By Heather Leah Huddleston
Beth Kephart knows a thing or two about words. She is, in fact, a craftsperson—one who deals in words, either hers or others, daily, and who is constantly learning and dreaming how to chisel away at and sculpt them to discover meaning. One of the most versatile writers being published today, Kephart has a presence in young adult literature, as well as fiction for adults, memoir, creative non-fiction, and did I mention she writes poetry? Kephart has the talent—and skill—to breathe life and humanity into the people, and places, where it is most needed to be seen. She also serves as a champion for other writers—her blog has been a go-to for many craftsmen and women over the years.
And with two books published this year alone—One Thing Stolen (Chronicle Books) and the forthcoming Love: A Philadelphia Affair (Temple University Press)—and a young adult novel due out in April 2016, This Is the Story of You (Chronicle Books), it doesn’t look like Kephart intends to slow down any time soon. One thing is for certain: Beth Kephart makes room for words, she holds space for them, she keeps chipping away at them, and that is inspiring.
Clockhouse had the privilege of publishing Kephart in its second volume, and here we’ve been given the chance to probe her mind for advice about the craft, space, and business of words.
HLH: You write mostly young adult literature, but you have also written memoir, books on craft and even poetry. The piece in Clockhouse is clearly for a more mature audience. How is writing fiction for young adults different from writing fiction for adults?
BK: It’s funny. I’ve written exactly ten books for adults and ten books for young adults, according to industry classifications. To me, I’ve written (or, I should say, published) 20 books. The readers wander in both directions. The lines get crossed. I can tell you that I find it far more difficult to write long fiction for adults than long fiction for young adults, and I’m mad at myself about that. Perhaps the problem I face has something to do with spontaneity. When I occupy a younger person’s voice, I somehow feel freer to bang and smash language. When I write under the guise of an older person, I take myself, and the work, too seriously—and it shows. I’m working on this. I don’t like the paralysis that creeps in. It must be beaten back.
HLH: What is some practical advice you can give to writers, especially for people who are in a graduate program or those who are just starting to put their work out into the greater world?
BK: Last month, an essay I wrote on living to write appeared on a site called Adventures in YA Publishing. Right now I think that is the most important advice I can dispense: live. Too many people seem to feel that they are losing when they are not writing—losing ground, losing a stake, losing an opportunity. But we cannot write well if we don’t live well, and living takes us away from couches and machines. Or it should. So my advice is not to be afraid when you are not writing. Everything that is happening to you is somehow enlarging your vision, your vocabulary, your sense of the possible.
HLH: What is a typical work day like for you?
BK: Never, ever, ever a typical day. When I am teaching at Penn, I am focused intently on that work, my students. When I am researching a book, I am not writing. When my clients need me (I run a boutique marketing communications firm), I am focused on them. I have a little house that I care about greatly. My father lives near; I make sure to see him. My son calls, and I drop everything else. My husband says he loves my brownies, and I am baking. I will go months without writing anything but reviews or essays. What is typical is that in every day I am connecting with someone—an old friend or a new one, a neighbor or a writer. I’m not hugely social. But I believe in the web of humanity.
HLH: What are two fun facts about yourself that not many people know?
BK: Two fun facts? Hmmmm…. Well. I collect (which is to say I buy with huge selectivity, but I do buy them) masks and creatures made by artists in Italy, Mexico, the south. And: I have become a really good baker of olive oil cakes.
We’re pleased to have the opportunity to re-present an excerpt from Beth Kephart’s The Velocity of Wings, which was published in Clockhouse, Volume 2. If you’d like to purchase a volume, please click here.
From The Velocity of Wings:
Becca kept the phone to her ear. She kept the line live, in case Kate might speak again, in case she could, Kate’s words coming from somewhere deep and squeezed in the bellows of her lungs. “I’m right here,” Becca kept saying. “I’m coming.” On the long ribbon of road, in the cataclysmic green of spring, she pressed her foot on the accelerator and drove as fast as the Jeep would let her—Vin’s old Wrangler, the antique version, with the hemp-assisted bumper and the dent along one door. Kate and MC lived in MC’s house, toward the rolling hillocks, where there was corn in the summer and black cows all year round, but not farmers, exactly; Becca never knew where the cows and the corn came from. Now, as far as Becca could see, there was the fence holding things in and the green of the trees on the ridge—all of it blurred against the Jeep’s nearly ambitious speed.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of twenty books, an adjunct professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer, and the strategic writing partner in a boutique marketing communications firm. Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir won the 2013 Books for a Better Life Award (Motivational Category). Most recently, Beth’s tenth young adult novel, One Thing Stolen (Chronicle Books), won a Parents’ Choice Gold Medal Award. Going Over, her 1983 Berlin story, was a Junior Library Guild Selection, was launched to three starred reviews, and was named a Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth. Kephart’s Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River has recently been released as a paperback and is a key component in a William Penn-founded pilot education program created by the Fairmount Water Works. She blogs daily at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com.
Heather Leah Huddleston is a CWC Board of Steward member and part of the marketing and publicity team for CLOCKHOUSE, the literary journal published by CWC in partnership with Goddard College and the MFAW program. From time to time, she will revisit an author previously published in CLOCKHOUSE for a conversation about craft and the writing life.