Lynn: Hi Kathi, Welcome to the Imaginary Blog.
Kathi: You must be talking to someone else, this is the Imaginary Kathi, the one who cooks gourmet dinners every night and works out regularly at the local gym.
Lynn: Well, whichever Kathi you might be--real or imaginary--I loved your book and I have a million questions on how you accomplished what you did. When did you first start imagining or writing The Underneath? Did you begin this story with plot, setting or character? What was the original spark that pulled you into the story?
The Real Kathi Appelt...
Kathi: Okay, real Kathi here. My husband has gone on the hunt for the Imaginary Kathi. Don’t tell him she’s only Imaginary.
Back to question. This book actually started out as a short story for a collection that I began working on several years ago. The original short story was about a boy who lived with his family on the banks of the Little Sorrowful Creek and one day finds an abandoned kitten. When I showed the story to Cynthia Leitich Smith, she felt that there was more to it, that the story had enough there to consider stretching it out. So, the place was there, and the abandoned kitten was there. Eventually, through successive drafts, the boy and his family disappeared and the focus fell on the cat.
Lynn: Since this is an imaginary blog and since you quoted M.T. Anderson in your acknowledgments with, “Write what you think you can't," I’m hoping you have some advice for fellow writers on how to keep going when what we are imagining is not yet showing up on the page and seems impossible to catch.
Kathi: For me, the key has always been faith. I simply have faith that if I sit there long enough, the words will come to me. But I’ve also learned (the hard way) that the words that come aren’t always beautiful and lyrical and all of that. That falls into that category called revision. So, I’m gentle with myself in a number of ways. I’m not critical of my early drafts. I don’t get stressed out about getting a certain number of words on the page each day. I take time for just moodling. Isn’t that a great word? It’s like “doodling” but without paper and pen. You know, there’s “air guitar” and then there’s “air doodling.” That’s what moodling is. I’m told that George Bernard Shaw coined the term, and I’m grateful for it.
When Tobin told me to “write what you think you can’t,” it was both a challenge and an excuse. The challenge was to write something I never thought I could; the excuse was that if I didn’t succeed, oh well, I didn’t think I could do it anyway. Nothing gained, nothing lost. But the truth about that is that in fact, everything is gained.
I’ve always believed that each thing we write is the writing-that-comes-before-the-next-writing. It’s important to honor everything that you write, regardless of whether it’s a letter to the editor, an article for your local garden club, an essay for your graduate program. Each piece leads to the next. I believe that.
Lynn: Moodling, I like that. I do quite a bit of moddling myself. Now that I have a name for it I will no longer feel quilty about moodling. I’m wondering if any of the characters were inspired by real-life people or pets you know. Have you ever known such a devoted hound?
Kathi: When I was a girl, my sisters and I had a big old dog named Sam. He was very protective of us, a German shepherd mix. Large, and rather growly. One day, a small calico cat wandered into his domain in the garage and started eating out of his food bowl. We thought that would be the end of the cat, but Sam took to her right away. Two weeks later she had four kittens and Sam became the honorary papa. So, the story of Ranger and those kittens is based upon my Sam and his little cat family.
Lynn: Which character in The Underneath do you feel is closest to the heart of the adult Kathi Appelt or Kathi as a child?
Kathi: Hmm . . . I think there are bits and pieces of me in all of the characters. I have moments when I know exactly the way that Grandmother feels. My own kids have left the nest and there are times when I really want them to come back. There are also moments when I feel like Puck, alone, scared, tired. Having lost my dad, I understand his grief over the loss of his mother. Having sisters whom I don’t get to see enough, I share his missing of Sabine. The only character I don’t want to identify with is Gar Face, and yet I recognize his drive for respect. I have felt his drive to conquer something bigger than myself. And I also know that the line between fear and hate is thin, very thin. To me, this is the line that Gar Face walks every day.
Lynn: New writers are often cautioned against flashbacks, yet you not only have flashbacks but return over and over again to 1000 years ago. Do you have any suggestions on how to make flashbacks work so well without taking us out of the story world you’ve created?
Kathi: I think it was helpful to use the omniscient point of view. That way, each time I visited a character, I was able to take him or her to the point in time where their story left off. So, each character’s story was basically chronological, but each one was grounded in its own time and place.
Lynn: Do you have any real or imagined cats, dogs or other pets? How do your own pets help or hinder your creativity and writing routines?
Kathi: I have four adorable cats—Hoss, Jazz, D’Jango, and Peach. Jazz acts like my muse. She’s part Siamese, very curious, very bossy. She stays nearby when I work and keeps track of the time. She’s way more organized than I am. Hoss keeps the top of my desk cleared off. He has a theory that a clean desk is a productive desk, so his job is to knock things off of it so that he can stretch out and nap. The other two are good for amusement. D’Jango is a fetcher-cat and also the clown of Catville. And Peach is just a peach of a cat.
Lynn: Did the calico cat ever have a name?
Kathi: No, I never named her, partly because I knew that she would not survive the story. Naming is a powerful act, one that creates a connection between us. I withheld a name intentionally because of that, because I wanted my readers to be able to let go of her despite the terribleness of her fate. And also, I wanted her truest name to be Mama, perhaps an even stronger connecting word than any given name.
Lynn: Do you have any special craft techniques for writers to inhabit their animal characters and make them seem real on the page?
Kathi: Resist silliness. Go for what is true about the animal in question.
Lynn: Did David Small's illustrations portray how you imagined Puck, Sabine, and Ranger?
Kathi: He brought them to life in a million ways.
Lynn: If a movie were ever made of The Underneath (which we can easily imagine) who might you imagine playing the voice talent of some of your characters?
Kathi: I wish, like everything, that my friend Lyle Lovett could play the role of Ranger. Beyond that, I don’t have any strong feelings about it.
Lynn: Your setting is very vivid. Is it a real place from your childhood or adult life, or is it imagined? Could you share any writing tips on capturing an evocative setting as you have?
Kathi: I lived in the Piney Woods for a short time when I was a young adult. My sister and I shared a small house back in the woods near Nacogdoches, which is in far East Texas. But more importantly, I had a writing teacher who once said that the best thing a writer could do for herself was to learn the names of the plants and flowers. I agree. Plants and flowers have amazing names. I would add that you should learn the names of the birds and animals too.
Lynn: Please tell us about the giant jar. Is that a figment of your imagination or did the Caddo people really create such pottery?
Kathi: The Caddo were famous for their pottery. Here’s a weblink for your readers to find out more about them: http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/tejas/clay/making.html
Also, do you see this pot, the one I’ve attached below? It’s made by a modern artist named Jeri Redcorn. She’s a Caddo artist who has spent her adult life studying and recreating the ancient art of her Caddo ancestors, but she’s also brought her own sensibilities to it. The jar below sang to me because of the flying snake on it. This jar gave me the idea for Grandmother Moccasin. Here was creature that half snake and half bird. I eventually made the twinned beast into two characters—Hawk Man and Grandmother.
Isn’t it a beautiful jar?
Lynn: Yes, it is. Could you share some of the challenges and joys of weaving together multiple story lines and characters’ journeys? What was the hardest scene to write? Were there any parts that just didn’t fit into the whole and had to be sacrificed?
Kathi: The hardest scene was actually one that I took out of the book, so I’m not going to discuss it. But beyond that, the scene in which Gar Face beats Ranger with the board was very gut-wrenching. No one deserves that, least of all poor Ranger.
I also took out an entire story line—the boy and his family were left by the side of the creek. Who knows, maybe I’ll dig them out again sometime. Then again, maybe not.
Lynn: What craft techniques or secrets can you share re: creating a narrative voice that can weave together all the threads of your story so well?
Kathi: Revision, revision, revision. Also, I think it’s important to really consider the musicality of the language. I always read my work out loud to myself to help me feel the rhythm of a line or to see if the fall of the meter is right for the emotion that I’m trying to express.
Lynn: Did you know the ending from your first inspiration or was it a surprise?
Kathi: Yes, I did know the ending. I once had a teacher who said that if you don’t know, at least vaguely, where you’re going, you’re going to end up doing a lot of rewriting. Well, I did a lot of rewriting anyway, but at least I did know where I was going. I don’t think this is necessarily true for picture books or short stories. I think you can set out in a short story with a character and a situation or a place or an event and let your writing lead you to the end. But a novel is different. Whereas you can hold an entire short story or a p.b. in your head, it’s impossible to do that with an entire novel. So, knowing where you’re going serves as a kind of tow line for getting your to the opposite shore.
Lynn: Did you discover any other surprises in your story as you went along?
Kathi: Only about a million. Every time I sat down, something new occurred to me, something unexpected. That is the glory and wonder of writing, isn’t it? I love that title of one of C.S. Lewis’s books, Surprised by Joy. That’s how I feel about the writing process—that it gives us many opportunities to be surprised by not only joy, but heartache, sorrow, glee, etc. That’s what there is to love. I think this is essential to our very humanness—to be involved in the creative process in such a way that it opens us to discover the surprises.
Lynn: I noticed that you have very lyrical uses of repetition, poetry, and song throughout--did you know from your first inspiration that you'd be combining these with your narrative?
Kathi: It’s the only way I really know how to write. I had a ton of even more repetition that I had to edit out. It was actually overwhelming. But poetry is more akin to my native tongue than prose, so I used poetry to write my story, and then spent a lot of time stretching and pulling it to bring the prose elements to the page.
Lynn: Has a hummingbird ever offered you inspiration, advice, or a hint of which way to go?
Kathi: For years, I have had William Stafford’s beautiful poem, “Hummingbirds” taped to our kitchen window. I guess I’ve read it everyday for at least twenty years. I’m copying it here. I love this poem. I love Stafford’s work. I love hummingbirds.
Lynn: We have to ask about Gar Face. My writer friend, Ellen says Gar Face scares us and we don't really want to know more about him. That means you’ve captured him as a very real and scary character on the page. But what I want to know as an author then, is what conscious choices did you make to create Gar Face? How did you balance Gar Face’s evil and our understanding of his life? In any of your earlier versions of the story, did you consider making Gar Face more evil, less evil, or offer him an opportunity for redemption?
Kathi: Gar Face did not start out to be so evil; he was more sympathetic for a long time, but then it was my editor who felt that despite his sorry upbringing, he didn’t have to be so cruel. So, I rethought him and made him basically evil. My editor kept reminding me that many people come from terrible circumstances and turn out just fine, but that there are mean people in the world, who are mean from the start regardless of their home situations. We’ve all known these people.
Also, when I was a child, my grandmother used to talk about people who would commit terrible crimes and then vanish into the swamps of East Texas and Louisiana. Someone could easily get lost back there, could easily disappear. It would be almost impossible to find someone like that. There are no real paths to follow, and the ground is so wet that a hound would lose the trail quickly. So, I decided to portray Gar Face as one of these terrible people who get lost on purpose in the backwoods of the swamp. I’m sure there are still people like him back there, sadly. And I’m sure there are also nice people who live there too. Regardless, they’d stay out of sight and mind from the rest of the human world, that’s for sure.
Lynn: Are there really rivers named Sabine, Little Sorrowful and Petite Gateaux or are those tributaries of your imagination?
Kathi: There is a beautiful river named Sabine that separates Texas and Louisiana and then empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The Little Sorrowful is my own creation. And the bayous’ names were changed to the Bayous Tartine in the final draft. There was a gender problem with Gateaux and so we changed it at the last minute. I love the word Tartine. Sounds a little sassy, doesn’t it?
Lynn: Yes, it does. And I just love the name, The Little Sorrowful. Regarding the title, THE UNDERNEATH, did you have this from the start? If not, what were some of your other working titles?
Kathi: I used the title “Puck’s Bell” for the longest time because in the early drafts, when Puck lived with the boy and his family, he had a collar with a bell. But when I took that whole strand of the story out, there was no longer a bell. It was actually my agent who recommended the title. I was frankly at a loss after the bell thing. I’ve always said that it takes a village to write a novel, and this was a clear example.
Lynn: Did you have any childhood experiences, any sense of injustice, or animal connection that you’ve carried with you to this story?
Kathi: I’ve always had pets in my life, but I’ve never had an up close and personal experience of animal cruelty although I know it certainly exists. But my goodness, I have loved my own pets deeply. Still do. I grew up with dogs always around, but aside from the one dog that I had when I got married, my husband and I have always had cats.
Lynn: We’re intrigued by your choice to use myth to inform the story. Could you tell us a little about that?
Kathi: I tapped into some existing mythology, especially the notions of shapeshifters. There are a wide range of stories that include half-humans and creatures who shift—werewolves, vampires, etc. They remind me that as humans, we’re not all that far removed from our own “animalness.” Interestingly, I just read a review of an exhibit on horses in art somewhere in NYC. (Sorry, I looked for the link, but couldn’t find it). Anyway, it seems that the close connection between humans and horses gave rise to the notion that we were, at one time, a shared body, thus the whole notion of centaurs. I love that, don’t you?
Lynn: Yes, and I'm always intrigued by shapeshifters. Did you have any special techniques for charting or sorting out your character threads and storylines to have them weave together so perfectly?
Kathi: I kept a project journal in which I made notes both before and after a writing session. In that way, I was able to keep track of the various threads. In addition, I wrote the whole thing in very short scenes. That way, I never really left a character for too long. And yes, I did keep an ongoing, flexible outline.
Lynn: Was your ending always the same or did you try various outcomes for the ending?
Kathi: From the very start, I basically knew what my ending would be. I always knew that Puck would come face to face with Grandmother, and also that he would save the day. Always. Did it change in tone and tenor? Absolutely, many times. That said, I did not see Grandmother as redemptive until near the end of the writing process. She was something of a surprise.
Lynn: Ellen and I quickly counted up your characters and storylines and have been thinking about how you balanced them so well—Mama cat, Ranger, Sabine, Puck, Gar Face (and a mostly submerged Alligator King) in the present story balanced by Grandmother Moccasin, Night Song, Hawk Man, their daughter, and the Alligator King in the 1000-years-ago-story. Did we forget anybody? Could you tell us a bit about how you wove these characters together and how perhaps Grandmother Moccasin and the Alligator King were used to bridge the 1000 years? What techniques did you use to weave these storylines so seamlessly together?
Kathi: I can’t think of anyone you’ve forgotten. One of the advantages of keeping the chapters short was that it made them easier to move around, which I did. I was constantly moving scenes from one place to another. So, keeping those scenes short was the key for me as far as interweaving the different strands of the story.
Lynn: Were there other animal and human characters in previous versions? Did you have to sacrifice any in the revisions?
Kathi: Yes, as I said, there was that initial boy and his family. That whole strand, about 100 manuscript pages, had to come out.
Lynn: Ouch, 100 pages--still the story seems perfect as is now. I think most of THE UNDERNEATH is told in 3rd person past, right? Did you try any other tense or POV and how did you decide which worked best for your story?
Kathi: Trial and error, baby. Trial and error.
Lynn: Had you worked with your editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy before, and how was the editorial process on The Underneath different compared to your other books?
Kathi: Oh gosh, Caitlyn was so great, is so great. She has a keen sense of intuition and knew which questions to ask. She was just wonderful. I have to say, however, that I’ve always had good editorial experiences. I don’t always agree with my editor, but I’m always willing to listen to what they have to say. I enjoy the give and take, the back and forth. And I’m convinced that a good editor’s primary job is to keep the author from looking stupid. I’m grateful to my editors for that.
Lynn: What can your fans look forward to? What are you working on now?
Kathi: I have a December deadline for the next novel, another middle grade, but it’s too soon to really talk about it much. It may or may not have a mermaid in it. Not sure yet.
Lynn: I am very fond of mermaids. I hope it has a mermaid. If The Alligator King (or any other character of your choice) were to give advice to another writer’s not-yet-fully-realized character coming into being--about how to nudge one’s author to successfully capture their character on the page-- what might The Alligator King's advice be?
Kathi: The Alligator King would probably say: choose love, sister. Choose love.
Lynn: Excellent advice. Now one final question--I have a bet with my Evil Twin, Ellen Yeomans, that you cannot write a bad poem. (she betting you cannot, and I’m hoping against all odds--betting on the longshot that maybe, just maybe you have a fun bad poem just aching to be set free—plus I want to win the bet! So do you happen to have a discarded bad poem handy for our Bad Poetry Friday contest? Please, please please say yes.
Kathi: Okay, I think this one is pretty awful. It’s called “Petunias.”
Lynn: Imaginary readers, we're in luck. Kathi sent us a poem for our Bad Poetry Friday contest, although our Chief of Poetry Police is already disputing who wins the bet because the "Petunias" poem may or may not actually be bad. See for yourself this Friday on the Imaginary Blog. (and now back to our interview)
Lynn: Thanks Kathi, for dropping in to The Imaginary Blog.
Kathi: Which Kathi are you talking to?
Forecast: Poetry, petunias, and many satisfied readers of THE UNDERNEATH--as well as increased opportunities to follow the Alligator King's advice.
Buy THE UNDERNEATH on Amazon.