The author of the 2010 National Book Award winning YA novel, Mockingbird -- on playlists, story ideas and the Chautauqua Writer's Workshop
I recently read Kathryn Erskine's compelling YA novel, Mockingbird, and was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview her.
We're giving away a signed copy of Mockingbird. For a chance to win, all you have to do is be a follower of this blog, and leave a comment. (U.S. and Canadian mailing addresses only please).
Kathryn Erskine was a lawyer for 15 years before launching her writing career. She is the author of Quaking, Ibhubesi: The Lion, The Absolute Value of Mike, and Mockingbird -- winner of the 2010 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Kathryn was born in the Netherlands and has lived in Canada, Scotland and South Africa. She'll be on the faculty of the Chautauqua Writer's Workshop July 16 to 23rd. **********************************************
You were a practicing lawyer for 15 years. What was your area of practice? How, if at all, has this experience informed your writing?
K.E. I worked in international trade and then as a trademark attorney for the U.S. Department of Commerce. I can't say the subject matter informs my writing but the research and analytical skills I used for years are a definite help. I'm critical of my writing, wanting everything to be logical or supported by the facts, and I do a tremendous amount of research to ensure accuracy.
The research isn't as dry as legal research can be, however, because in addition to reading, I include observation, interviews, travel, experiential learning, listening to music, learning a little foreign language, even eating the foods of a culture or time period, anything that will steep me in the subject, place and characters so that my writing is authentic. The only down side to having been a lawyer is that I tend to write long, wanting to make my point in multiple ways, so I always end up having to cut a lot! I'm working on a couple of picture books now as a challenge to myself to write succinctly and poetically.
I was very moved by your novel, Mockingbird, particularly when Caitlin, the young female protagonist, finally comes to terms with her brother Devon's death. Caitlin is a beautifully realized character, and Mockingbird is a heartrending story. I imagine it may have been emotionally wrenching to write - - to get inside the head of this resolute and touching character and probe beyond her tendency to sees things in black and white. Can you address this a little?
K.E. I felt very fortunate with this book because the story simply poured out. Of course, I'd done years of research to prepare. I've been to many workshops and seminars, read a huge amount of literature, and observed and talked to parents, teachers, and people with Asperger's. Like with all of us, everyone on the autism spectrum is unique, so Caitlin is just one girl with Asperger's but she does have a number of common traits shared by those on the spectrum.
I wanted people to be able to identify with her and see first that her responses to her world are often very logical, if unusual, and also not that different from the rest of us. For example, when she tries to break into a group and make friends, well, I think we've all been there and felt that awkwardness so, like Caitlin, we can learn to empathize with someone who may be quite different from us. What has been most rewarding about writing this book is hearing from readers that it has helped them communicate with and understand someone in their lives who is on the autism spectrum -- and beyond that even, to help others understand. I can't tell you how much that means to me.
I was intrigued by the playlist for your work in progress, posted on your website. It includes Bob Marley, Get Up Stand Up, Edwin Starr, War!, The Temptations, My Girl, and Isaac Hayes, Theme from Shaft. Is the story set in the '70s? Can you tell us a little about the significance of the songs? What is the book about? Do you always make playlists for your writing, and would you recommend this to other writers, like those who will be attending Chautauqua Writer's Workshop?
K.E. I think music helps set the theme for my writing. It captures the aura of a particular moment in time of a particular culture. I liken it to going to the place where my novel might be set. There's something intangible about the place, that sense of place which is a combination of the temperature, the view, the humidity, the smell, and just the feeling you get from being there. Music is like that, too, and can take you back in time in both an obvious way -- the instruments and words that are used -- and an intangible way -- the feeling you get from listening to it.
My current work in progress (the working title has changed to Facing Freedom) is set in 1970's rural Virginia and has to do with a boy's lost innocence after his father dies. He has to solve a mystery and in the process finds out some truths about his community and his country that are both painful and freeing. In the end, he has to face the music, so to speak, and stand up for what he feels is right.
I chose songs for Facing Freedom, and my other novels, that give me some inspiration or make me think of particular characters. I don't listen to the music while I'm actually writing because I find that too distracting, but when I'm not writing, I like to think about my story and the people in it. I think it's a worth a try for any writer but really, you have to pick what works for you.
Will this be your first year on the faculty of the Chautauqua Writer's Workshop? If you wouldn't mind giving us a sneak preview, can you tell us about your plans for the conference? If you could distill a key message or idea you'd like to convey to workshop attendees, what would that be?
K.E. This is the first year I'll be on the Chautauqua Writer's Workshop faculty and I'm very excited about it! What an honor! I keep thinking about how much Chautauqua did for me and, really, how it launched my career. It's wonderful to think that I can be part of an experience to further the writing careers of others. I'm particularly looking forward to a workshop about working with your editor that Patti Gauch and I are giving.
In addition to that, I can't wait to share what I've been through over the past dozen or so years, what has worked and hasn't worked, how to keep your eye on the goal, what to do when you're stuck or at a low point, etc. There's so much to talk about ... will a week be enough?? In truth, you meet people at Chautauqua with whom you'll bond, and you'll continue sharing your writing and your life with them. I just got back a few days ago from visiting Chautauqua buddies in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and will be visiting more in the next couple of months. I can honestly say that Chautauqua was a life changing experience.
You've been lucky to live all over the world. You must have oodles of marvelous material in your head. Do you have too many ideas to write? If so, how do you choose what's next?
K.E. Absolutely! I have at least a dozen partially written manuscripts and dozens more in note form. I choose a project because it speaks to me at the time -- it's something I feel very strongly about, have something I feel I have to say, and it just starts flowing. I do like to incorporate subjects that readers may not know much about, such as apartheid or adoption or Quakers or Asperger's. People have asked what my "themes" are and I guess I'd have to say that my stories all seem to be about tolerance and understanding. Isn't it wonderful that there are so many different ways to tell a story?
Thank you so much for the fascinating interview, Kathy!
To learn more about Kathryn Erskine, visit her website, and read her blog.
Don't forget to enter for your chance to win a signed copy of Mockingbird.