Monday, April 23, 2007

Past, Future, Present... An Interview with Barbara Kerley

Someone else bit. I couldn't believe it either, but then I got an email from Barbara Kerley. She had, presumably, seen the interview with Margo Rabb, and there I was with another author interview. I had my library rush-process Kerley's Very First Novel, Greetings From Planet Earth. If her name sounds familiar, you might recognize her as a non-fiction picture book author. Twice, she's worked with my favorite illustrator, Brian Selznick; on The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins (a Caldecott Honor book) and Walt Whitman: Words for America (a Sibert Honor book).

In 1977 the Space Race and Vietnam War are over, but for 12 year-old Theo both are foremost in his thoughts. Soon NASA will be sending out the Voyager Spacecrafts with messages from Earth, and the idea of communicating with people from outer space is fascinating and curious. What would Theo tell them? How would he express life on Earth? Would he tell them about his father who never came home from war? As he thinks about this, Theo starts to dig deeper into his past and searches for the one person who's always been missing...

Theo is a real kid. He's smart and thoughtful, but not a bit precocious. He's dealing with a missing and presumed dead father and a mother who won't speak of his father at all. He struggles because the one thing he wants to talk about more than anything is his dad, but that is the one subject absolutely verboten in the household. Kerley deftly wrangles with layers of lies and secrets, slowly revealing the story through tapes made by Theo to his father, letters written from Vietnam, and a third person narrative, all while keeping the kid true to 12 year-olds; he's innocent, hopeful, and resilient, but keenly aware of the world around him and easily hurt.

On to the interview:

Many compare the current war to the Vietnam War. How much influence did what's happening today have on Greetings from Planet Earth?

I was born in 1960, so the Vietnam War was part of my childhood. In fact, I still have the little workbook we made in school in 1967 about American soldiers in Vietnam.

I also worked in the 1990s teaching English in a program for vets who wanted to enroll in college, and I met many Vietnam vets during that time.

It wasn't until 2002, however, as I began writing GREETINGS, that I started researching the Vietnam War in earnest -- reading magazine articles about the war and books written by Vietnam vets, and watching documentaries. So the entire time I worked on the novel, we had American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I live in a fairly small town. I know people whose son or husband or brother has served in Iraq. Some of my daughter's 11th grade classmates plan to join the military as soon as they graduate from high school next year, and I've known these kids since I was a parent volunteer way back in 1st grade. So the war today definitely has a presence in our community.

GREETINGS is in part about the cost of war on a soldier who fights and on the family he leaves behind, and about the war's aftermath. When you listen to vets today on NPR talk about the difficulty of readjusting to life at home and the strain it's put on their families, the parallels to Vietnam feel very clear.

Theo's fascination with space plays a significant role in the story. Can you tell us at all how you came to be interested in space and how you came to link it with the Vietnam War?

I've always loved taking walks at night and looking at the moon and stars. I was lucky enough to grow up in a neighborhood where I could wander around after dark, all by myself. I did this a lot all through adolescence, even in the winter, bundled up in this big thick coat my mom had. Just like Theo, looking up at the night sky made me feel "part of something bigger." He's much more disciplined than I ever was, however; Theo actually reads books about space, whereas I just wandered around in the dark.

My entry into the novel was the "Golden Record" that Voyager 1 and 2 carried into space in 1977, with sounds, pictures, music, and greetings from Earth.

In 2002, I happened to read an article about the Record and then couldn't stop thinking about it. I was fascinated with the idea of trying to capture humanity on a little round disk. We seem so complex, capable of such wonderful and terrible things. As I began working through these ideas and thinking back to the 70s, the Vietnam War and man's exploration of space immediately surfaced as examples of the terrible and wonderful things man can do.

The space theme became even more prominent in my thinking when I stumbled across a moon atlas on a library shelf and discovered that almost every crater, ridge, sea, and mountain has been officially named after something or someone. We've all heard of the Sea of Tranquility, of course, but I also fell in love with the names of other features, like the Marsh of Sleep, the Sea of Nectar, and a crater named Hercules. So, of course, Theo fell in love with these names, too.

Theo's sister, Janet, provides much of the comic relief in the way only a loving-bully of an older sister can. Do you know any Janets, and how did she work her way into your story?

I just love Janet; in a lot of ways she is my favorite character in the novel. She came to me almost fully-formed, voicing her opinion about things from the start. She is loosely based on my own older sister, though my daughter tells me that she is my sister 'channeled through me' -- in other words, there's some of me in Janet.

To me, Janet is a classic 14-year-old girl in that she calls it like she sees it, a quality in 14-year-olds that I just love. But even though she takes advantage of Theo at times, she looks out for him, as well. I have a tremendous soft spot for Janet.

What came first for you - the character or the conflict?

Actually, theme came first: What does it mean to be human? I had to fumble along with character and conflict after that.

You've written several successful non-fiction titles, what sparked the desire to write fiction for an older audience?

I think it was the desire to explore the ideas of the novel in a way that left things a little messy and unanswered.

I tend to be drawn to big ideas. When I work on nonfiction, my goal is to try to crystallize a big idea into something a kid can latch onto. So, for example, when I wrote WALT WHITMAN: WORDS FOR AMERICA, I explored big ideas like war and healing, patriotism and self-expression, by telling as cleanly and simply as possible the story of a man who offered comfort to wounded Civil War soldiers and honored them through his poetry. I have a new nonfiction picture book coming out in May called A LITTLE PEACE, and again, I tried to hone a complex idea into the simple theme that we can all spread a little peace.

But with GREETINGS, I felt the need to explore things in a more open-ended way. There's a passage near the end of the book when Theo is gazing at the moon, his binoculars focused on the crater Copernicus as he thinks about some of Earth's earliest astronomers:

"There was Copernicus, landed splat in the Sea of Isles like it had just rolled off the Apennines Mountains. Aristarchus glowed nearby.

"Before Galileo, before Copernicus, Aristarchus figured out that Earth revolved around the sun. All these guys looking up at the night sky, asking questions that seemed too big for answers. You could choose any one you wanted, Theo realized, and spend the rest of your life trying to figure it out."

By writing GREETINGS as a novel, instead of nonfiction, I could focus more on questions and less on answers.

How did your writing habits, style or technique have to change for fiction?

In some ways, I began the same way -- reading reading reading. In this case, I read about the Voyager probes, the Apollo program, moon topography, the 60s and 70s, the Vietnam War, and Vietnam vets.

Usually when I write a biographical picture book -- like THE DINOSAURS OF WATERHOUSE HAWKINS, or WALT WHITMAN: WORDS FOR AMERICA, or a new book I have coming out next spring, WHAT TO DO ABOUT ALICE?, about Alice Roosevelt and her father, Teddy -- I read and read and read until I start seeing what feels like the spine of the story. Then I set all my research aside and try to write the story as I've conceptualized it. Once I get that first draft down, then I have to go back and check everything against my sources to see what I've remembered wrong. Then I revise accordingly. But at the beginning, at least, it's a pretty inductive process. When I'm working on nonfiction, my editor at Scholastic, Tracy Mack, is always reminding me to only include what is "absolutely essential." (Which is why I tend to have very long author notes in teeny tiny type -- I can't bear to completely get rid of what wouldn't fit in the book. hah.)

The novel was hard for me because while I identified the theme very early on in the process -- What makes us human? -- I couldn't then return to my research and pluck out what I needed to best illustrate that. I had to make up all that stuff, too: Janet came to me quite easily, but I struggled to get a sense of the other characters. I had some plot ideas but had to do a lot of revising there, too. I had to work out Theo's tape recording, what he would say and when, and how he would say it. And, finally, I had this extra little pressure: Theo's assignment at the beginning of the book is to choose "what he thinks is most important about Earth." For much of the time I was working on the first draft, I was just like Theo: I didn't have any idea what he was going to choose, either, which was pretty scary. I remember at one point feeling like an overwhelmed novice juggler, thinking, "Where did all these balls come from?"

So I guess I had to let things stay messy and unanswered for a lot longer, and also trust that if I did enough work, I'd be able to figure things out.

Why do you think that it's important that authors are beginning to write more about recent history for a teen audience?

Well, I don't know trends well enough to make a broad statement, but I do know that when I started working on GREETINGS in 2002, there didn't seem to be that many children's novels about the Vietnam War. There were some, of course, like Walter Dean Myers' wonderful FALLEN ANGELS. But considering how many men and women served in Vietnam, and how long the war lasted, and how much impact it had on American culture, I was surprised that more children's and teen novels hadn't been written. But I think what we learned from the Vietnam War is still relevant today.

What inspires you on days you struggle with writing?

To be honest, there are times when it's a struggle, and I can't find any inspiration. (hah. Is that the answer you hoped to hear?) And that's when you really have to be disciplined. It's easy to write when it's easy; it's easy to do anything but write, when it's hard. (I must water the plants! When's the last time I filled the salt shaker?)

I remember a week-long period during the long revision process for GREETINGS when I was just plain stuck. And I haven't had a project yet where I didn't feel stalled or frustrated at least part of the time. But I've been writing long enough now to know that if I keep working, I can usually resolve the problem in some way. Sometimes it takes a while and sometimes it takes more than one try, but if I keep on working, I can figure it out. (Of course, it helps tremendously to have a circle of writer friends I can call on, and two wonderful editors: Tracy Mack at Scholastic and Jennifer Emmett at National Geographic. I've relied on both to get unstuck when I need it!)

What authors do you get overly excited for when you hear about their next book?

I read lots of different stuff, so that's hard to answer. But I do try to follow the work of other authors of nonfiction picture book biographies, since it's such a specialized niche -- I'm always curious to see how those authors will approach their subject and structure the text. So, for example, I try to read what folks like Peter Sis and Don Brown have written. I always learn things from studying their work.

What book do you think everyone ought to read, and at what age or stage of life should they read it?

I like to hope that everyone will find their own book.

For me, as a kid, that book was HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh, which I read over and over. I think I must have identified with Harriet's fascination with other people. And who wouldn't be -- the characterization in that book is amazing!

As an adult, that book is Andrea Barrett's THE VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL, partly because I'm so interested in the history of science in the 1800s, and she really brings those themes to life, and also because I identify with the main character and the way he enters into the world.

Some people think it's weird for a grownup to have a favorite book. A few years back, I mentioned this one evening in my book club, and a friend of mine said, "How can you have a favorite book? That's like having a favorite color!"

To which I responded, "Blue."

Find discussion guides for Greetings and other Barbara Kerley books here.

For readers who enjoy Greetings, I would instantly hand them Katherine Paterson's Park's Quest and possibly The Life History of a Star by Kelly Easton. For the older readers, I would also give them Walter Dean Myer's classic Fallen Angels and Amaryllis by Craig Crist-Evans. Be assured that Greetings can easily be given to middle school readers.

Find other interviews with Barb now or in the near future at:

Eisha & Jules at 7-Imp
Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray

Cynthia Leitich Smith at Cynsations

Kelly Herold at Big A, little a

Little Willow at Bildungsroman
Liz Burns at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Mindy at Propernoun


Becky said...

What a great interview! This makes me want to read the book even more!

Jackie Parker said...

Thanks Becky!

Also, I have NO IDEA what's going on with the font issues. Sorry for any reading headaches!

Anonymous said...

Great interview . . . looking forward to reading the book.

Jackie Parker said...

Thanks Jules!