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 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.

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 ( 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.

published by Wendy Lamb Books/ Random House, 2014

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.