Author Kathi Appelt has written fifty some books but says her latest, Angel Thieves, (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, March 12, 2019), her first foray into writing young adult, has taught her plenty. Appelt says she’s eager to share the book with readers, but she’s being careful not to give up all her secrets…
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: You wrote that you were born in North Carolina, in the front seat of your parents’ car (and then you got to Texas as quickly as you could). Other than the brief period you lived in North Carolina, you’ve spent your life in Texas, were educated here (Gig ‘em), and come from seven generations of Houstonians, the earliest arriving when Texas was still a republic. It was a Houston cemetery that partly inspired your newest book, Angel Thieves, but how does (or doesn’t) being a Texan/Texas impact your stories?
Kathi Appelt: I really believe that setting informs story. While I don’t necessarily think of setting as a character, I do see it as sub-text. Like a character, a good setting comes with its own background, its own sensibilities and traits. Texas is enormous and culturally, ethnically, geographically and topographically diverse. It’s wide open.
Being a Texan, growing up here, I always felt a sense of expansiveness, as if anything could happen, and specifically in Houston, with its Space Center and its world-renowned universities and hospitals, with cutting edge architecture and art, I believed (and still do) in all-things-possible. Yes, I love the possibility of this home of mine.
“The possibility of this home of mine.” When the Texas sky’s the limit, how do you get started with a new story?
When I dig into a story, one of the first things I do is really take a hard look at the place of it. I examine what is unique, what is special. What is the history of it? I try to find out who was here first. What is/was the flora and fauna? I also ask about what is gone, and its opposite, what is new?
An important question I ask is, what does this place sound like? An urban setting, like Houston, is going to have a completely different voice than a seaside or a mountaintop, or a spaceship. Each one has a unique soundscape to it. And I work really hard to give resonance to that place via rhythm, assonance, allusion, all of those literary devices that apply.
Even within an urban setting, there are different soundscapes; what was your focus for Angel Thieves, and how did you approach creating it in your book?
To me, the bayous of Houston are twisty, they wind around and intertwine with each other. They flow through wild spaces and cityscapes alternately. So I worked to mimic that by twisting and alternating the various story strands. Because the landscape is so flat, the bayous of Houston are slow-moving, they ramble. That is, until a major storm, when they take on a devastating fury, and sweep aside anything in its path. There are some things that urbanization can’t tame, and some things that it aggravates.
Because the central bayou, the Buffalo Bayou, is so important to both the city and my book, I tried to use language to mimic the movement of the water, allowing for quiet moments of reflection, but also pushing the story with moments of urgency. Too much of either, and there’s a flood.
Your books are National Book Award finalists and have won numerous awards, including the Children’s Choice Award, Teacher’s Choice Award, Parent’s Choice Award, Texas Writer’s League Award for Children’s Literature, the Texas Institute of Letters Award, the Pen USA Award, and a Newbery Honor, just to name a few. All the accolades assure lots of eyes are on you when you publish something new. Do the nominations and awards put any pressure on you in writing?
While I do feel some pressure, I continue to believe that I haven’t written my best book yet. When I mentioned that to my agent, she replied, “Of course, you haven’t. Otherwise, what would be the point?” I love that response because it keeps me returning to the page. It’s like a gentle nudge to keep at it.
I’m so very grateful for the wonderful reception my books have received. I’m so fully aware that awards aren’t given without a huge amount of thought on the parts of judging committees. The thing I have to remind myself about is that awards are specific. They don’t inform the next story or the one after that.
My goal is always to write the best story I can write with the tools I have at hand.
When I was an elementary school librarian, your picture books were always very popular. When I set one on display, it rarely stayed for long. You have had some amazing illustrators and stories. (Personal favorite: Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers.) Is there one of your books that’s a little closer to your heart than any other?
Each one of my books is special to me for different reasons. Of all of my books, however, I would have to say that Keeper speaks to my heart in ways that the others don’t, largely because I so readily identify with Keeper herself. My grandmother lived on Galveston Island, so like my young heroine, I spent a lot of time there, watching the tide come in and out, longing for something magical, wondering about mermaids.
I do love Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers. That same grandmother who lived on the beach took me to a rally when President Johnson was campaigning, and that was the first time I ever saw Lady Bird. I was in the third or fourth grade, and I just remember how stately she was, how dignified, standing next to her husband. It was a thrilling moment. I’ve never forgotten it.
I have a new picture book coming out this summer called Max Attacks that is based upon the life of my son’s old cat, Max, and I love it for the joy of it. I can’t wait to share it.
I would love to say that there was a single source of inspiration for this story, but that would be a bald-faced lie. However, if I had to zero in on one reason, maybe it would be that a few years ago, my mother became seriously ill, and even though I can’t really say why, the knowing that I was losing her inspired me to try to find out more about who we were, about why we came to Houston in the first place, about who my ancestors were and where they came from. What were they doing in Houston? Why, of all the cities, in all the world, did they manage to choose Houston?
I’m so sorry for your loss; I know from my own experience that I looked for pieces of my family’s past to cling to. Were there any surprises when you started researching yours?
It was actually a surprise to me to learn that my family on my father’s side arrived there so soon, in the late 1830s, just after Texas won its independence from Mexico. They were among the earliest of the European settlers to make their home in what was then called Germantown, and is now called The Heights.
In trying to imagine their lives, in those early years of settlement, I came to see Houston in a different, more historical light than I ever had. I had so much to learn.
In so many ways, Houston is new and shiny, but it has its shadows. Those early Texans didn’t come alone. They brought their slaves with them, and relied upon their labor to get the economy moving. I’m proud to say that my relatives did not own slaves, but I’d be lying if I said they weren’t racist. It was something I felt I needed to face.
This piece of Texas history must have significantly impacted you since you made one of your main characters a slave. Did you keep digging?
Yes. In my research, I quickly came to realize that one of the primary reasons—maybe the primary reason that Texas fought for its independence was because Mexico had made slavery illegal. Those early Texans didn’t want that. They wanted to keep their slaves. All those fields of cotton, all those cattle, were labor intensive. In many ways, the Texas Revolution was a kind of mini-Civil War, or at least a precursor to the larger war that followed not that many years later. In the case of Texas, the slave-holders won. Independence in Texas didn’t mean independence for everyone. As a seventh generation Texan, I felt compelled to say this, to show this. It wasn’t something that I ever learned in my Texas history classes. All those heroes of the Alamo? All slave holders. This seemed to me to be a major omission. Then again, the victors always get to write the history.
I’m not a victor, nor am I a historian, but I do believe that art, literature, music, can offer up some corrective beauty. That was my intent.
Another of your main characters is an ocelot…
When it comes to a place like Houston, there’s a lot to say. It’s the fourth-largest city in the country, and one of the most diverse. Its history is both long and short. As a settled city, it’s not nearly as old as New Orleans or Boston, or even Galveston. But it’s not like there wasn’t a history of it before the Allen Brothers staked their claim on the confluence of the Buffalo and White Oak Bayous. Indigenous peoples had settled along those swampy banks for centuries before the Texans moved in, including the Caddo, the Karankawas, and others. As well, there’s the natural history of it, including a time when ocelots, passenger pigeons, black bears, and even bison, were abundant.
I used the bayou as the narrator for the simple reason that she, in her ancient existence, had known about every person and creature who had ever wandered along her banks. She ties the various histories of this story together. She’s the witness.
Your website identifies you as “poet, author, teacher.” Is that in the correct order or no particular order? If it’s not in the correct order, which should come first?
I wouldn’t say that one is more important than another. But I would say that none are as important as “wife, mother, cat person.”
You’re a longtime faculty member for the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program for children and young adults. You’ve done children’s books and middle grade books, and now with Angel Thieves, you are going into the young adult realm. Why young adult, and why now? Did your teaching have any impact here?
I love writing middle grade, and even more than that, I love writing for the very young. But this particular book needed a more mature audience to give it some air. I wanted to take some liberties in terms of themes that might be too much for a younger set.
As well, I believe there are some other moral questions here that have to do with criminal activity, specifically thievery, that call for an older set. I want my readers to ask, of every character, who is the thief? Who is the criminal? What is gained? What is lost? Writing for teenagers allows for those questions to be fully examined. And while I’m not suggesting that younger readers aren’t capable of wrangling with those issues, I really aimed for that teen reader in this case.
You mentioned that you wrote some unintentional parallels to real-world issues; what are they?
Interestingly, when I began this novel, no one was aware of the children being separated from their parents along the Border. Who could have believed that all these years after the Civil War, our government would be tearing children away from their mothers again? In my book, Achsah is running for this exact reason, to avoid losing her baby girls. And ironically, she’s running toward that same river—The Rio Grande—the one that has, over the past few centuries at least, always represented the line between slavery and freedom. She’s running south, however. Not north.
That was ironic and also unintentional.
From your social media and web presence, fans and followers are well-aware you are a cat person. (To quote from The Underneath: “Purring is not so different from praying.”) Most of your books feature animals or animals play a prominent role in them. Why animals?
I think that we can judge a person by the ways that they connect to the natural world. Animals give my characters, through their choices, their kindnesses (or not), their concerns, chances to be worthy. In other words, animals illuminate our capacity to be fully human. Does that make sense? How we treat them says something about who we are.
You’ve enjoyed enormous success as an author and have an impressive catalog of work. Were there ever rejections? Any advice?
Of course, there have been—and still are—rejections. That’s the way of the publishing industry. I have drawers full, file-folders full, of manuscripts that have been rejected. Other manuscripts are unfinished, or overfinished, or just crap. Lots of crap.
My motto is that every piece of writing that you ever do is the piece that comes before the next one. Each bit of writing leads to the next. Some will work, and some won’t, but the most important thing to do is to keep at it, keep aiming for the next piece.
Good question. But I think the next story is going to have a camel.
Favorite book? Of all time? Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell
Most important book? Beloved, by Toni Morrison
eReader or print? Both
Number of books on your nightstand? The stack is perilously close to falling on top of one of the cats.
Strange habit? Hmm…Sudoku puzzles?
Interesting writing ritual? I write at least five minutes every day. Also, coffee . . . lots of coffee.
Funniest flaw? I tend to miss my mouth and wear my food, so I try to always have a scarf handy.
Pet peeve? Spam telephone calls. Aaaargh!
Most underappreciated author/hidden gem author? Martine Leavitt
Kathi Appelt is the author of the Newbery Honoree, National Book Award finalist, PEN USA Literary Award-winning, and bestselling The Underneath as well as the National Book Award finalist The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Keeper, and many picture books including Counting Crows. She has two grown children and lives in College Station, Texas, with her husband. Visit her website.