Author Interview: Kerry Madden on Lousiana’s Song

Kerry Madden is the author the Smoky Mountain trilogy from Viking Children’s Books including: Gentle’s Holler (Viking, 2005), Louisiana’s Song (Viking, 2007), and the upcoming, Jessie’s Mountain. She is also the author of Writing Smarts from American Girl Library (2002). Her first novel, Offsides (Morrow, 1996), about growing up on the gridiron of college football was a New York Public Library Selection for the Teen Age in 1997. Kerry is currently at work on the biography of Harper Lee for teens for Viking’s UpClose Series.

We last spoke in July 2005 about the release of Gentle’s Holler (Viking, 2005)(author interview). Do you have any updates for us on that title?

Gentle’s Holler was released in April as a Penguin Puffin paperback and received a Mark Twain Nomination from Missouri, a Maine Student Book Award, and an ALA Schnieder Award Nomination. It was also included in the New York Public Libary’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best Selection, Bank Street College Best Children’s Books, California Young Readers, and was a PEN USA Finalist in Children’s Literature.

Over the past two years, how have you grown as a writer?

I’ve written two books, and there were times when I didn’t believe it was possible. Each new book is like starting from scratch, and I have paralyzing self doubt what whether I can pull it off.

But I guess what I’ve learned is to allow myself to go through the agonizing panic of plot and write draft after draft of meandering dreck, and then slowly but surely, the story begins to reveal itself.

I have also written more personal essays that give me tremendous focus, because they have to be written so fast, but I love this form, and it helps me come back to my fiction with a fresh eye.

Congratulations on the release of Lousiana’s Song (Viking, 2007)! Could you tell us about this new title?

After Gentle’s Holler was published a young girl, Megan, from Colorado wrote me a letter and said, “I loved Gentle’s Holler, but I DID NOT LIKE THE ENDING! WHAT HAPPENS TO DADDY?”

So I wrote her back, and we struck up an email correspondence. I told her she was my very first fan letter (she had titled her email “Fan Mail”) She sent me some of her stories, and I made her the “Writer of the Day” on my blog.

Anyway, when I was thinking about writing the next part of the story, I thought of Megan’s rage, and I decided to begin the book the day Daddy comes home eight months after the accident. His children are all thrilled that he is finally coming home, but when he arrives he’s not the same Daddy that they knew, and so they all have to go through different stages of grief in figuring out how to love and care for this new father.

What made you decide to spend more time in this world?

I love these kids and this world. I am so grateful that Viking asked for two more books. I hope to write even more down the road. At first, I thought I’d write a book from each child’s point of view, but my editors at Viking convinced me that Livy Two truly is the storyteller of the these books–she’s the eavesdropper, the spy, the adventurer, and the catalyst too.

I tried writing Louisiana’s Song from Louise’s point of view and wrote about 40 pages, but it never came to life.

I was teaching a writing workshop and telling these fifth graders my dilemma of trying to figure out the POV for the next book, and this boy, unbeknown to me, took both versions off to read while I was working with other kids–Livy Two’s voice and Louise’s voice–and then he came up to me after the workshop, and said with a big grin, “This is the one!” It was Livy Two and it became the first chapter of Louisiana’s Song.

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

In the summer of 2005, Viking asked me to write two more books, and so I decided that the first one would be Louisiana’s Song and the next one would be Jessie’s Mountain about Mama’s childhood and how she came to have ten kids. I went back to the mountains three or four times in 2005-2007, and I stayed for several weeks in a cabin with our youngest daughter, Norah, in the summer of 2006.

A family of groundhogs lived under the porch in the cabin, (and the biggest wolf spider of my life resided in the kitchen sink) and now those groundhogs and spider are in Jessie’s Mountain.

Anyway, I wrote a very shaky draft of Louisiana’s Song that was mostly plotless, because I was afraid to deal with Daddy’s brain injury.

When that was clearly tanking, I began to do more research reading books on brain injury, including Oliver SachsThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I also went to a rehabilitation center in Bakersfield, California, where I spent the day observing the patients and talking to therapists. It gave me the confidence I needed to face the scary parts of the book.

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

We have three kids, and our oldest has now just finished his freshman year of college, so much of last year was consumed with him getting into college, the emotion of him leaving, and his rock star aspirations that often found me being a “roadie mom” driving the boys to their “Flypaper Cartel” gigs.

Anyway, the deadlines from Viking were incredibly important to me, and so was outlining and doing interviews with a mother whose daughter had suffered traumatic brain injury. Still, the early drafts were so corny, because Daddy was home but “healing in the smokehouse” and Livy Two was babysitting and telling fairy tales, but nothing was happening.

It was my editor, Catherine Frank, who coaxed Daddy’s recovery out of me, asking the hard questions. On one of my many traumatically plotless days, my daughter, Lucy, then 15, came into the office and said very matter-of-factly, “Tell me chapter one, one line. Okay, now chapter two.”

We mapped out the whole thing on the white-out board. I didn’t erase the board for a year, because I loved her curly, loopy sentences that I dictated to her for each chapter and then my messy scrawled additions…

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

I would say this to myself and to all beginning writers… Trust yourself. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Be good to yourself, and this is much easier said than done when the self-loathing sets up camp.

Alice McDermott says she keeps the inner editor at bay during the first draft. I would also say write your books with love…

Before these books, I wrote a novel (not published) out of spite and cleverness and rage, and this can work for some, but I didn’t write it with love, and my characters rang mean and hollow. (How my writing group suffered!)

When I began writing the Weems’ family with love and joy, it was like sticking my face in a field of wild flowers. It was also a story I didn’t read share for a long time. I wanted to be alone with the characters without feedback.

The story began to fly…of course, there were dark days, but I never forgot how much I cared for my characters and wanted to honor them…so I would tell writers (and remind myself) to love your characters. Then the discipline will come naturally, because you’ve established them–you owe them a life.

What would you say specifically on the topic of writing historical children’s fiction?

I didn’t even know I was writing historical fiction. I was just imagining how old my sister-in-law would be in 1961, because she was a young musician. But then I began to study headlines that led me to stories and the first woman (Russian) in space, Valentina Tereshkova. I did research on Emmett’s favorite comics and discovered Saturn Girl. I found out that Ghost Town in the Sky opened in 1961, which was perfect timing. I interviewed my husband’s aunt, Iris Lunsford, who was in her 80s, about her job working at the blacksmith shop at Ghost Town.

I also just read about Ann Wagner’s wonderful piece about North Carolina storyteller, Donald Davis, in the recent newsletter from the Children’s Literature Council of Southern California, and Davis said, “How do you kill Grandma? Don’t tell any stories about her. If one generation passes without telling and hearing stories about family, it’s as if those people and events never existed.”

I love that advice so much. It made me suddenly start telling my youngest, Norah, all about her great grandmother who loved pralines and cream ice cream from Baskin Robbins, who said the rosary three times a day, and who performed in “As You Like It” as a young woman and heard someone proclaim loudly from the first row about her performance, “She likes the sound of her voice!” Then she smiled at me telling that story and said, “You know what? I did. I really did.”

Recent historical fiction is a perfect venue for asking questions of those relatives still living and remembering the stories of those who aren’t here anymore…

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

I recently joined Winding Oak (publicist interview) at because I needed some help with that very thing. I was setting up my own school visits, and many were happening by word of mouth, but it was all very time-consuming.

One principal said to me, “Who are you and what do you do again? I have to get my fourth graders to lunch, so how long do you do what it is you do?”

So I am relieved to have somebody help me set up school visits, which I enjoy very much, but I don’t enjoy the cold calls and then trolling Travelocity for flights to the South.

As for balance, I take the dogs on long walks. I spend time with close friends. I spend time with my own kids who are not impressed that I write books… I listen to their stories and try not to freak out too much with my teens. I love going to plays and traveling with my husband. I love going to the movies solo except for a big box of Junior Mints–just to escape the daily chaos of our noisy house of kids and animals. Then I can come back with a clear heard, ready to face it all again.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Jessie’s Mountain will be published on Valentine’s Day in 2008, and I am currently working on the biography of Harper Lee for teens. I also have a new book that I’m writing for fun called The Sixth Grade Life of Jack Gettlefinger, inspired by my son’s fourth grade journal.

And I’m hoping to eventually write something about a kid’s travels in Turkey, since I traveled with five kids ages 6-18 (three of my own) on a bus throughout Western Turkey from Istanbul to Bodrum in the last few weeks.

We had an international teen love tempest with a teenage boy seeking a blackberry signal from Athena’s Temple, a teen girl with body image worries deleting photos of herself in historic places, brother/sister battles, temper tantrums, a pet clam saved from the Aegean that united all and was christened “Clammy.” We were in the thick of our mini-battle of Troy on a blazing hot day when we pulled up to the real ancient site of Troy.

I blogged about it on my livejournal. I feel like I have the seeds to a new story with the Turkey adventure.

Natalie Goldberg said, “Writers live twice” and it does feel that way… I am always soaking up new stories, aware of the possibility of new stories…

Cynsational Notes

Louisiana’s Song was recently nominated for a Southern California Indie Booksellers Awards in the Children’s Novel category.