Thursday, November 23, 2006

Grateful Author Story #8: Smoky Memories

From Kerry Madden, author of GENTLE'S HOLLER:
I am writing in the garden. To write as one should of a garden one must write not outside it or merely somewhere near it, but in the garden.
-- Frances Hodgson Burnett
I was missing the South and seasons one very warm and sunny Los Angeles winter. My writing was going nowhere, and I longed for fields of wild flowers and thunderstorms and attics and lightning bugs and leaves that turn raspberry gold, and even snow. So I went back to the Smoky Mountains in my mind and imagined my husband as a little boy with his twelve brothers and sisters, and I began to write. Kate DiCamillo wrote BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE during an icy winter in Minnesota while missing Florida, and I took heart in learning this about her.

After several years of ghostwriting, health writing, and a few scattershot attempts at awful soap opera scripts, I knew that if I didn’t write something that I cared about deeply, something that mattered, there would be no more point in calling myself a writer. I know this sounds dramatic, but it's the truth. I also needed to write with love, instead of being clever or mean. I'd done that in fiction and failed miserably.

I wanted my children's novel to be written with love and joy and of course, doubt, fear, worries too--that's inescapable for me--but I let the love and joy for these mountain kids come first. And I listened to Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Mississippi John Hurt, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells, Lucinda Williams, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Reno & Smiley. Their music was a balm and salve--even though it sometimes drove my kids crazy, and the older kids dove for the volume button whenever I picked them up at school.

I'll really show my ignorance, but I didn't realize there was a difference between YA and middle-grade novels when I wrote GENTLE'S HOLLER. I just thought I was writing YA, but I've since learned that GENTLE'S HOLLER is more middle-grade because protagonist Livy Two is 12; even though her older brother is 14 and definitely experiencing my "YA" problems. I also didn't know it was historical fiction because of the 1962 setting. I just wanted to write a story about a kid who dreams of adventures from her mountain home and worries about her sister's eyes.

When writing GENTLE’S HOLLER, I studied flowers, trees, rocks and birds of the Smoky Mountains. I picked a religion that I thought best suited the grandmother who wants her grandkids back at church. I selected an old radio show that was popular in Knoxville, and I did research on Cas Walker and learned how he used to throw live chickens off the roof to attract customers. I listened to old banjo tunes, and I interviewed folks who worked at Ghost Town in the Sky in the town of Maggie Valley. I found the town of Maggie Valley purely by accident when our middle child pitched a fit at Thomas Wolfe’s home in Asheville, and we decided to take the back roads to Knoxville. I thought the name “Maggie Valley” sounded so beautiful, it had to be wonderful. And so we found Ghost Town and let the kids play in the mountains. That was how I came to select it as the setting for GENTLE’S HOLLER.

"I Don't Like to Write...I Like To Fish."
A boy told me that in my first writing workshop in Appalachia on my book tour. And I said, “Well, write about fishing. Tell me what it’s like. How much does a can of nightcrawlers cost?”

He was incredulous. “You mean I can write about fishing?”

I said, “You can write about anything!”

So he wrote of fishing, and how a can of nightcrawlers cost about a dollar-twenty-five, and they come twelve to a can, and losing one is like throwing a dime in the water, and there’s nothing better than catching a big old bass and bragging about it.

I believe kids are storycatchers and storytellers. I find I am most connected and alive when I am encouraging kids, teens, even adults, to find their voice as storytellers. To tell them, “Yes, you do have a story to tell! Tell your story!” And I'm so grateful to be able to tell mine through these Maggie Valley novels.

After GENTLE'S HOLLER was published and I finished my book tour, Viking was so pleased with the reception of the book and of my hard work in reaching kids through school and library visits, that they bought the next two companion novels. LOUISIANA'S SONG comes out in 2007 and JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN comes out in 2008. GENTLE'S HOLLER was recently named a PEN USA Finalist in Children's Literature for 2006.

I continue to try to write my Maggie Valley novels with love and joy, and I will be returning again to the mountains for more writing workshops for kids in the next few years. How lucky am I to be able to write about a huge family of kids growing up in the Smokies?

My favorite reading was at Joey's Pancake House in Maggie Valley, where a little girl, Caroline, read her stories with me. She had to stand on a chair she was so tiny, but on that day, I read from GENTLE'S HOLLER and she read of Egyptian princesses, and everyone ate pancakes in the heart of the Smoky Mountains listening to stories.
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Happy Thanksgiving!

2 comments:

David said...

That's odd. I lived in the South (Gulf Coast) for a few years, and I found myself missing the seasons. To me, the South didn't have seasons.

Sally Nemeth said...

And I'm grateful to Kerry, who was so generous with me as I was getting ready for the release of my first novel. She gave me great book promo advice, and the best piece of advice she gave me was to take Bella's workshop. She also introduced me to the LAYAs - the LA Young Adult authors, all of whom have been equally giving. Gracias!