New Voice: E. M. Kokie on Personal Effects

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

E. M. Kokie is the first-time author of Personal Effects (Candlewick, 2012)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

One letter: 876 miles.

Five days to find his brother’s past and his own future.

Ever since his brother, T.J., was killed in Iraq, seventeen-year-old Matt Foster feels like he’s been sleepwalking through life — failing classes, getting into fights, and avoiding his dad’s lectures about following in his brother’s footsteps. 

T.J.’s gone, and the worst part is, there’s nothing left of him to hold on to. 

Matt can’t shake the feeling that if only he could get his hands on T.J.’s stuff from Iraq, he’d be able to make sense of his death. He wasn’t expecting T.J.’s personal effects to raise even more questions about his life.

Now, even if it means pushing his dad over the edge…

even if it means losing his best friend…

even if it means getting expelled from school…

Matt will do whatever it takes to find out the truth about his brother’s past.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Research became extremely important for Personal Effects. I have no personal or familial experience with the military or with what it is like to have a loved one serving overseas, and especially not what happens after one of our service members is killed while serving. I had to research every aspect of enlistment, tours of duty, procedures after a service member is killed, etc.

I’m sort of an obsessive researcher, so I researched each aspect from several angles and avenues, using online and print resources, and even some personal accounts.

But there were two areas that were especially difficult to research: the details of notifying the family and assisting them post notification; and, the handling and delivery of the deceased service member’s personal effects.

Once I started combing through research materials from the perspective of both surviving family members and the notification officers, I was able to feel fairly comfortable with the details I included about the first part. But I really struggled with feeling like there were many
details I couldn’t know about the delivery and handling of the personal effects. And I really wanted to get those details right.

I wanted to know that if someone who has been through the experience read my book, they would feel like I at least got the essence of the experience right and treated it with respect. And because so much of
my writing really does come down to tactile details, there were all these small bits of the feel and appearance of the effects that I desperately wanted to know.

I got lucky early on, before I even signed with my agent, in that I connected online with someone who had worked at the personal effects depot who could help fill in some of my gaps. I was able to ask questions about how the effects would be processed, how they would be packed, what I should expect would definitely be included, and what
would not.

But I still had huge holes in my understanding about what happened after they were processed – how did they get secured for shipment, how were they shipped and delivered, and when, and by whom, etc.

E.K. often writes at her dining room table.

My questions felt simultaneously too trivial to risk contacting those with firsthand experience (it’s not the kind of thing you throw out on social media or hop into a forum and ask people to tell you
about the tactile details of such a personal and emotional event), and yet these details also felt too important to ignore. I put out some feelers, asking if anyone knew anyone who might talk to me, but I struck out. But I wasn’t ready to give up.

So, I researched as best I could, while I revised. Every few months I would run through my by-then-standard online searches, seeing if anything new would turn up. But I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Then, in a moment of inspiration, I realized I might have been asking the wrong questions. I had been searching online using fairly
sanitized search terms – deceased service member’s personal effects, deceased soldier’s personal effects, delivery of personal effects, etc. And I realized that anyone writing online about the subject would likely be doing so in a personal way – they would refer to the person specifically.

Once that inspiration struck, I found exactly what I was looking for after only a few search strings. I was able to connect with someone who had been present when a friend received his son’s personal effects. “Son’s personal effects” was the search string that lead to this amazingly generous person, who, with her friend’s permission, shared with me some of the sensory details about the delivery and appearance of the personal effects, and even shared insights I didn’t know to ask for.

It was an amazing, generous, affirming experience, which helped me get some key details right that I would have otherwise missed or had inaccurate. And it taught me a strong lesson in thinking about the point of view and motivations of potential sources of information when I am struggling to find tricky
bits. I had to remember that the information is gathered, organized and expressed by people, with emotions and relationships that impact how they will gather, organize and express what they are seeing, thinking and feeling.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

As a teen in Band.

I feel like Matt came to me fully formed but I had to revise to draw him out and get him organically on the page.

After years of being too afraid to try to write something original, or more accurately, finish something original, I made a pact with myself to write a novel. It didn’t have to be good, and I didn’t have to do anything with it, but
I had to finish it.

I was doing free-writing exercises – sitting down and writing whatever came to mind – trying to decide what to write.

In one of those sessions I wrote parts of what is now chapter two of Personal Effects. It was the first bit I wrote of Personal Effects, and for a long time it was the first chapter of the story.

I had this scene with this amazingly angry kid, sitting in an office, waiting for his father and reliving and almost relishing the fight he had a few
hours earlier. He was visceral, and vulnerable, and he seemed so real. And I wanted to know why he was so angry. I wrote a good chunk of the first draft to find out.

Once I knew why Matt was so angry, I had to ask questions and make decisions about plot and pacing, etc. Matt came into sharper focus and became more confident in that anger in every draft. But he was there in that first exercise scene, hiding in plain sight.

Most of the secondary characters, including Shauna, took more deliberate choices, more questions about what would be reasonable for that character in that moment to feel and how he or she would react. And even though they started out as more deliberate characters, they also grew and changed through revision, sometimes in significant ways.
Harley went through many versions of herself, for example, as the story required.

Matt is at times his own antagonist, but to the extent his father is his external antagonist, he may be the character I had to think about the most as the story came into focus through revision.

For so much of the writing of this book I was so sunk into Matt’s point of view and perspective that I think at times even I didn’t see things clearly, didn’t see his father clearly. But in revision I would look at some of his father’s actions, and reactions, and I could see that he wasn’t quite the monster Matt believed him to be.

Don’t get me wrong: he’s not an ideal father by any stretch of the imagination, and Matt deserved better and more. But sometimes, in some moments, I realized Matt had no idea who his father was.

I looked for moments within Matt’s limited and narrow point of view to (hopefully) show the reader some small insights into his father’s character and perspective beyond Matt’s fears and frustrations and pain.

How do you psyche yourself up to write, to keep writing, and to do the revision necessary to bring your manuscript to a competitive level? What, for you, are the special challenges in achieving this goal? What techniques have worked best and why?


I love to revise. That’s where I feel the most joy in the process. But I hate first drafting. Hate. Despise. It’s torture at times.

I try to motivate myself to draft through concentrating on getting to the revision stage. I also have found that having a regular critique group is a great motivator.

Knowing I have a crit group meeting coming up, and that I want to have something to submit, is just the right amount of pressure to get me out of my head enough to just write experimentally. To let the writing flow more freely. And that critique as I write helps me start making choices as the draft is forming, which is great for my confidence as I write, and often saves me time later on in the process by helping me identify missteps during the drafting.

Since selling Personal Effects, the added pressure of knowing someone else will read my work, and exactly who in my editor and agent, made drafting all the harder – it was nearly paralyzing for more than a year. I pushed along, writing when I could, backing out when a draft wasn’t working and trying a different angle in, waiting for it all to
feel loose and experimental again.

Once I had the start of a draft I felt was working, I started submitting to my critique group more regularly, and it quickly started to feel experimental again. That give and take of critique, knowing it’s just a draft that I expect to revise, was what I needed to relax and draft more freely again.

writers don’t feel comfortable showing a work in progress draft to anyone, but for me, an intimate and trusted critique group really helps me stay motivated and helps me focus as I write.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Chewbacca dressed as an Ewok, costume by E.K.

I think the key is figuring out how you write best. I tried sticking to a set schedule — ie, two pages, or one hour, or 1,000 words, etc. every day, week, whatever. But I have found that for me, when the words are flowing I have to let myself sink in deep, and write whenever I can.

Before work, after work, after dinner, late into the evening if it’s really going well. And I always end a section by writing myself some notes of what comes next so that when I sit down to write, I’m not coming to it cold.

When the words aren’t flowing, I take breaks, read, research, play, revise a little…whatever I can do to stay limber while the story marinates, waiting for the next burst of words to come.

Knowing that inspiration can be unpredictable, I have tried to schedule work so I do have opportunities to write most days. I also don’t over-schedule my weekends, knowing that if I am in a good writing head space, I might want to write for hours on end both weekend days.

Luckily, I have a partner who understands and supports my sunk-in times when I am glued to the computer and pretty much oblivious to the world around me.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

Okay, remember I said I’m pretty much an obsessive researcher?

What’s this in Chewbacca’s bed?

I applied that obsessive research to figuring out how to find an agent, too. I researched every aspect of the process while I was revising Personal Effects and working on my query. I created spreadsheets and charts and lists of agents, and found out everything I could about those at the top of my ever-changing list.

Then once I had a fairly solid list to start querying, I stayed up to date by doing a little research every week to stay current, watch trends, see who was asking for what, and signing who, and with what results, meaning that I re-prioritized my query list based on what I was seeing.

And when I actually started querying, I queried slow, a few queries at a time over about ten months, until I was sure my query letter and partial were working well enough to get requests. Then I decided to query all out.

I updated and re-prioritized my list of agents in July/August 2009 with plans to start sending queries in batches of five-to-seven a week until I ran out of viable candidates.

In that first batch in August/September 2009, I decided on a whim to add a newer agent to my list. I was interested because while he was new, he seemed to be building his client list slowly and he had a really good ratio of sales to clients, for books I thought sounded interesting. He also had a great bio that talked about books the way I talk about books. Something in that bio just felt right.

His name is Chris Richman and he’s with Upstart Crow Literary. When Chris offered me representation I was thrilled. I went through the process of notifying the other agents reading the manuscript, but I felt from our telephone call that Chris and I would be a good fit. We saw the book in similar ways, his ideas for revisions felt right, we had similar views for the
agent-client relationship and my long term writing plans, etc.

I couldn’t have asked for a better fit, and I often tell people that revising with Chris was like taking a course on pacing. His insights not only helped me strengthen Personal Effects, but they helped me better understand how to revise to improve pacing for future writing. So, I researched and queried for about a year, but all in all, I sent under 20 queries, signing with Chris in October 2009.

Learn about more debut authors!

As for advice for other writers, I also suggest they do their research. And that they do it themselves, instead of asking someone else to do it for them.

There is no magic in the process, but if you really put in the time to get to think about what you want and research potential agents, some bit of an interview or blog post or bio or even tweet might speak to you, might help you feel that this agent is the one for you. And you’ll have a better shot of making an informed decisions if you can remember that it is a business relationship, and look for the quantitative data, too, like how many clients they have, how often they request manuscripts, what sales have they made in your market and genre, etc.

I also advise writers to eradicate the term “dream agent” from their vocabulary. People are always asking who are the “dream agents.” Your dream agent will be different than someone else’s dream agent. Do your research, and you improve your chances of making that connection.

6 thoughts on “New Voice: E. M. Kokie on Personal Effects

  1. Great interview! I've been procrastinating on researching my current novel because it's also a sensitive subject, but you've inspired me to jump in further than I have. Congratulations on Personal Effects. It sounds like a great book.

  2. Your experiences researching PERSONAL EFFECTS remind me of my own when writing THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY… trying to find the right way to track down the details of certain experiences (gang violence, for me) from the lived, rather than reported, side of things.

  3. Ashley, yes, it sounds similar. Sometimes the clinical, or the academic, or the journalistic recordation of facts just won't do. Sometimes we need something more real.

  4. Cyn,

    My 15 yr old son found this book through the Indie Books Autumn listing and though it's quite different from what he usually reads (high fantasy), he absolutely loves it. I'm excited that he's found a realistic fiction book that grabs him. (And I'm a confirmed lover of fantasy but it's fun to read new things, too.)

    Thanks for the interview.


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