Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee Talk with Roger

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Kathi Appelt Kathi Appelt

Vermont College of Fine Arts colleagues Kathi Appelt (The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp) and Alison McGhee (Firefly Hollow) here join forces for a novel about two sisters finding both tragedy and solace in the wilderness surrounding their Vermont home. While Maybe a Fox is rich with themes each author has explored on her own, it is, as we discuss below, its own animal.

Roger Sutton: Zena Sutherland once told me that when she asked illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon who did what in their pictures, they looked at each other in confusion and said they really didn't know. But can you tell me who did what with Maybe a Fox?

Alison McGhee: We transformed our process as we went along. It happened very naturally. We began by each taking a viewpoint. I was a fox and she was a human girl, and we traded chapters back and forth. When we had a giant, unwieldy, chaotic first draft, we revised it the same way, then again at least once or twice more that way.

RS: You mean you each revised your own section?

AM: Yes. And then as the process went along, we began working simultaneously in Google Docs. We gave each other permission to revise the entire thing separately, one after the other, and that was the way it ended up. I don't know how you feel, Kathi, but I feel as though we wrote the book together and that the voice is neither mine nor Kathi's. It has its own voice that's truly a collaboration between the two of us.

Kathi Appelt: That's the way I feel, too. Both of us realized that for the book to work, it had to be its own story. It couldn't be two side-by-side stories, it had to be one. When we took turns with it, as if it were our own manuscript — that was when the story really began to breathe.

AM: The original voices were much more singular, much more the way you and I write separately. But when we began going through the whole thing separately and revising, we each rubbed away the hallmarks of our individual voices. Because we were free to do that, we both, at the same time, turned it into the voice that it has now, which is its own.

Alison McGhee Alison McGhee

RS: It really is. It's a consistent voice throughout, even though you've got three points of view.

KA: Yes, and that was the challenge. One of the most difficult things for each of us was to go at it with abandon and, like Alison said, to wear away those edges of our own distinct voices. Alison's writing voice is so beautiful, and I can't tell you how hard it was for me to chop off some of her descriptions. I know she probably felt that way going after my sections too. But it was what the story needed. When we first started writing, we enchanted each other. Those early chapters — I'd get something that Alison wrote and think, oh my gosh, it's gorgeous. And then having to go in and edit Alison — it was like, well, who am I to edit Alison McGhee?

AM: I am remembering how I'd physically start squirming in my seat when I was chopping off what I thought of as Kathi Appeltisms. That cool Southern stuff she throws in, adorable phrasing for little animals and children. Our emails at that point were full of apologies.

KA: But the story wasn't supposed to be, "Let's see how lovely we can make this."

AM: Right.

RS: What prompted the collaboration in the first place?

KA: Alison, do you want to tell this story?

AM: It was a long time ago — probably twelve years ago at this point. It was late one night in this freezing and nasty dorm at Vermont College of Fine Arts where we were both new faculty members. I had lost my luggage — and I'm really tall and kind of like a pencil — and this woman at the end of the hall, who was very short with a beautiful smile and blond hair, offered to lend me a pair of pajamas and a blanket. I loved her instantly. The next day we met at breakfast in the cafeteria, which I always refer to as the trough. We got our trays and made a beeline for this little table that seated two, between two giant pillars at the back of the room, and there we sat. We sat there for every meal for years, even though we were strongly encouraged, as faculty members, to break up and go sit with students. We did not. We were sitting at the table, about a week into meeting each other, and Kathi said, "You know what? We should write a book together." And I thought, "Cool," but then really dropped the ball, until four, five years ago when we started writing this book.

KA: That's the way I remember it too. That's pretty accurate, although I’m not sure I’m the one who said we should write the book. It might have been Alison.

AM: No, it was you, Kathi. I totally remember you saying it.

appelt_maybe a foxRS: All right, ladies. But how does one start a novel together? You have to start someplace, right?

AM: For many years I have posted a poem of the week on my blog. One week — this must have been about five years ago — I posted this poem by Patricia Fargnoli, which became the epigraph of our book. It has a line about a fox who comes streaking down the hill, a flame against the snow. Kathi and I both loved that poem so much we thought, "We should write that book. And the only things we will say about it right now are that it'll be about two sisters who are separated somehow, and it will have a fox in it." Those were our ground rules. That's how we began. Oh, and we also had a rule that we would each do something that we had never done before. I had never written in the voice of a supposed animal. Anybody who writes in the voice of an animal is actually writing in the voice of a person, but whatever. I'd never written in the voice of a fox, and Kathi had never written in first person before. So that's how we started.

KA: And as it turned out, I changed the first person to the third person.

AM: Four revisions in or so, it was back to third person.

RS: The book starts in a fairly shocking way, to me. It's really going back to the roots of children's literature, where someone is told, "Don't go in the woods, or something terrible will happen." And then she goes in the woods and something terrible does happen. She dies. Did you pause about this? Was there discussion about how to handle it? Pretty tough.

AM: I don't remember any discussion about it. It just happened.

KA: We didn't discuss it. I think it was understood from the start that one of the sisters would die. I don't think there was ever any hesitation.

AM: Both of us write about death a lot, incredible loss, so neither of us has that anti–Grimm Brothers mentality.

KA: Right. And part of what allows this story to contain that death is that we worked really hard to have the landscape itself be a kind of mystical part of the story. So that the sister does die in that place, but the place itself is somewhat enchanted. Maybe enchanted is not the right word, but it's like a living force all by itself.

AM: It is a sacred place. There has been tremendous loss and tremendous redemption within that space already, for both humans and animals. So it's natural, in a way.

RS: Do you all know the opera The Cunning Little Vixen? It's by Janáček, from the 1920s. Sendak did a production of it in the early eighties with the New York City Opera. It's about this fox who's a girl, too. It's really beautiful. I think you would like it.

AM: I'll have to listen to it.

KA: Me too.

RS: One thing that is interesting about the death of the sister, Sylvie, early on is that we don't really know her. Our sympathy right from the start is with Jules. We see Sylvie through Jules's eyes. So it's bearable to kind of do away with her. Do you know what I mean?

AM: Yes, that's a good point. Because the story is about dealing with a loss that has already happened. Multiple losses, really: the mother, the sister, and the neighbor's best friend. So I think that is helpful, especially for a younger audience.

RS: Do you think of it as a fantasy?

AM: I don't.

KA: No.

RS: What would you call it?

AM: I'd say there are magical realistic qualities, but I would shy away from describing it as magical realism. It feels like realistic, mimetic fiction to me. Even though there's a fox and otherworldly elements, it feels very grounded in the slate and mountains of Vermont.

KA: It's wildly comforting to me to think that we reappear in each other's lives in unexpected ways, that death isn't necessarily the end of the picture. And that's coming from a person who is not necessarily religious. But there's something, I think, in the human psyche that wants to hold on to the belief that death is not the end. That really appealed to me about the story.

AM: I can say the same thing. I'm not religious either, except that you and I are both Unitarian Universalists.

KA: Roger, aren't you also UU?

RS: I always say to people I'll sing in the UU choir, but I'm still a Roman Catholic.

AM: When I do what I think of as my meditations, I line up in my mind the people I love who have passed on and I talk to them. I talk to my grandmother every day. I have no idea if there's anything beyond this world.

RS: None of us knows, of course, what goes on in the heads of animals in nature, or what goes on after we die, but I've had moments in the woods where I've felt like it was talking to me or I was talking to it.

KA: I think all of us have had those moments when we sense a presence that is bigger than our physical surroundings. I do really believe that those wild places, the woods, the desert, wherever, they seem to provide a genesis for that kind of experience. It's hard to be in a natural place and not be awestruck by it. It makes you feel like anything is possible, and why not?

AM: I grew up way out in the country, and walking for miles and miles, hiking up mountains or up canyons, it just brings that sense of openness into my heart. If you think of Buddhist monks, who believe that all beings are connected to one another like smoke, in and around us all the time, then it becomes more understandable that these things would happen, what happens to Jules and to the fox. It becomes a very comforting and peaceful sort of sensation.

RS: What would you say that writing this book together did for your own writing individually?

AM: As a writer, I know what I'm good at and what I'm not good at. There are ways to deal with what you're not good at, and one way is to camouflage it with a whole lot of what you're good at. Kathi excels at thinking through story. She will think through plot points in a way that my brain is just not wired to do. So that was a very interesting experience, working with someone who is really excellent at plot.

KA: Thank you. I appreciate that. Embedded in what Alison said is that I like to be in control of the story. I like knowing where it's going and what's supposed to happen at any given time. Working with Alison, I had to let go of some control. And as a result, we made some discoveries and took the story to places where, had it just been me, I doubt I would have gone. That was liberating. It's like we have each other's backs. I always felt like Alison gave me total permission to just jump off of the deep end. That was freeing. Often she had to say, "Okay, Kathi, come back! Come back, little Sheba!"

AM: You reminded me of something else I learned by working on this book with Kathi. I saw just how lonely our chosen work is. You're sitting by yourself, dreaming things up, and writing them down. It is a very lonely way of life.

RS: I don't know how you do it. I really don't.

AM: I love it. It's the only thing I ever wanted to do. It's just that I didn't realize the extent of how absolutely alone it is until I was working with Kathi, and it was just like she said. I could turn it over to her. I didn't have to think for a few days. We were shouldering the burden together. It was wonderful. Such a relief. I was only fifty percent of the equation. Despite the fact that we both want to control the story or the voice or the language or whatever, I think we were very respectful of each other, and our friendship — it was already incredibly strong, but it's only gotten stronger, having written this book. I feel really blessed about that.

KA: It could have gone wrong so easily. It could have become a disaster.

RS: Or you might have found yourselves being so nice to each other that the book would be horrible.

KA: We did go through that phase early on, where we were too respectful of each other's writing. We didn't want to step on it. We didn't want to intrude. We had to work through that, until we got to the point where we were comfortable owning the entire story. Regardless of whether we added something or took something out or tweaked something that the other had written, it didn't matter, because it was our story. It was one story.

More on Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee from The Horn Book

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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