We're honored to announce that Kathi Appelt is our newest FEATURED SWEETHEART. She's a gifted writer, talented teacher, and is about as generous and lovely as you could imagine.
The Fabulous Kathi Appelt
Stick around! There is a book giveaway at the end of the interview!
TXS&S: You’ve served as a mentor to so many people, Kathi! Who would you consider your mentor?
KA: I’ve had a number of wonderful guides along the way, but three stand out for me. The first is Elizabeth Harper Neeld. Dr. Neeld was my advisor when I was in graduate school at Texas A&M University. We’ve known each other for many years, and now she’s one of my very best friends. I’ve learned more about writing and life in general from her than just about anyone else. She’s my soul sister, my heartmate.
Another important teacher for me is Dennis Foley. A few years ago, I took an online course with him, and I felt like a rank beginner, but I also felt safe and encouraged with his guidance. I learned so much from Dennis about writing and also about teaching. I learned to be honest for one thing, and by that, I mean that I learned how to look between lines and underneath bridges to find things in my work, and in my students’ work, that was there but needed some sunlight, needed for someone to admit that it was there. Dennis taught me that.
And finally, I studied for many years in the Rice Continuing Education Department with Venkatesh Kulkarni. Nobody challenged me more than the Good Professor. He passed away several years ago, but I still hear him whispering in my ear whenever I’m working on a story. It’s not always a friendly whisper. Sometimes I want him to be quiet, but he’s persistent even from the other side. So, while I may not want to hear what he’s whispering, I listen anyways.
There have been others too. I studied poetry with Paul Christensen at Texas A&M and Andrew Hudgins at Univ. of Iowa; Bruce Coville will always be a mentor to me. And I consider Jane Yolen a guide of the truest kind.
TXS&S: What has been the biggest surprise in your career thus far?
KA: I feel constantly surprised, especially by what I don’t know. Just when I think I know something, I discover that there is more to know. And I confess that I’m surprised by how much I enjoy teaching. I learn so much from my students and I love celebrating their successes with them. I think I’m better writer for being a teacher.
TXS&S: Congratulations on the release of KEEPER! Could you tell us how you got the idea for this novel?
KA: For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a story that was set along the coast of Texas. My grandmother lived in Galveston and I spent many happy days there as a child. She would take me and my two younger sisters and two cousins, all five of us, to the beach and we would camp there for several weeks during the summer. I’ve never had so much freedom than those beach campouts. We virtually roamed up and down the water’s edge, rather like a pack of puppies. It was exhilarating to be out like that, just us kids and the sand and the salt water. We slept out at night on old army cots, right under the stars, the sounds of the waves in our ears. It was a world unto itself.
So, Keeper started out for me as a place.
And then, one of my favorite plays is Ondine, by Jean Giraudoux, a classic mermaid tale that involves a romance between a sea sprite and a handsome knight.
And maybe because of that play, and also because of my experience at the beach, I wanted to write a story that included a mermaid.
At the same time that I spent the summers at the beach, my mother remarried, so we had all these changes in our family going on, and the beach was a sweet haven for my sisters and I, a place to be with our grandmother and with our cousins and the seagulls.
But we also had this new stepfather right along the margins. So there was that to consider too. And it was clear that my mother was very much in love.
And yet, the sea is not always friendly, is it. As idyllic as those days were, there was also danger and the prospect of danger, and we all knew it. The notion that one of us could be lost in those waves was always in the corners of our eyes. I remember thinking that if a rogue wave were to wash over one of us, maybe a merman would slip underneath us and carry us back to shore. And maybe he wouldn’t.
Which brings me to Jacques de Mer.
Many, many years later, after I married and had my own kids, they learned that one of their favorite relatives was gay. But no matter how many books I read to them, no matter how many they read in school, that relative never showed up in their stories.
My characters Jack and Henri are for boys like my own, whose beloved relative was always absent from the pages of their stories. I wanted to correct that, but I also didn’t want my book to be about having a gay relative. In Keeper, there’s nothing at all graphic, nothing at all sexual, just two boys holding hands. I wanted to offer up a sweet, very matter of fact relationship… for all those kids who have gay people in their lives, but who never see them in books for middle graders.
I do have to give a nod here to Cynthia Rylant who led the way in her ground-breaking, but underrated book The Van Gogh Café in which she did the same thing. But beyond that book, there’s just not much out there.
Like hers, I didn’t want my story to be a “gay story.” That wasn’t the point. And there are a growing number of gay stories being published, especially for the young adult crowd. Thank goodness. I just wanted there to be a gay couple who were part of my young hero’s life in an integral and innocent way, just as they are in millions of kids lives.
TXS&S: What is it like writing for a variety of ages?
KA: I started out writing for the very young, which I think is still my first love. But as my boys got older, I found myself wanting to write for older kids. I think this is fairly common with our crew, to see our writing grow older as our kids do. But then I sort of lost track of little ones. Fortunately for me, I now have a whole pack of great nieces and nephews and so I’ve found myself returning to picture books and that has been wonderful. I took a long break from them, but it feels sweet to be writing them again. The one age that has eluded me has been that early chapter book age—first and second graders. I’d love to write one of those compact, short novels, ala Barbara O’Connor. I don’t know how she does it, but her novels are perfect in their wonder and brevity. I’d love to write a Barbara O’Connor book.
TXS&S: How do you balance your time?
KA: I’m not sure I do, but I will admit to being a copious list maker. Whenever I find myself drifting, I make a list. Plus, I’ve learned how to work on the road. For years I had a hard time getting any writing done when I was away from home, but then it just got ridiculous because I travel quite a bit. So now I can get some writing done in a hotel room or on an airplane. I basically work all the time, and when I’m not working on a story or working with one of my students, I feel a little lost. And I also get a little lazy. If I have too much time on my hands, I resort to schlepping around in my jammies and eating bon bons. It’s not pretty.
TXS&S: Any writing tips you could share with us?
KA: My motto is to “write like your fingers are on fire.” By that, I mean to write a lot and write quickly. And I would also add . . . write what matters.
TXS&S: You rock, Kathi! Thank you!
Kathi Appelt will be signing in Austin on December 11th at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center from 6-9 p.m.
To win a copy of KEEPER, here is what you need to do:
1) Follow this blog
2) Comment on this blog post
For extra entries:
1) Blog about this contest and leave a comment telling us
2) Tweet about this contest and leave a comment telling us
Source of book: Blue Slip Media
The giveaway will run through the end of the day Sunday, December 12th.
Please email us your nominations for featured sweethearts.