Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Interview with Jacqueline Kelly

After reading and studying Jacqueline Kelly's book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate the StorySleuths wanted to get to know her book (and her!) better. She gratiously agreed to answer a few questions for us, and to offer a StorySleuths Tip.

Thank-you, Jacqueline!

StorySleuths: There are such rich details in your novel that set the character very firmly in a place and time. We are curious about the kind of research you did to accomplish this.

J.K: Oddly enough, I didn't do that much specific research, because I've always been interested in the turn of that century, and I seem to have picked up details about it like a sponge over the years. For example, I love Doctorow's Ragtime. It's one of a handful of books that I re-read over the years, and it's full of rich period detail. I also got some information from my 80-year-old mother (I'm thinking of the strips of fly-paper hanging in the kitchen, and winding your hair in rags to create ringlets.) A friend of mine just recently gave me a facsimile of the Sears catalog from 1900. It's full of such wonderful stuff. How I wish I'd had it before I started writing the book.

StorySleuths: Following up on the first question, we wonder if the story changed in any way as a direct result of the research you did?

J.K.: Nope, not really.

StorySleuths: We wonder if there is a particular element of writing craft that you struggled with, and how you overcame it.

J.K.:  I worried a bit about the level of language and vocabulary in the book, and I was occasionally tempted to simplify some of it. I'm glad I didn't, because teachers and librarians tell me how much they appreciate making their young charges stretch a bit.

So now I say, make 'em go to the dictionary!

StorySleuths:  You have done a fantastic job of creating characters that are clear and distinct. We are curious as to whether you had a clear picture of Calpurnia before you started writing, or did she evolve as the story unfolded?

J.K.: I knew just about everything I needed to know about Calpurnia when she popped up on the first page. I could hear her voice in my head, and I knew what she was all about.

By the way, the first chapter was originally just a short story. I showed it to my writing group, and they all told me that I should turn the story into a novel. I was not happy to hear this as I'd never written a novel before, and it all sounded like such a huge project that I didn't even want to think about it. With their help and support, I got through it. I always tell young writers that they have to find or form a critique group that they trust, and then mercilessly mine and exploit its opinions.

StorySleuths: As writers ourselves we often find ourselves going down a path in the story only to find out that it is not a place that enriches the story as we had hoped and so we cut it. Were there any scenes you wrote that you really loved, but they just didn't fit into the story?

J.K.: I originally wrote a fairly long epilogue that told what happened to the family over the years. Unfortunately, several of the brothers would have gone off to WW I, which made the story end on a sad note rather than the tentatively optimistic note I wanted. My editor asked me to take it out before publication. Originally I wasn't sure about her advice, but now I know that she was right.

StorySleuths: Could you share one writing tip that you learned in the process of writing your book?

J.K.: I had trouble keeping track of plot during the writing of the book. Now I'm working on The Willows Redux, which is a sequel to The Wind in the Willows, one of my favorite books of all time. I got myself a large piece of whiteboard on which I map out various potential plot points. Very low-tech, but I find it terrifically helpful.

StorySleuths Tip #55: Take a break from writing to map out potential plot points on a large piece of paper or whiteboard. Many writers find this exercise helps them unclutter their story, uncovering and organizing plot points.