Author Feature: Liza Ketchum

Liza Ketchum is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the recent historical title, Where the Great Hawk Flies (Clarion, 2005), a novel in two voices. The book is based on a true story about her ancestors, a Pequot Indian midwife and an English farmer who lived in central Vermont during the 18th century.

Other titles by Liza about the American pioneer experience are the popular serialized adventure novel, Orphan Journey Home (Avon, 2000) and the non-fiction titles Into a New Country: Eight Remarkable Women of the West (Little, Brown, 2000; an ALA “Best Book” for 2001), and The Gold Rush (Little, Brown, 1996) a companion to the PBS series “The West.”

Blue Coyote (Simon and Schuster, 1997) the final title in her quartet of young adult novels, was nominated for a Lambda Literary award. Her books also include a ghost story, two middle grade novels, two biographies of women scientists, and a picture book, Good-Bye, Sammy, illustrated by Gail Owens (Holiday House, 1989).

Liza’s books have appeared on the ALA’s “Best Book lists,” numerous state award lists, Bank Street College’s “Best Book List,” and on the NY Public Library’s “List for the Teenage.” Her essays and articles on writing, teaching, gardening, and rural life have appeared in numerous magazines.

Liza has been a teacher for most of her adult life. She founded and directed a preschool and has taught writing to students of all ages. She has taught writing at Emerson College and Simmons College, and she is currently on the faculty of the MFA Program in Writing for Children at Vermont College.

Her passions—besides reading and writing—include gardening, canoeing, hiking, music, art, theater, traveling, and exploring nature. The mother of two grown sons, Liza and her husband divide their time between the Boston area and a cabin high in Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Looking over your published books, it’s clear you have a passion for history. What about the past intrigues you? What inspires you to mine it for stories and information to share with young readers?

Ever since I was young, I wanted to travel back into the past in a time machine. I always wondered what it would be like to live, work, love, and play in another time and place, and to see the world through a different set of eyes than my own. Since I can’t jump into a time machine (at least, not until someone invents one that works!) I must travel back to the past in my stories. I spend time learning about earlier centuries to answer questions that keep tugging at me.

Questions such as: What was it like to be a young girl traveling across the country in a covered wagon, during the gold rush? (That question led me to write my first novel, West Against the Wind (Holiday House, 1987).) How did a family of orphaned children manage to travel hundreds of miles through the wilderness, without much adult help? (Questions about that true story led me to create Orphan Journey Home (Avon, 2000). What was it like to be my ancestor—a half-Pequot, half-English child—in 18th century Vermont? That last question pushed me to research and write my most recent novel, Where the Great Hawk Flies (Clarion, 2005).

My father, who is a historian, helped to inspire my love of history. But I’m especially intrigued by the ways in which people in the past are similar to people today. The past can help us understand who we are, and why we behave the way we do. And I hope that young people might connect with some of my characters, and find elements in my stories that relate to their own lives. For instance, the two boys in my new novel, Where the Great Hawk Flies (Clarion, 2005), wrestle with issues of tolerance, prejudice, and fairness—-challenges we also face today. The abandoned children in Orphan Journey Home (Avon, 2000) were incredibly courageous and resourceful.

Many children today need to be brave and to rely on their own resources, too: think of what young people have faced in our recent natural disasters. I hope my readers might be both inspired and comforted by fictional characters from the past, who have hopes, dreams, fears, and struggles so much like their own.

What are the particular challenges of writing historical fiction? Historical non-fiction?

For me, the most difficult aspect of writing both historical fiction and non-fiction is trying to pin down the speech and thought patterns of people who lived in another time. Because all my historical works (at least so far) are set in periods before we had voice recordings, I have to rely on diaries, letters, journals, and newspapers for spoken dialogue.

My luckiest moments, while doing research, are the times when I come across valuable primary source material. For instance, when I was doing the research for Into a New Country (Little, Brown, 2000), I was writing about two Omaha Indian sisters, Susette and Susan La Flesche. Susan was the first Native American woman doctor, and I wondered what it was like for her to leave her prairie home in Nebraska to study medicine in an eastern city. I called libraries and historical societies and finally tracked down a batch of the letters she had written home from medical school. Eureka! The letters were on microfilm. The historical society sent them to my local library and I spent a whole day reading them. Her slanted handwriting was hard to decipher—but it was a gift to learn, from her actual words, how she felt about her boyfriend, how she loved her medical education, and how homesick she was for her family.

When I write historical fiction, I try to make sure all my details and facts about the past are accurate. In a novel, I can invent exciting scenes, introduce new characters, or come up with new challenges for my narrator in order to keep the reader turning the page. With non-fiction, the challenge is to find ways to tell an interesting story when you can’t make anything up!

What advice do you have for writer-researchers?

Although the Internet has helped me in many ways, nothing beats spending time with a research librarian who knows his or her field. Right now, I’m writing a book that takes place in San Francisco in 1851. My main character is a girl who sells newspapers. Last week I found a librarian who helped me track down original copies of newspapers printed during that time. Soon, I’ll be able to hold those fragile papers in my hands and imagine my character reading those same headlines 150 years ago.

Also, don’t be afraid to tell your friends what you’re working on. Friends and family members have sent me invaluable information, books, articles, and diaries, or referred me to experts on that particular period. And talk about your projects with young people, too.

When I was revising Orphan Journey Home (Avon, 2000), I visited schools in Kentucky, where the novel takes place. A class of 5th graders, studying Kentucky history, told me about a historic home built in 1828 (the year my novel took place) in a nearby town. I went there the next day. It was exciting to step inside that crude log home and imagine my characters spending the night in a place just like it. Thanks to those school children, I was able to add an important chapter to my story.

Your latest novel, Where The Great Hawk Flies (Clarion, 2005), was inspired by your ancestors. Would you tell us more about how this connection sparked the story?

The seeds for this book began 30 years ago, when my great-uncle Carlton Griswold Ketchum sent me an article titled “Randolph’s Indian Princess.” The article told a fascinating story about a Pequot Indian midwife named Margery Dogerill and her husband, Joseph Griswold. They met in Connecticut when Joseph had an accident and nearly drowned. Margery and her father, who were both healers, rescued Joseph and nursed him to health. The young couple married and moved to Randolph, Vermont, where Joseph farmed and Margery became the only healer for miles around. At first, their families were opposed to the marriage, but eventually, they reconciled. Margery’s father, who was a Pequot powwaw, or medicine man, came to visit several times, and died on his last trip to their farm.

Griswold was a family name on my father’s side, and Margery and Joseph came from the same town as my father’s relatives, so my Uncle Carlton thought we might be related. “You should look into this,” he said.“It would make a good story.” But the article was unsigned. Did it come from a book, or a magazine? I even wondered if the whole thing was made up. I put the article into my “Idea File” where it sat for almost thirty years.

Still, I never forgot the story. In the 1990s, things opened up. First, the Pequot Indians gained official tribal recognition from the government, took control of their land, and started a successful casino, using some of the profits to build a museum with a wonderful research library. Second, the Internet exploded—and with a few clicks of my mouse, I found a mailing address for the Randolph Historical Society. I sent a letter to the president, Miriam Herwig and enclosed a copy of the original article, asking if she knew anything about this family. Within a few days, I had a response: Miriam Herwig was the author of the anonymous article my great-uncle had sent—and she also had family materials that she was willing to share. My husband and I drove to Vermont to visit the Herwigs the next weekend.

I unrolled my family tree on their kitchen table. The tree begins with a John Griswold, born in 1760. Miriam smiled. “John was Margery and Joseph’s son,” she said. So Margery and Joseph Griswold were my direct ancestors, seven generations back. The Herwigs also had valuable information about Vermont during that time period. But it took me many years to do the research for this story; I made numerous trips to the Pequot Museum as well as to central Vermont and other libraries.

Where is Griswold, Vermont? How did it evolve?

Griswold is actually an imaginary town in central Vermont. The name came about when I was writing my second YA novel, Fire in the Heart (Holiday House, 1989). I told my father I was searching for a name for my fictional town. He suggested I call it Griswold, after our Vermont ancestors. The terrain in Griswold is similar to Randolph, Vermont, where my ancestors actually lived: long mountain ridges roll away from a fertile valley carved by the White River. When I wrote my connected YA novels, I invented roads, schools, and houses that don’t exist in Randolph. I also drew maps of Griswold and pinned them up on the wall so I could keep track of my characters while I was writing.

I’m fascinated by your having written Orphan Journey Home (Avon, 2000), a syndicated serial novel that appeared in newspapers across the United States. How did this project evolve? What was it like, writing a serial novel? How can readers get hold of this story?

I was approached by Breakfast Serials, a company started by Avi, the children’s author, and his wife. At first, I didn’t think I could write a serial novel because of the strict rules: each chapter could only be 750 words, every installment had to end with a cliff-hanger, and I had to complete the entire story in 20 chapters or less. Then I leafed through my Idea File and discovered a story I’d found when I was doing research for Into a New Country, about a family of children who were orphaned in southern Illinois in the 1820s. In spite of the dangers of wilderness travel, they managed to find their way home to their grandmother in six weeks time, without much adult help. I realized that an adventure story involving a journey would lend itself perfectly to the serial form.

I wrote the entire novel at first, but the chapters appeared in newspapers week by week. It was the most exciting experience I’ve ever had, as an author. The story was carried by over 120 papers around the country, with a total circulation in the millions. I heard from readers as young as five and as old as ninety. They sent me historical maps, information about the real family, and questions about the story. I was able to answer some of those questions when I turned the serial into a book. It was the first book where readers of all ages participated in my revisions.

Could you give us some insights into the story behind your quartet of interconnected YA novels?

I didn’t set out to write a quartet of novels. My readers inspired me to continue the stories, and the series grew one at a time.

The first novel began as a diary, written by a girl named Abigail. A Vermont teen found the diary in her older cousin’s attic. Before long, Abigail’s diary turned into a novel called West Against the Wind.

Many readers wanted to know what happened to Abigail after she reached California. I answered their questions in a roundabout way. I returned to my original idea—of a girl named Molly and the old diary—and that story evolved into a modern day novel, Fire in the Heart (Holiday House, 1989). When Molly solved the mystery surrounding her mother’s death, she also unlocked clues about what happened to Abigail, her gold rush ancestor.

Molly’s brother Todd was an important character in Fire in the Heart. My characters often seem like real people to me, and Todd was no exception. I wanted to know more about him. When I witnessed an incident of discrimination and harassment on a local soccer team, I decided to write a story about homophobia and prejudice, with Todd as the main character. That novel was Twelve Days in August (Holiday House, 1993), the third story in the series, and it tells about a boy named Alex , a star soccer players, who moves to town. His new team members tease him because they think he’s gay and Todd has to decide whether to go along with the teasing, or whether to help Alex and keep the team together.

After that book was published, I heard from many readers who asked: “What about Alex? When will you tell his story?” I wrote Blue Coyote (Simon & Schuster, 1997) to answer their questions, and was proud when it became a Lambda Book Award finalist.

And now, the quartet of novels has a sort of prequel. Where the Great Hawk Flies (Clarion, 2005) takes place in the same imaginary town, more than 200 years before Molly, Todd, or Alex were born. Readers who want to know more about any of these books, as well as about my non-fiction work, can visit my website:

Cynsational News & Links

A Baker’s Dozen with Mark London Williams from Revolution Science Fiction. Mark is the author of the Danger Boy series, published by Candlewick Press.

It Takes Two to Make a Book Go Right: Are Two Authors Better Than One? by Rachel Kramer Bussel at Features insights with two YA writing teams, published by Razorbill, Emily Gould and Zareen Jaffery (AKA Ali Deshler), authors of Hex Education (forthcoming) and Chris Tebbetts and Lisa Papademetriou, authors of M or F? (Razorbill, 2005).

What Happened to Picture Books by Judith Rosen from Publisher’s Weekly. On the decline in sales, especially at the midlist level. The theory I most agree with: too many “sappy and sweet” books for ages four to five, from Shirley Mullin, owner of Kids Ink in Indianapolis.