for he is the book's illustrator.

Some of the poems and pieces in Undercover were previously published. When did you decide to incorporate them into this novel - or did they inspire the novel itself?

Hmmm. Another fantastic question, and let me think about this to be sure I get it right. Here's the sequence, as I recall: I had a three month jag of terrible insomnia, truly went days without so much as an hour of sleep, and then I'd sleep that hour, and the insomnia would start again. Desperate, I began to write poems to calm me down; I hadn't written any in years. Soon the nights were okay again, for I looked forward to writing the poems, and as I wrote the poems I began to remember my life as a teen poet. I didn't think of turning any of this into a novel until I had a conversation with Laura Geringer, an editor at HarperTeen. But the poems were deep within me as I started UNDERCOVER.

House of Dance, coming out in June 2008, captures the slow-quick-quick movement of life and loss. Tell us about the dance lessons and life lessons which inspired this book.

Ah, well. I have spent my whole life inside music, one way or the other, dancing alone in the morning here - a form of meditation and exercise. But then my husband began watching Dancing with the Stars, and he was intrigued by the challenge of ballroom dancing. For my birthday he bought us lessons at a studio down the road. He soon chose to take lessons on his own (wanting more time to learn to lead), and so I too began taking more lessons on my own, and now that studio is like a second home for us both. I've been dancing for two years now, and I love the bolero, the rumba, the waltz, the tango, finally feel settled within the cha-cha and salsa, and find the samba a continuing challenge.

We happen to dance at an extraordinary place, with extraordinary talents, including the nation's top amateur rhythm champion. I'm currently taking lessons from an exquisite dancer who hails from Russia; he and his wife were recent Rising Star champions, and, oh my goodness, it's unbelievable what he can do and what he knows. Dance is its own sort of intelligence, and I learn so much from these people that I'm privileged to dance with.

I've also, by the way, become involved with the Dancing Classrooms program that inspired the documentary Mad, Hot Ballroom. If you want to be reminded of the pure glory that is still within reach, go see these kids dance. It's mind-blowing.

I'm a dancer moved by tap, character, jazz, and musical theatre. What is your favorite form of dance?

At the moment, ballroom, just because I've had the chance to learn its language, just because it's starting to make some sense to me now. But I have enormous respect for any kind of dancing, truly. I find it mesmerizing.

Undercover has foxes; House of Dance has the fox-trot. What will your next books have to offer, and when will they be released?

Your question makes me smile. THE HEART IS NOT A SIZE will take readers to a squatter's village in Juarez, Mexico; it asks the question: What can we really do to help heal the world?

But before HEART will be NOTHING BUT GHOSTS, due out next winter, which is the story of a high school senior grappling with the death of her mother. GHOSTS involves the decoding of a mystery in a garden down the road. There are small touches of mystery all the way through, and a finch, which is GHOSTS' fox.

What are ten of your favorite books?

Well, I'll make this list, and tomorrow I'll wish I'd put something else on, but at this very moment, trolling through my memory...

Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje
Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
The Wild Braid, Stanley Kunitz
Bone, Fae Myenne Ng
Reading in the Dark, Seamus Deane
The Journey Home, Olaf Olafsson
Road Song, Natalie Kusz
Zoli, Colum McCann
Coming through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje
So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell

Visit Beth Kephart's blog. (...where she flatters me!)

Read my review of Undercover.

Read my review of House of Dance.