You write in several modes: essayist, fiction author, playwright, journalist. Are there any techniques that you use consistently, regardless of what you’re writing?
I think voice is a huge part of how I get started or I’ll think of an opening line. In Gentle’s Holler, however, it was action – I knew I wanted to open with a girl in the red maple tree and a new baby sleeping in a drawer. With my essays, it’s usually something that I have to write because it’s timely. I recently wrote an essay about my annoying neighbor with barking dogs who shouts, “It’s a free country” as an excuse for bad behavior. I began that essay with: “IT’S 1 A.M., AND THE DOGS next door are barking again.” But with a play, it’s always a line of dialogue…After 9/11 my father declared, “Just because Osama Bin Laden rides a camel doesn’t mean I have to, by God!” And that line opened my play “Chattanooga Flamenco.”
You moved a lot as a kid. Do you think this has had a particiular influence on your writing? If so, how?
Absolutely. I was very shy, tall, and awkward, and I listened hard to the way kids talked so I could attempt to fit in a tiny bit. On each moving day, (when I refused to get into the car) my father informed me that I would forget the town and all the people I knew – I disagreed. And out of pure defiance, I vowed not to forget, and in each new football town, I poured my heart out in letters to friends left behind, blasting pitiful music so the rest of the family could feel the suffering eminating from my room. (What a pill I was!) My mom always got us a library card in each new place and she would say, “You’re so tough! You’ll make new friends, Kerry Elizabeth! I know it!” She was a born cheerleader, and I was the sullen daughter.
On your website, you talk a lot about how it is important for children to tell their own stories. Why is this especially important to you? What benefits do you think children get from telling stories?
I had a fourth grader teacher who told me I was a good writer. Typically, teachers told me “Aren’t you big and tall?” “Good night, what a tomboy!” “Don’t you listen well at church like a good girl!” When this teacher said I was a good writer, it meant something. It mattered. So it’s something I try to give back to kids to let them know that they have stories inside them too. I also tell them about Eddie, a short boy in my sixth grade class who humiliated me on a regular basis – and a tiny bit of Eddie went into my first novel, OFFSIDES. Not long ago, Eddie read OFFSIDES and wrote to me to apologize. So I tell the kids that stories they are living now will feed their books down the road – whether they are love, revenge or adventure stories. The kids seem to like this…
What about Maggie Valley drew you to set Gentle’s Holler, Louisiana’s Song, and Jessie’s Mountain there?
I love the Smoky Mountains. We were flat broke when I was writing GENTLE’S HOLLER, and I wanted to spend time in my head in a place that was beautiful. I had no idea I would get to write two more Maggie Valley stories. It’s an area I know well having lived in North Carolina and East Tennessee, and I love the people. I also tried imagine my husband growing up with twelve siblings. All of that fed into Maggie Valley settings…then I found out that Ghost Town in the Sky opened the year I wanted to set my novel, so it was perfect to have Emmett, the big brother, long to run off and be a gunslinger at Ghost Town.
You do a lot of school visits. What is the best part of visiting schools? Do you have any anecdotes about particularly memorable school visits?
There are so many stories. Last week, I did a school visit at Sewanee Elementary in Sewanee, Tennessee, and a first grader was fascinated by my husband having 12 siblings. He shouted, “12! 12! That’s 7 plus 5. That’s so many! Did you hear that? Seven sisters? Five brothers? What the heck?” He slapped his forehead, and the teacher had to calm him down. He was so funny. An older boy (8th grade in Waynesvillve, NC) couldn’t believe I’d let him write about bass fishing. He’d been forced to attend my workshop, and warned me, “Lady, I am not a ‘rider!'” (writer) Then he wrote a great piece about fishing, nightcrawers, and bragging. I try to help them see that they can write about what they know and love – what matters to them.
Livy Two’s voice is very true to that of a precocious child. It doesn’t sound like an adult’s attempt to sound like a kid. How do you preserve that child’s voice in your writing?
Her voice was just in me…I was a kid who kept her mouth shut in public, but I would get passionate in my own home, driving everyone crazy. I also keep scraps of a journal in my character’s voice and this helps me find the rhythm and language. And in Jessie’s Mountain, Livy Two is older so she’s changed from the first two books, and this happened naturally. I couldn’t keep her ten when she was thirteen – a huge difference in a girl’s life.
When you were a senior in college at the University of Tennessee, you pretended that year in Knoxville was a year abroad. Do you still pretend now? What kinds of things do you pretend?
I do pretend…last week, I drove the backroads of Alabama with my husband, and we stopped to pick black-eyed susans and hackberry branches to give to one of my favorite authors, Mary Ward Brown, who wrote: IT WASN’T ALL DANCING and TONGUES OF FLAME. I picked the flowers and stared out at the fields of cotton blossoms – a train roared in the distance. I felt like it could have been 1930 or 1950. There is a timelessness out in the country, and I imagined Truman Capote or Harper Lee in the backseat of some old Ford as kids driving the same back roads in a car full of relatives. When my daughter, Norah, (now 8) and I stayed for a few weeks in the Smoky Mountains, I watched her play, chasing lightning bugs, listening for the family of groundhogs who lived under the cabin…It felt like the rest of the world was so far away, so I tried imagine what it would be like to be a woman raising kids in a mountain holler…I love getting away from my day-to-day adult life. I’ve been so lucky to have my own three children who love to dress up, bicker, play, cause trouble, and love…I want my stories to have love and hope. Another favorite writer of mine, Kathryn Tucker Windham, said she was raised on the four L’s: “Listening, learning, laughing, and loving.” I hope I give a little of that to the kids in my workshops.