Kathi Appelt is a prolific author. She’s written picture books, poetry, short stories, and nonfiction. In 2008, her first novel, The Underneath, was published. Her picture books include the ever-fabulous Bubba and Beau series (Bubba and Beau: Best Friends, Bubba and Beau Go Night-Night, and Bubba and Beau: Meet the Relatives). Her nonfiction includes these wonderful books: Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers, Down Cut Shin Creek: The Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky, and My Father’s Summers. Her poetry books include the creative and inspiring Poems From Homeroom: A Writer’s Place to Start. Kissing Tennessee is her collection of short stories. It’s notable for many reasons, one of which is the fact that it’s been challenged and thus appears in lists of so-called “banned” books. [It’s a great book, and for those that participate in reading challenges for ‘banned books’ and celebrate banned books week and other intellectual freedom events.]
BL: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey towards becoming a published author?
KA: I think it started with my first grade teacher, Mrs. Beall, who one day told me that she thought I’d grow up to be a writer. I know that sounds like I’m trying to be flip, but throughout my life I’ve had a host of wonderful teachers and mentors. I certainly wouldn’t be a published author without them. The thing is, I’ve been lucky in teachers too. All of them have been writers themselves. That’s not to say that you can’t teach writing if you’re not a writer, but I do think a working writer offers a wealth of personal experience to his or her students.
Early on in my career I toyed with a number of different writing paths. Mostly, I wanted to be an academic. I really loved the university and thought that becoming a professor was the penultimate job. So, for many years, the kind of writing that I pursued was along the lines of literary criticism and rhetorical theory.
It wasn’t until I had my own children in the early 1980’s that I rediscovered the wonder and enchantment of children’s books. So, in a million ways, having my children is what led me to my heart’s work, children and books.
BL: What inspired you to write The Underneath? (Or how did this novel come to be?)
KA: The Underneath started out as a short story. I was working on a collection to follow Kissing Tennessee, and I had this one story that was about a boy who finds an abandoned kitten, one that someone has thrown into the creek. The boy and cat become fast friends. I loved the boy, and I loved the cat, and I loved the setting. And the story haunted me. I kept thinking that there was something there that was “bigger” than a short story. So, I kept returning to it, thinking that there was more, and that if I just kept turning over the red dirt, kept slogging through the metaphorical forest, I’d eventually find more and more there.
For a short time when I was much younger, I lived in East Texas, right in the heart of the piney woods, and I think it’s impossible to live there without being drawn into the mystery of the place. It’s thick and wet and feels permeated by a sense of being ancient, it feels like ancient beings could have certainly lived there and in fact could still be there. The woods are both intriguing and eerie. And of course, they’re full of critters, including gators and snakes.
So, I felt that the place itself would offer up a fine setting, a setting that is somewhat unusual in fiction, but also rich in possibility.
BL: How long did it take to write it and see it through to the finished product?
KA: It took about three years from start to finish.
BL: How does writing a novel say compare with your other types of writing projects?
KA: The main difference for me is that I felt like the novel “owned me.” I can work on a short story, or a picture book, say, and at the end of the day I can set them down. In addition, with those shorter forms, I can “hold them” in my head in their entireties. The novel is different for me in that it completely permeates my life. I think about it constantly. My poor husband claims that I have a certain look about me that is a signal that he needs to find someone else to talk to because I’ve disappeared into “novel-ville.” I think he’s right. Noveling feels like the ultimate immersion experience. There are so many strands that have to be held onto, kept track of, considered.
I told one of my own students recently that writing a novel felt like being a dog walker with at least 20 dogs on separate lines, and keeping all those lines from getting tangled or keeping all the dogs from strangling was the goal.
BL: Is it more challenging?
KA: For me it is. But that does not deny the challenge of writing a good picture book. Picture books are still my heart’s favorite. I love to read them, and love to write them, although I confess, I haven’t worked on a picture book in a while. I’m really rusty in that area right now, but I’m looking forward to returning to them as soon as my current project is finished.
BL: Do you have a favorite character or a favorite scene?
KA: I love Puck, love his determination, his regret, his pluck. But I confess that Ranger grew on me. Ranger is actually modeled upon a dog that I had as a child. His name was Sam, and he was large, rather menacing dog. When my parents divorced, and it was just my mom and my two sisters and I, she thought that we needed a guard dog, so she found Sam. He was a German shepherd mix, and he took his responsibilities seriously. He barked at everyone, even my grandmother. One day a calico cat wandered into our garage and started eating out of his bowl. It seemed like a bad idea on the part of the cat, but to everyone’s surprise Sam took to the cat. They became fast friends and a couple of weeks later, the cat had four kittens. Sam adopted all of them. Then, tragically, the mother cat was hit by a car. Sam essentially raised the kittens, which were about a month old at that point.
So Ranger is really based upon that good dog, Sam, who was such a big part of my growing up years.
BL: Some of the characters within The Underneath are magical. They read like mythological characters, or characters borrowed from folklore. Are these creatures from your imagination? Or did you borrow or enhance from folklore/mythology sources?
KA: Throughout human history, our tales have included half-humans and shapeshifters; we can find them in most mythologies and lore—there are centaurs, griffins, mermaids, selkies, werewolves, vampires, you name it. In fact, I worry a little now that if our society becomes too much farther and farther removed from the natural world, we’ll lose this notion of Halflings. I’m not suggesting that these creatures could, or that they ever did, really exist. But I can see how, in human history, when we were much closer to the natural world, not so separate, we might believe that we could take on these animal shapes. We could imagine it. We could conjure up the idea that we aren’t so separate from our animal kin.
When I set out to write this story, I didn’t intend to have magical beings in it, but as the story grew, and I became more steeped with the setting, it occurred to me that an ancient being, a creature that harkened back to a very distant past in which humans and animals were in much closer contact with each other, a being that was born even before the woods emerged from the sea, could find a home there.
Because there are areas of the piney woods that are basically uncharted, or uninhabitable, it seemed to me that a creature like that could exist, even today, a remnant of a very distant past, and who would know? (And let us not forget that the legendary Big Foot supposedly lives in that region. There have been more sightings of him/her in East Texas than anywhere else, so anything is possible, right? I think the Big Foot Society is based in Lufkin, TX). Considering the fact that there are probably millions of snakes in the pine forest, it seemed like my Grandmother Moccasin would feel right at home with her cousins and other relatives.
From everything that I studied, the original lamia was Greek. In fact, one of the Greek Isles is actually named for her. Lamia. Keats wrote a fairly scary poem about a lamia. His snake woman is something of a vampire, and in most of the stories that I found about her, she was fairly sinister. I decided, however, that my Grandmother Moccasin, while stewing in her own anger and vengeance would not be evil, just put out.
Which was why I put her in the jar. She needed a time out.
Now, that said, there have been a few people who have asked me about the influence of the Caddos in my story. Does Grandmother arise from their tradition? Not at all. In my research, I couldn’t find anything that suggested that there were shapeshifters in Caddo traditions, and I was careful not to imply that my shapeshifters were Caddoan. However, because part of their story occurred a thousand years ago, any creature that existed in that region would most likely have encountered the Caddos. They inhabited the area that we now call East Texas and Louisiana for centuries before the Europeans arrived.
There were two remarkable aspects of the Caddo, which are still true today. One was their openness and their welcoming attitude. The name for Texas comes from a Caddo word that loosely translated means “friend.” For years, the Caddo traded with the French and Spanish who moved into the area, and they did so in a friendly exchange.
So, I felt that even though my characters, Hawk Man and Night Song, weren’t Caddo, they would have been welcomed into their village. Everything I read and researched suggested this could have been true. And of course, Hawk Man and Night Song did not appear to the villagers in their animal forms. They arrived as humans, and no one from the village witnessed their departure or shift back into their animal shapes.
The second aspect that is true of the Caddo is their artistry. They were and still are renowned sculptors. The red clay of the region is perfect for the building of jars and other tools and vessels and they’ve been making them for centuries. There’s a small exhibit at the Caddo Mounds State Park in Athens, TX. [Correction Alto TX], which is only about 100 miles from my house, where you can see some of these ancient pots. The Caddos were mound builders and for many years, there has been an excavation of this site and the beautiful jars and pots have been slowly unearthed.
The thing is, I’ve admired their jars and pots for several years, well before I embarked upon The Underneath. I have a close friend, Pat Johnson, who is a sculptor in Fayetteville, TX, and several years ago she received a grant from the Texas Arts Commission to work with kids in East Texas in recreating the art of the Caddo. I think it was through her that I was first introduced to this beautiful pottery. So, as my story grew, I realized that it would make sense for there to be a jar, an old jar, that would play a prominent role.
BL: What was your inspiration for the characters of Grandmother Moccasin, Night Song, and Hawk Man?
KA: The creative process is always a mystery to me. And so is serendipity. I’m often surprised by what a chance encounter will lead to. When I began to think about including a jar in my story, I went on-line to see what else I could find out about how they were made, what the process for creating one might be. It turns out that there’s a wonderful website that has a lot of information about them.
Some of these photos were of the same jars that I saw in Athens at the park. But if you keep exploring, you’ll eventually go to this site.
Right on the top of the page is a photo of a truly beautiful jar. It’s made by master artist, Jereldine Redcorn, a contemporary Caddo woman who has spent her lifetime reviving the ancient traditions of Caddo pottery making.
If you study that jar, you’ll see that there is an animal that appears to incorporate three of the primary animals of the pine forest—it has the head of a panther, the body of a serpent, and the wings of a hawk (or some other bird). In one being, she brought together representatives of water, earth and sky.
When I saw the jar, I had an almost visceral reaction to the creature that Ms. Redcorn had etched on its side. The “magic” of it called to me, and it was then that I felt I could write at least a couple of characters into my story that were magical. I already had my cat characters in Puck and Sabine, and their mother, so I did not need the panther. But here were Grandmother, Night Song, and Hawk Man.
I have no idea if Ms. Redcorn based her etching on something from Caddo legend. As I said, I couldn’t find anything that suggested that there were shapeshifters there. But that beautiful jar became a talisman for me as I wrote.
My characters are not Caddo; they’re older. But who is to say that Ms. Redcorn did not also call upon the notion that there might have been a being that was older than her own culture, older than time maybe, and so she carved her very ancient being onto her very new jar? In the same way, I put my ancient beings into a new story.
I like to think that if we all go back, perhaps to pre-story, to a time when all stories were unshaped and unformed, that maybe we can transcend the stories that have separated us and make new stories that will bring us together.
And perhaps, even better, we can merge our stories so that we can discover our commonality. I like that. A lot. And I believe that we can do it without disrespecting our respective traditions, whatever those might be.
There are many legends about hummingbirds, for example. But as far as I know the idea of a hummingbird being the ferryman between life and the afterlife originated with African American slaves. It was not a story they brought from Africa. After all, there aren’t any hummingbirds in Africa, but the story itself resonated with me, and it specifically resonated in connection to Ranger, who for all intents and purposes, is a slave to the savage chain that binds him to his master.
When I visit with school kids, I remind them that we are the story animals. That as far as we know, we’re the only ones who tell stories. It’s our stories that make us most human because they separate us out from all the other animals. It’s no wonder that our most sacred things are our stories. We even go to war over whose story is best and “more true” or “more right” or whatever. That’s how much power a story can contain. So, we have to be wise about them, we have to learn to tell them well, and as much as anything, we have to learn to use them in ways that call to our basic humanness, even if the characters we choose to tell those stories are not necessarily human. Perhaps an old dog can tell us more about being a human than another human?
If you enjoyed reading this interview, be sure to come back tomorrow for the second half.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews