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After a successful career of nearly two decades as a poet and author of books for younger children, in 2008 Kathi Appelt published The Underneath, an ambitious middle-grade animal fantasy that would go on to be a finalist for the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor book. She followed that novel with the equally original Keeper (2010), and this month brings us The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (all three books published by Atheneum), a story of two intrepid raccoons, a very human boy, some greedy wild hogs, and the Sugar Man, a much-rumored, perhaps mythical denizen of a richly complicated Texas swamp. Weather plays a big role, as do fried pies, yum. Kathi talked with me from Vermont, where she is a longtime faculty member for the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in writing for children and young adults.
Roger Sutton: What do you find about teaching that helps in your writing?
Kathi Appelt: Oh, gosh, well, I think it makes me more observant. I learn so much from my students. I love to challenge them, and I draw from their courage when they step up to the plate. It makes me more thoughtful, because often when I’m looking at their manuscripts, I see what’s going on in my own story. I also learn from their insights. Our students have to do quite a bit of critical work on craft issues and whatnot, and I always take something away from what they’re writing in their critical essays. I’m fully conscious of the fact that I wouldn’t be the writer that I am without this place, without Vermont College.
RS: How long have you been teaching there?
KA: A little over ten years. It’s funny — I started out here as a picture book person. The two people who interviewed me for the position were Tobin Anderson and Norma Fox Mazer, and I remember being on the other end of the line thinking, “Oh my god, I’m talking to Norma Fox Mazer.” After I got the job, I started feeling like, well, now I’m on the faculty, but you know what? I have to earn my place here. Because when I first started teaching with Norma and Marion Dane Bauer and Susan Fletcher, people whom I considered heroes, it made me want to be a better writer. I feel indebted to them.
RS: What do you think gave you the courage, or the impetus, to go from being a picture book writer to writing such an ambitious first novel, The Underneath?
KA: I had tried writing novels for many years, and they always escaped me. For a long time I thought, it’s just not in me to write a novel. It’s not something I’m able to do. It seemed like everything I wrote naturally ended at the bottom of page three. A picture book, three pages; an essay, three pages. So many of my students were writing novels, and I could teach writing a novel — but I couldn’t seem to crack that nut myself. It became a matter of honor: “Okay, if I’m going to continue to teach here, I should be able to do this.” And then I figured out that if I did it in tiny small bits and honored my own three-page nature, that I could get there writing three pages at a time.
Also, I had a crisis moment, probably in 2003 or 2004. For years I had worked with the same four people. Marilyn Marlowe was my agent and Meredith Charpentier was one of my editors, along with two others. They were my support team. Then in the space of a year, one of the editors left the industry, Meredith died, and Marilyn died, and I had to go to New York for back-to-back funerals, one on a Thursday, the other on Friday.
I had been writing picture books and a few other things, and it wasn’t like my career was dead in the water or anything like that. I was doing fine; the books I was writing were getting some respect. But I felt like I needed to do something different. I felt kind of stuck, and I felt sad, and I felt like I needed to change things up and do something more important than another rhyming picture book. Not that there’s anything wrong with rhyming picture books, for Pete’s sake. I’ve got another one coming out next year.
RS: But for you, you needed to do something.
KA: For me, for my soul, I had to do something different. I found a new agent, Holly McGhee, and she asked me where I wanted my career to go. I sent her an e-mail saying, “I want to write something that will crack open the heart.” And she said, “Okay, that’s a good answer.” But then I couldn’t write anything. For about two years all I could do was fret and stew and think, “I’ve really set myself up here.” I was terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to achieve my goal. One day I was whining about it to Tobin and he said, “You should always write what you think you can’t.” There was something so freeing about that. So I started writing. While working on The Underneath I realized I was never going to finish it if I wasn’t held accountable, so I sent a note to Holly saying, “I’d like to send you twenty-five pages per week. You don’t have to read them. You can hit delete as soon as my e-mail hits your inbox. But if I don’t have some accountability, I’m not going to finish this.” I made Tuesday morning my deadline, and I can’t tell you how many Monday nights I was up, trying to crank out that twenty-fifth page.
RS: Like you’re back in school with a term paper.
KA: Yes, kind of. I didn’t hear from Holly, so I assumed she was hitting delete. And then about four weeks into it she sent me a note that said, “Kathi, we haven’t ever read anything like this, and we just hope you’ll keep going.” That was the little nudge I needed, and so I finished it. Of course, I rewrote that sucker about thirty times.
RS: You said before that you were used to writing three pages, and there are lots of chapters in The True Blue Scouts that are only three pages. You’re approaching this story from so many different perspectives — the raccoons’, Chap’s, Gertrude the rattlesnake’s…Where did it actually start?
KA: Oh, it started with the raccoons. Absolutely. I always wanted to write a raccoon story. I don’t know why. It’s not like I want to own a raccoon or anything like that. I’m just fascinated by them. It definitely started with the raccoons in a car. I have always been interested in abandoned cars. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a car, driving, and there’s a car sitting in a pasture, totally abandoned. Or on the edge of a creek or something. I always wonder: why did somebody park it in the pasture and leave?
RS: Like those upended-car sculptures in Amarillo.
KA: Cadillac Ranch. They’re all half-buried in the dirt. I love that. Well, I was born in a car.
RS: You were born in a car?
KA: Uh-huh. My mother had me in a car. And so I see a car, and I’m like, “Home!”
RS: I love the way you make the car the sort of home, or locus of the book. And that as the story goes on, we realize more and more that the car means a lot to a lot of the different players in the story. It reminded me in a way of Holes, where the huge structure of the story becomes only apparent slowly as things build.
KA: That’s one of my favorite books. When I finished reading it I remember thinking, “That is as close to a perfect book as they come.” The way Louis Sachar tied it all together — there were moments when I would go, “Where is he taking me here? Why are we going down this road?” And then at the end, the way it all came together, I thought was brilliant.
RS: How do you keep readers’ trust that you are taking them someplace worthwhile?
KA: Well, for one thing, I do have a deep respect for my audience, and I trust that my readers are going to follow along with me as long as I keep it interesting. I try hard to keep the action moving forward and hope that they’re going to be curious enough to follow me. I think that’s one of the beauties of small scenes. I call them “SSSes” (that stands for “small significant scenes”). The little chapters. I try to keep the amount of transition down, moving from one place to another. I try to avoid too much telling.
RS: It’s also your narrator. He has such confidence in what he’s saying. That helps a lot. I felt like I could trust him.
KA: I’m glad to hear it. I had a lot of fun with that narrator. In fact, there were a couple of times when he was way over the top and I had to tamp him down a little. He could have taken over the story, easily.
RS: I noticed that on one page you have a shout-out to Stanley Kubrick (“‘Nothing like the odor of alligator at sunrise,’ she thought”) and six pages later one to Judith Viorst (“The radio kept going … and then they heard words like … ‘terrible’ … ‘horrible’ … ‘no good’…”). How do you decide how far you can go with something like that?
KA: I just try to make sure it fits, that it’s appropriate. One of the problems with injecting something like that into a story is it can take you right out. I had to be careful to make sure I wasn’t overplaying my hand or using the references to be cute or something, so I try to keep it at a minimum.
RS: But it also brings the reader in. That’s the teetering point, isn’t it? Because when I read those two jokes, I laughed, and I thought, “I want to hear more from this person. There’s a very sly narration going on here that’s sucking me in.” The other thing I would imagine you have to be aware of is that some people are going to get it and some people aren’t. Is it going to get in the way of the people who don’t?
KA: Right. Especially with young readers. But my hope is that if they don’t get it, they’ll just let it go and move on.
RS: Is that sugarcane pie a real thing?
KA: Not to my knowledge.
RS: Because it sounds really good. You should come up with a recipe for the paperback reprint.
KA: Maybe I should.
RS: I have one last big cosmic question. How do you think people — and I mean humankind — made the leap to tell stories in which animals talked?
KA: Oh, wow, that’s a big question. I’ll tell you just from my own personal experience. I have always lived with cats. I have one especially smart cat — she’s Gifted and Talented — and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting next to her, looking at her, and realized that it would not surprise me one bit if she broke into language, if she told me, “You’ve got to go scoop my litter box,” or whatever she had to say. I feel like we communicate anyway, so I don’t think it’s a huge leap to think animals can talk. When I go into schools I always remind kids that we’re the story animals, the only ones who tell stories, as far as we know. Other animals communicate, but we don’t think they get together at the bottom of the elm and say, “Guess what happened at that oak.” And I always then remind them that one of the great things about being a story animal is that we get to make stuff up. We’re the great imaginative beasts.