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Interview: Kerry Madden

In GENTLE'S HOLLER, Kerry Madden introduced young readers to Olivia (better known as Livy Two) Weems, a twelve-year-old with a passion for books and music. Livy has eight siblings of various ages and temperaments, a sweet mama, and a starry-eyed daddy. Money's tight - Daddy's music fills the heart and ears more than it fills the pocketbook - but the Weems make do, and their household is always bursting with family, love, and music.

GENTLE'S HOLLER is the first in The Maggie Valley Trilogy. LOUISIANA'S SONG will be hitting the shelves in May, and it is just as precious as the first book. The author is currently working on revisions for JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN, the final book in the trilogy. (Read more about the books.)

Kerry Madden and I recently discussed the real-life relatives that inspired her novels.

The Weems were influenced by your immediate and extended families. Which character is the most like you? Like your husband?

I think of a few. I was a bossy tyrant to my own younger siblings (two boys and a girl) like Becksie when I babysat them, which was a lot. I made them dress up as orphans from Oliver Twist or Jane Eyre or prairie children. I braided my sister's hair in tight, severe braids. I mixed bowls of gruel to sample - they refused, of course. I also read like Livy Two, and I was as shy as Louise in public and very tall as a kid. And there were times as I was writing GENTLE'S HOLLER when I also felt like Daddy [Weems]: a dreamer, hoping and struggling to have faith that this story would find a home. I worried about making a living for my family, yet I could not stop writing these kids.

My husband, Kiffen, is like Cyrus as a little boy, but he's also very much like Emmett in the way he can skip stones, play the harmonica, whittle, and love his sisters. And he has a great love for our own children - a patience to play with them and work on projects with them - he takes great joy in them like Daddy in the Weems' family.

The Weems children have unique names and nicknames, ranging from the the accident-prone Jitters, to the sweet and genuine Gentle, to the protagonist, Livy Two. How did you decide on their names?

Kiffen has a cousin named Gentle - she's not a thing like the character, but I loved the name. (One of Kiffen's sisters read the book and later told me, "Our holler was anything but gentle, so only you could have written this book.") Kiffen did have a brother named Kiffen who died at birth. So did Salvador Dali, I have since learned. This interested me - using the same name - I've also met a Rose who had three older sisters named "Rose" who lived only through infancy. But the family never called Kiffen, "Kiffen Two." That's all imagined in Livy Two's head. I made up Jitters - I was juggling so many kids, so I thought what if there is a copycat kid who drops things? But I make it up to Jitters in JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN, which was so much fun to do.

Had you always planned on this story being a trilogy?

No, not exactly. At first, I thought I would write a book from each kid's point of view, but my wonderful editors at Viking helped me to see how I'd established Livy Two as the eyes and ears of the family and encouraged me to write more books in her voice. I am so happy that I did this. I discovered so much by allowing Livy Two to grow and mature over the three books.

Livy Two is a songwriter, like her father. What instruments do you play?

None, but I may start relearning the piano or trying my hand at the banjo or mandolin - I have such an urge now to learn music since my characters all play. However, my kids do play - piano, electric bass, and Norah wants to play the harp.

I grew up in music. I sang in choirs, and my mother was a music teacher. My brother is a blues guitarist and a flamenco dancer in Spain. My grandfather played the silent movies in Kansas City back in the 1920s until the talkies put him out of business.

Kiffen's family is all music. His father, Jim Lunsford, played fiddle on the Grand Ole Opry and wrote songs like "Blue Ridge Mountains Turning Green" recorded by several artists, including Charlie Pride and Ronny Milsap. Ronny Milsap also recorded "Streets of Gold" written by Kiffen's father. Jim also played with Marty Robbins, Reno & Smiley, T-Texas Tyler and Red Rector. Jim was one of the Smoky Mountain Boys with Roy Acuff. Kiffen's uncle, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, was a songcatcher in the Smoky Mountains and started the Asheville Mountain Dance and Folk Music Festival in 1928. Kiffen's sisters play and sing - and the greatest joy is listening to his sisters sing. I imagined his sister, Tomi Lunsford, when I was writing Livy Two.

Three of Jessie's songs - "Mama's Hands," "Daddy's Roasted Peanuts" and "Grandma's Glass Eye" - play at your website, with lyrics straight out of the books. Who recorded the songs?

Kiffen's sister, Tomi Lunsford, put my lyrics to music and recorded the songs with Bug Music. I would love to post more songs, but I have to talk to my website designer. I have one called "Floating Checks" and "A Ring of Seven Sisters." I play the CD in my writing workshops for kids all over the country.

What inspired your first novel, Offsides?

I grew up in the world of college football. (My father is Joe Madden, NOT John Madden.) My childhood was a little like THE GREAT SANTINI from the girl's point of view only it was football instead of military - but very much the same mentality of high standards, a winning attitude, and no excuses. I lived in ten states, dressed in team colors, adopted team mascots, and survived by bringing novels to the three football games a weekend I'd have to watch in the fall. My father coached, my brothers played. I was forever the new kid in school, and my dad would say on each moving day, "You want to stay in the same town your whole life? What kind of life that? Get in the car. You'll forget everything about this place." I vowed not to forget my friends or my hometowns (Winston Salem, Ames, Manhattan, KS, Pittsburgh, Knoxville were a few) - and I think that's why I became a writer...out of pure defiance.

How did you come to be involved with American Girl / Pleasant Company for the non-fiction book Writing Smarts?

American Girl contacted me and asked me to write a proposal for a writing book for kids. I spent several months sending them various drafts of the proposal, incorporating their notes. Then they bought the proposal and hired me to write the book immediately. This took all of spring and summer of 2001. I would write a chapter and it would go straight to the illustrator. I worked with Julie Williams, who was a wonderful editor, and Michelle Watkins, who was also great. Before I wrote the book, I flew to Middleton, Wisconsin for one day, and we outlined the whole book from my proposal. They were great to work with from the beginning. I use WRITING SMARTS in my writing workshops with kids. I tell boys to ignore the pink cover, but I have received letters asking when I will write a WRITING SMARTS for boys.

You've written short stories and plays as well. Do you typically know what form a tale will take before you put pen to paper?

Pretty much . . . although I thought GENTLE'S HOLLER would be YA and in the course of writing it, I learned I was writing middle-grade. I knew OFFSIDES would be a novel, because I needed a break from dragging little children to theatre for rehearsal and hiring a babysitter. At the time, the idea of writing a novel was very appealing. When something is especially theatrical, I love writing it as a play. I have been approached about writing a Smoky Mountain musical for kids using the Weems' family, so maybe after I finish JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN, I'll get back to that project.

You and your husband are both teachers. What is the most rewarding part of your workday?

Kiffen is the math coach at his school in downtown Los Angeles, and he's also been an elementary teacher since 1988. I teach writing workshops during my school visits, and I also teach fiction to adults writing in all genres in a workshop that meets at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena several times a year. Occasionally, I do one-day seminars at UCLA for the Writers Program. So I don't teach full-time at all. I did that in East LA teaching ESL at Garfield Adult School for six years, and I adored my adult students, but I could not focus on writing when I was teaching full-time. The best part of my teaching now is going out to different schools and meeting the young writers. I get them to write about their favorite secret places. Several of send me their stories to post on my blog, and I make them the "Writer or Poet of the Day."

How may bookstores, schools, or libraries contact you to set up booktalks and writing workshops?

It's usually word of mouth. I established a lot of contacts with the Gentle's Holler book tour, and now those same schools, libraries and bookstores are inviting me to come again for Louisiana's Song. I've also joined Winding Oak,, and they are helping set up school visits and conferences. I've done approximately 150 writing workshops since GENTLE'S HOLLER was published, and I expect to do more with LOUISIANA'S SONG and JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN. I really believe in helping kids discover their voice as storytellers.

Your three munchkins often read and help edit your books. Did any of them ever suggest a character or scene which greatly changed the path of a story?

My son, Flannery, told me to put action and drama in GENTLE'S HOLLER when it was flat, boring and corny. When I argued, he said, "Fine, Mom, leave it just the way it is." He was so right - it had been rejected 10 or 15 times, so I listened to him and went back and wrote the hard stuff. My daughter, Lucy, was a HUGE support in helping me outline LOUISIANA'S SONG on a white-out board when I had a fat, flabby draft. She said, "Mom, just tell me chapter sentence." So we did it sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter until I could see the whole thing more clearly. Norah has inspired the character of Caroline with her love of fairies. Lucy draws and paints fairies for Norah and takes pictures of her dressed as a fairy. Flannery plays the piano so loudly that our hound dog howls, and so that went right into LOUISIANA'S SONG.

What are your ten favorite books of all time?

THE DOLLMAKER by Harriette Arnow
CROSSING TO SAFETY by Wallace Stegner
ANNA KARENINA by Leo Tolstoy
one more...MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot
and favorite play...THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL by Horton Foote

Take a journey through Kerry's official website, MySpace, and LiveJournal.

Tags: american girls, books, cybils, interviews

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