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.

Teen Interviews YA Author/ YA Author Interviews Teen

Part 1: High school student and young artist Victoria Yeh interviewed me for a school project.

Victoria Yeh

Victoria Yeh

Victoria: Why did you choose to be a writer?

Katherine: I always wanted to be a writer from the time I was in sixth grade.

Victoria: What personal attributes are necessary for success?

Katherine: To be a successful writer, you need to have a “thick skin,” which means that you can’t take criticism too personally, and you need focus, persistence, and the ability to work hard.

Victoria: What kinds of skills are essential to succeed in your field?

Katherine: Successful writers not only know their craft but also have a marketing sense about what the public wants.

Victoria: How plentiful are the job opportunities in your field?

Katherine: In my case, I’m freelance (I work for myself), so there are unlimited job opportunities if I’m able to find and take advantage of them. Sometimes it’s difficult to sell articles and book ideas but good writers are always in demand.

Victoria: What are the approximate starting and maximum wages?

Katherine: Fiction authors receive advances anywhere from $10,000 per book to $100,000 or even higher. How much you earn depends on the type of market there is for any given book.

Victoria: What are the fringe benefits (dental, retirement, medical)?

Katherine: The fringe benefits are traveling, learning new things, meeting lots of different kinds of people, and often making new friends. As far as dental, health, retirement, and those kinds of benefits, none!

Victoria: What are the hours like? Can you determine them yourself?

Katherine: I generally work three to four hours a day, in the mornings. Yes, my hours are entirely flexible.

Victoria: What kind of education is necessary for a job in your field?

Katherine: A college degree is very helpful. A graduate degree isn’t necessary, but helpful if you want to teach writing; many writers also teach. I advocate a broad education, studying a wide variety of different subjects. Volunteering for high school, college, and community-based publications is a great way for students to receive writing practice and exposure.

Victoria: What did you major in during college?

Katherine: I majored in English Literature with a minor in Art History.

Victoria: Were you focused completely on studying, or did it ever help you to play sports or be involved in extracurricular activities?

Katherine: I didn’t play on any sports teams in college, but I did swim on a regular basis and enjoyed other extracurricular activities such as drawing, painting, and music. Right now I’m learning to play the harp. It’s always good to try new things outside of your field of study or career. It’s hard to quantify exactly how these activities affect your career, but they do. Music, for example, is very enriching. Do what makes you happy! When you know how to relax into these other activities then you can sometimes carry that stillness into your daily life.

Victoria: Do you ever regret choosing this career? If you could change your career, what career would you choose?

Katherine: I do not regret my career choice. In a way, my career chose me, as I’ve always been a writer. I also considered archaeology as a profession. Fortunately, I can write about archaeology, so I can satisfy this other interest.

Victoria: What are the best and worst aspects of your career?

Katherine: The best parts about being a writer are learning new things, traveling, meeting people, and seeing the books finally go into print. The worst aspect of the job is waiting for months for responses from editors. Sometimes it’s several years before a book goes into print, and always there are delays. So I tend to work on several book projects at the same time.

Victoria: What advice or wisdom would you give a high school student about his or her career choice?

Katherine: Follow your passion. Aim high. Know that you can accomplish large tasks by breaking the tasks down into smaller tasks and tackling them one by one. Try to smile and be cheerful and get along with people. Establish trust by assuming the best from people. Try not to choose sides in any disagreement. If people around you are having disagreements, try to look at the underlying causes. Generally when people are angry there is a feeling of someone not being respected. Do not judge. Instead, try to understand the context of people’s lives and why they act the way they do. Turn negative energy into positive energy; choose not to be offended, as everyone you will meet in life is carrying some burden.

Talk less and listen more. Feel in your heart what the person’s words are saying. Speak personally from the heart. Don’t offer advice; do not argue or criticize; do not interrupt. Be a professional, and you can start right now by assuming a “professional attitude” by respecting yourself and others, presenting yourself in an appropriate and balanced way, not indulging in outbursts or moods, and refraining from giving mixed signals. Being a professional also means pulling yourself together and dressing appropriately for the job at hand. Always write a thank-you note to someone who helps you; a handwritten note is better than an e-mail note in many cases. Try to be flexible and open to outcomes.

Try to be upbeat. Be kind. Remember, energy flows from intention. Envision yourself being happy and successful in your chosen career. Let go of the idea that success is about striving and effort. Have fun, try to relax and enjoy yourself, and what you do won’t seem like work—in a sense you can “do nothing” and achieve everything.

Part 2: In my first post, Victoria Yeh, a high school student interviewed me. Later, after I’d commissioned her to create a cover for the Kindle version of my novel Trouble’s Daughter, I interviewed her in return.

Victoria Yeh's Kindle cover art for Trouble's Daughter

Victoria Yeh’s cover art for Trouble’s Daughter, now available on Kindle

Katherine: How old are you now, and how long have you been drawing and painting?

Victoria: I am currently fifteen, and have been drawing since I was four. I started painting at around nine or ten.

Katherine: When did you decide you wanted to be an artist?

Victoria: Ever since I started drawing I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but I only recently started to seriously consider exactly what kind of career in art I want.

Katherine: Are you currently taking art lessons? If so, how long have you been studying?

Victoria: Yes, I am currently taking art lessons, and have been taking them since I was six.

Katherine: What is your favorite medium?

Victoria: Currently, my favorite medium is oil paint.

Katherine: What medium did you choose for the Trouble’s Daughter cover?

Victoria: I sketched the cover of Trouble’s Daughter on an 11-inch x 14-inch paper and inked the drawing with black pen first. Then I scanned it into my computer and colored it digitally using Photoshop.

Katherine: Tell us about that cover. How did you decide on the subject matter? Did any of the details on the cover come from details in the book?

Victoria: Trouble’s Daughter is about Susanna Hutchinson’s captivity. I believed that I should focus on her emotions over the course of the story, so the initial sketches portrayed her fear right before she was captured and her determination and fortitude through her captive years. Susanna wasn’t unhappy, and even grew to love her Native American family, so I didn’t want to make her look listless or depressed in the illustration. A small detail in the book described Susanna to have small clefts in her nose and chin, which is slightly noticeable in the cover illustration. The clothing Susanna is wearing is an outfit from a scene in the book, and the turtle shell rattle she is holding has some significance in the story.

Katherine: Tell us about your process for making the cover. Did you start out by making rough sketches? How many?

Victoria: I made two rough sketches with different compositions first to show you. After hearing your input I surveyed a few of my classmates and chose the sketch with more votes.

Katherine: Did you learn anything when you were creating the cover for Trouble’s Daughter?

Victoria: Artwise, I learned about lighting, color choice, and how to vary values as much as possible, because Kindle only displays black and white, which makes distinctions between colors obsolete. The illustration needed to look good in both color and black and white. I also learned about how to manage time between schoolwork and drawing the cover.

Katherine: What are your plans for the future?

Victoria: I hope to attend Rhode Island School of Design, which is known for being the best art school in the country. I visited the school during April 2012. I will probably major in either Illustration or Animation.

Katherine: What is your advice to other young artists?

Victoria: Practice all the time and learn the basics before trying to create your own style.

Victoria Yeh's cover art for Keeping the Good Light, available on Kindle in 2014

Victoria Yeh’s cover art for Keeping the Good Light, available on Kindle in 2014