Thursday, May 7, 2009

Meet Barbara Kerley

Barbara Kerley

I've been waiting a long time to corral Barb Kerley, whose What To Do About Alice? is a historical picture book treasure. I wasn't the only one to notice this lively biography: it garnered a Sibert Honor, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, among many other awards.

Welcome to Kirby's Lane, Barb. Before we talk books, help us get to know you a bit first:

Were you a flashlight-under-the covers or a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid?

Actually, I was a run-and-play-with-flashlights kind of kid. One of my most vivid childhood memories is playing flashlight tag on summer nights. All the kids of our neighborhood would gather and we’d play hide-and-seek in the dark; if you got ‘tagged’ by the beam of the flashlight, you were caught. It was thrilling. BUT I also read. A lot.
Barb as a 10-year-old sophisticate, between books

What was the nudge/spark that set you in front of that blank paper to write for children?

When I first started writing seriously (like, every day) I thought I’d be writing literary novels for adults. But the path to publication is paved with short stories in literary magazines, and I had to admit over time that what I read in those magazines didn’t seem like the kind of thing I wanted to write. There seemed to be tons of stories about English professors who were uninspired by their job and were having an unhappy affair to try and find what was missing in their unhappy marriage.

Still, I explored this genre (not the unhappy-professor genre, I mean the short story genre!) until I had a kid of my own. I hadn’t read children’s books in 15 years, probably (since I was a kid myself) and so I came to them with fresh eyes. The topics and the approach seemed so much more in line with how I saw the world: writing from a place where life is opening up—where anything is possible.

Who are the writers you read to be inspired?

I find a lot of inspiration from the writers I critique with, as I know how hard they’re working on their craft: Mary Nethery, Pamela Service, Susan Bennett, Natasha Wing, Ellen Davidson, Martha Longshore, and Deborah Heiligman.

Do you have any special writing talismans/tokens in your writing space? If so, what are they?

The wall behind my computer is covered with them. I don’t know if they are ‘talismans’, exactly, but they are things that make me happy.

Barb's neat and tidy wall of inspiration & happiness

Circling clockwise, top center is a poster of the dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins. The tall blue fish picture was painted by my daughter, Anna. Next is a Mother’s Day card with a kangaroo on it.

Next is a Dilbert cartoon making fun of celebrity children’s books. Then there’s a birthday card from my dear friend Mary Nethery (who, your blog readers probably already know, is a coauthor of two of your books, but is also a member of my critique group here in California) of a cat (who looks like her cat) giving a back massage to a self-satisfied cat (who looks like my cat).

Finally, there is a picture of me, my mom, my sister, and my brother at a recent family reunion. It is affixed to the wall with three red thumbtacks laid out as the points of a triangle, because Mary and another writing buddy, Natasha Wing, are both really into feng shui and told me that I had to have a red triangle on my career wall and I decided, well, I’m not sure I believe in this stuff but it certainly couldn’t hurt. Besides, my brother is making a goofy grin in the picture so it makes me laugh, and I figure that is a good thing to have on your career wall.

I love the title concept explored by Carolyn See in her Making A Literary Life: What do you do that helps you sustain and nourish your literary life?

Ask a lot of questions. I don’t always ask them out loud, though I do that, too. (Recently, I happened to meet an old guy at a roadside sandwich shop, for example, who mentioned that he is a dowser. Boy, did that get a flurry going. I asked so many questions that he even went to his truck and pulled out his dowsing rods and let me try them. Apparently there is no water vein under the parking lot of the sandwich place, however, as I didn’t find anything.) Going through life asking “Why?” “How?” “And then what?” is a good way to keep the well full, to paraphrase Mark Twain.

Also, I try to nourish my sense of empathy. This can backfire, as when someone else is in distress, it can be very difficult for me not take that that stress on myself. But it is also wonderful fuel for writing (and, I think, makes you a better human being!) Most writers I know are naturally empathetic. If I stumble across, say, an anecdote about someone who has experienced something way different than what I’ve experienced, and I find myself wondering what that would be like, I stay with it a while and see what I can learn. It’s another way of opening up the world.

Finally, I go to art galleries whenever I can. Looking at art must activate the other side of my brain, the non-verbal side (I can never remember which side is which). I leave art galleries all filled up again.

What’s the worst writing advice you ever received?

This question really stumped me. I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten really terrible advice—after all, most ideas work for at least someone. I will say that it is very rare when someone says “You should write a book about…” and the idea that follows is one that will work for me. I have gotten a few interesting ideas from other people’s suggestions, but on the whole it seems like if the ideas aren’t self-generated, they never really come to life for me. That’s one of the reasons why I think it’s so important as a writer to try and stay open to new experiences/places/people etc etc etc—you really need to feed your own inner life so that you will find writing ideas that resonate.

What was the scariest thing you’ve done as a writer?

Commit to a project when I have no idea how it will turn out, or even if I’ll be able to pull it off. This happened with my most recent manuscript, actually. I stumbled across an interesting historical tidbit: when she was 13, Susy Clemens secretly wrote a biography of her father, Mark Twain.

Wow, I thought, there has got to be a book there, but for the longest time I could not figure out how to approach the story or how to structure it. For months—literally—I read Mark Twain biographies (including the one that Susy wrote!) feeling like the spine of the story was always just out of reach, like when you catch the most fleeting glimpse of something and when you turn your head, it’s already gone. I kept feeling like if I could only reach one inch farther, I would be able to grasp it, but I never quite could. I took a leap of faith that if I immersed myself in the material, one day I’d figure out how to shape it into a book. But for the first few months, I honestly didn’t know what the story would look like. The resulting book, The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) will be out next spring.

What are you proudest of in your work?

That I still learn about writing with each new book.

How do you know when you have a story just right?

When it seems so simple and clear that I can’t imagine the story could have been told any other way. It’s a strange thing when you’re wrestling with a sticky problem—there doesn’t seem to be a solution until there is, and then it seems so obvious that you can’t imagine you couldn’t see it from the beginning. To me the solutions that really work are the ones where you don’t have to explain (in your head, or to others) why they work, they just do.

How long was it between “I’ve got an idea” to “We’d like to publish your book”? And what happened in between those moments?

Boy, that really varies from project to project. The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins took a couple years—and 16 rejections, before it found a home. Now that I work regularly with a couple editors, when I present an idea I’ll often hear back in a month or so, which is great. But I spend time massaging an idea before I even present it to them. I’ll often spend several weeks researching a biography idea to see if it might work, before I even share it with my editor. And there have been plenty of times when that preliminary work makes me realize that something won’t work, and I have to abandon an idea that once seemed so promising. That’s part of the process, too.

What, if anything, in the writer’s life has caught you by surprise?

It can be a really herky-jerky job. There will be long periods when you are almost completely isolated—where you really have to rely on self-discipline to keep working, as no one, truly, would know if you spent a month watching America’s Next Top Model marathons all day. And then suddenly, there is a mad dash toward a deadline, and a million phone calls, and copy-editing issues on the tiniest details (a quick phone call about changing a single word, for example). And then, suddenly, your raft is cut free and you float away from the ship again, all by yourself.

A series of questions about work habits:
  • Computer or long-hand? Computer. My handwriting is atrocious.
  • Coffee or tea? Both, all day long (though much of it is decaf.)
  • Quiet office or music going? I cannot think with music on. I can’t even read the newspaper with music on.
  • Desk: neat or messy? I organize by piles and stacks, so I need lots of horizontal surfaces. That said, they are fairly neat piles and stacks, and the dirty dishes make it back downstairs to the sink.
  • Essential writing snack food: Lately I seem to be eating orange segments sprinkled with sliced almonds. Dark chocolate is quite effective, too, as a writing enhancement agent.
Specific Questions:

Congratulations on the many awards garnered by What to Do About Alice, a book I felt was a shoe-in for a Caldecott because it was such a perfect pairing of text and illustrations (by Seattle artist, Edwin Fotheringham).

First off, thanks for the kinds words and yes, Edwin did a fantastic job with the art. This was his debut picture book and I predict he’ll have a long, successful career—he is so very talented.

What drew you to Alice?

I saw a picture of her and thought, Wow, who is that? She looked like a Gibson Girl—glamorous, intelligent, perhaps a bit bored with it all. Once I found out that she was one of the first celebrities in America, and that her celebrity status sometimes drove her father, President Theodore Roosevelt, crazy, I was hooked.
The "real" Alice Roosevelt

How do you decide if there’s “enough” story to write a biography?

Boy, is that a great question. Picture books really need a beginning-middle-end to them, and I have discarded tons of ideas (sometimes after weeks or months of research) because I decided, ultimately, that the story structure wasn’t there. In the simplest terms, I think picture book biographies have the same constraints as any other picture books—a strong central character(s) moving through a story from beginning to end—with the added constraint that everything in the story has to be true.

I so admire the way you bring your subjects – from Alice to Waterhouse Hawkins to Walt Whitman – alive as individuals, not merely as conglomerations of facts. How do you do that?!

I try to look for one telling anecdote/event that illustrates what I think to be a major/the major theme of that person’s life (and thus, the theme of the book.) I’m drawn to writing about people with a passion, and so if I can find an anecdote/event that taps into that passion, I start from there.

Tell us a bit about your research process, please.

I’m not a good note-taker (see atrocious handwriting, above) so I tend to either xerox material from library books and then highlight, or purchase used books online, or print out from microfilm or online sources. I read read read and then once the story starts writing itself in my head, I basically set all the research aside and write the story. Then I have to go back and fact-check everything, which is a real pain but is really necessary. As I am fact-checking, I use the endnote feature of Word to note the sources for my facts (book, page number) in the manuscript itself. I have learned the hard way that this is vital as sometimes a question will arise a year or more later and it is a huge relief to be able to find the source easily.

What’s next for you?

Well, I already talked about the Mark Twain book, which will be out in 2010. I also have a new book out this month called One World, One Day. It’s a day-in-the-life of school kids around the world, and is illustrated with National Geographic photographs. The book is simple and playful and fun, and also has photographer notes in the back matter, which is really cool. Plus the photos are gorgeous.
Barb's beautiful new book, out this month

Is there anything you wish I’d asked you? If so, what is it?

Yes. “How can people get a hold of you?” I have a web page with a way to email me on it. I’m on facebook and have really enjoyed ‘meeting’ librarians, authors, and book-lovers that way. (There’s a link to my facebook profile on my web page, too.) Finally, I just joined a blogging collective called I.N.K.: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) and will be posting once a month. There are a lot of great nonfiction authors blogging on that site.

Other interviewees have shared secret talents with us (most notably, Susan Patron’s skill with flaming desserts). What is your secret talent?

At the ripe old age of 48, I have started taking banjo lessons.

Speaking as the Cinnamon Roll Queen, can you please resolve this quandary once and for all: with or without raisins?

With. Nuts are good, too.

Thanks to Barb for her gracious participation and for providing answers as tasty as the cinnamon rolls she makes!


  1. As a lover of Twain, I'm looking forward to The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy). I'm a total Twainiac!

    If any of the writers here are interested, there is a writing contest happening over at Twainia:

  2. Great interview. Loved Barbara's book ... and so did my kids. What fun to say out loud. Thank you so much.