Interview: Beth Kanell
Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: White Collar score music
Recently, author Beth Kanell visited my blog and was kind enough to say, "I treasure your list of books on tough issues for teens; I wish I'd known about it sooner. Those girls in our bookshops, classrooms, libraries -- they are 'us' as we were, and I want them to get the best adventures, challenges, and support. It's an exciting world out there, and if you don't have a pair of best friends in armor with magical swords, the next best companion could be an armful of books to keep you company."
Such kind and enthusiastic words led to a full-blown interview, with me inquiring about the secret rooms in her latest book and in her childhood home.
You have written novels, non-fiction, and poetry. What inspired you to write your second YA novel, The Secret Room?
Maybe it's because I started out reading the Nancy Drew books, but it seems like all my life, I've been searching for hidden panels and secret rooms! When Shawna and Thea walked into my writing room as characters, I knew they'd be doing the same thing. But I know I was also inspired by all the exploring that my sister Kit and I did when we were growing up.
The eighth-grade protagonists of your room begin working together on a math project, only to stumble upon a secret room that may have been a part of the Underground Railroad. How much research did you do into the history of the Underground Railroad?
Tons! I mean that literally -- I had to clear out a new work space to hold all the books and papers involved, and covered an entire wall of my writing room with clippings from newspapers. Plus I traveled to Underground Railroad sites, and spent hours discussing the possibilities with historian friends like Jane Rokeby (she's the director of an Underground Railroad site in Vermont that was "above ground"!), Lynn Bonfield (she rediscovers women's journals from the 1850s), and Barb Smith (a best friend from high school and now a historian at the Smithsonian).
Growing up, did you ever have a secret room or a hideaway that only you (and your siblings and friends) knew about?
Yes! My dad provided a "playhouse" for the five of us, but sharing across all our ages wasn't ideal. So my sister and I found an old cupboard that was just the right size for two of us to hide in, so we didn't have to share it with our brothers. We were sure there must be an opening from it, into the walls of the house, and we kept tapping on the boards, trying to find it...
You live in Vermont, where the book takes place. What's your favorite place in town?
I have two favorites, and they are both libraries! The little Davies Memorial Library has a circular staircase that leads to an upstairs where I think secrets are hidden. And the bigger one, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, has a writers' room tucked into a back hallway, as well as balconies and amazing collections of books (the oldest ones are up ON the balconies, awesome). But there's a third place that I go to when I need to take care of my heart: a set of old pine trees on the shore of Harvey's Lake. They are just the right size to hug and feel supported by.
You've written about travel and about local history. Are you a world traveler?
I've seen bits of five countries outside America, and the adventures were terrific. I've also hiked a lot, and climbed a lot of mountains in New England.
Where would you love to travel next?
Right now I'm most curious to see copper and silver mines (can you guess that I'm working on a novel involving those?), the small old ones in New England and maybe some larger ones out West. I'll probably head to Canada soon, to take a closer look at a huge copper mine that I once drove past up there. Also, on a completely different line of thinking, I'd like to travel to Scotland some day, to see the wild hills and Hadrian's Wall.
Tell me about the high school teacher that inspired you.
Mr. Tonnes Stave was a history teacher who scared us all, because we didn't understand what he wanted from us and he kept asking us hard questions! One day, I tried really answering him, out loud, by giving my opinion of the two different versions of the Revolution that he had just made us read about. And it turned out that was exactly what he wanted: for us to gobble up the evidence and look at how other people had put it together, and then decide on our own ways of doing that. He wanted us to investigate! How could I resist? It changed everything that I believed about books and writers, and it was wonderful.
What moved you to become a mentor? How did you come to work with these young writers?
Whenever I visit a classroom or library, I ask, "Is anyone here writing their own novel?" There are always some students who are doing this! When a young writer sends me a chapter of a book in progress, I take that work very seriously and open up a conversation with the person. If the conversation keeps going -- that is, if we're interested in what we can offer each other -- then I may become a long-term mentor for that younger writer. It's exciting for both of us, and it shapes how I write my own novels.
What do you like to do when you aren't writing or teaching?
If I could write for 24 hours each day, I would...because it's so satisfying... but really, I spend lots of time reading, of course, as well as baking (breads and cookies!) and walking on the back roads and in the woods. Tracking animals and birds is especially interesting to me; I guess it's another way to explore a mystery.
List up to ten of your all-time favorite novels.
The Hunger Games
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
A Wrinkle in Time
Alice Through the Looking-Glass
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The Secret Garden
The Witch of Blackbird Pond
To learn more about Beth Kanell and her newest novel, visit TheSecretRoomBook.com