Author Interview: Kerry Madden on Gentle’s Holler

Gentle’s Holler by Kerry Madden (Viking, 2005). From the flap copy: “The sixties may have come to other parts of North Carolina, but with Mama pregnant again, Daddy struggling to find work, and nine siblings underfoot, nobody in the holler has much time for modern-day notions. Especially not twelve-year-old Livy Two, aspiring songwriter and self-appointed guardian of little sister Gentle, whose eyes ‘don’t work so good yet.’ Even after a doctor confirms her fears, Livy Two is determined to make the best of Gentle’s situation and sets out to transform the family’s scrappy dachshund into a genuine Seeing-Eye dog. But when tragedy strikes, can Livy Two continue to stay strong for her family?”

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I grew up the daughter of a college football coach, (ten states) which meant we moved constantly to various football towns, adopted the various mascots (cyclones, wild cats, panthers), and dressed in the obligatory orange and white, blue and gold, purple and white. In high school, we moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and while I didn’t care much for Big Orange Football, I fell in love with the Smoky Mountains, the setting for Gentle’s Holler.

When my dad got a job with the Detroit Lions when I was a senior in high school, I opted to stay in Tennessee. I never realized how that decade in Tennessee would inform my writing. I met my husband toward the end of college, who grew up one of 13 children, in Middle Tennessee. His uncle, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, was also a songcatcher in the mountains of North Carolina.

The spark? In 2001, when I was doing some particularly soul-killing writing (“How to Stay Healthy if you Sell Insurance”) and ghostwriting for celebrity spawn, and writing a particularly mean-spirited adult novel that did not sell (big surprise). I knew that if I didn’t write about something I cared about and loved, I was going to lose myself. I know this sounds dramatic, but it’s the truth. I also needed to write Gentle’s Holler with love…instead of being clever or mean – I’d done that – this needed to be a book written with love and joy and of course, doubt, fear, worries too…that’s inescapable for me…but I let the love and joy for these mountain kids come first…and I listened to Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Mississippi John Hurt, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells, Lucinda Williams, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Reno & Smiley… The stories of this music was a balm and salve to my psyche, and I played it when I wasn’t writing…even though it drove my kids crazy, especially the teenagers dove for volume button whenever I picked them at school, Hank Williams blasting.

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

2001: I began writing it in the fall of 2001, and I don’t think 9/11 informed it other than I knew I needed to write something I loved. When I was writing the drudgery paying work, I had to force myself to write, but when I would switch files and write Gentle’s Holler, it was like sticking my face in a field of wild flowers. I felt this sanity/serenity happen whenever I worked on Gentle’s Holler.

2002: Of course, I sent it out too fast, (my worst fault which I hope I have since corrected) based on my need to sell a book. It had been a long time since Offsides was published (1996), and I was beginning to feel desperate as all my friends were landing book deals and I was so busy teaching fiction writing and raising our three kids… I think I was beginning to feel less like a writer and more like a cheerleader of other writers. So I sent out the first three chapters to an editor, who loved the voice and asked me to write the whole book. I wrote the whole book fast, and it was rejected as it should have been. It was wobbly and rushed and not much good. So I did more revisions and sent it out to more editors, racked up more rejections.

A note: The early versions were happy/sappy versions, where everything worked out…nothing too sad happened… One editor told me how corny it was, and another encouraged me to cut eight of the ten kids…but mostly I received generic rejections… I also showed this early draft to my friend, Amy Goldman Koss, a wonderful children’s writer, and she said, “I like it. But we’re at page 18, and I really think something should happen by now.” The kids had been sitting in the garden for ages shooting the breeze doing absolutely NOTHING…

2003: After about the 10th rejection, I was driving with my son, Flannery, who was 13 at the time, and I said, “It’s hopeless. Nobody wants it.” He said, “I know what you need to do,” to which I replied, “What do you mean, you know? you don’t know…” His response? “Mom, you haven’t done anything with the dad. You need to do something BIG with the dad.” I said, “I don’t have to have this major thing happen with the dad…” Flannery said, “Fine, don’t do anything with the dad – leave it all just the way it is…” Silence. We both knew he was right…but it meant really going deep and dark into the material, and I was scared.

So I spent the winter and spring really writing it…taking my time… I refused to rush it… Biggest thing of all for me? I refused to let anyone read it. I just decided to be alone with my story for as long as it took. When it was ready, I sent it to an agent, Marianne Merola at Brandt & Hochman, who liked it, but said, “It’s so depressing – the poor kids who read this – can you give them just a little hope?”

Before I had this conversation with Marianne, I also attended an SCBWI Writers Day in California and Melanie Cecka, (now an editor at Bloomsbury) looked at all of us 400 plus attendees and said, “Don’t give me your manuscript, I can’t carry them all on the flight, but send it to me, and I will read it if you tell me you attended Writers’ Day.” So I sent her the sad version too.

Then I had the conversation with the agent, Marianne, about giving more hope to the story, so I rewrote a new version injected with some hope and sent it back her. Marianne didn’t read it for a while, but then Melanie Cecka wrote me and said that she liked it, and she had read the dark version… I called Marianne (my first call to her) and said, “Viking is interested, but I have this more hopeful revision…have you read it? Are you interested? What do I tell Viking?”

Marianne said, “I’ll read it this weekend…and in the meantime, tell Viking you have a new version.” I wrote to Melanie and told her about the new draft, and she was thrilled because she’d been worried about how dark/sad/depressing it was too…so she asked me to email her the new draft. Melanie loved the new draft and became my editor, and Marianne loved the new draft and become my agent…and they worked out the deal. That was in the fall of 2003, and the pub date was March 2005.

2004: I spent 2004 working on Livy Two’s brother’s book and doing the edits for Gentle’s Holler and preparing to do my own book tour. I knew I wanted the tour to be writing workshops for kids, because I’d done a book tour with Offsides and read to the clerks in empty bookstores, and I didn’t want a repeat.

Then my editor, Melanie, left Viking for Bloomsbury but she left after we’d completed the major edits, and I inherited a new editor, Catherine Frank, at Viking. It was hard to see Melanie go, but I really like Catherine, and she’s been very supportive with the sequel and the idea of a series. Although I have now finished a draft of the brother’s book, Ghost Town Days, Viking wants me to write m ore books in Livy Two’s voice, so Ghost Town Days is on hold for now, while I write Louise’s Palette, about the shy sister who paints.

{Ghost Town Days is definitely YA, not middle-grade – and it’s about a fifteen-year-old Emmett Weems, Livy Two’s big brother, who has run off to work up at Ghost Town in the Sky, an amusement park built on top of Buck Mountain in Maggie Valley. He loves the superhero, Saturn Girl, wants to be a gunslinger in the Wild West Show, but gets stuck working the merry-go-round, which wounds his pride deeply. An iguana, a Cherokee Indian, graverobbers, a blacksmith, and an incorrigible uncle, (the nervous night watchman of Ghost Town who steals Emmett’s paycheck to pay his poker debts) are all part of Emmett’s story. Ghost Town Days is about Emmett becoming a man, forgiving his father, finding peace with himself. I really loved writing his story too.}

Anyway, Viking would like me to build my audience with younger girls before I tell Emmett’s story.

And finally in 2004, Rosemary Wells and Betsy Byars, my writing heroes from childhood and whose books my own children were raised on, gave me jacket quotes for Gentle’s Holler…I felt enormously grateful.

2005: In February of 2005, I received an early Starred Kirkus. I was shocked…I didn’t even know there were Starred Reviews…Then it received a Starred PW…Then I went on the book tour to the setting of the book, Maggie Valley, North Carolina, to do writing workshops with the mountain kids.

The Mayor of Maggie Valley (population 900) gave me a key to the city and declared April 19, GENTLE’S HOLLER DAY.

I felt so lucky to meet so many people who wanted to tell me their stories about growing up in the mountains.

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

What a question…a great question. I’ll really show my ignorance now, but I didn’t realize there was a difference between YA and middle grade novels when I wrote Gentle’s Holler. I just thought I was writing YA but I’ve since learned that Gentle’s Holler is more middle-grade, because Livy Two is twelve even though her older brother is definitely experiencing my “YA” problems. I also didn’t know it was historical fiction because of the 1962 setting. I just wanted to write a story about kid who dreams of adventures from her mountain home and worries about her sister’s eyes. I had a disturbing fascination with Helen Keller when I was a kid, which is how I came to create Gentle, the blind child in my novel.

LITERARY: I didn’t grow up in a mountain holler, so I had this fear that I what I wrote wouldn’t ring true.

RESEARCH: My three kids were great inspirations for some of the characters. Our youngest, age six, Norah, is like a fairy child, and she asks me questions like “Is it tomorrow yet?” and walks around in feathery masks and wants to go on fairy hunts. I found myself thinking of her when I wrote Caroline. She makes her big sister draw her pictures of fairies and princesses for her to color, and she’s constantly dressing up our poor dogs in various frocks. Our daughter, Lucy, 14, loves adventure, (she’s going to Turkey in a few days to stay with family for a month) but she loves also loves to paint, so she is like Louise and Livy Two. Our son, Flannery, 16, is a really happy, dreamy kid who just eats up life and Dodger baseball…and he loves books, so he was such a helpful editor…and I also see bits of him in Emmett, but he doesn’t have Emmett’s sadness. He loves to write songs at the piano…his latest is called “Ossified Lady.”

We have an incorrigible basset-coon hound that has eaten chickens and applesauce cakes right off the table, so he helped inspire Uncle Hazard. So did our dachshund who is very sly and hates to get wet…I used to bribe Norah with more Uncle Hazard stories if she would just stay in her carseat…then he become part of Gentle’s Holler.

My husband, Kiffen, however, was my greatest source…he grew up on a farm in Tennessee, so I could ask him questions about the garden, the seed catalog, and he loves Astronomy, so I asked him about the Pleidies and other star patterns… His mom had babies in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, and I was just fascinated by the sheer magnitude of his family. I grew up drawing pictures of giant families, and then I met Kiffen who came from one, and somehow both fed Gentle’s Holler…His older sister, Tomi Lunsford, is a musician, and I sent her the lyrics from the book, and she adapted them into music… Mama’s Biscuits, Daddy’s Roasted Peanuts, Grandma’s Glass Eye, A Ring of Seven Sisters, and others… I thought of her when I was first writing Livy Two.

More research? I listened to mountain and country music from the 50’s and 60s…I watched “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and read The Dollmaker… I went to the mountains a lot when I lived in Tennessee…and always being the new kid, I learned fast to pick up the different accents, so I wouldn’t feel like such an outsider… I was very shy as a kid, and this made me a good listener…

PSYCHOLOGICAL: Money, three kids, finding time to write… My husband teaches 4th grade, and raising three kids in Los Angeles on a teacher’s and writer’s salary is always a bit of a finance dance… I had this fear of the length between books… What if I did just have one novel in me that would see the light of day? I did write Writing Smarts for American Girl Library that was published in 2002, but that’s a how-to book, not a novel… (Except Writing Smarts is my first book to give me royalties, and that’s pure relief.)

My novel, Offsides, came out in 1996 to glowing reviews, potential movie deals with Diane Keaton etc…and then it went out of print. My next book, Hop The Pond, was rejected…it was called too YA by the adult publishers and too adult by the YA publishers. My next book, The Gallery, was just bad…and my agent dropped me…

I was teaching more and more – sometimes 30-35 students in various weekly workshops – and I am good teacher, but I was becoming overwhelmed with teaching so much, which meant cleaning and scrubbing the house for the writers coming over to our house…

With our schedules and kids, I feared I would never publish again… I even applied for a job in PR because we were so broke. (Thank goodness I didn’t get it.) We’ve never even bought a house, and our son goes to college next year… But I had to find ways to let it all go and just write a book I loved… I also quit ghostwriting and doing journalism. I could handle the teaching, but I couldn’t handle the ghostwriting and journalism and my own writing…so ghostwriting and journalism had to go, and I don’t miss them at all!

LOGISTICAL: I couldn’t get back to the mountains when I was writing Gentle’s Holler, so I would go online and google wild mountain flowers blooming times. And my kids are on year-round school, so they’re home for chunks of time, which slays my writing and concentration. But I also write well in chaos (or so I tell myself)…

As of late, I have become a bit of a roadie mom…my son is in a rock band, and I’ve been recruited to drive members of The Flypaper Cartel to various gigs, but I’m taking notes, because surely that could lead to some kind of fiction. None of the band members have driver’s licenses yet, and most are still in braces.

And finally – a word on the joy? I love doing writing workshops with kids and getting them to know they are rich with stories. I had one kid in the mountains say to me, “Look, I am not a rider (writer).” I said, “What do you like to do?” and he said, “Fish!” and I said, “Write about fishing then,” to which he replied, shocked, “I can ride about fishing?” I said, “You can write about anything.” So he wrote this great story about how he brags when he catches a big bass…He also wrote that night-crawlers come twelve to a can, and a can costs around $1.25. He told me, “You lose a night-crawler, it’s like throwing a dime in the water.” Now many of the kids are sending me their stories to post on my live-journal.

That’s the joy…seeing the faces of the kids tell their stories. And my daughter, Lucy, an 8th grader, went with me on the book tour and did a documentary of our book tour… Anyway, I’m lucky – I’m doing what a love to do. What more can you ask for?

Visit Kerry’s Live Journal.

Cynsational News & Links

All Work and Hard Play Make Author Prolific and Content by Ellyn Wexler. Focus on Elisa Carbone, author of Last Dance on Holladay Street (Knopf, 2005).

The Children’s Writing Update (June 30, 2005): features Judy Blume on “writing from the heart,” Barbara Seuling on “common mistakes,” Laura Backes on “Creating Page-Turning Picture Books,” and more.

Interview with author Mitali Perkins by Laura Atkins from Mitali is the author of Monsoon Summer (Delacorte Press, 2004) and The Not-So-Star-Spangled- Life of Sunita Sen (Little Brown, 2005).

Perspectives: Time Traveling with the Newbery Awards: 1922-2005 by Michelle F. Bayuk from CBC Magazine. See also the CBC Bimonthly Showcase: From the Ancient World.