- Published: 28 April 2008 28 April 2008
Interview by Karen Zacharias
With her high-top tennis shoes, dark leotards, brightly-colored dresses, wavy hair, and oversized glasses, author Kerry Madden looks like a charming storybook character who has mastered the secret of how to jump off the page and become a real girl. Madden does that with her writing, too -- makes it jump off the page, and brings her characters to life.
Set in the Smoky Mountains, Madden's ever-popular Maggie Valley trilogy , Gentle's Holler (2005), Louisiana's Song (2007) and the newly- released Jessie's Mountain (2008) is capturing the hearts of young readers in much the same fashion as Christy did for a previous generation.
Kerry Madden takes a moment to visit with author Karen Spears Zacharias about the fictional Weems family and raising her own Los Angeles-based brood on old mountain values:
Q: Your maiden name -- Madden -- means you often get confused as the daughter of legendary Coach John Madden. Can you share one of the embarrassing encounters you've had due to that last name?
The most embarrassing encounter was being invited to speak at a fancy fundraiser luncheon for something, and EVERYBODY thought John Madden's daughter was speaking. I only realized it when I got to the luncheon, and people were asking why I didn't have John Madden on my website. Wasn't I proud of my father? I was mortified. Very nice ladies came up again and again to tell me how much they liked my father. I began my speech that day, "I am not John Madden's Daughter," and that was the catalyst for writing the essay that ran in the LA TIMES.
Q: Your first YA book dealt with issues you experienced growing up the daughter of a coach. Where did you stumble across the Weems family?
As I kid growing up in college football, I drew mountains and pictures of large families. Then I met a man, Kiffen Lunsford, from a family of thirteen children with deep roots in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I knew if I married him I'd never run out of stories. We spent our first year of marriage living in Ningbo, China. The University of Tennessee helped us get jobs teaching English. It was a great adventure.
Q: Tell us more about your husband, Kiffen. Where does he fall in the family? Where did the two of you meet? Do you pump information from the Kiffen-well to incorporate in your stories?
Kiffen, a math coach, calls himself "the fulcrum" - six older, six younger. We met doing theatre at the University of Tennessee. He played a policeman who worked nights in one of my first plays. He advised me about gardens and constellations, and he did know a carpenter in Middle Tennessee called "Marvin the Mennonite," and his daddy was a musician who sold baby food and encyclopedias. I tried to imagine what it was like for him to grow up one of twelve children, but I also tried to stay away from the sacred family lore. One sister told me, "Our holler was anything but gentle."
Q: You've raised up your own brood of talented children -- from your musically gifted Flannery, to your artistic Lucy, and your visionary, Norah. How did you go about cultivating an interest in the arts as a mother, and a writer?
I had a cousin who told me when I became a mother that I'd never go to the movies or see plays again. The cousin meant well, but I would have none of her advice. Kiffen and I both wanted the children raised on art, music, theatre, films, and sports (kind of in that order)...We encouraged them to find things they loved and cared about, and we showed them things we loved too. Of course, I overdid it now and again. I rented THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL a few too many times, and finally one of them shrieked, "NOT THE OLD LADY WHO TAKES THE BUS AGAIN!"
Q: You've got one of the most interactive websites. You are constantly getting stories, poems, lyrics from your young readers. What do you like most about this sort of forum? And however do you find the time to read all those entries?
In my writing workshops with kids, I really encourage them to get messy and write their stories. I want them to write about what they love and care about, and so they write stories of the perfect baseball pitch, sitting on a rooftop eating a bowl of macaroni & cheese, bragging over a catching bass fish. I love inviting the students to be "The Writer of the Day." I used to type up student entries, but now they have to email me their stories, so it's not nearly as time-consuming. One student wrote a Frida Kahlo haiku about her "one-eyebrow," which was funny. Another wrote about watching her mother feed her grandmother Cream of Wheat for supper, and it was so beautiful. You get these magic moments in writing workshops with kids.
Q: You are in high-demand as a workshop instructor for teaching kids writing. Do you think in our mandated rush to leave no child behind, we've left behind the arts in the public school system?
Educators are struggling to redesign assessments that better reflect a broader array of the child's experience, but the writing prompts and the rubrics to score them don't encourage any kind of passion, creativity, or spontaneity. Yet the teachers are tied to the prompts in the name of testing and standardized assessments. Kiffen is actually writing a thesis on how comprehensive arts programs raise community awareness about the value of the arts in at-risk schools. He's been a teacher in Los Angeles for 20 years now.
Q: This latest story, Jessie's Mountain, is a collaborative family effort. Tell us how that came about.
Actually, Norah inspired Caroline in all three novels, and Flannery edited/advised me on the songs in all three novels. When I was writing Jessie's Mountain, I weaved in Mama's diary from the 1940s, and Jessie loves birds and is always drawing them...I asked my editor if we could have drawings of birds in her diary. It wasn't planned but it just made sense...I showed her samples of Lucy's drawings, and she said yes...From the beginning, my kids have always read chapters and have never been afraid to tell me when it's boring. And I'd go back and revise...
Q: Is Livy-Two fashioned after the young Kerry Madden?
I guess I do have little bits of Livy Two - I wanted adventure and escape (mostly from football), and I loved books. But I really imagined my sister-in-law, Tomi Lunsford, a singer-songwriter in Nashville, growing up as a little girl, writing her songs.
Q: Your stories have been likened to the escapades of the former Walton Clan, from the John Boy days. You live in Los Angeles, yet you write about mountain people from a different, simpler life. Is this your attempt to get back to what grounds us?
I was missing the mountains when I started writing GENTLE'S HOLLER. So much of the writing life in Los Angeles can be about pitches, movie deals, pilots, and studio execs asking about "emotional arcs" from speaker phones in New York. I even have a friend who calls his local coffee shop "Cafe Failure" because it's filled with so many meetings and laptops. It can kill your soul after a while. I decided I wanted/needed to write about a family that I loved and cared about, and I thought about writers who gave me so much - Betty Smith, Lois Lowry, Catherine Marshall, Lee Smith, Harper Lee, Fannie Flagg, Donna Tartt...I could go on and on...Before Gentle's Holler, I was also ghostwriting and writing awful shadow soaps, and I was losing heart...I needed to write a story about a family that loved each other. They fought and bickered, but they loved each other...I had to get back to that.
Q: How is it today's tech-savvy kids find anything to relate to in your books? Did editors find your stories naive or parochial? If so, how did you convince them otherwise?
Editors didn't find them parochial, but they did find the early drafts clichéd and unsurprising. And they were right. So then, I wrote a very dark and sad draft, and my agent found it too depressing - could I instill hope, please? An editor suggested the same thing. I did and it was accepted by Viking Children's Books. As for relating to the story, kids are kids, and they have fights with their siblings and swipe the last piece of pie and sneak off to hide in trees or under beds. They get into trouble at school or get mad at their grandmothers. I think they find they're much more like the Weems' kids even in a world of I-Pod shuffles and X-Boxes.
Q: When you were growing up, who was your favorite literary character and why?
Francie Nolan from A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, and Christy from Catherine Marshall. I related to Francie more than any other character. I felt like I understood her, and I almost believed she was real. I could imagine Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I also loved Christy. It was the first time I saw "Knoxville" mentioned in a novel, and I was shocked because I lived in that town then. It was also about the mountains...But definitely those two...
Q: What is the hardest part about writing for a young audience? And how do you deal with that?
When I come to a grinding halt plot-wise, (one of my fortes) I usually write an essay. It's a different form, and it frees me up from whatever is stopping me in the novel. I go for long walks with the dogs and try to imagine what a kid would do...
Q: What is your writing process? Do you write at a designated time everyday? Tell us how you find the time to write while raising a family in the hectic life of LA.
I usually write while the kids are in school, and I try to write most of the school day. Though this rarely happens, I love to go away to write. I find being away from the distraction of home can be so freeing to make a great start on a first draft. I wrote two of the Maggie Valley novels that one. I also try to get back to the mountains and to the South...I miss it.
For more information check out kerrymadden.com