I have always felt that City Island in the Bronx, within greater New York City, where I lived in my twenties and early thirties, possesses a certain magic. There’s a feeling, when listening to the symphony of halyards chiming against the masts of sailboats or the eerie sound of wind blowing through the rigging, that it’s possible to slip back in time one hundred years or more. And if you sail from the island in the dark of night toward a redbrick Victorian lighthouse, its green light flashing through the cold mist, you may see the eternal visage of a ghostly man peering through the glass windows of his tower. He watches over you to prevent your vessel from crashing on the jagged, partially submerged shoal of the “Stepping Stones.” Magic, indeed.
Not one but two working lighthouses flank the mile-and-a-half-long City Island. Stepping Stones, my favorite because of its picturesque architecture, was first illuminated on the evening of March 1, 1877, with an oil-fired mantle within a Fresnel lens. Every morning when I waited for the express bus that took me to my book publishing job in Manhattan, I gazed out over the water, a mile away, at Stepping Stones lighthouse. The sight of the lonely place never ceased to fascinate me. Like many people who enjoy lighthouses, I am drawn to the romantic notion of living in a house surrounded by water. From the vantage point where I often stood, near the terminus of City Island Avenue, Stepping Stones appears in Long Island Sound as a small, square building atop a round platform. The building has a handsome rectangular tower and mansard roof.
Sometimes when City Island friends took me out on their sailboats or motorboats, we circled around the lighthouse. Then I could make out certain details such as the square balcony near the top of the tower, the bright green automated lantern, the tall windows (bricked-in to prevent vandalism), and the mount on which a large bell had once hung. Whenever I crossed the Throgs Neck Bridge to go to Long Island to visit my parents, I’d enjoy yet another view of the lighthouse, one from above. From that high, arching suspension bridge, the lighthouse resembles a tiny, antique doll house, surrounded by deep blue water on all sides.
Like many City Islanders, I came to regard Stepping Stones as “our” lighthouse (never mind that all maps and charts indicate that it belongs to Great Neck, Long Island). Eventually I wrote a novel set there. Called Keeping the Good Light and intended for a young adult readership, the novel takes place in 1903, during the heyday of City Island yacht building and sail making. My friend the late Skippy Lane, a retired captain of oil tankers, helped me research the book and provided many interesting anecdotes. The shipwreck incident in the book came directly from an experience Skippy had as a boy on City Island. Another plot choice, the idea of putting messages in bottles and casting them out to sea, came from Skippy’s pastime of releasing such messages. Sometimes he’d sign his friends’ names with their addresses as a joke.
Delacorte Press published Keeping the Good Light in the fall of 1995. The cover by Kam Mak shows my main character, sixteen-year-old Eliza, in a long vintage dress, seated in a rowboat (Skippy’s) with an accurate representation of Stepping Stones lighthouse in the background. Skippy quickly pointed out when he saw the cover image that anyone just sitting in a craft like that, hands crossed on her lap, not holding the oars, would quickly be blown back out to sea. Mary Cash, the book’s editor, replied, “She’s so pretty it doesn’t matter what she’s doing.”
Sara (Sally) McPherson at The City Island Current, the island’s local newspaper, reproduced the book cover in its exact size—5-1/2 by 8-1/4 inches—on the front page in 1995. As a result of this phenomenal publicity, my book signing party at the City Island Nautical Museum, a former school building, was extremely well attended.
Writing Keeping the Good Light brought me, at least on City Island, the greatest celebrity I will probably ever enjoy. “She’s the one who wrote the book,” I’d hear people say. Occasionally, if I visit the island, someone will make the same remark even now. Always it is “the book,” although I’ve now published eight. For the Clam Diggers (those who grew up on the island) it obviously remains a matter of great importance that “the book” features “our lighthouse.” The late Bronx historian John McNamara told me he’d been reading the novel at JP’s Restaurant on the island and a passerby offered to buy his copy on the spot.
Those were fun times, times of sharing and community. For my thirtieth birthday party, my sister made a cake with a model of a lighthouse on top. The house where I rented a room, 150 Marine Street, a former telegraph station that contained a glass-paneled rectangular chamber reached by an upright ladder and trapdoor, filled to overflowing with visitors of all ages and backgrounds come to celebrate my birthday. Old, heavy-set Skippy, known to be a little rough around the edges, entertained my friends from Manhattan with his lively storytelling, replete with occasional swearwords.
Skippy regarded the publication of Keeping the Good Light as a highlight of his later years. He called it “our book” and proudly gave an autographed copy to his friend and next-door neighbor on Horton Street, Oliver Sacks. To my surprise and delight, I received an autographed copy of one of his own books in return. On the title page of a British paperback edition of Awakenings, its pages now a bit yellowed, is inscribed:
(I loved your book!)
With best wishes,
Now, a quarter of a century after I first became acquainted with Stepping Stones lighthouse, I love the lighthouse just as passionately as I ever did. Perhaps even more, because my feelings about the place combine with a sense of remembrance and of longing for City Islanders I knew who are now dead. Others island friends have, like me, scattered around the country. We won’t ever live together on that mile-and-a-half-long island again. I also find myself reacting to further commercial development that has taken place and missing the way the island used to look. But whenever I visit the island or drive across the Throgs Neck Bridge, there is Stepping Stones lighthouse, rising as ever on a shoal in Long Island Sound. The lighthouse serves as a visual, tangible reminder to me of a time in my life that remains very dear to me. Not only that, but I have a special place in my heart for historically significant places.
Very recently, my personal chronicle involving Stepping Stones lighthouse has gained a new chapter. I have recently made a new friend through e-mail, Alice Kasten of the Great Neck Historical Society, who keeps me informed about her organization’s exciting new plans to restore Stepping Stones lighthouse. The town of North Hempstead, the Great Neck Park District, and the Great Neck Historical Society have joined in a public/private partnership, with assistance from the City Island Maritime Museum, to raise $4 million for the renovation. Already they’ve had some success with garnering grants from New York State and the National Park Service. I can hardly believe that this gargantuan, expensive venture is actually happening in this day and age of dwindling funds for worthy projects and causes.
Ravaged by salty seas and severe weather, in recent years Stepping Stones developed a hole in its roof and another hole in its foundation. The U.S. Coast Guard might well have demolished it and replaced it with a navigational beacon mounted on steel poles if not for the Great Neck Historical Society’s commitment to saving the building. Engineers who completed an underwater survey have now identified places where pilings for a dock will be put down. Once a dock exists and more funds become available, building materials can be delivered and the renovation can begin.
This past summer, the society has organized a number of tours for people to see the lighthouse from the outside. I can’t wait to go on one of the tours next summer. I’ve also decided it’s an apt time to put Keeping the Good Light back into print. A new Kindle version is available on Amazon.com, and a print-on-demand paperback edition will soon be in the works. I do not have the rights to use the Delacorte cover for new editions, so I commissioned a new one. (Note that the girl in the vessel is now actually rowing.) Victoria Yeh, the talented new cover artist, created the cover when she was only seventeen.
Half of the net proceeds from the new editions of Keeping the Good Light will go to the Great Neck Historical Society for the lighthouse renovation. I’m honored and grateful to help preserve this good lighthouse.
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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidney_D._Kirkpatrick), 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 (http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/allegra1943).
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 http://longislandmuseum.org/, 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, http://www.katherinekirkpatrick.com/book_01.html, 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.
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 ( http://www.katherinekirkpatrick.com/book_02.html ).
Thanks for interviewing me, Susan!
* * * * *
This interview was previously published in abbreviated form on the fabulous historical fiction blog “Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks” http://corsetsandcutlasses.wordpress.com/ on June 30, 2014.
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.
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.
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.