New Voice: Kimberly Sabatini on Touching the Surface

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Kimberly Sabatini is the first-time author of Touching the Surface (Simon Pulse, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Life-altering mistakes are meant to alter lives…

When Elliot dies for the third time, she knows this is her last shot. There are no fourth-timers in this afterlife, so one more chance is all she has to get things right. 

But before she can move on to her next life, Elliot will be forced to face her past and delve into the painful memories she’d rather keep buried. Memories of people she’s hurt, people she’s betrayed…and people she’s killed.

As she pieces together the mistakes of her past, Elliot must earn the forgiveness of her best friend and reveal the truth about herself to the two boys she loves…even if it means losing them both forever.

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

I thought I would talk a little bit about my sixth grade teacher. I had a series of hardworking, caring English teachers over the course of my childhood. Seriously, they were all great, but I thought I would tell you about the one teacher I hated.

I was scared to death of Mrs. Mignault. At the time, I was convinced that she was Satan’s handmaiden. Perhaps this was just an unfortunate side effect of spending too many years in Catholic school. Or maybe it was because she was strict and grouchy most of the time. Or perhaps it was because I adored my fifth grade teacher more than I’d ever loved a teacher before.  I’m sure the truth is a jumble of all those things, but for the record, I was not optimistic about the sixth grade.

I remember the English class where Mrs. Mignault had written a poem on the black board. With her thin lips pressed tightly together, she made us copy it down and commit it to memory—groan.

The poem was “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, May 1915. Mrs. Mignault began to recite the words. She walked us through each line. And we were quiet. We were listening.

 Instead of yelling at us, she was talking to us. It was the moment I realized she had poetry in her soul. The subject and the words moved her—she felt them deeply. It was about war and loss, and I could picture it all so clearly.

From that moment on, I never looked at her or poetry the same way again. She taught me that words had the power to transform people. I never told anyone what a life-changing experience I had that day in sixth grade. They would have laughed at me. Even so, I’m sorry I kept it a secret. I wish she would have known—that from that day on—a piece of me loved her.

John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.
Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, May 1915

Perhaps Mrs. Mignault is watching me. Maybe she’ll see the day that I hold my book in my hands. And if I’m lucky, she’ll know that I’ve taken her torch and I hold it high.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, 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?

I’m a mom of three boys ages eleven, nine and seven. They were six,
four and two when I started to write Touching the Surface. My dad had
passed away when I was pregnant with my youngest son. 

Right around that time, a lot of things were pointing me in the direction of writing. A friend took me to an author luncheon, I needed to have an outlet for my feelings about my dad and quite honestly, I was inundated with motherhood. I needed something that belonged to me.

So when I got up the courage to join the SCBWI, I noticed there was a local conference coming up and it was practically in my hometown.

The only problem–it was on my youngest son’s second birthday.

I always believe that my dad must have been pushing me from behind, telling me to go. But I fought it, even though it felt so right. It took awhile to digest the fact that my husband “misses” lots of birthdays when he’s at work. There was a lot of “mommy guilt” before I figured out that being gone for the day didn’t mean I was going to miss the celebration. So—I went. And I’m so glad I did.

Inspired by the conference, particularly Laurie Halse Anderson and K.L. Going, I signed up for an intimate workshop and critique with Kelly (K.L. Going.) I went home and I started to write Touching the Surface so that I would have something for her to look at.

Making that time for myself never scarred my kids, it’s allowed them to see me have passion and determination. They witnessed a dream in the making. I think that’s one of the greatest gifts I could give to them.

As a primary caregiver, I also recommend putting things in perspective. Stop being so hard on yourself.

My code word is flexibility. I’ve stopped beating myself up about my inability to keep a writing schedule or even having enough butt-in-chair time. I write in my head while I’m at the playground. I develop characters while I’m counting Box Tops, and I listen to audio books while I do the laundry or take a shower.

I don’t apologize when I have a week when the kids are sick or obligations have to get done. I also don’t beg forgiveness for the times when I rent a movie or I when I tell the kids that it is not my job to entertain them—they’re kids—they need to use their imagination and play.

My last piece of advice is to stock up. One day, several years ago, my boys came and told me that they had no clean socks to wear to school. I did what every short-for-time, over-worked forgot to do the laundry, aspiring author does…I made them wear my small, stretchy socks instead.

Problem solved—until my oldest boy reminded me, that he was also down to his last pair of underwear. It was firmly suggested that I do some laundry—very quickly—because he had no intentions of wearing my underwear to school the next day.

I got it done. But now we have a supply of underwear and socks that could take us through the apocalypse. Totally, not a bad thing.

2 thoughts on “New Voice: Kimberly Sabatini on Touching the Surface

  1. Wow! I'm fast becoming a B-I-G fan of Kim, and found this interview to be fantastic. In both questions and answers. As a writer and mom, myself, it's delightful to hear, I'm not the only one writing in my head at the playground and sharing my sockies, as my kids call them. As the child of a teacher and sister, cousin and granddaughter to many others, I really enjoyed learning about Mrs. Mignault. A very touching retrospective.

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