Interview with Author Kerry Madden

Kerry Madden's latest work with her daughter Lucy.

Kerry Madden’s latest work with her daughter Lucy.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerry Madden recently, an author who lives here in Birmingham. Kerry is the author of the Maggie Valley Trilogy for children, which includes Gentle’s Holler (2005), Louisiana’s Song (2007) and Jessie’s Mountain (2008), set in the heart of the Smoky Mountains and  published by Viking. Her first novel, Offsides, (William Morrow) was a New York Public Library Pick for the Teen Age in 1997 about growing up on the gridiron of college football, and her book Writing Smarts is full of story sparks for young writers. Up Close: Harper Lee made Booklist’s Ten Top Biographies of 2009 for Youth. Kerry’s latest book is Nothing Fancy About Kathryn & Charlie, about the friendship between Kathryn Tucker Windham and Charlie Lucas. Her daughter, Lucy, illustrated the book, and the two of them are going on a book tour to rural Alabama libraries in the summer of 2013. She teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she has just been promoted to associate professor with tenure. She has written essays for the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Salon, and Birmingham News among others. She has published stories in Shenandoah, Carve Magazine, Steel Toe Review, and her play, Chattanooga Flamenco, was a finalist at Ensemble Studio Theatre LA in 2003. She also publishes under the name Kerry Madden-Lunsford. www.kerrymadden.com

A Tale of Two Friends by Susan Swagler

http://www.al.com/bhammag/ index.ssf/thread/a_tale_of_ two_friends.html

The Artist and the Storyteller

http://www.uab.edu/cas/ magazine/the-storyteller-and- the-artist

What was the inspiration for your latest work?

I got to know Kathryn when I interviewed her in 2007 for the Harper Lee biography, although I’d seen her tell stories in Jonesborough at the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee. When I interviewed her at her home on Royal Street in Selma, we spoke very little about Harper Lee and much more about Kathryn’s life. I had also interviewed Alabama writers Helen Norris Bell and Mary Ward Brown. I eventually wrote an essay about all three Alabama women writers called WORDS ON FIRE that was published FIVE POINTS: A JOURNAL OF LITERATURE AND ART in 2008. Anyhow, I just stayed in touch with Kathryn. She sent me ERNEST’S GIFT and ODD EGG EDITOR. When I unexpectedly moved to Alabama to teach Creative Writing, I took my daughter, Norah, to visit Kathryn and Charlie was there too. We were just going to go for an hour and bring her some spring flowers. I had heard she wasn’t feeling well, and I wanted to see her. We stayed all over afternoon, and it was wonderful to really see the friendship between Kathryn and Charlie, visit the sculpture garden again, and just hear the stories. That day was like a gift. So when I told my children’s writing workshop at UAB to write about a friendship in a picture book (we were reading James Marshall’s George and Martha stories) I (smugly) decided to show them out to do it. Well, 100+ drafts later I finally found the story.

What was the most challenging aspect of collaborating with your daughter? What was most rewarding?

Well, imagine “Mother as Art Director” in a hot summer garage in LA. I guess that was the most challenging because I’m not an artist, and I didn’t want to be breathing down her neck offering hints. I wanted to leave Lucy alone to create her vision of the book, but I learned she also really wanted feedback at times.

The most rewarding part was that my husband, Kiffen, Lucy’s father cleaned out the garage for her so she could work. It was incredible to see Lucy not just paint but take found objects – bits of material, pine needles, dirt, wire etc. and find a way to use it in her illustrations. We also took an all-day picture book writing workshp with Ann Whitford Paul and illustrator, Kathryn Hewitt. Ann is a brilliant teacher and picture book author, and she gave us both terrific notes, advice, and suggestions, and so Kathryn did regarding illustration ideas. We learned to storyboard and make book dummies. That workshop gave us the courage to leap into the story together.

http://annwhitfordpaul.net/

http://www.kathrynhewitt.com/,

Tell me why you became a writer?

It was my fourth grade teacher, Miss LeClair, who said, “Kerry, you’re a good writer.” It was the first compliment by a teacher that meant something. Before it had been, “You’ve got good manners” or “You’re a big tall girl!” or “You listen well in church – maybe you have a vocation to join the convent!” I was thrilled to be able to do something well that didn’t involve “being tall or well-behaved.” I went home and wrote a story called “The Five Cents,” which was really about “The Five Senses,” but I was bad speller back then too.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

“Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate! Write any old way.” Brenda Ueland said that in her wonderful book, IF YOU WANT TO WRITE, which helped me write my first novel, OFFSIDES. I never dreamed I could write a novel. I was a playwright and journalist, but a novelist? Anyway, she gave me courage to write memories and stitch them together later. She has another wonderful chapter called ““Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing” – I just love that so much. It was published in 1937 and Carl Sandburg called it his favorite book on writing.

http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2010/10/book-review-if-you-want-to-write-by-brenda-ueland/

What do you like to tell aspiring writers?

I grew up in college football where my father, Joe Madden, not John Madden, told me not to be a quitter. He’d say, “You keep tossing your hat in the ring, and those suckers are going to toss it back out, but you toss it right back in again.” When I get down or sad, I often try to think of my dad’s no-nonsense, get-it-done approach, and it helps me at least get back in the saddle. So don’t quit. I also love what Laurie Halse Anderson said about writing:

1. Find the stories hiding in your heart and write them down.

2. Polish your stories with the tools of our craft.

3. Submit your work intelligently and professionally.

4. Lather. 

5. Rinse. 

6. Repeat.

And here is an essay called “I Am Not John Madden’s Daughter” that I had to write after so many people kept assuming I was John Madden’s daughter. For you football fans, my father, Joe Madden, coached with Johnny Majors at Iowa State, Pittsburgh, and Tennessee.

“I Am Not John Madden’s Daughter”

http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jan/01/opinion/oe-madden1

How have changes in the publishing industry in the last ten years impacted you and your career? 

I need to update my website. That’s mortifying to admit. I’m trying to move it to WordPress, but I don’t know how to shift over the creative content, so I need to hire someone. Anyway, the publishing industry has changed so much so that I’m still learning the rules. Self-publishing is no longer that pariah it once was, and since my novel, OFFSIDES, is out of print and I have the rights from William Morrow back, I’m thinking of self-publishing it, but my new agent is currently reading it to consider submitting it to YA publishers. I know I should “tweet” more but I don’t, and I know some authors are using Tumblr. Social media is a huge part of publishing now, and it was somewhat that way with GENTLE’S HOLLER (2005) but I wasn’t on Facebook or anything. As for OFFSIDES in 1996, that’s the dark ages – it was fax, telephone, and book tour to football towns where I once read to the clerks over the loudspeaker. (That was a low point in Bossier City.) I miss my editor, Catherine Frank, who left Viking. We did four books together, and she was incredibly nurturing and helped me to become a better writer.

What is your daily writing routine?

It’s best to write first thing before I fall into the rabbit hole of email and Facebook and online time-sucking of doing nothing but clicking on link after link of essays and news stories, and then three hours are gone. There was an old saying about saving money – “pay yourself first” and I need to do that more with writing. I have a children’s novel, a literary fiction novel, and a collection of stories, and revisions on another children’s novel all needing my attention, but then I’ll go read DEAR PRUDENCE or THE RUMPUS. I have taught so much the last three years at UAB and Antioch, but I’m taking a break from Antioch, and it’s a tremendous relief. I just can’t do both and devote the mind-space to my own work.

What are your current writing projects now?

WEREWOLF HAMLET: The Fifth Grade Life of Jack Gettlefinger

(under revision yet again – I need to cut 50 pages or more.) Here are the rejections on the book from 2013 and why I’ve withdrawn it to cut it down again. Only the first rejection is not helpful. I’m sharing this to remind myself not to quit and keep my father’s words in mind.

4 rejections on WEREWOLF HAMLET

#1

Hi Ginger,

“Thank you for sending WEREWOLF HAMLET by Kerry Madden for my consideration. I have admired Kerry Madden’s work in the past, but I’m afraid that this manuscript didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I found the character development to be a bit weak and the basic organization of the novel wasn’t compelling. “

#2

Dear Ginger,

Thank you for sending me Kerry Madden’s Werewolf Hamlet. You were right — I found Angus’s voice to be so endearing – his narration terrifically melds his sense of humor and earnest passion for movies and Shakespeare with genuine fifth grade worries and fears. I also loved how Kerry used the Los Angeles setting to add vivid detail to the story.

However, I’m concerned about the novel’s appeal to middle-grade readers. While Angus’s love of Hamlet and classic cinema is certainly entertaining, I’m concerned that most middle-grade readers won’t connect with those topics as strongly as he does. The plot also felt a bit on the episodic side, especially in the beginning. I wished I had a better sense of where the story was headed from the beginning.

So while I did enjoy reading this, I will ultimately have to pass on this project. But thank you so much for thinking of me, and I look forward to future submissions – I would so love for us to work together!

All best,

M

#3

Thank you for sharing Kerry Madden’s WEREWOLF HAMLET with me and thank you for your patience as I have been reviewing it. I thoroughly enjoyed Angus’ unique voice and hilarious sense of humor and definitely think this book has kid-appeal. That said, the plot didn’t come through as strongly as I would have liked and, as a result, the story felt a little unfocused as it progressed. Given this concern, I’m afraid I won’t be able to move forward with this one.

I’m sorry this wasn’t the right fit for me, but I appreciate the chance to review Kerry’s work and wish you luck in finding a good publishing home for it. I hope we can connect on something else soon.

All best,

C

#4

Hi Ginger—

Thanks so much for sending me Kerry Madden’s WEREWOLF HAMLET…and apologies for the delay in responding. I think Angus is a flawed yet incredibly sympathetic character, as are the other members of his family. Kerry’s voice seems naturally kid-friendly and pitch-perfect for the age group, and Angus’s troubles strike me as both touching and realistic.

But unfortunately, while I think Kerry’s writing and the project both have potential, I couldn’t get completely excited by the manuscript. The first half seemed pretty slow, at least to me, and in general it all feels a tad long for its intended audience. I think the book could be greatly improved if Kerry worked to make it more cohesive, with a tighter overall arc.

Sorry not to have better news! Best of luck finding a good home for WEREWOLF HAMLET.

All best,

A

HOP THE POND

(The story of a junior year in Manchester, England prior to the start of the 1982 World’s Fair. Three voices – daughter, mother, granddaughter).

(190 pages – The first chapter was published in STEEL TOE REVIEW 2013)

BLUE WHALES

A memoir about my uncle’s suicide at age of 22 and a family member’s addiction to drugs

(Unfinished)

(50 pages)

ARE YOU THERE VULCAN? IT’S ME MILLIE-GRACIELLA

A children’s novel about the HB56 in Alabama, Vulcan, and a banshee in the woods of Homewood.

(60 pages)

WAITING FOR THE BEARS TO COME

A collection of stories

(Need polishing – all of them)

Are you reading any interesting books at the moment?

These are books I’ve read recently and loved or that are on my bedside in the to-be-read stack:

BOUND by Antonia Nelson

THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS by Claire Messud

MARY COIN by Marissa Silver

THEN IF FOUND YOU by Patti Callahan Henry

DOUBLE DOUBLE: A DUAL MEMOIR OF ALCHOLISM by Martha Grimes and Ken Grimes

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY by Tracy Letts

And now I want to read THE FLAMETHROWERS by Rachel Kushner

Was the writing life what you expected?

I love to collect place names like the following list:

Bucksnort, Tennessee

Scratch Ankle, AL

Burnt Corn, AL

Red Bank, TN

Aurelia, Texas

Leeds, AL

Paris, TN

Athens, GA

Maggie Valley, NC

I love where the writing life has taken me and the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. I’m incredibly grateful to be able to go to rural Alabama libraries this summer and do writing and art workshops with my both my daughters. How lucky is that? I met Harper Lee last year at the Southern Writers Symposium when Fannie Flagg won the Harper Lee Award. Another gift. My “mountain mother” is Ernestine Upchurch of Maggie Valley, North Carolina who let me use her cabin to write JESSIE’S MOUNTAIN, and Popcorn Sutton, the late moonshiner built her that cabin and he built Norah a fire “a far” while we were there in the summer of 2006. My own mother has gone with on a book tour across the Midwest, and we had the best time. My sister came with me to Monroeville, AL in 2007 to interview people for the biography. I have met the most generous writers in children’s literature from authors to librarians to teachers to students to wonderful readers. I can’t imagine a more rewarding life even in the difficult and painful realities of publishing. I am so grateful to have a husband who is my first reader and greatest support of everything I write, and he was the one who took the kids off when they were little to give me time to work. Was it what I expected? No, but it’s everything to me, and I’m so very grateful for it.

Kerry Madden

Kerry Madden

 

 


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