No. I’ve always written what I “had” to write. When a story won’t leave me alone. When it won’t let me put it aside, or ignore it, or discard it. When it haunts me until I have no choice but to write it, I surrender in the end and give the project my complete heart and soul. That’s my process. Winning the Newbery Medal and the MacArthur Award changed my life in many, many ways, but it did not change how or how much I write.
Category: Betsy Kepes’ Questions
Some of the images appearing in the book came from my archives of photographs. But many of those images were taken during my walks. The work of Wright Morris inspired me to marry text with image. Morris was a photographer first and came to writing later. In the books where his image and text appear together he rarely directly defines text with image, or image with text. Instead he asks the reader to make a leap. To try to understand why he selected that image to be placed with that particular piece of his story. The result is an invitation for the reader to go more deeply into the story, more deeply into the author’s mind, and more deeply into the writing process. I hope I have given my readers a similarly satisfying experience. Each image is carefully selected (there were thousand and thousands of images to choose from…the blessings of digital photography…an option Wright Morris never had) but each one asks the reader to inhabit the story with Radley in a deep and potent way.
In fact I have never visited a Haitian orphanage. When I was in the process of creating Radley’s character I decided I wanted her out of the country when the U.S. began to unravel. Ever since I read a beautiful book by Frances Temple called TASTE OF SALT and the exquisite MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS by Tracy Kidder and the extraordinary work of Edwidge Danticat, I have been more than a little interested in Haiti. I decided to place my protagonist there at the beginning of SAFEKEEPING. By coincidence, a young Brattleboro woman, Mariam Diallo, was recognized in our local newspaper (the Brattleboro Reformer) for her volunteer work in Haiti. I contacted Mariam and she became an indispensable resource for creating Haiti with authenticity and power.
I’m not certain I agree with you that Jerry Lee is the happiest character in the book but you are certainly entitled to your opinion. There are two factors that contributed to the creation of Jerry Lee. The first came early on, while I was walking through New Hampshire. The very first day of my walk I passed a sign advertising puppies for sale. I began thinking then, as I was walking, how different it would be if I had a dog along with me. The other experience that created in my mind a need for a dog was a chance observation on Main Street in Brattleboro when I came upon a teenager and her dog sitting on the edge of the road. These chance encounters, these unanticipated moments, these stray threads the writer discovers over the course of the months and years it takes to write a book have a way of entering the writer’s brain and becoming caught up in the weaving of the story.
Nearly all of my books are written in 1st person, quite a few of those in 1st person present. When I choose to tell a story this way I want the reader in all of the way. I don’t give the reader’s mind room to wiggle out of the story. When I choose 1st person past, it is often because I’m uncomfortable asking the reader to occupy the shoes of the narrator with the immediacy that present tense demands. When my narrator is living through a story that is simply too impossible for young readers to inhabit without undue pain, I often remove them one step by using past tense. This way they know the protagonist survived to tell the tale. In 1st person present the reader isn’t given that guarantee. It was important to me, for this particular book, knowing the audience would be a little older, a little more mature, that they had no guarantee of how this story was going to work out.
Actually I walked through a rainy spring…and that’s important. While I was walking it was damp and chill and the black flies and no-see-ums were swarming so the experience of walking during the same season Radley made her walk was vital to understanding how it might feel. I’m a recreational walker. I love to walk. But walking alone, along a busy highway, in towns and in the long stretches between towns with only my own thoughts, discomforts, and paranoia to keep me company had a profound impact on the emotional line of the book. Two friends, librarian Sandy King, and fellow author Liza Ketchum, joined me for parts of the walk. Their presence altered my perception of “the walk” in such a way that I knew I had to take Celia, a character who, in early drafts, did not enter the narrative until Radley reached Canada, and move her in earlier, much earlier, than I originally intended.
I’m certain there are readers who will put SAFEKEEPING down after the first few pages. Some readers are not ready or willing to live in an uncomfortable fictional world. But there are other readers who hunger for books that speak that sort of truth to them. My books are well researched. I study history, I study human behavior, I study what I need to know, coming at my subject from multiple angles in order to credibly create a fictional world, and then I hand the manuscript to experts who help me see where I’ve reached faulty conclusions. And then I revise again, and again, and again, until I’ve got it as close to right as I’m ever going to get it. Readers who are ready for SAFEKEEPING will embrace it. The ones who are not will turn to something else. As long as they’re reading I’m happy.
I began working on SAFEKEEPING as a knee-jerk reaction to the political rancor in the country as it reeled toward mid-term elections back in 2010. There was such a lack of civility, such a dizzying level of intolerance. Now we are past another rancorous political cycle. I hold out hope that our representatives in the legislature will remember the importance of dialogue, decency, and fair compromise and that the dystopian future I portray in the book never becomes a reality. But do I believe it is possible for our country to unravel as it does in SAFEKEEPING? I’m afraid it does not seem utterly beyond the realm of possibility.