Author Interview: Kathi Appelt on The Underneath

We last spoke in May 2007, shortly after the release of My Father’s House (Viking, 2008). Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about the story?

It’s actually two stories that come together at the end, the first being the story of a kitten who has been charged with keeping an enormous promise. The second is an older story about a very cranky snake who has been imprisoned in a jar for a thousand years.

Some think that there’s a third story in the stand-off between the villain, Gar Face, and a hundred-foot-long alligator.

So, it’s stories within stories, kind of like those Russian nesting dolls.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I was working on a new collection of short stories to follow Kissing Tennessee (Harcourt, 2002). The premise behind the collection was that each story would be about an object of great importance to the individual characters.

In one of the stories I created a boy who found a kitten that had been nearly drowned in the nearby creek. The kitten itself was not the object, rather it was the kitten’s bell that became supercharged.

Once I finished the story, it kept haunting me. I loved the boy and the relationship he had with this cat; and I also loved the cat.

On top of it, the setting of the deep East Texas woods seemed full of mystery and intrigue. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a larger story there, so I began to stretch it out.

I sometimes use taffy as an analogy since each time I visited the story it felt as though I was pulling at it, twisting and pulling.

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

All told it took me three years to finish. In that time, there were a couple of major events.

One was the WriteFest conference in Austin. We were required to have at least 60 pages of a middle grade or young adult novel in order to be accepted. [Note: Greg and I hosted and led this workshop].

I have to say, coming up with those 60 pages was hard. I was working on them right up to the deadline, and I think the last 45 of those 60 pages were pretty awful. And the first 15 were only a step above awful.

Still, I managed to get there, and it was in the getting there that I become more convinced that I could actually write a novel.

I had started several novels, but always got jammed up and stuck about 20 pages into them. I have a whole drawer full of novel-beginnings. Great characters, great setting . . . uh . . . no plot.

So WriteFest was the first major event.

Then I took an on-line novel-writing class through writers-on-the-net with Dennis Foley. I consider Dennis a master teacher. His patient guidance was exactly what I needed to move through the early stages of a full draft. He was great, and I recommend his classes without hesitation.

Something else I should probably mention was that my agents, Emily E. van Beek (agent interview) and Holly McGhee, had challenged me to write a book that would “crack open the heart.”

I kept trying to move deeper and deeper into a place that would do that, crack open the heart. In the process, I found that I had to visit my own heart, to crack it open, too, in order to find the heart of my story. It wasn’t pretty, I’ll say that.

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

The hardest thing for me is always maintaining the narrative thread. My entire career has been built on picture books, poetry, essays, and short stories. Note the emphasis on “short.”

Writing long, writing something that maintains a narrative thread for more than a few pages, has always been difficult for me.

It wasn’t until I gave myself permission to write this in very short scenes that I overcame that hurdle. I decided to honor my “inner writer” if you will, the one who knew how to write well in short segments. That’s why the book is told in very short scenes and chapters.

During the writing of it, I also became acutely aware of the setting, so even though I had lived in East Texas for a short time, I had to revisit it. I had to stomp around in it a bit. I spent a lot of hours researching the history of the region, too.

With that, I paid attention to the Caddo people and learned as much as I could about them. One of the things that appealed to me was their incredible artistry. They were and still are master potters. Here’s a photo of an ancient jar [scroll to “rare late Caddo head pot”]. That particular jar just made me happy.

But there was another jar (the large black one on the left), made by a contemporary potter, Jerilyn Redcorn, a Caddo artist who has spent her life studying and recreating the pottery of those early Caddos. This one, with its engraving on the side, affected me in a different way.

If you look closely at Ms. Redcorn’s engraving, you will see the image of three animals all in one–a snake, a hawk, and a panther. The jar design inspired the creation of my shapeshifters, Grandmother Moccasin and Hawk Man, as well as Night Song.

In my research, I’d found only fleeting mention of shapeshifters in Caddo stories and history, and I was careful in the book to make sure that the shapeshifters themselves were entirely my own–not Caddo or reinterpretations of their beliefs. But if my shifters had lived a thousand years ago, then they would certainly have encountered the Caddo people.

One of the things that was most important to me about the Caddo was their reputation for friendliness, which I think can be seen in that first old jar. The name “Texas” comes from a Caddo word that means something akin to “friend.”

If my family of shapeshifters took on their human forms and found their way to a Caddo village, it was highly likely that they would have been welcomed.

So, the region itself, with its history of artistry and its thriving nature, was full of possibility for me. The swamps, for anyone who has ever been near them, have a very primordial feel about them, as if they’ve been there forever, before time, before humans, before everything. And this feeling of ancientness was one I tapped into time and again.

The woods themselves became almost a character in the book, and it was wonderful to explore them on the page and in my imagination. Thus, the trees became sentient, the observers of all that happened there.

Another challenge for me was making the jump from a story that originally featured a boy as the main character, a realistic story, to one that featured talking animals.

I never set out to write an animal fantasy, even though I don’t really think the story is fantasy so much as it is magical realism.

Still, learning to take on the personae of the animals was a stretch for me. How, for example, would an alligator talk? What would snake-speak look like on the page? Could I inhabit the thoughts and feelings of a broken down old hound dog, and how would that sound and look?

And then there was Gar Face, a man who was rejected by the rest of the world and basically found his own kingdom in the deep backwaters of the swamp. And of course, Gar Face rejected the outer world, too.

He was loosely based upon a man I knew many years ago, someone in our family, and putting him in the story was like meeting him again all these years later. Not necessarily a sweet memory.

You asked about logistics and I have to say that keeping the timeline straight was a constant issue for me. There was the contemporary story of Puck, then there was the one that started a thousand years ago, and then there was Gar Face’s story that began 25 years ago, which was also the moment that lightning struck the old pine tree.

At one point, I got so tangled up in keeping the various timelines that I finally tapped my brother-in-law Daren’s shoulder to help me make sure that it made sense. He’s an engineer and I figured that if anyone could check the times, it would be Daren. He was a great help. Logic is his strong suit, which is a happy thing for me.

What delighted you most about the process?

I loved watching the story unfold, and I fell in love with the characters themselves. But maybe even better than that was the “village” of the story.

So many people took time out of their own writing lives to read it and to give me their thoughts, so many gave the story such careful consideration, and the book is so much stronger because of that. A number of my friends and family members were generous in their listening and coaching.

I’ll never forget the conversation I had with your Greg when, after listening to me talk, told me he thought the story belonged to the cat. He wasn’t the first person to say so, but there was something in his saying it that convinced me that it was so.

And beyond the readers, there were also people like the Park Ranger at Caddo Mounds State Park in Athens, Texas; and the archeologist who talked to me about the Caddo pots. There were also people in the Texas Parks department who answered questions about the flora and fauna of East Texas.

What was the most painful?

There came a point in which my agents, Holly McGhee and Emily E. van Beek, told me that the boy had to go. They felt that the story had grown around him, and he was no longer the main character, nor was his role integral anymore.

Considering that it was this boy who was the original voice for the story, it was very difficult to essentially cut him out. In addition, the boy reminded me a lot of my own son, Jacob, which made it even harder to take him out.

So that was tough. It was also very difficult to dispatch the mother cat, as well as to write the scene in which Ranger gets so badly beaten by Gar Face.

I have to say that during the writing of this story I came face to face with every doubt, every kernel of resistance, every form of self-sabotage that I’ve ever encountered in my writing life.

At times the story felt so much bigger than anything I was capable of writing.

Then, as I mention in my acknowledgments, Tobin (M. T.) Anderson called me and said, “You should always write what you think you can’t.”

For some reason that I can’t really explain, his saying that was exactly what I needed in order to push through to the end of the tale.

And then there were the revisions. I printed out at least ten full drafts and rewrote it two or three times for my editor, Caitlyn. So, the book took many revisions.

Congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award! How did you react when you heard the news?

How did I react? I felt like I had swallowed a star, that glittery.

Put mildly, the novel has had a rave reception. How are you riding that emotional tidal wave?

I’ve been so humbled by the response. Gosh, I feel immensely grateful. It seems like every day I get a nice e-mail from someone who has taken the time to write to me to say how much they loved the story. I’m fairly certain this is what authors live for, to know that someone loved their story.

My favorite was from a mom who read it out loud to her daughter and when they were finished they read it again. Then the daughter started making up her own stories with the kittens and Ranger. It makes me immensely happy to think that there is a seven-year-old girl who is extending Ranger and Puck and Sabine’s story, extending their lives.

But I confess that the attention is also a distraction. I’m really trying to get the next book on paper, and I’ve had a hard time focusing. Lately I’ve made my husband Ken disable our modem when he leaves for work in the morning. That way I’m not tempted to cruise around on Amazon reading the reviews. (Which, I promise, is a weakness and not healthy).

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you first started the book, what would you say?

Frankly, I’m surprised that none of my writer pals told me to “shut up and write,” so I’d hope that if I could go back I would do less whining and more writing.

What can your fans look forward to next?

The next novel is tentatively called “Keeper,” and all I can say is that there may or may not be some merfolk involved. There is another good dog named B.D. which is short for Bird Dog, and another dog named Too. (Okay, his real name is B. D. Too, but everyone calls him Too). Other than that, there’s a boat and a great beach bum.

It’s set on or near Galveston, which is where my grandmother lived and also where I spent my growing-up summers.

Cynsational Notes

Additional interviews with Kathi about The Underneath area available at Becky’s Book Reviews and from Kimberly Willis Holt.