Friday, June 6, 2008


Today Kathi continues her discussion about the process of writing her first novel, The Underneath.

Kathy Appelt:

Perhaps the hardest thing for me was learning how to accommodate my own writing instincts. That is, writing something that was long went against my nature. As a picture book writer, a poet, and even a short story author, I was used to expecting the end to arrive somewhere between pages 1 and 10. But fortunately, I had just finished my memoir, My Father's Summers, which I had written in prose poems. Of course, I didn't have to think up the plot for that. After all, that was my life. But I was encouraged by the notion that I could write a longer story if I did it in small chunks. That's why the chapters in The Underneath are short, rarely more than a few pages. It wasn't that I was trying to be artsy or clever, it was that I was acknowledging my own penchant for writing short. Once I wander beyond page 8 or 9 I find myself at sea on the page, more like a blithering idiot in a drifting boat than a craftswoman on the sturdy shore.

At some point, probably around year two, I felt increasingly bogged down. About that time, I took an on-line class with an amazing teacher, Dennis Foley. He really helped me see the shape of my book. And that was also about the time that Tobin (M.T.)Anderson called and said, "Write what you think you can't." Between the two, the story came into much clearer focus and I was able then to move forward and come to the end.

Of course that wasn't the end. It was only the end of the first full draft (after about 10 false starts). It was the beginning of several rewrites. It was in those revision stages that I really took advantage of my writing community, including Kimberly and my retreat sisters. But I also have a close-knit group of writers here who gave the story such a careful reading. . . and reading . . . and reading. It's sort of surprising, actually, that they all still hang out with me. One friend, Diane Linn, probably read the story at least five times and I know she was sick of it by the time I finally gave her a break and told her that she had gone beyond the pale in the friendship category, and I told her she never had to read it again.

I think I have to say something about the role teaching has played here, too. Sometimes, I think, wow, I could probably get so much more writing done if I didn't have my students. But I don't think so. I'm inspired by their dedication and courage and their persistence. One of the reasons I wrote this novel was because it seemed to me that I should write a novel. If I were teaching it, I should be able to do it. If I weren't teaching, I'm not convinced that I would ever have written it. I'm indebted to my students.

The hard part now is letting the book be in the world all by itself. I kept it here on my desk for such a long time, and when I did let it out of my sight it was always in the hands of those folks who cared about it . . . and me, so it's a little scary letting it go out into the wider world. I know that some people are not going to love it or like it and some may even have strong feelings against it. I'm trying to let that be okay. Recently someone asked me about the strong sense of yearning that they experienced in the story, and my response is that youngsters have strong yearnings too, and yet as adults it's hard for us to recognize those. For a child to have a strong feeling about something scares us. It makes us feel a little bewildered and helpless. But that does not diminish the depth or ache of our children's yearnings, or our own for that matter.

We're all a little uncertain, a little shaky in the presence of deep feelings whether they're our children's or even our own.

We are all of us moved by either love or fear, and it was those twin sisters, the fairer one and the darker, that I tried to invoke in the telling of this tale. Sometimes it was hard. I wept at the cruelty of Gar Face, and cringed at the venom in Grandmother's steamy prison. I often wondered at them, at how deep their cruelty and vengeance could go. At the end, I felt compelled to be true to their anger and their resolve, in the same way that I worked to be true to the love that Ranger and Puck and Sabine had for each other too. To diminish one would be to diminish the other, and that felt unfair to both the story and my readers.

If there was one thing that mattered here, all along, it was that love won. And that wasn't only on the page, or in the hearts of trees or the purring of a cat. It was in the care that my friends took with the manuscript when they read it over and over. It was in the space that my family gave me to write. It was in the interest that my students showed when they asked about it. Love won. I think it always does.

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