Wednesday, June 4, 2008


A few years ago my friend, Kathi Appelt and I were at her ranch, sitting on the porch swing. The conversation turned to her novel in progress. She told me some of the special moments she had planned for the story. I knew then that book would be wonderful. The funny thing is none of those moments exist in the book. That's the way writing is, isn't it? We think we're on to something and then the story takes us down another(better) path. Although those original scenes are gone, The Underneath includes many powerful moments. And after reading the story three times, I can assure you the changes were worth it.

I asked Kathi to share her process of writing this book because I believe it's such a great example of inspiration, courage and perseverance. The Underneath came out last month, but I predict the characters and the story are already finding homes in a lot of readers' hearts. It already has a special place in mine. What a treat for us to read about the journey Kathi took to achieve this great accomplishment.

Today is part one of that journey.

Kathi Appelt:

This book began as a short story. I was working on another collection of short stories to follow Kissing Tennessee. (I'm still working on that collection as a matter of fact). Anyway, one of the stories featured a boy named J.J. who lived in a house along the banks of The Little Sorrowful Creek. One day, the boy found a half-drowned kitten curled in the mud along the creek. The story was basically about the love that grew between the boy and the cat, about how they grew together. At the end of the story, the cat put himself between the boy's sister and a water moccasin, and died from the strike of the snake. The sister survived, but the cat didn't. The story was told from the boy's point of view.

It was at about this point in time that I had the great fortune of meeting with Kimberly, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Jeanette Ingold and Lola Schaefer, for what would become a regular writing retreat together. We shared our stories, and when it came my turn, the big question I had about this was "is there enough here to expand it into a novel?" Everyone seemed to think so, which was the impetus that moved me to novel frame of mind from short story frame of mind.

In some ways this story was like taffy. I kept stretching it and pulling it and stretching it and pulling it some more, and at times pushing it further and further out. I revisited the region in which it took place, east Texas, tromped around in those pine forests. When you are in that swampy forest, with such a small amount of sky, it's dark and there is a sense there that the creatures of the forest could be ancient, that the forest itself is sentient. I wanted to capture that feeling of being in an enchanted forest, not the same kind of enchantment that you might find in Europe, but something more primeval.

I also thought about and studied the Caddo Indians who had lived there for centuries, and who were driven out by the Europeans, their diseases, as well as flood and drought. I was especially smitten with their pottery. They've always been excellent artisans. The Caddo Mounds State Park in Athens, TX has a wonderful small museum that has pots that they think are over a thousand years old. While I was visiting, the ranger there showed me a pigeon bone. Not just any pigeon bone. A passenger pigeon bone. It was buried in an ash pit and the ashes had preserved it. So much has been lost, but there is also much to be found.

One woman, Jerilyn Redcorn, has made it her life's work to recreate and restore the ancient artistry of the Caddo. I had the good fortune of seeing some of her pots in Austin. One, in particular, had a snake with the head of a panther and also the wings of a hawk, etched into its side. snake, the one at the end of the book. Could she be an enchanted creature? Someone from long, long ago, even further back than the Caddo?

This figure made me consider what it might be like to have shape-shifters in my story. Now, as far as I can tell, there are no shape-shifters in Caddo legend, at least not in any of the places where I looked. So, I was careful in the story to make sure that my shape-shifters-Night Song, Hawk Man and Grandmother Moccasin-were from a more ancient crew of beings. They're not Caddo, and I would never suggest that they were. But according to most of the written records about the Caddo, including one tract by Hernando deSoto written back in the 1500's, the Caddo were known for their openness and if a family had stumbled into one of their villages, it's highly likely that they would have been welcomed. In fact, the word Texas comes from a Caddo word for "friend." Knowing this gave me a place for my magical family to live, at least for a while.

In the meantime, I had my little cat to consider. In the original short story, he had been thrown into the creek, but I did not have any back story at all. So, I started asking questions--how did the kitten get there? who threw him into the creek? what happened to the rest of his family?

When I was around ten or so, my sisters and I had a rather large German shepherd type dog. We lived with my single mom and so it was just us four girl-types, and Sam was a very protective animal, and somewhat menacing. He barked at everyone, the mailman, the milkman, even my grandmother. One day, a small calico cat wandered into Sam's domain and started eating out of his food bowl. It seemed that her days should have been numbered. Instead, Sam fell in love with that small cat, and in due course she gave birth to kittens, which Sam also adopted as his very own. So, the story of Ranger and the calico cat are taken directly from my own childhood, from my Sam and my mother cat. In fact, the first time I ever witnessed birth was the day that cat had her kittens. It was amazing.

As the story of my shape-shifters grew, along with the story of the cat/dog family, it eventually came to the point that the boy, J.J., the one who was the original narrator, was less and less important to the story. And one day my agent called and suggested that I take him and his family out of the tale. That was a hard moment. And I spent some time grieving over the loss. But she was exactly right. Taking that whole strand out of the story helped the rest of it come together. It allowed the two other strands to blossom.

***Stay Tuned for Part 2 on Friday.

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