Friday, October 17, 2008

Austin Youth Lit Social -- Spooky Style


Last night Greg and I had the spooky fun of hosting an Austin Youth Lit Social for advanced writers of children's and YA fiction and creative non-fiction.

First the stage was set...


And then the 65-70 guests arrived...


We served pizzas from Rounders Pizzeria on 6th Street (17 of them--sausage and mushroom, pepperoni and mushroom, chicken and green peppers, and mushroom, green peppers, and onion), a large fruit platter and small veggie platter from Central Market, and sugar cookies--"scaredy cats and broken bats," brought by author Anne Bustard, along with candy apples, brought by 2008 debut author Shana Burg!

Highlights included a group toast to National Book Award finalist Kathi Appelt, from nearby College Station. Many of the attendees had taken classes and workshops from Kathi over the years. Read a Cynsations interview with Kathi on The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008).

Seasonal attire was optional, though I'm seriously considering requiring it in the future. Ha!

I'll give y'all a peek at the festivities with the caveat that I'm only naming non-industry guests of guests if having been given permission to do so.


Illustrator Eric Kuntz of 2 Bad Mice Design with author Sean Petrie, who also teaches law at The University of Texas.


Author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell with YA author Margo Rabb and debut author Shana Burg. Read Cynsations interviews with Mark and Shana (Margo's is coming soon!).


Author Jo Whittemore with special out-of-town guest and author Jody Feldman. Read Jo's report (with more pics) on the party! Read Cynsations interviews with Jo and Jody.


YA author and Vermont College grad (OP) Brian Yansky with picture book author and poet Jane Ann Peddicord. Read Cynsations interviews with Brian and Jane.

Mark again, this time with author Alison Dellenbaugh, dressed as Bunnicula! Note: if we'd been giving prizes for costumes...!

My husband and sometimes co-author Greg, who made a minimalist effort as Clark Kent, with author-poet Jane Ann Peddicord.

Author Lila Guzmán with her latest release, George Lopez: Latino King of Comedy (Enslow, 2008). Read a Cynsations interview with Lila.

Brian, 2008 debut picture book author-illustrator Emma Virjan; author-illustrator Frances Hill; and YA author Varian Johnson, who's also a Vermont College MFA student. Read a Cynsations interview with Varian. The lady in white behind Brian was the lovely daughter of author Betty X. Davis.


Emma and Frances again.


Author Chris Barton of Bartography fame with his charming wife.


Author Betty X. Davis as Cinderella (before the transformation) with her magical daughter (and fairy godmother). Awaiting glass slippers perhaps?


The crowd in the sunroom includes about 2/3 of writer-illustrator Debbie Dunn (a recent graduate of the Vermont College MFA program) along with author Erin Edwards, Blooming Tree intern Rebecca Leach, Blooming Tree/CBAY editor Madeline Smoot, and Shana.


Here's a better picture of Debbie with Austin SCBWI founder Meredith Davis, cloaked in a spiderweb.


Author Carmen Oliver, recent Vermont College graduate Debbie Gonzales, and author Donna Bowman Bratton. Don't miss: "A Study of Voice as Demonstrated in The Genre of the Sports Novel" with Debbie Gonzales from Austin SCBWI at 11 a.m. Oct. 18 at Barnes & Noble Westlake (Texas).


Madeline, Shana, Zack Proton series author Brian Anderson, and Meghan Dietsche Goel, the children's book buyer at BookPeople. Read a Cynsations interview with Brian.


Donna and Erin with YA author Thomas Pendleton (AKA Lee Thomas), Blooming Tree publisher Miriam Hees, and her son Bradford Hees, who's the Editorial Director of Blooming Tree Adult and Ready Blade Graphic Novels. Read Cynsations interviews with Thomas and Miriam.


Picture-book author and Vermont College MFA student Lindsey Lane with Austin SCBWI RA Tim Crow. Read a Cynsations interview with Lindsey.


Author and Vermont College graduate Helen Hemphill. Note: her shirt says: I READ DEAD PEOPLE. Read a Cynsations interview with Helen.


YA author Jennifer Ziegler with Meghan. Read a Cynsations interview with Jennifer.


Jody with 2008 debut author P.J. "Tricia" Hoover. Jody and Tricia are both members of the Class of 2k8. Note: Celebrate the release of The Forgotten Worlds Book 1: The Emerald Tablet by P.J. Hoover (Blooming Tree/CBAY, 2008) at 4 p.m. Oct. 26 at BookPeople!

Debbie, Rebecca, and Thomas (AKA Lee) with picture book author and Vermont College MFA student Anne Bustard. Note: Anne's blog, Anneographies, celebrates picture book biographies.


YA author Ruth Pennebaker. Check out her award-winning blog, The Fabulous Geezersisters' Weblog.


And here's one last look at Jody and Tricia with author Julie Lake and her wonderful husband. Read a Cynsations interview with Julie.

Other guests in attendance included illustrator Christy Stallop, illustrator Mary Sullivan, soon-to-debut author Jackie Kelly, and Vermont College student Jenn Taylor, who's with us from Galveston.

Thanks so much to all who attended, and thanks to all of you in the kidlitosphere who took a few moments to share in our spooky cheer!

The Great Pumpkin Contest: Enter to Win Tantalize, The Elite, or Hollow-Related Giveaways at MySpace

The Great Pumpkin Contest Revealed: Lee "L.A." Verday is sponsoring a contest at MySpace.

The grand prize is an autographed paperback copy of Tantalize with a Tantalize bookmark.

Additional prizes include a copy of The Elite by Jennifer Banash (Berkley Trade, 2008); two copies of two copies of Chris Grimly's illustrated book inspired by Washington Irving's tale, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow;" a DVD copy of "Sleepy Hollow," starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, and spooky cool stickers celebrating the release of Jessica Verday's The Hollow (Simon Plus, fall 2009)!

Here's how to enter: Carve or paint a pumpkin, take a picture, and post it to MySpace. Then--and this is important--tag the photo to Lee so it appears in her photos. Special bonus goodies for anyone who carves or paints with a sleepy hollow twist. The winners will be chosen on Halloween and notified Nov. 1st. Note: if pumpkins are sold out, you can draw one.

Take a sneak peek (below) at Jessica Verday's The Hollow, a love-ghost story and the first in a trilogy! Read Jessica's blog at Blogger and LJ. Visit her page at MySpace!

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win one of three autographed copies of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by David Small (Atheneum, 2008)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

"There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road.

"A calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the lonely howl of a chained-up hound deep in the backwaters of the bayou. She dares to find him in the forest, and the hound dares to befriend this cat, this feline, this creature he is supposed to hate. They are an unlikely pair, about to become an unlikely family. Ranger urges the cat to hide underneath the porch, to raise her kittens there because Gar-Face, the man living inside the house, will surely use them as alligator bait should he find them. But they are safe in the Underneath...as long as they stay in the Underneath.

"Kittens, however, are notoriously curious creatures. And one kitten's one moment of curiosity sets off a chain of events that is astonishing, remarkable, and enormous in its meaning. ...Kathi Appelt spins a harrowing yet keenly sweet tale about the power of love--and its opposite, hate--the fragility of happiness and the importance of making good on your promises."

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll and click on the envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST Oct. 27! OR, if you're on MySpace or Facebook, you can message me on that network by 10 p.m. CST Oct. 27! But DON'T send in your contact information on MySpace or Facebook. I'll contact you for it if you win.

One copy will go to a teacher, librarian, or university professor of youth literature (please indicate), and the other two will go to any Cynsational readers. Please also type "Underneath" in the subject line.
Read a Cynsations interview with Kathi.

Enter to win one of three autographed copies of The Ghosts of Kerfol by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick, 2008). To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll and click on the envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST Oct. 21! OR, if you're on MySpace or Facebook, you can message me on that network by 10 p.m. CST Oct. 21! But DON'T send in your contact information on MySpace or Facebook. I'll contact you for it if you win.

One copy will go to a teacher, librarian, or university professor of youth literature (please indicate), and the other two will go to any Cynsational readers. Please also type "Kerfol" in the subject line.
Read a Cynsations interview with Deborah.

More News & Giveaways

"The Big Acceptance" by Evelyn Christensen from The Institute of Children's Literature. Peek: "Not all of us can be J.K. Rowling and write Harry Potter books, but we can all find joy in our writing."

Building Your Own Press Kit by Saundra Mitchell at Crowe's Nest. Peek: "A press kit provides basic biographical information and information about your work, in an easily accessible kit for reviewers and journalists."

Caution: publishing pics online of readily identifiable kids' faces (without parents'/guardians' express permission) can be perilous for a myriad of reasons. Perhaps shoot the group from behind for your blog event report.

Take a sneak peek at the first four chapters of Sleepless by Terri Clark (HarperCollins, 2008)! From the promotional copy: "I can't go to sleep! And not because of the cute boy lying next to me. There's a killer stalking me in my dreams. And if it's up to him . . . I'll never wake up. I have to find a way to get him, before he gets me."

Creating an Author Identity by Colleen Ryckert Cook from Kidlit Central News. Various authors chime in on what has and hasn't worked for them.

Critique Group Survey by Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl: Daily Diversions for Writers. Peek: "How many of you are currently in a critique group, online or offline? Any tips for those who are still looking for the right critique group?"

Interview with Jody Feldman by Debbi Michiko Florence. Peek: "I credit my journalism/advertising background with my ability to crank things out very quickly. I once wrote a 35,000-word book in two weeks. That said, quality takes much longer." Read Cynsations interviews with Jody and Debbi.

Good Writer = Like. Good Writer + Chocolates = Love from Editorial Anonymous. Note: a recommended approach for "pitching" your manuscript to the editor who inherits your orphaned manuscript. See also Just Saying No (To Your Editor).

Gottawrite Girl: author interviews, publishing news, and musings on writing life from Susan Gray Bethesda. Peek: "If you're an old timer or aspiring author, like me... I'd like to be your friend. Trudging the road to publication is easier this way!"

To celebrate the release of Something Wicked by Alan Gratz (Oct. 2008), Dial Books is offering a special promotion: they're letting you read the first Horatio Wilkes mystery, Something Rotten (2007), for free! You don't have to register, you don't have to give your e-mail address, you don't have to buy something else to read it. All you have to do is click here. Read a Cynsations interview with Alan.

Hardcover versus Paperback Debuts from Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent. Peek: "...a book that might have caught on as a paperback original could see a paperback run partially dashed if the hardcover doesn't do well." Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan.

Congratulations to Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler on the release of Jars of Glass (Dutton, 2008)! From the promotional copy: "Teenage sisters Chloe and Shana recall fondly the days when their mother wove stories about kingdoms under the sea. Now that Mom is 'away', Chloe does not allow herself to believe in fairy tales. She is too busy caring for her adopted brother, Micah, because Dad has withdrawn. Shana copes by escaping every night under the cover of Goth garb. The day the family visits Mom for the first time is the day Chloe learns why Shana will never allow their mother to return. It is up to the sisters to pull together and form a new definition of family." Read a Cynsations interview with Brad and Heather.

Question of the Week Thursday: Sarah Mlynowski from Laura Friedman's JerseyFresh Tude. Robin asks: "What's it like to write for both teens and adults?" Read a Cynsations interview with Robin.

On Inspiration by Cassandra Clare. Peek: "I don't know any writers who talk about how inspiration comes to them in a silvery shower, but they would probably get punched the head by other writers if they did." Read a Cynsations interview with Cassandra.

Becky Levine: Moving Forward on the Writing Path: new site. Focus will include: "the big elements of writing;" "the writing process;" "the critique process;" "networking;" "marketing and PR;" and "book reviews."

Librarian By Day: "...thoughts on teen literature. I care about good writing, interesting characters, and intriguing plots."

Marking Observation: the back of the jacket for Melissa Marr's Ink Exchange (HarperCollins, 2008) features a reduced-size image of her previous cover for Wicked Lovely (HarperCollins, 2007). Great idea; very helpful to readers looking for the first book! Read a Cynsations interview with Melissa.

Marketing Observation: excellent new trends include putting the publication month and year on the spine of ARCs.

A2A Chat: Interview with J.E. MacLeod from Author2Author. Peek: "There are a couple of reasons why I use a pen name. The first is to protect my husband's family. My married name is very unique, and his Mom and Dad are both quite religious, while my books are rather edgy. I don't want to cause any upset feelings..." J.E.'s debut novel will be Waiting to Score (WestSide, 2009)(publisher interview).

Check out the trailer for Bliss by Lauren Myracle (Amulet, 2008)! Peek: "New York Times bestselling author Lauren Myracle offers a spine-tingling, unforgettable story of friendship gone very, very wrong." Source: Poised at the Edge at MySpace. Read a Cynsations interview with Lauren.



Interview: Claire Mysko by Little Willow at Slayground. Claire is the author of You're Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self (Adams, 2008). Peek: "The bottom line is that eating disorders don't just go away on their own without professional help. You can't force someone to get treatment, but you can educate yourself so you are better prepared to help others or get help for yourself. The National Eating Disorders Association has some great resources for eating disorder sufferers and for family members and friends. "

Jackson Pearce, author of As You Wish (HarperCollins, 2009), vlogs about outlines. Note: inspirational and bonus points for adorableness of the author.



Poetry for Young People 2008 (so far) by Sylvia Vardell at Poetry for Children. Scroll for list. Read a Cynsations interview with Sylvia.

Truman Readers Award: selected by Missouri "students in grades six through eight and presented annually." Sponsored by the Missouri Association of School Librarians.

Trade Offs and Confessions by Deborah Wiles at Deborah Wiles -- One Pomegranate: So Many Stories Inside Each Fruit. Peek: "...we writers try to explain that what appears to be quirkiness and stubborn-ness and maybe just-plain-arrogance is not about being special, it's not. It's a job, this writing gig, this writing life, and this is how it works."

Author Chat With: Kristin Tubb, Debut Author from Heidi R. Kling at sea heidi write. Peek: "In 2002, I was on a guided tour of Cades Cove, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I stood in a cabin that once belonged to John Oliver, and was marveling at how tiny and uncomfortable the cabin seemed when it occurred to me..."

Monster of the Month Giveaway: Zombies from Brooke Taylor. Peek: "To enter, leave a comment with the answer to the following question: If you became a Zombie tomorrow, whose brain would you most want to eat and why? Deadline: midnight CST Oct 23. See details.

Flood Relief Anthology

Cornstalk Gypsies: The Iowa Flood Relief Anthology, edited by J.K. Richard, is available for purchase at Lulu Marketplace. 100% of the proceeds from this anthology will go towards relief of individuals, businesses, cities, and schools affected by the 2008 summer floods in Iowa. Contributors include: Sarah Prineas (author interview), Michael Jasper, Carrie Jones (author interview), Dr. Catherine Schaff-Stump, Joya Mannan, Ann M. Nguyen, Tyson Chaney and Shalanna Collins. Note: "Cornstalk Gypsies is a 230 page science-fiction/fantasy anthology. It is available through lulu.com in perfect bound A5 format ($13.00 USD + Shipping) or digital download, .pdf format (4.95 USD)."

More Personally

13 Questions with Cynthia Leitich Smith
from the YA Authors Cafe. Peek:

"7) Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman?

"George Hamilton." Bahahaha!

Note: members of Tantalize Fans Unite! at MySpace are encourage to comment on the interview post to be eligible for October giveaways and should see the latest group bulletin for more information!

Thank you to Saundra at Crowe's Nest for giving Cynsations an I Heart Your Blog Award! Saundra says, "Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations. It is an institution in the online YA community. She's the New York Times, People and Time all rolled into one!" Check out the other honorees at the nest! Yowza, I'm blushing. I've also won this one before, so I'll just refer back to my previously highlighted list. Learn more about Saundra Mitchell!

I love this: Shocking Photo of Austin Authors Reading Banned Books! at BookPeople in Austin from Jennifer Ziegler. Read Cynsations interviews with Jennifer, April Lurie, Shana Burg, and Varian Johnson (an interview with Margo Rabb is coming soon!).

Online Events

Thanks to Kelly, Donovan, and Abby for their hospitality at Tuesday night's event at the ALA Island!

Thanks too to everyone who attend, and special cheers to author A.S. King, whose support was especially appreciated! Note: absolutely check out A.S.'s author site--it's really unusual and amazing!

Reminder: I'll be appearing to discuss Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) and related forthcoming books Oct. 28 on the teen grid of Teen Second at Second Life. See more information.

Real-Space Events

John and Hank Green are appearing in cities across the U.S. Check out the schedule and the playlist for John's new release Paper Towns (Dutton, Oct. 2008). From the promotional copy: "When Margo Roth Spiegelman beckons Quentin Jacobsen in the middle of the night—dressed like a ninja and plotting an ingenious campaign of revenge—he follows her. Margo’s always planned extravagantly, and, until now, she’s always planned solo. After a lifetime of loving Margo from afar, things are finally looking up for Q . . . until day breaks and she has vanished. Always an enigma, Margo has now become a mystery. But there are clues. And they're for Q." Read a Cynsations interview with John.

"A Study of Voice as Demonstrated in The Genre of the Sports Novel" with Debbie Gonzales from Austin SCBWI at 11 a.m. Oct. 18 at the Barnes & Noble Westlake (Texas). Peek: "Think that sports novels are cheesy, clichéd, metaphoric boxed of stake Cracker Jacks? Well, think again. This lecture focuses on a brief overview of the various voices of the sports novel, three distinct writing styles, and a focus on the historical development of the female athletic protagonist. Also, step up to the plate and compete in the hottest new sport to hit the literary scene – Snicker Trivia." Debbie is a recent graduate of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Rick Guzman (Austin) will speak at the Oct. 18 meeting of the CenTex Chapter of the American Christian Fiction Writers in Round Rock, Texas. "Book Publishing Contracts: What You Need to Know" will discuss what to look for, what to avoid, and what it all means. "Guzman's law practice includes publishing interests, and he writes biographies of famous Latinos, most recently George Lopez: Latino King of Comedy (Enslow, 2008)." Source: Writers' League of Texas. Note: this event was rescheduled due to Hurricane Ike.

Celebrate the release of The Forgotten Worlds Book 1: The Emerald Tablet by P.J. Hoover (Blooming Tree, 2008) at 4 p.m. Oct. 26 at BookPeople in Austin, Texas! From the promotional copy: "Benjamin and his best friend Andy are different from normal. They love being able to read each other's minds and use telekinesis to play tricks on other kids. In fact, they are getting all set to spend their entire summer doing just that when Benjamin's mirror starts talking. Suddenly, Benjamin's looking at eight weeks of summer school someplace which can only be reached by a teleporter inside the ugly picture in his hallway. And that's the most normal thing he does all summer."

R. L. Stein's Halloween Party will begin at 3 p.m. Oct. 31 at the Austin Children's Museum (201 Colorado St.). R. L. Stein will read and tell a communal (audience-participation) ghost story at 3:30 p.m. and sign books from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. The event is free, but space is limited to 350. Costumes welcome. Note: Barnes & Noble will be selling books; sponsored by the Texas Book Festival in cooperation with the museum.

Texas Book Festival will be Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 in Austin. UPDATE: authors to be featured at the 2008 festival include: Kathi Appelt; Shana Burg; Melissa de la Cruz; Heather Vogel Frederick; Shannon Hale; Varian Johnson; Laurie Keller; Christopher S. Jennings; Marisa Montes; Yuyi Morales; Lauren Myracle; Margo Rabb; Tanya Lee Stone; Philip Yates; Paula Yoo; and Jennifer Ziegler. See the complete list.

"Connections & Craft: Writing for Children and Young Adults:" hosted by Brazos Valley (Texas) SCBWI Nov. 15 at A & M United Methodist Church in College Station, Texas. "Editor Joy Neaves, agent Emily Van Beek, editor Kim T. Griswell of Highlights, and author Cynthia Leitich Smith comprise our faculty for this day-long event. Published BV-SCBWI authors will also conduct a hands-on Writers' Workshop." Download the brochure. Read a Cynsations interview with Emily.

The Tenth Annual Jewish Children's Book Writers' Conference is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 23 at the 92nd Street Y (1395 Lexington Avenue) in New York City. The fee is $95 before Nov. 1, $110 after Nov. 1 and includes kosher breakfast and lunch. Featured speakers are associate agent Michelle Andelman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, publisher David E. Behrman of Behrman House, executive editor Michelle Frey of Alfred A. Knopf and Crown Books for Young Readers, editor Larry Rosler of Boyds Mills Press, director Joni Sussman of Kar-Ben Publishing, and illustrator's agent Melissa Turk of Melissa Turk & The Artist Network. Award-winning author Johanna Hurwitz will give opening remarks, and the day will include sessions on publishing and writing in Israel, the Sydney Taylor Book Award and Manuscript Competitions, and individual consultations with editors and agents from past conferences. The registration form is available for download (PDF file). Call 212.415.5544 or e-mail library@92Y.org for additional information or to request the form by mail. The final registration deadline is Nov. 17.

Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE (ALAN) Workshop in San Antonio Nov. 24 to Nov. 25. An event I utterly adore for the depth of discussions, sophistication and dedication of the attendees-leadership, and wonderful company of fellow YA authors. Note: NCTE stands for "National Council of Teachers of English," which has a preceding conference. Details on my signing and speaking schedule to come.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Author Interview: Kathi Appelt on The Underneath

We last spoke in May 2007, shortly after the release of My Father's House (Viking, 2008). Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about the story?

It's actually two stories that come together at the end, the first being the story of a kitten who has been charged with keeping an enormous promise. The second is an older story about a very cranky snake who has been imprisoned in a jar for a thousand years.

Some think that there's a third story in the stand-off between the villain, Gar Face, and a hundred-foot-long alligator.

So, it's stories within stories, kind of like those Russian nesting dolls.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I was working on a new collection of short stories to follow Kissing Tennessee (Harcourt, 2002). The premise behind the collection was that each story would be about an object of great importance to the individual characters.

In one of the stories I created a boy who found a kitten that had been nearly drowned in the nearby creek. The kitten itself was not the object, rather it was the kitten's bell that became supercharged.

Once I finished the story, it kept haunting me. I loved the boy and the relationship he had with this cat; and I also loved the cat.

On top of it, the setting of the deep East Texas woods seemed full of mystery and intrigue. I couldn't shake the feeling that there was a larger story there, so I began to stretch it out.

I sometimes use taffy as an analogy since each time I visited the story it felt as though I was pulling at it, twisting and pulling.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

All told it took me three years to finish. In that time, there were a couple of major events.

One was the WriteFest conference in Austin. We were required to have at least 60 pages of a middle grade or young adult novel in order to be accepted. [Note: Greg and I hosted and led this workshop].

I have to say, coming up with those 60 pages was hard. I was working on them right up to the deadline, and I think the last 45 of those 60 pages were pretty awful. And the first 15 were only a step above awful.

Still, I managed to get there, and it was in the getting there that I become more convinced that I could actually write a novel.

I had started several novels, but always got jammed up and stuck about 20 pages into them. I have a whole drawer full of novel-beginnings. Great characters, great setting . . . uh . . . no plot.

So WriteFest was the first major event.

Then I took an on-line novel-writing class through writers-on-the-net with Dennis Foley. I consider Dennis a master teacher. His patient guidance was exactly what I needed to move through the early stages of a full draft. He was great, and I recommend his classes without hesitation.

Something else I should probably mention was that my agents, Emily E. van Beek (agent interview) and Holly McGhee, had challenged me to write a book that would "crack open the heart."

I kept trying to move deeper and deeper into a place that would do that, crack open the heart. In the process, I found that I had to visit my own heart, to crack it open, too, in order to find the heart of my story. It wasn't pretty, I'll say that.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The hardest thing for me is always maintaining the narrative thread. My entire career has been built on picture books, poetry, essays, and short stories. Note the emphasis on "short."

Writing long, writing something that maintains a narrative thread for more than a few pages, has always been difficult for me.

It wasn't until I gave myself permission to write this in very short scenes that I overcame that hurdle. I decided to honor my "inner writer" if you will, the one who knew how to write well in short segments. That's why the book is told in very short scenes and chapters.

During the writing of it, I also became acutely aware of the setting, so even though I had lived in East Texas for a short time, I had to revisit it. I had to stomp around in it a bit. I spent a lot of hours researching the history of the region, too.

With that, I paid attention to the Caddo people and learned as much as I could about them. One of the things that appealed to me was their incredible artistry. They were and still are master potters. Here's a photo of an ancient jar [scroll to "rare late Caddo head pot"]. That particular jar just made me happy.

But there was another jar (the large black one on the left), made by a contemporary potter, Jerilyn Redcorn, a Caddo artist who has spent her life studying and recreating the pottery of those early Caddos. This one, with its engraving on the side, affected me in a different way.

If you look closely at Ms. Redcorn's engraving, you will see the image of three animals all in one--a snake, a hawk, and a panther. The jar design inspired the creation of my shapeshifters, Grandmother Moccasin and Hawk Man, as well as Night Song.

In my research, I'd found only fleeting mention of shapeshifters in Caddo stories and history, and I was careful in the book to make sure that the shapeshifters themselves were entirely my own--not Caddo or reinterpretations of their beliefs. But if my shifters had lived a thousand years ago, then they would certainly have encountered the Caddo people.

One of the things that was most important to me about the Caddo was their reputation for friendliness, which I think can be seen in that first old jar. The name "Texas" comes from a Caddo word that means something akin to "friend."

If my family of shapeshifters took on their human forms and found their way to a Caddo village, it was highly likely that they would have been welcomed.

So, the region itself, with its history of artistry and its thriving nature, was full of possibility for me. The swamps, for anyone who has ever been near them, have a very primordial feel about them, as if they've been there forever, before time, before humans, before everything. And this feeling of ancientness was one I tapped into time and again.

The woods themselves became almost a character in the book, and it was wonderful to explore them on the page and in my imagination. Thus, the trees became sentient, the observers of all that happened there.

Another challenge for me was making the jump from a story that originally featured a boy as the main character, a realistic story, to one that featured talking animals.

I never set out to write an animal fantasy, even though I don't really think the story is fantasy so much as it is magical realism.

Still, learning to take on the personae of the animals was a stretch for me. How, for example, would an alligator talk? What would snake-speak look like on the page? Could I inhabit the thoughts and feelings of a broken down old hound dog, and how would that sound and look?

And then there was Gar Face, a man who was rejected by the rest of the world and basically found his own kingdom in the deep backwaters of the swamp. And of course, Gar Face rejected the outer world, too.

He was loosely based upon a man I knew many years ago, someone in our family, and putting him in the story was like meeting him again all these years later. Not necessarily a sweet memory.

You asked about logistics and I have to say that keeping the timeline straight was a constant issue for me. There was the contemporary story of Puck, then there was the one that started a thousand years ago, and then there was Gar Face's story that began 25 years ago, which was also the moment that lightning struck the old pine tree.

At one point, I got so tangled up in keeping the various timelines that I finally tapped my brother-in-law Daren's shoulder to help me make sure that it made sense. He's an engineer and I figured that if anyone could check the times, it would be Daren. He was a great help. Logic is his strong suit, which is a happy thing for me.

What delighted you most about the process?

I loved watching the story unfold, and I fell in love with the characters themselves. But maybe even better than that was the "village" of the story.

So many people took time out of their own writing lives to read it and to give me their thoughts, so many gave the story such careful consideration, and the book is so much stronger because of that. A number of my friends and family members were generous in their listening and coaching.

I'll never forget the conversation I had with your Greg when, after listening to me talk, told me he thought the story belonged to the cat. He wasn't the first person to say so, but there was something in his saying it that convinced me that it was so.

And beyond the readers, there were also people like the Park Ranger at Caddo Mounds State Park in Athens, Texas; and the archeologist who talked to me about the Caddo pots. There were also people in the Texas Parks department who answered questions about the flora and fauna of East Texas.

What was the most painful?

There came a point in which my agents, Holly McGhee and Emily E. van Beek, told me that the boy had to go. They felt that the story had grown around him, and he was no longer the main character, nor was his role integral anymore.

Considering that it was this boy who was the original voice for the story, it was very difficult to essentially cut him out. In addition, the boy reminded me a lot of my own son, Jacob, which made it even harder to take him out.

So that was tough. It was also very difficult to dispatch the mother cat, as well as to write the scene in which Ranger gets so badly beaten by Gar Face.

I have to say that during the writing of this story I came face to face with every doubt, every kernel of resistance, every form of self-sabotage that I've ever encountered in my writing life.

At times the story felt so much bigger than anything I was capable of writing.

Then, as I mention in my acknowledgments, Tobin (M. T.) Anderson called me and said, "You should always write what you think you can't."

For some reason that I can't really explain, his saying that was exactly what I needed in order to push through to the end of the tale.

And then there were the revisions. I printed out at least ten full drafts and rewrote it two or three times for my editor, Caitlyn. So, the book took many revisions.

Congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award! How did you react when you heard the news?

How did I react? I felt like I had swallowed a star, that glittery.

Put mildly, the novel has had a rave reception. How are you riding that emotional tidal wave?

I've been so humbled by the response. Gosh, I feel immensely grateful. It seems like every day I get a nice e-mail from someone who has taken the time to write to me to say how much they loved the story. I'm fairly certain this is what authors live for, to know that someone loved their story.

My favorite was from a mom who read it out loud to her daughter and when they were finished they read it again. Then the daughter started making up her own stories with the kittens and Ranger. It makes me immensely happy to think that there is a seven-year-old girl who is extending Ranger and Puck and Sabine's story, extending their lives.

But I confess that the attention is also a distraction. I'm really trying to get the next book on paper, and I've had a hard time focusing. Lately I've made my husband Ken disable our modem when he leaves for work in the morning. That way I'm not tempted to cruise around on Amazon reading the reviews. (Which, I promise, is a weakness and not healthy).

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you first started the book, what would you say?

Frankly, I'm surprised that none of my writer pals told me to "shut up and write," so I'd hope that if I could go back I would do less whining and more writing.

What can your fans look forward to next?

The next novel is tentatively called "Keeper," and all I can say is that there may or may not be some merfolk involved. There is another good dog named B.D. which is short for Bird Dog, and another dog named Too. (Okay, his real name is B. D. Too, but everyone calls him Too). Other than that, there's a boat and a great beach bum.

It's set on or near Galveston, which is where my grandmother lived and also where I spent my growing-up summers.

Cynsational Notes

Additional interviews with Kathi about The Underneath area available at Becky's Book Reviews and from Kimberly Willis Holt.

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