Thursday, August 5, 2010

Read This Book: Beth Kephart's Dangerous Neighbors

Beth Kephart's A Slant of Sun was a finalist for the National Book Award. She's written countless books for young adults, and poetry, and her latest, Dangerous Neighbors, about loss and love, was mesmerizing. (Plus, I have to add, she's hilarious and warm.) Thank you, Beth, for answering my questions.

What were the challenges of setting your book against the 1876 Centennial? Do you enjoy research or did it make you feel as if your head were about to explode?

I smile at the question, for it is a great one, as all of your questions are. The truth of the matter is that my greatest challenge lay in caging my obsession with this era so that I would not overwhelm readers with the high parade and cutting details of a time and place that I love. I did not study English or writing at the University of Pennsylvania (or anywhere else, to be honest). I studied the history and sociology of science—cities, technologies, the thrusting forward of time.

The Centennial was such a high note in my city’s past. Ulysses Grant was there. Walt Whitman. The emperor and empress of Brazil. The first kindergartner teachers. Profoundly fierce feminists. George S. Childs, the greatest philanthropist Philadelphia has ever seen. Caroline, it was irresistible stuff. My head wasn’t exploding. My heart was.

The book begins, astonishingly with a young girl, devoid of all hope, planning on killing herself because her beloved twin has died, and you set it in the midst of the Centennial, which seems emblematic of hope itself. What sparked this idea?

Another confession: When I first started writing this book, I had the idea of telling the story through the vehicle of the Shantytown fire that plays such a pivotal role late in the tale (and in real life threatened to destroy the Centennial grounds). I had previously written and published an autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow, and I loved living with the river as soul-bearing narrator.

In this case, the fire did not work as a narrator (too angry, too one note, too contained to see enough of the story), but the characters that the fire had glimpsed in early drafts—Katherine, the bereft twin, and William, the boy who rescues lost animals for a living—were compelling, demanding, commanding. That said, I only write characters whose inner lives are familiar to me. Katherine, in Dangerous Neighbors, is a character I wholly understand—the responsible one, the less-than-glamorous one, the one who never has figured out how to forgive herself. As I started to get to know Katherine, to shape her, I felt blessed by the possibilities that the Centennial backdrop offered. World futures versus personal ones. Technology versus the soul. Sweeping, generalizing promises versus the promises sisters make to one another. And, as you mention, hope versus hopelessness.

What were the challenges of writing a YA as opposed to an adult book? In your end notes (which I loved), you talked about the “gritty faith” required to keep you going. Although as a novelist, I know far too well what you mean, would you talk more about it here?

I have always tried to write outside of category—to write books for any age, to transcend. In my teen books, my protagonists are smart, soulful, thoughtful, and language steeped because this is exactly what I experience in the young people to whom I teach writing, or with whom I spend time. I refuse to write “down,” because I look up to teens. I, in fact, adore them. YA does require one to move a story faster, and of course, being the poetic, meditating, memoir-writing type, I need that kick in the literary butt.

Dangerous Neighbors could have gone in either direction—to an adult house or to a YA house. It went with Laura Geringer and Egmont USA for many very excellent reasons. Chief among them, however, is this: Laura (with whom I had worked at HarperTeen) and Egmont chose to believe in this book. They said, among themselves: Yes, it is an historical novel, and yes, it is literary, and yes, wouldn’t it be lovely if Beth Kephart had a larger following, and nonetheless, Yes. We will buy this book. They made a choice, they took a risk, I stood out here hoping against hope, gritting my teeth, scanning the skies for smoke signals, and my hopes were answered.

Egmont USA did not just buy this book. They have supported it in ways I’ve never been supported before; they have made me feel like family. It is a heck of a beautiful way to have one’s very lonesome faith answered. A few years ago, it seemed I’d written or, at least, published, my last book. Then Laura returned to my life and she brought Egmont with her, and I was given another chance.

The novel meditates on what it means to have “dangerous neighbors” or to feel lost in a new country (or new way of being) where everything is so rapidly changing. There is also the sense that Katherine wants ownership of her sister in terms of loving her. She wants to keep that world small, even as the world around her--and her sister's world--are expanding. In the end, despite the losses in the book, Katherine actually finds surprising connection and hope. (There’s a spectacular few scenes of her carrying a stranger’s baby all over the Centennial.) Even though this novel is set in 1876, the whole idea of dangerous neighbors is remarkably current to me. Would you agree or is this simply my own interpretation speaking?

I think it is your high intelligence speaking. I wanted to write history that feels like right now. To make it pressing, to make it urgent, to make it relevant. These characters might wear different clothing, and they might walk through places that no longer exist, but they love like we do and they hurt like we do and they want like we do, and, Caroline, the human heart is the human heart. Prejudices still haunt us. Fears hover over our borders. Otherness and differentness and un-knownness are modern dilemmas. What do we hold onto? Who do we trust? How do we love against and love for and let go and hold on? It’s then. It’s now. It pulses.

In your end notes, you talk about dreaming the novel, about the images that sprang up and then began to thread themselves into a novel. Is this always your process or was there something very different about this?

Color, swirl, contrast—my books start there. I was a poet first. I was a skater. I love, now, to dance. I feel things first, long before I think them. I know the mood, I know the skies, I know the weight of things, I know what something will mean. Story pieces its way in. Plot follows.

All of that said, Dangerous Neighbors did feel different. It was a new step for me—more daring, more assertive in idea and manner. Flow, my river book, had set me free in many ways. It had also, for me, raised the standard. I don’t want to write books that can be easily classified. I want to keep breaking free, want to be surprised, want to be challenged.

What is obsessing you now?

Two books obsess me now. One concerns, among other things, the mind of a young woman following a devastating loss. What happens to that mind? How does it reconstitute itself? The other takes place on a cortijo in Spain. Both books are huge for me. Both require more of me than, at times, I have to give. I fight to bring them to wholeness.

Caroline, I thank you for the honor of these questions. You have made me think. I love that.


Vivian Mahoney said...

I love Beth's books. Thanks so much for this thought provoking and wonderful interview.

Anna Lefler said...

Beth - and her books - are rare treasures.

Thank you for sharing this fantastic interview!