Interview with Katherine Kirkpatrick by Susan Hill Long

Susan: What made you realize you wanted to be a writer? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Katherine: In the sixth grade, I wrote a story about vampire bats attacking a scientist. That year I won my first English prize, the first of many, and writing became “my thing.” I followed a family pattern. My mother did quite a lot of writing, and my brother Sidney (see, sister, cousin, and grandfather chose careers in writing and/or publishing.

My advice to aspiring writers is to take all assignments, paid and unpaid. Contribute to your school’s alumni magazine and local newspaper. Think about what organizations you belong to. Blog. Write a heartfelt reminiscence when your favorite teacher retires. Volunteer your talents, make people laugh, feel appreciated, hone your skills. I’m so proud of the biography of my father I self-published, The Dale Kirkpatrick Story (

Susan: Why did you choose to write historical fiction for young adults?

Katherine: My mother loved history and partly for that reason my parents chose to settle in a community rich in colonial and maritime lore, the Three Villages (Stony Brook, Setauket, Old Field), Long Island, New York. My family liked to tour historic houses and visit old cemeteries and our local carriage museum, which has a jauntily painted American gypsy wagon, circa 1870, that always captured my imagination. Once I took a children’s writing class held in the museum’s 18th-century one-room schoolhouse.

When I started to write novels, I found myself drawn to the coming-of-age themes of independence, discovery, maturity, and relationships in young adult fiction.

Susan: Where did you get the idea that sparked Between Two Worlds?

Katherine: In the Hall of Meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I noticed a photo of four-year-old Marie Peary, the daughter of Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary, onboard a ship with a gigantic meteorite. After researching Marie’s life, I started a novel. I showed it to editor Mary Cash at Holiday House, along with stunning photographs of Marie in Arctic Greenland. With the photos in mind, Mary encouraged me to write a nonfiction book, The Snow Baby,, published in 2007.

Years later I returned to the novel. It took on new life when I decided to switch perspectives, telling the story from Billy Bah’s, an Inuk girl’s, point of view.

Katherine Kirkpatrick with Jessica Baloun, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, WA

Susan: I really enjoyed reading The Snow Baby! Can you tell us a little bit about your work writing both fiction and nonfiction, and how one approach may inform the other?

Katherine: I’d published four novels before I wrote The Snow Baby, so I brought to that photo essay/biography the novelist’s ability to think in terms of drama and scenes. After eight years of publishing nonfiction books, I returned to fiction with Between Two Worlds. Because I’d already researched Arctic Greenland, I focused on plot and character development without thinking so much about getting the history right. It’s been my tendency, like globbing on too much icing on a cake, to pile on historical details. This time around I started with the cake itself and with better results; Between Two Worlds has received excellent reviews.

It’s not a good idea, career-wise, to do the kind of zigzagging between genres that I’ve done. To establish a readership, it’s best to do the same kind of book over and over, preferably with the same publisher. But there’s value, too, in publishing individual titles. A friend of mine puts it this way: “Go to the party where you’re invited.”

Susan: Between Two Worlds is based on a true story. What’s real and what’s made up?

Katherine: About 80 percent of the book is based on historical events. Sixteen-year-old Billy Bah joined the Peary family on his ship Windward, which became locked in ice for eight months in 1900-1901. Just about everything but the triangle love story and conversations with the ancestor-ghosts is historically based.

Susan: Tell us about the real Billy Bah.

Katherine: Billy Bah, also known by her Inuk name, Eqariusaq, was born around 1884 in a remote coastal area of Arctic Greenland. When she was about eleven, she spent a year in Washington, D.C. with Peary’s family. She was both orphaned and married around age fourteen. Peary referred to her as his most expert seamstress. She sewed the fur coat that explorer Matthew Henson wore during the famed Peary expedition of 1909 to the North Pole.

Susan: The setting of 1901 Arctic Greenland plays a distinct and significant role in the novel. Also, you use a lot of Inuktun (Polar Eskimo) words in the book. Were these challenges for you, in terms of making Billy Bah’s story come alive for YA readers?

Katherine: The key to historical fiction is to put the past into the present, to bring out universal themes that a modern-day audience can relate to such as the desire to belong or the need for independence. No matter when, people have always shared many of the same core fears and desires. One common teenage dilemma is that at some point we must act under pressure and make difficult choices. The theme of romantic love is also powerful and universal. Billy Bah’s love affair with the sailor Duncan is the aspect of the book that I feel will most appeal to teen girl readers, fully drawing them into 1901 and the foreign world of Arctic Greenland.

In earlier drafts, I used a lot of Inuktun words. My editor Wendy Lamb cut out most of them, smoothing out the prose, while skillfully leaving in hints of the native sounds. Wendy also had me tone down aspects of traditional Inuit life that modern readers might find off-putting. I deleted the gory chapter in which Billy Bah’s people slaughter walruses and downplayed the cultural norms of uncombed hair, unwashed bodies, head lice, and body lice. Over five rewrites, Billy Bah became more assertive, more mature, and less historically Inuit in terms of personal hygiene.

Susan: What’s the most unusual thing you’ve had to Google for a work in progress?

Katherine: I researched Inuit women washing their hair with urine. It would have put off readers, so I ended up not including that info. Again, sometimes we need to sacrifice a little accuracy for accessibility.

Susan: We all struggle to maintain “balance” in our writing lives. Could you describe your typical writing day?

Katherine: I block out about fifteen hours of morning time, Monday to Friday, for writing, and this time is for writing only. I’ll work in email or phone calls before or after, and in between my family-related commitments, such as taking my 90-year-old father-in-law to his medical appointments and my two middle-school-age children to their music lessons and other activities. I also try to squeeze in exercise time. I like to cook and we make a sit-down dinner a priority. Though I don’t write in the evenings or on weekends, I’ll sometimes do work-related reading or editing. Evenings I like to relax with my cat and play the harp.

Susan: What are you working on now?

Katherine: My novel in progress is set in England and Egypt in 1922-1923, during the opening of King Tut’s tomb. Two years ago, with my sister, brother-in-law, and niece, I visited the book’s Egyptian settings. We toured archaeological sites by small boat on the Nile and flew over the Valley of the Kings in a hot air balloon. This past April, during a family trip to England, I visited my novel’s main British setting, Highclere Castle in Berkshire, outside of London, for the second time. Highclere is now popular as the set for the hit British TV series “Downton Abbey.” I’ve been enjoying myself researching and writing, and I hope that spirit of fun and adventure will go into the book.

Susan: What was it like to have the great Madeleine L’Engle as a writing teacher?

Katherine: Madeleine was the most extraordinary person I’ve ever known. Quite tall, regal, and magnificent in her long purple and blue dresses and exotic jewelry, she projected the same sense of wonder as her classic fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time. She was more than a little like the three otherworldly presences Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which. Her expansive vision included a belief in angels, whom she was sure appeared regularly to all of us. She emanated power, knowing, and love, and had a great talent for bringing out her students’ inherently good qualities.

As a writing teacher she wasn’t what you would expect. Instead of talking about plot, character, or story structure, she preferred more abstract themes about the larger role of writing and art in our lives, such as the concept of story being truth. Invariably she advised, “Write for an hour. Don’t think. Attempts to direct only interfere with creative work.” Her belief about writing was that it’s an entry into the larger Cosmos. Publishing books is a happy by-product, she said. The shared journey is what matters.

In the ten years I knew Madeleine, she taught me about the life of spirit and the value of community. I met most of my closest friends through her. To learn more about Madeleine as a teacher, see the book I edited, A Circle of Friends: Remembering Madeleine L’Engle ( ).

Thanks for interviewing me, Susan!

 * * * * *

This interview was previously published in abbreviated form on the fabulous historical fiction blog “Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks” on June 30, 2014.

published by Wendy Lamb Books/ Random House, 2014

Celebrating Fifteen Years of Redcoats and Petticoats


            Recently an envelope arrived in the mail from the literary agency that represented my earliest published work. Only one of those titles, my 1999 picture book Redcoats and Petticoats, remains in print.

When royalties start to dwindle, an out-of-print notice usually follows. It seemed to me I had a fifty percent chance of receiving disappointing news about Redcoats and, especially since I was about to leave for London the next morning, I decided not to open the envelope. Several weeks later, home again but caught up in busyness, I continued to shelve the envelope and any feelings of sorrow that might come from discovering its contents.

Finally, one evening I felt ready to face what the wheel of fortune had dealt me. As I took out my paper knife, a favorite Buddhist teaching popped into my mind: “The dharma wheel turns, pay no mind to it.” In other words, when we’re down we’re on the way up and vice versa, so knowing that ever-changing state of things let’s try to live with grace, trust, and equanimity. Somewhere, at the center of the wheel, I reminded myself, there’s always a place of peace.

I’d hoped to find a check of at least six hundred dollars. I feared I’d receive a hundred or less. The check in my hand amounted to nearly four thousand dollars. Woo-hoo! Score! I could hardly believe it. Then I remembered that the subject of my book, George Washington’s spies on Long Island, had been featured in a recent AMC television series, “Turn.” Obviously, the public’s renewed interest in the topic accounted for my boon in sales.

I laughed so hard I felt giddy. I told one of my daughters what happened. Grinning, she gave me the thumbs up. I giggled some more, at the sheer surprise of the news, but also at myself for the way I’d behaved by waiting to open the envelope.

Redcoats and Petticoats, published by Holiday House, Inc., and illustrated by Ronald Himler, has continuously been in print in hardcover since 1999. Privately owned and managed, Holiday House remains one of the few independent book publishers in New York.


* * * * *

            Redcoats and Petticoats tells the real-life story of a brave woman named Anna (Nancy) Strong who used her clothesline to help her group of fellow undercover agents relay news to General George Washington. I’ve known the story as long as I can remember. I don’t think it’s possible to grow up, as I did, in the Three Villages of Stony Brook, Setauket, and Old Field, on the north shore of Long Island, New York, without knowing of our beloved Setauket Spy Ring. This handful of heroic citizens, via a person-to-person assembly, on foot and by horseback, by rowboat, and finally by whaleboat across Long Island Sound to Washington’s headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut, passed on news of Tory battle plans that secret agents had overheard in the tearooms and taverns of the city of New York. In Setauket, sixty-three miles from the city, Nancy Strong did her part by signaling to a fellow spy a code that indicated the rendezvous spot in one of the nearby coves, where the secret missives would be waiting for a whaleboat captain to row them across the Sound to Patriot shores.

As part of a fourth-grade school assignment, my mother took me to meet Kate Strong, a blind woman, by then well into her nineties, the great-great-granddaughter of the famous clothesline patriot. The essay I wrote subsequently won me my first award in a writing contest sponsored by the Long Island chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. No doubt this early recognition contributed to my becoming a writer.


The locations in Redcoats and Petticoats, beautifully and accurately rendered by artist Ronald Himler, serve as fixed points in my childhood. The Setauket Neighborhood House on Main Street, where George Washington paid a visit, was where I’d taken ballet and where my mother attended historical society functions. In the waters off Strong’s Neck, near the spot where Nancy Strong hung her clothesline, I’d clammed its muddy shallows, rowed, sailed, and, with my high-school chum Elke Dee, learned to water-ski. In the summers during college, and after, I spent many happy evenings star-gazing, boating, and barbecuing with my dear friend Lisa Lesko and her family.

The book’s opening spread shows the Battle of Setauket on the Village Green, in front of the Setauket Presbyterian Church. Here my parents, Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick, performed marionette shows at church fairs. And here, loudly bellowing traditional Highland melodies, a bagpiper opened and concluded our family weddings, including my own in the same year Redcoats was published. Six years later, in the church cemetery where the Tories camped and uprooted tombstones to use as cooking tables, my father was buried, and four years after that, my mother laid to rest beside him.

The present Setauket Presbyterian Church structure was built in 1812. Its graveyard dates to the 1660s.

The present Setauket Presbyterian Church structure was built in 1812. Its graveyard dates to the 1660s.

Walking the path of history.

Walking the path of history.

The Caroline Church of Brookhaven, on Setauket’s Village Green, was built in 1729.

The Caroline Church of Brookhaven, on Setauket’s Village Green, was built in 1729.

Writing the book put me in touch with our distant Revolutionary War past. Reflecting on the book now puts me in touch with my own past, the flow of my life, and the lives of many dear to me. Through beloved local landmarks, I see and appreciate the distances we’ve traveled, and the well-worn, age-old paths still ahead of us.

I’m so grateful that my book has beaten the odds in the competitive venue of publishing and I now celebrate its fifteenth anniversary. Viva Redcoats and Petticoats!

Checking proofs for Redcoats with editor Mary Cash.

Checking proofs for Redcoats with editor Mary Cash.


Boreal Ties: Part II

Katherine Kirkpatrick’s Interview with Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III

In July 1901 two New York businessmen paid the hefty sum of $500 each ($10,000 by today’s standards) to travel to a remote area of the northwest Greenland Arctic on the SS Erik. Their names were Clarence Wyckoff, 25, and Louis Bement, 35. The voyage was designed to bring supplies to explorer Robert E. Peary and to find Peary’s wife and daughter, who had departed on Peary’s ship Windward the previous summer and had not returned. When the relief party reached the Arctic, they discovered the Windward trapped in ice but the ship intact and all on board safe. Unlike Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated vessel Endurance, Peary’s ship became ice-locked close to land. Consequently the passengers and crew easily walked back and forth on the ice to shore, where a community of Inuit helped to provide them with food and warm clothing. The Windward and the Erik sailed back together to America in August 1901.

A century after Wyckoff and Bement’s voyage, their descendants Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III annotated their diaries and published them along with their photos in a beautiful book called Boreal Ties: Photographs and Two Diaries of the 1901 Peary Relief Expedition (2002). This invaluable reference helped me research two of my own books, The Snow Baby, nonfiction, and my new novel, Between Two Worlds.

Kim Fairley is Wyckoff’s great-granddaughter. She received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Michigan where she specialized in mixed media and used Wyckoff’s photographs to create large collages. She lives in Chelsea, Michigan. Silas Hibbard Ayer III, is Bement’s grandson. He lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, and is retired from his position as executive production underwriter for the Hartford Insurance Company, where he spent most of his time in Baltimore.

Cover of Boreal Ties, edited by Kim Fairley Gillis and Silas Hibbard Ayer III, published by University of New Mexico Press, 2002. Louis Bement, left, and Clarence Wyckoff, right. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.


Katherine: Tell me about the original diaries and photographs and how they look. Where are they? How did they come into your possession? Please explain to our readers why in some cases you both own the same photographs.

Kim: Wyckoff’s photographs were given to me by his daughter, Betty Wyckoff Balderston, my great aunt, and they are still in my possession. The Wyckoff collection is in a book and is in excellent condition.

One of the things I find most interesting about the two collections is the fact that many of the images were taken seconds apart, and from slightly different angles. Since the photographs were similar but of differing quality, we were able to pick and choose the best for the book.

Silas and I have spoken about the idea of donating the collections to Cornell University, since the two men were from Ithaca and the Arctic collection of their friend Fred Church is already there.

Silas: The original diaries and photographs were handed down to me through Louis Bement’s daughter, Ariel Bement Flanagan. They were in mint condition considering they were 100 years old. The Bement pictures were numbered with an index describing the people and scenes. This index became invaluable in tracking pictures with the diary entries. The pictures were in various sizes due to the different cameras that were shared on the expedition. The pictures also were shared which explains why Kim and I own some the same photographs.

The Bement diaries were also in very good condition. The print is small and took several months to transcribe. The key to the preservation of the diary was that the entries were done in lead pencil and not ink, which has a tendency to fade and blur with age.

Katherine: When and how did the two of you meet? How did you come to publish Boreal Ties? Did working on the book enrich your lives in any way?

Kim: In writing the book I learned a great deal about my family. I feel proud of my connection to Arctic history and it felt good to be able to work on it with the descendant of one of my great grandfather’s friends. Silas and I developed a close friendship and we often talked about how Clarence and Louis would be so pleased that we had met and done something positive with their material.

Silas: Kim and I had corresponded 13 years about our Arctic collections before we met for the first time in the late nineties at the National Archives branch at College Park, Maryland. The purpose of this visit was to check out the Robert E. Peary collection to see if there were items in his collection which reflected on the 1901 Expedition and to peruse the material in our collections with the thought of donating to a museum.

At the National Archives I brought all the Bement pictures (300 plus) and diaries (2) and Kim did the same. We had over 700 pictures between us. After extensive review, I recall Kim looked at me and said, “We have enough to write a book.” Thus, Boreal Ties was born. It took a little over two years to put this together with the University of New Mexico Press.

Kim Fairley and Silas Ayer at a book signing, copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Kim Fairley and Silas Ayer at a book signing, copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.


Katherine: Tell us why the diaries and photos are of great historical value.

Kim: I discovered in running around to the various Arctic collections that our collections were unique. Most of our images had never been published, and since they were taken years before any of the explorers became bitter enemies, there was a lightness about many of the photographs. In several you see the men relaxing on deck, laughing, or conversing like tourists on vacation.

Silas: The Expedition of 1901 consisted of many who were later to become celebrated names in polar exploration, such as Dr. Frederick Cook, Commander Robert Peary, his wife Josephine and daughter Marie, and Matthew Henson, to name a few. The diaries and photos were primary source material that captured early historic moments in Arctic exploration.

Katherine: Tell us about the hardships of Wyckoff’s and Bement’s journey.

Kim: The men left in the early summer months and thought they were well stocked and prepared. What they found was that they were somewhat unprepared for the journey and at one point felt desperate when the ship was trapped in ice and forced up and onto its side. Wyckoff speaks in his diary about eating rice for a long time before he realized they had actually been eating maggots.

Katherine: Can you think of one thing about the diaries or photographs that readers would be surprised to learn?

Kim: The humanity. This is an age of great discovery and yet the subjects appear to be friends enjoying their time together. You can relate to the people. They aren’t famous explorers striking heroic poses, but down-to-earth people.

Katherine: Do you have a favorite photograph? Journal entry?

Silas: I love the photo of the iceberg in the front of the book, with the high contrast and beautiful light.

Kim: My favorites are of the Inuit, especially the expressive group photographs that show their native dress with the backdrop of the Greenland landscape.


Icebergs by Clarence Wyckoff, copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Icebergs by Clarence Wyckoff, copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Woman and Five Children at Upernavik by Louis Bement, copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Woman and Five Children at Upernavik by Louis Bement, copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.


Katherine: How are Wyckoff’s and Bement’s photographs similar to or different from Australian photographer’s Frank Hurley’s famed 1914-1916 Antarctic photographs of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition?

Kim: Frank Hurley’s photographs are magnificent but the difference is that they seem somewhat staged and heroic in comparison to the Wyckoff-Bement photos. Wyckoff and Bement encountered indigenous people and took a large number of photographs of them. These images added a humanness that dominated the collection, unlike Hurley’s that concentrated more on the heroic nature of the expedition.

Katherine: Wyckoff and Bement, as was typical of Westerners in 1901, referred to the Inuit they met in derogatory terms as “Huskies.” Bement wrote that he “did not suppose human beings could live and stink so . . .” (p. 75) and “. . . it must be worse than a dog’s life they lead” (p. 113). But at the same time, their close-up portraits and candid photos of the Inuit hunting walrus and tanning skins appear to come from a friendly, inquiring, and respectful point of view. These photos look dignified. They contrast sharply with many explorers’ typically formal posed shots, which could almost be labeled “the powerful Western newcomer/conqueror vs. the wary natives.” Why do you think Wyckoff and Bement’s photographs are different?

Kim: The quote, while accurate, represents the racism and arrogance of the early 20th century, but from my own research, I found that these two men—Wyckoff and Bement–came to appreciate the skills and ability of the indigenous people. They embraced the native lifestyle, and applied the skills that had developed over thousands of years in a harsh environment. Their photographs bespeak warmth, camaraderie, and respect.

Katherine: I’m reading between the lines that Wyckoff and Bement weren’t just taking a “vacation” to enjoy a pleasant time. I think they journeyed to the Arctic, consciously or subconsciously, for something deeper: to learn and to grow. From what you know of Wyckoff and Bement, how did the voyage transform their lives?

Kim: The trip to the Arctic was the biggest event of Wyckoff’s life. When he returned, he started a business, married, and had children. His whole life changed. I would say that Wyckoff and Bement both went on the expedition with the idea that they might discover Peary was dead. There was rumor that he had lost his toes due to frostbite and nobody had received word from him in several months. This was in a way a secret expedition. There must have been a huge sigh of relief when they arrived and discovered that Peary was alive and well.

Katherine: Did you have an interest in the Arctic when you were growing up as a result of your great grandfather’s journey?

Kim: I didn’t know about my great grandfather until I was an adult. What I learned had a big impact on me when I did my graduate work, however.

Silas: My interest in the Arctic began when I was young and inherited a collection of letters written by Ross Marvin, Robert Peary’s personal secretary. Marvin wrote to my grandfather, Louis Bement, saying that he feared for his life but couldn’t talk to him about it. He said he would explain when he returned home. As it turned out, Marvin never made it home because he fell through the ice and drowned. Years later, a couple of Inuit converted to Christianity and one confessed to having killed Marvin. Unfortunately, the news was never made public. This polar mystery has always intrigued me.

Katherine: Tell us about your own journey(s) to the Greenland Arctic. Did you retrace your ancestor’s journey?

Kim: No, neither one of us ever made it to the Arctic region.

Katherine: Peary often gave his backers geographical names. Is there a place named after Wyckoff? Did Peary give him any carvings or other tokens of appreciation?

Kim: Wyckoff returned from the expedition with various objects that remained in the family. One was a large narwhal tusk that leaned against my great-aunt’s wall in her living room. I am not aware of any gifts to Clarence Wyckoff from Robert Peary. There was a Cape Wyckoff named after Wyckoff but I’m not sure that it was Peary who named it.

In fact, Wyckoff had a falling out with Peary when Wyckoff gave his rifle to Dr. [Thomas] Dedrick, who decided to stay in the Arctic after the 1901 expedition. Dedrick had the rifle inlaid in ivory by the Inuit as a gift to Wyckoff. When Dedrick gave the rifle to Peary to return to him, Peary donated it as his own to the American Museum in New York. Eventually Wyckoff got the rifle back, but Wyckoff was never particularly fond of Robert Peary after the 1901 expedition.

Silas: There were discussions especially with Wyckoff of assignment of names with Peary but my records do not show this was ever finalized. Peary did give Bement a full walrus head. Bement loaned his head to Cornell University with the understanding that the real ownership was to remain with me. The head was displayed in Willard Hall and disappeared in later years. I told this story to a Cornell archivist who conducted a search of the university. It was never found.

Katherine: Thank you Kim and Silas for the interview and relating so much interesting information to our readers!

Boreal Ties: Part I

While I was writing Between Two Worlds, I returned again and again to the stunning photographs in a gorgeous book called Boreal Ties: Photographs and Two Diaries of the 1901 Peary Relief Expedition, edited by Kim Fairley Gillis and Silas Hibbard Ayer III. Its panoramic shots of the towering cliffs and massive ice floes of the Greenland Arctic set me in the mood to write. And best of all, the book’s informal shots of both Inuit and Westerners offered me a rare chance to view my main characters: Inuk girl Eqariusaq, also known as Billy Bah; Robert E. Peary’s wife, Josephine; and his daughter, Marie.

The photos and journals were created by two New York businessmen, Clarence Wyckoff and Louis Bement, who journeyed to the Arctic as what we would call today “adventure tourists.” Explorer Peary’s ship Windward, carrying among other passengers Peary’s wife and daughter, did not return to America as expected in the summer of 1900. So the following summer Peary’s financial backers in New York arranged for a relief party, journeying to the Arctic on the steamer Erik to investigate. Paying a fee of $500 each, Wyckoff, 25, one of Peary’s supporters and a manufacturer of typewriters, and a friend, Bement, 35, a salesman of hats and caps, joined the expedition.

Louis Bement, left, and Clarence Wyckoff, right. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Cover of Boreal Ties, edited by Kim Fairley Gillis and Silas Hibbard Ayer III, published by University of New Mexico Press, 2002. Louis Bement, left, and Clarence Wyckoff, right, with the icebound Erik in Melville Bay, Greenland. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

The businessmen traveled with multiple cameras, the latest and best Eastman Kodak had to offer. Though not professional photographers, Wyckoff’s and Bement’s unique images far exceed Robert E. Peary’s own photographs both in technical and artistic qualities. While the adventure tourists enjoyed nearly three months of intense sunshine, Peary often took his tripod and old glass plate cameras out in typically poor Arctic weather.

Fortunately for Wyckoff and Bement, they weren’t in Peary’s employ, or else they wouldn’t have been permitted to have cameras. Always thinking of public relations and secretive about what he was up to, Peary kept tight control of all images taken on his expeditions. (He made a rare exception when he allowed Matthew Henson to publish a few photographs in his 1912 autobiography).

The businessmen endured maggots in their soup, hives, and head lice. Three weeks into the journey all the meat on ship went rotten and had to be thrown overboard. More than once, the Erik’s incompetent crew almost steered the ship into mountain-sized icebergs.

After the voyage, the friends pasted copies of each other’s prints into their scrapbooks; in some cases they annotated who took the photograph, and in other cases not. The Wyckoff photo labeled “Billy Bah, a girl of 16” offers a vivid portrayal of a young Inuk woman looking straight at the viewer. She seems pleased; it appears she feels appreciated by the photographer. There is reciprocity between them. It is a close-up portrait taken in a spirit of friendliness.

Billy Bah, age 16, by Clarence Wyckoff, 1901. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Billy Bah, age 16, by Clarence Wyckoff, 1901. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

This photo, more than any other, worked on my psyche and helped many images and facts coalesce as I created the main character in Between Two Worlds. And later, when the story was complete, illustrator Sam Weber used this same picture as reference to recreate Billy Bah’s face on my book jacket. He modeled the Windward, which appears in the background, after another image in the collection.

Historians are lucky to have Wyckoff and Bement’s rare and extraordinary record of their voyage, and as a novelist I absolutely cherish my copy of Boreal Ties.The businessmen were not only in the right place in the right time, they were paying attention. To take such photographs, they clearly put themselves on scene, front and central, entering into a landscape and into the lives of people they depicted.

This fundamentally is what making art is all about.

Keystone glass negative of explorer Robert E. Peary’s ship Windward (right) and his expedition’s relief ship Erik (left), 1901. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Keystone glass negative of explorer Robert E. Peary’s ship Windward (right) and his expedition’s relief ship Erik (left), 1901. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.


The cover for Between Two Worlds, copyright © 2014 by Sam Weber.

As Good as It Gets

The price of one of my young adult novels, throw in a few bucks for tax, is about what you’d pay for a bottle of wine to take to your host for dinner. People used to stop by the autographing party at the local museum’s bookshop to purchase Katherine Kirkpatrick’s latest young adult historical tearjerker, and then continue up the road a half mile, past the duck pond, through lush woods, to Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick’s home and a gourmet meal. Anyone from the Three Villages (Stony Brook, Setauket, Old Field) of Long Island, New York, might be there: the tennis players, the bridge players, the bank teller, my mother’s hairdresser, the neighbors, some of the teachers my siblings and I had had at school, and people my parents knew through the Presbyterian church, puppetry, charities, real estate, Dad’s travel agency, or his heart surgeries.

Whether anyone read my books or not didn’t matter, not really, because I had the great satisfaction of selling a hundred hardcovers in an hour. Even better, the sense of celebration that filled the air was as palpable as the aroma of sautéed onions and mushrooms. The Kirkpatricks knew how to throw a party. Chicken cacciatore, anyone? Genoese seafood risotto? Champagne cocktail? In the octagonal living room decorated with carved screens from India, in pivoting chairs with colorful satin pillows, around a central coffee table and low-hanging lamp, the drinks and the conversations flowed.

Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick.

Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick.

Autographing copies of my first novel, Keeping the Good Light.

Signing copies of my first novel, Keeping the Good Light.

This was how my parents celebrated the publication of my first three books in the mid-to-late 1990s, when I was in my early and mid thirties, before I married, moved coasts, and gave birth to twins. Four other books for older children and young adults, both fiction and nonfiction, followed. But three thousand miles away from family, friends, and my New York writers community, I found it difficult to attract more than a handful of people to my book events. For a while I stopped doing signings altogether. I stopped celebrating. It was as if my last two titles dropped into holes the minute they were published.

There is nothing more depressing for an author than to sit at a table with a forced smile in front of a pyramid of books, facing a room full of vacant chairs. The feelings of loneliness and isolation of such situations can be intense.

I’m happy to say I’ve found a middle path, a joyous way of celebrating new books that comes in second to my mother’s former parties. Our Western Washington chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) hosts a fabulous twice-yearly event called “The Inside Story.” In this event, fifteen or so local book creators share “the story behind the story” in short presentations of their new and upcoming books to independent booksellers, fellow authors and illustrators, and their families. Many school and public librarians also attend.

Our November 3, 2013, The Inside Story at Seattle’s Mockingbird Books drew several hundred people. In her introduction, Laura McGee Kvasnosky spoke of how The Inside Story has greatly expanded in scope and in popularity since she and fellow children’s book creator George Shannon launched the program on October 4, 1998. “I feel like the proud mother and George the proud father,” she said, “and I’ve enjoyed watching the event grow up.” I happened to be sitting near Laura in the crowd and, indeed, like a proud mother, she was smiling and smiling during the trivia prize awards and presentations.

The Inside Story #31 at Mockingbird Books.

The Inside Story #31 at Mockingbird Books.

I am so grateful to Laura and George for creating this wonderful community forum where we can give ourselves a boost. Book releases can be as stressful as they can be joyful, because of the expectations we set for ourselves and our publishing companies have for us. Knowing that I can bring my new young adult novel to the Inside Story when it comes out this spring transforms a responsibility into an honor, a burden into a celebration, a dread into a feeling of optimism.

Also, by the way, there are small mountains of fruits and cookies served at our Inside Story events. Next time, at Mockingbird Books on May 6, I’ll also contribute goodies home-cooked according to recipes left to me by my greatest literary supporter of all time, Audrey Kirkpatrick. She who cut sun-dried tomatoes into strips for me, who shredded prosciutto and grated Parmesan cheese for me, who invited everyone she knew to her home for me, would have enjoyed our Inside Story festivities and approved.

Audrey Kirkpatrick celebrates.

Audrey Kirkpatrick celebrates.

The Commander and I

Commander Edward P. Stafford, USN (Ret), July 16, 1918 – Sept. 24, 2013, was the grandson of polar explorer Robert E. Peary and son of Marie Peary, called by the newspapers “the snow baby.”

The Snow Baby published by Holiday House, 2007, was a James Madison Award Honor Book and a Booklist Top Ten Biography for Youth.

A photo of a spunky four-year-old Marie Peary, posed near a gigantic meteorite on a ship, inspired me to write a book called The Snow Baby. A photo biography, it tells of Marie’s childhood, from her 1893 birth in the Arctic to the age of sixteen, when her father, Admiral Robert E. Peary, reached the North Pole in 1909. My forthcoming novel Between Two Worlds also includes Marie as a character.

It was easy for me to fall in love with this child, who at the age of eight, dressed in seal furs on an ice-locked ship, played tricks on sailors and found ways to celebrate Christmas while the adults around her worried for their lives.

In 2005, in the early stages of writing The Snow Baby, I met Marie’s son Commander Edward Stafford, who was at that time in his late eighties. Though he lived in Florida, he periodically returned to Eagle Island near South Harpswell, Maine, to lead tours of the Peary family’s former summer home, now a state park. I was so eager to go on one of these tours, I took a plane trip of 3,000 miles from Seattle to New York with my four-year-old twins. After meeting up with my dear friend, author/illustrator Sanna Stanley and her three-year-old son, we drove three hundred miles to Portland, Maine. A small outboard motorboat took us across Casco Bay, past many green, forested islands, to our destination.

Set on Eagle Island’s rocky bluff, which to Admiral Peary looked like a ship, Peary placed his house where the pilot house of the ship would have been located.

Considering his age and how my previous attempts of e-mailing him through a university museum had gone awry, I’d thought perhaps he suffered ill health. On the contrary, the man I met on Eagle Island, wearing long shorts, T-shirt, and baseball cap, vigorously marching up and down the narrow stairs of the old house, was astonishingly robust. He held his back straight. His face conveyed the certainty of a man sure of himself. Indeed he’d earned seven battle stars in World War II on anti-submarine duty on naval destroyers and destroyer escorts in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Stafford remarked that though his illustrious grandfather died when he was nineteen months old, he knew the man through Peary’s wife and daughter who loved him. Through them, something of his grandfather’s force of character transferred itself to him. True, as far as I’m concerned.

In my great enthusiasm to meet Stafford, I made a nuisance of myself, asking him one detailed question after another. Perhaps with a frown or inclination of his head, Stafford conveyed his irritation to his wife, who was on the tour with us. She asked me to please refrain from asking Stafford questions until the end. “He needs to save his voice,” she said diplomatically. Meanwhile, for the next hour, ten other tourists fired away their questions and he happily answered them. Then as we stood on the house’s sloping green lawn near the boat dock, he finally gave me ten minutes of his time.

Katherine Kirkpatrick, Commander Edward Stafford, Peggy Stafford, and tour boat captain.

Reflecting back, I realize it was naïve of me to assume Stafford would be happy to meet me just because I was writing a book about his mother. Celebrity families often keep to themselves for good reason. Stafford’s initial brisk attitude had everything to do with defending the honor of his often maligned grandfather.

But setting aside any feelings of disappointment about Stafford’s reaction to me, I spent an absolutely wonderful day on Eagle Island. Stafford told stories with flair, as well as with knowledge and authority. He was the best of guides. He said the island was part of him, and obviously he took great pleasure in sharing it.

I loved the house with its snug, shiplike, wood-paneled rooms, its panoramic views, its many tokens and reminders—such as Peary’s stuffed birds, mounted twenty-pound lobster, and Marie’s collection of tiny ivory figures—of the way an extraordinary family lived. My friend and I greatly enjoyed the island’s seventeen acres of fragrant woods, foxgloves everywhere in the underbrush, and rocky beaches. While I’d toured the house, she kept our active young children from the dangerous rocks and wild surf. Then the five of us explored the island together.

A three-sided stone fireplace separates the downstairs rooms in the Peary family’s home on Eagle Island.

The view from an upstairs room in the Peary family house.

Marie Peary’s books and keepsakes.

What’s more, just prior to leaving for an enchanted return boat ride in which dolphins leapt about our craft, Stafford gave me his business card. On the top right, printed in dark blue ink was the icon of a ship’s wheel with his name “Edward P. Stafford, Commander, U.S. Navy (Ret.)” and his address and phone number in Florida.

I wrote to him, enclosing a first draft of my manuscript for The Snow Baby, which by then was contracted to be published. About two months later I heard back, not from Stafford, but from a man whom Stafford had given the manuscript to, a representative of an historical society in Maine. He pointed out numerous shortcomings in the draft, then concluded, “if I should decide to go forward” (implying I should abandon my book?): “Keep in mind you have chosen to work over ground that has been covered many times over the past 100 years by experienced writers, many of them well versed in Arctic lore and possessed of years of actual Arctic exploration experience. To cover this subject matter with anything less than thoroughness and accuracy could expose you, the Peary and Stafford families, and organizations devoted to Arctic education programs to serious ridicule and embarrassment.”

With that splash of frigid polar water thrown on me, I set about a new draft, this time enlisting the expert help of members of a university museum. Within the next two years, I completed eight more drafts, two of which Stafford provided helpful feedback on.

By then, though I had no expectations whatsoever that Stafford would like my book, I myself felt pleased with it. In the end, the commander did voice his approval. Inside a Christmas card picturing Santa Claus delivering packages by rowboat to a lighthouse, he’d written in block capital letters, “A BEAUTIFUL BOOK, WELL-WRITTEN AND A PLEASURE. THANKS SO MUCH. ED STAFFORD.”

Sanna Stanley.

The Peary family house on Eagle Island, Maine.

ALA Award Envy

Elizabeth Wein and Katherine Kirkpatrick, Setauket, New York, 1999

On Monday, January 27, 2014, I’ll be watching the webcast of the American Library Association’s Youth Media Award announcements, broadcast live from Philadelphia. Everyone in children’s and young adult publishing will be eagerly anticipating the results. In our field, the garnering of a Newbery, Caldecott, or Printz Award is equivalent to an athlete winning a gold medal in the Olympics.

My annual February/March readathon, a time of discovering new books and engaging in stimulating discussion, begins after the announcements. Some years, I’ll read not only every Newbery and Printz winner and honor book, but I’ll also work my way through YALSA’s Best Fiction list. Other years, I’ll stop reading after only a few books; especially if a title of my own has come out. While reading an award-winning book that I don’t feel is worthy, I snap it closed and return all the others to the library unread—shelving the feelings of frustration that their gold and silver seals invoke.

I know better than to view the ALA awards as the be-all and end-all of my writing life. Nevertheless, I get caught up in the annual fervor. The truth is there are thousands of us authors out there, and there are thousands more of our books published every year than there are ALA awards and citations to go around. No matter how good a book may be, chances are excellent that it will go unnoticed among the vast sea of other titles.

In my clearer moments I realize that notions of awards and their perceived value are dark, swirling storm clouds in our minds: If we can guide the plane above such foggy distractions, the view will be beautiful, bright, and expansive. For we can all enjoy a true and lasting sense of abundance on a higher level when we give up our limited definitions of success.

The image of the airplane is an apt one to illustrate the story I’m about to tell.

Last year, on Monday, January 28, 2013, I was in the audience at the ALA Media Awards press conference in Seattle when I heard that my dear friend of 27 years, Elizabeth Wein, won a Printz Honor for her aviation-themed book Code Name Verity.

Elizabeth Wein and Katherine Kirkpatrick in Avebury, England, 1999

I’d surmised from the buzz at the ALA Midwinter Meeting that Code Name Verity was a contender for the Printz. My friend, half a world away in Scotland, suspected it, too. Her enormously popular breakout novel had already garnered a ton of starred reviews and media attention. But of course, ALA award announcements often defy expectations, and frequent surprises add to the drama of this high-stakes event.

I wanted Elizabeth to win the Printz, really and truly. But at the same time, as I took my seat that morning in the mobbed auditorium of the Seattle Convention Center, I wasn’t completely sure what my reaction would be if she did. I gave myself a little talk: If Elizabeth wins this award, and if you, Katherine Kirkpatrick, are not one hundred percent happy for her, then you are a miserable, selfish, covetous wretch and you don’t deserve to win any awards in the future.

For those of you who watch the live webcasts of the ALA press conference, let me tell you, there’s nothing like attending the event in person. You notice the MC’s bright red socks. And hear how incredibly loud the audience applauded. And feel the heat of the bright lights and movie cameras. Experience the palpable excitement in the air.

The MC encouraged us to cheer as he read the names of the Printz judges, and I shouted heartily along with everyone else. I had no idea who they were; it didn’t matter. It was fun to get caught up in the energy of the crowd.

Katherine Kirkpatrick and Elizabeth Wein, Errwood Hall, Goyt Valley, England, 1984

When I heard the words “Code Name Verity” in the honor category, my heart stopped. Honor? Why not winner?! Not that I’d yet read the winning title or any of the other honor books. But at that moment I felt childishly defensive of Code Name Verity, while also knowing that attaining a Printz Honor is almost equally as awesome, weighty, and life-changing as receiving the grand prize.

It wasn’t until about an hour after the press conference that the good news really sank in. I remember standing by myself at the top of the convention center’s escalator under a sky-high ceiling, surrounded by towering walls of glass. A feeling of expansive joy came over me. I was, and am, so proud of Elizabeth and happy for her, for getting her pilot’s license, for writing her fabulous breakout novel, for receiving the fame and recognition she deserves.

I felt happy about myself, too, for being a good friend and for feeling a generosity of spirit. As I was telling a complete stranger at the coat check, your character is tested when someone you’re close to gets something you’ve always wanted.

Friendship, all forms of love and true caring, exist outside of man-made rankings and hierarchies. I feel this truth profoundly when I think about Elizabeth and the good times we’ve had together, before and after college graduation, dreaming of becoming authors, having books published, getting married, having children. We traversed the map of Britain together, and even flew in a private plane to the Isle of Wight.

I wouldn’t trade this friendship for the Printz Award.

Katherine Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Wein and daughter, with the Piper Warrior, Isle of Wight, England, 1999