Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #75: “Knoxville Girl,” Kerry Madden

h1 May 29th, 2008 by jules

Kerry Madden; photo credit: Lucy Madden-LunsfordThere are two reasons I’m hosting a rather random interview with author Kerry Madden today: First, her Maggie Valley trilogy of books, whose third installment I finished a few months ago, are so positively good—so full of love and laughter and warmth and fairies-in-the-holler and mountain music and family and honeysuckles and bookmobiles and Ghost Town in the Sky and wildflowers and Daddy’s banjo—that I wanted to ask her a bit more about writing them and try to convince any of our loyal readers who perhaps haven’t already read them to COME ON and DO SO already, ’cause reading them is like giving yourself a gift. Whew.

Second, there is a large part of my heart still nestled in East Tennessee — in the foothills of the Smokies, where both Eisha and I went to college and where I decided to stay and study some more and work, volunteer, get married, give birth, etcetera etcetera and all that. And Kerry herself, my friends, is also a Knoxville Girl (though, to be sure, she’s also lived and travelled all over the world). WOOT! (I refuse to yell GO BIG ORANGE!, with respect to my football-fan friends. You’re all gonna have to settle for WOOT!) Best of all, she writes about the Smoky Mountains in her Maggie Valley trilogy with such vividness that she so clearly takes me back there — and without me having to jump in my car for the 200-mile drive.

And, honestly, there’s another reason: Kerry is just a neat person. Interesting. Smart. Funny. A style all her own, in just about every way. I only briefly met her last summer at The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, and I found myself wanting to talk to her for much longer than I had time. And, yes, it’s true that an author’s personality should have no bearing on whether or not I like her book; I can separate Kerry from her books, and I can evaluate her books based on her talents as an author (and I happen to think the books are great and her talent is immense). But, well, like I said, she just seems endlessly interesting: She’s a “journalist, mom, explorer, biographer, essayist, poet, author, writing instructor,” as her site’s header will tell you — and you can add playwright to that, too. And so I wanted to chat with her some more.

As Kerry’s bio at her site tells you, she—the oldest of four children—grew up the daughter of a football coach in football towns across the South and Midwest. But she spent a great deal of time in East Tennessee and studied at The University of Tennessee, about which she tells us a bit more later in the interview. And, during a time in her life in which she was seriously missing the Smoky Mountains, she wrote Gentle’s Holler (Viking; 2005), the first in her so-called Maggie Valley trilogy (her first novel for young readers, but not her first book). It’s the story of eleven-year-old Livy Two Weems, aspiring songwriter with eight siblings living circa early-’60s, who loves her North Carolina mountain home about as much as she loves music, and who must stay strong for her family when tragedy strikes. Kirkus Reviews praised the “graceful, spirited and, above all, sensory richness of {Kerry’s} writing,” giving it a starred review. Kerry followed Gentle’s Holler with last year’s Louisiana’s Song (Viking), the continued story of the Weems Family and how Livy’s father recovers from the tragedy that befell him, the family doing their best to cope. In this middle novel of the trilogy, Kerry shines the spotlight on Livy Two’s sister, Louisiana, a talented artist who, it turns out, is the most patient with their struggling father. Booklist wrote, “{b}eautifully written and true to its setting in the North Carolina mountains during 1963, this continues the warm, loving, and poignant saga of a family that struggles with everything but love.” And this year marked the final (or is it? See below!) novel in the trilogy, Jessie’s Mountain (also published by Viking and released in February), in which Livy Two’s father continues to struggle in his healing and Livy Two herself must decide whether to run off to Nashville to audition for Mr. George Flowers of Music Row — and try to make it big in country music. All the while, Livy Two is reading her mother’s childhood diary (complete with its many bird drawings), unbeknownst to her mother, which Grandma Horace has given her. It’s a tender, compelling end to the Weems Family saga, and I didn’t want to say goodbye to them.

Kerry’s been travelling a lot lately, speaking, teaching, and generally sharing her talents. She’s also hard at work one some new books, so let’s sit down and chat with her a spell. Many thanks to Kerry for taking the time to stop by 7-Imp . . .

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7-Imp: Have you always wanted to be a writer, or was there an event or series of events that flipped the writer-switch on?

Kerry and her daughterKerry (pictured here with her daughter): I really credit my fourth-grade teacher, who told me I was a good writer. She woke me up to the idea of writing and words. I already loved books, but her words resonated.

When I was a junior in college, I was an exchange student at Manchester University in England, and a group of British Drama students had a rip-roaring fight over Hamlet, which almost resulted in tea cups getting flung across the room. I was in that room and had absolutely nothing to contribute. I refilled the teacups and passed the biccies (cookies) and was mortified by my ignorance. I didn’t know if Hamlet was in love with his mother. I was from the University of Tennessee where we mostly discussed Big Orange football, the recent 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, and church. When those students left, I wrote down the conversation and continued to write it down for the next three days, alone in my flat. It became my first play, Tea Time, which we performed at the lab theatre on campus. I loved living in England -– visiting the Bronte Parsonage, Jane Austen’s home, Scotland, hitchhiking all of Ireland and finding some Irish cousins. My favorite classes were Women and the 19th Century Novel and Drama Criticism. I made British friends that year that I still have to this day.

I very reluctantly returned to Knoxville for my senior year and changed my major from journalism (a grotty trade school occupation) to theatre, and I stayed to do an MFA in Playwriting and took plenty of English classes, too. I fell in love with Southern writers, but a year in England away from everything familiar gave me a whole new perspective on the world. I quit going to Big Orange football games and never looked back.

7-Imp: In what specific ways does your Master’s degree in Playwriting inform your novel writing?

Kerry: I became a better listener and observer. When I did my MFA at The University of Tennessee, I was the only MFA Playwriting student, but I was able to teach Voice and Diction, which paid for graduate school. I made a whopping $305.00 a month, which I thought was fantastic! I listened to conversations from students -– I had several agriculture majors, and some of the accents were so beautiful and rich and others were pure twang. I also worked the nightshift sometimes at a dorm, and the campus policeman who drove me home always talked nonstop the minute I got in the car. He became a character in a play…I think I learned to listen and later figured out how dialogue moves the story forward.

7-Imp: Tell me about your writing process (starting wherever you like: getting the idea, starting to write, under deadline, etc.).

Kerry: I find my ideas in so many ways -– a long walk, a school journal, a scrap of dialogue. When I was in Maggie Valley working on Jessie’s Mountain, I stopped to get ice and the clerk said, “No ice ‘til Friday.” It was a Tuesday, and I was so aggravated. I had my six-year-old daughter with me, and we were in a cabin without electricity, so I needed ice. Recently, somebody told me that would be a great title for a story, so I may write that: “No Ice ‘til Friday.”

I write while my kids are in school. (Two are home and one is at college.) Ideas? I get excited about a project and go full steam, and I hate stopping. Then I have to pull back after about fifty pages or so to see if I have something. I work well under deadline, because desperation kicks in. I’m fanatical about meeting deadlines, and I credit the nuns in Catholic schools and my parents, who didn’t believe in excuses. Of course, although I do meet the deadline, that doesn’t mean I still don’t have plenty of revisions to do. It takes me many drafts to get it right, and then some more…

7-Imp: For those who don’t know the story behind the trilogy and what inspired you to write it, can you tell us more about that?

Kerry: I had hit a wall -– a dark wall, a black hole? Take your pick, but things weren’t going very well. I was ghostwriting for two clients, who didn’t want to pay me for the work I’d done, and I wound up in small claims court upon the advice of the Author’s Guild. The Guild helped me at every step, but the best part was dialogue regarding metaphor from the judge:

I said to the judge (as advised by the Authors Guild), “It’s like they asked me to paint a room red and changed their minds and wanted it painted blue.”

The judge nodded and one of the clients said, “That’s stupid! We never asked her to paint a room.”

The judge said, “It’s a metaphor.”

And the client replied, “Well, it’s a stupid one.”

He said, “You think of a better metaphor then.”

The client said, “Well, I can’t, but it’s still stupid.”

I got my money.

And also not long before this time, my grandmother had died, and while she was dying, I was writing shadow soap opera -– pure awful. In other words, I was taking paying gigs, and trying to write what other people wanted me to write to earn money. A doctor hired me to a write a mystery proposal, and it was fascinating (and scary) to learn his stories about unethical/unnecessary cataract surgeries to bilk Medicare, but I was getting further and further away from my own heart and imagination. My first novel, Offsides, was long out of print…I was teaching nonstop…

Anyway, I came across the incredibly gorgeous book Dovey Coe, written by Frances O’Roark Dowell, and something clicked. I don’t even know how it came to be in the house. One of the kids must have brought it home. I had grown up drawing pictures of mountains and huge families, and I married a man who was one of thirteen children . . . Lee Smith’s books also gave me great hope and joy when I was a young mother living in Los Angeles with babies and missing the mountains terribly. I knew I had to try to write a mountain girl’s story. I also wanted to open a book where a mother is putting a newborn to sleep in a drawer and a daddy is playing a banjo on the porch, and the little girl’s whole world is up in the red maple tree.

7-Imp: Can you talk a bit about the ways in which your family members helped contribute to Jessie’s Mountain as well as about the research that went into this novel (particularly, the Nashville research)?

Kerry: My daughter, Lucy Madden-Lunsford, drew the birds that are in Jessie’s Mountain as part of Mama’s girlhood journal. I had to plead for the birds, but I knew they belonged, and my editor, Catherine Frank, agreed to look at Lucy’s art. At first I had so many birds and that wasn’t working, but choosing the most important birds made more sense, and Catherine was a great help. My son, Flannery, a musician, edited Livy Two’s songs, and Norah inspired Caroline, as she has in each of the books.

The Nashville Public Library was a great help to me. We were visiting my husband’s family for Christmas in 2006, and I spent the day in the downtown library reading old headlines from December 1963. I learned that it was one of the coldest winters on record in Nashville. The duck pond by the Parthenon had frozen over, and the headline read, “WHAT’S A DUCK TO DO?” I knew Jitters would be worried about those ducks. I also went up and down Music Row to find Mr. George Flowers’ house, and of course, I went to {the} Ryman Auditorium and tried to figure out the geography of the Greyhound Bus Station in relation to the Ryman Auditorium and on down to Broadway and Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop. Candie Moonshower, an author and Nashville native, was a great help. So was my sister-in-law, Tomi Lunsford, a Nashville musician, and her husband, Warren Denny. They answered every kind of question I had about Nashville in the 1960s right after the death of Pasty Cline. My father-in-law, Jim Lunsford, was also a fiddle player on the Grand Ole Opry, and I listened to a lot of his CDs of Reno & Smiley and The Smoky Mountain Boys. I also listened to his uncle’s music, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a songcatcher in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

7-Imp: Tell us about structuring this third novel in the trilogy. When did you decide to give Livy Two access to her mother’s diary (a technique I thought worked so well in terms of giving us great insight to the characters)? Was it something you knew right off the bat you’d be doing or did it emerge after you had already begun writing?

Kerry: I knew I wanted to have Mama’s diary in the story, but I didn’t know Grandma Horace was going to do what she did until she did it. So it emerged after many first chapter rewrites . . . At first, I think Livy Two was going to find it, but to have Grandma Horace give it to her seemed much riskier.

7-Imp: This third novel is the end of the Weems family saga, correct? Was it hard as hell to say goodbye to them when writing Jessie’s Mountain?

Kerry: For now, yes, it’s the end . . . and yes, it’s been incredibly hard to say good-bye to them, and I find myself thinking about them, wondering about them. Honestly, I don’t think I’m quite finished with the Weems family yet, but I was terrified of writing “manufactured mountain novels,” so I wanted a break to think about more Maggie Valley stories and what they could be. Maybe Cyrus has his own story? Maybe Jitters does too . . . and I want to spend more time with Gentle and send her off to the School for the Blind.

7-Imp: Can you tell our readers more about your work with teen moms, which—as you state at your site—resulted in a series of theatrical productions written by young mothers?

Kerry: My work with teen moms began when I needed childcare in 1993. I was teaching ESL at Garfield Adult School in East L.A., and they opened a free childcare center right at the school. Lucy was three, and I asked if she could come to school with me and be in the childcare center while I was teaching. It was mostly for the children of teen moms but the late director, Renee Haan (who became my dear friend and to whom Gentle’s Holler is dedicated), agreed — as long as I taught creative writing to the teen moms. I was terrified the first day of the teen writing workshop -– I was 31, and they were 15, 16, 17, and I suddenly realized if I’d been a teen mom, they’d be the age of my children. (Does that make sense?) They {were} tough girls -– high hair, fiercely penciled eyebrows, rage. Anyway, I had them write stories and plays and poetry over the next year. It was an incredibly alive and emotional time, because their lives were so on the edge. Just getting their children ready for school, on the bus––all of it––took a kind of Herculean effort. They were so brave and anxious to learn everything, because they’d been told “Don’t get above yourself,” and “Don’t use your big dictionary words with me!” I found two girls in the class, Sally Thomas and Dolores “Red” Guillen, who really loved to write, and then I began to meet with them on Saturdays several years later (1997). Eventually, we decided to write a play called Waiting for the Bus that was produced by the California Youth Theatre. Professional actors read the play in a staged reading for two performances, and it was an incredible day. All their family members came to watch, and they were so astonished and moved by the stories. One of the grandfathers came up to me and said, “Hey, I’m the old guy in the play who drives the shitty blue van. That’s my character.” He was very proud.

Kerry at a school visit in Sewanee, Tennessee

7-Imp: Can you tell us what your school visits are like and how teaching writing to children informs your writing, if it does at all?

Kerry: I love doing school visits. I lead messy writing workshops where I try to take the mystery and fear out of writing. I bring in my character journals and notebooks, rocks, bones, Saturn Girl comics, fairies, mountain music, pictures, paintings, books and so much more. These are things my characters love. I let the students explore everything. {Ed. Note: Here’s an example of some of Kerry’s writing prompts at her site, and here’s information on her 2002 American Girl publication, Writing Smarts, which she uses when teaching writing workshops.} The school visits often inform my writing. I do a game of colors with the book, The Synonym Finder, and once when I was asking for synonyms for green, one kid yelled out, “Monkey vomit green!” He was so jazzed. That’s gone straight into my new novel. I really love working at rural schools or schools where they don’t get to meet authors.

7-Imp: Which writers have had the greatest influence on your work?

Kerry: So many . . . Flannery O’Connor, Mark Twain, Mary Ward Brown, Lee Smith, Harper Lee, Rick Bragg, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, Frances O’Roark Dowell, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Ellen Douglas, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, Tessa Hadley, Paul Monette, Donna Tartt, Heather King, John Cheever, Tim Wynne-Jones . . . I could do on and on. I’m like Livy Two. I need my books stacked around me.

Kerry and author Cecil Castellucci

Kerry and author Cecil Castellucci at the 2007 SCIBA Author Dinner

7-Imp: Why did you start your LiveJournal? How does the blog-writing support and/or interfere with your writing?

Kerry: I only started a LiveJournal to be able to make updates and announcements, because I didn’t know how to on my website. Then I found this whole wonderful community of other writers and it’s connected me to new readers. Sometimes it does feel overwhelming. I just read a great Charles Baxter interview in The Missouri Review, where he said we’re living in the age of “data smog.” That felt more than accurate to me! When I’m under deadline or just trying to find a new story, I keep away or I try to anyway. My favorite part about blogging is posting pictures and inviting kids to send me their stories. I invite the students from my school visits to be the “Writer of the Day” on my blog, MountainMist.

7-Imp: What’s next? Are you working on any new books that you can tell us about? Your website indicates it’s a biography. Can you tell us of whom?

Harper Lee; Donald Uhrbrock/Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesKerry: I’m working on the biography of Harper Lee {pictured here} for Viking’s Up Close Series. It’s been the most wonderful and most extraordinarily difficult undertaking, but I’ve made three trips to Alabama, which were a great help. It comes out in 2009, and I’m almost done because I have to be. I am also working on a new book called The Fifth Grade Life of Jack Gettlefinger about a boy forced to keep a school journal against his will. My nineteen-year-old son, Flannery, gave me his old school journal for inspiration.

7-Imp: Do you have any desire to write for age ranges other than middle-grade (and YA/Adult, the age range at which your first book was generally aimed)? Do you, for instance, ever find yourself wanting to attempt a picture book?

Kerry: I would love to write a good picture book. I have two or three that I need to get right. I also love writing literary fiction and essays. When one thing isn’t working, I can usually go to another and come back to the other with fresh perspective. I write several essays a year for the Los Angeles Times {Ed. Note: Here’s a good one}, and I enjoy the form a lot.

7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Kerry: Every time I start a book, I am terrified I won’t be able to pull it off.

7-Imp: If you could have three (living) authors — whom you have not yet met — over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Kerry: Alice Munro, Harper Lee, and David Sedaris.

The Pivot Questionnaire

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Kerry: “Blueberry.” (Also “sapphire” and “scarlet.”)

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Kerry: “Mushy banana.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Kerry: Mountains, being out in the country . . . a great play, Broadway or not, and music, always music. I run to extremes. I saw Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, and John Doe perform together last year, and that was an exhilarating moment.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Kerry: Petty people who don’t get it and bullies. Meanness. Coldness. Ego. Pretentiousness. Selfishness.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Kerry: I pretty much use them all . . .

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Kerry: Rain . . . front porch fiddles and banjos . . .

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Kerry: Leaf blowers, sirens, barking dogs — especially, all at once.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Kerry: Actress. What a cliché, but I’d love to play Amanda Wingfield someday.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Kerry: Work in an office and have to wear suits and/or heels and stockings and make small talk. That would drive me crazy.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Kerry: “I love you.” That would be nice.

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For more online information about Kerry Madden:

{Note: If I missed anyone else’s online interview, by all means, email me
and I’ll add it…}

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Opening photo credit: Lucy Madden-Lunsford.

17 comments to “Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #75: “Knoxville Girl,” Kerry Madden”

  1. Kerry very graciously sent me her second book some time ago, and I’ve sort of hung around the edges of her blogging and been amazed at how — NICE she is. How genuinely, reaching-out-and-caring, returning emails-even-though-she-must-be-busier-than-a-herd -of-cats NICE she is. And this interview illuminates the other and myriad ways in which she gives back. Wow, and Thank You for a great interview!

  2. Mushy banana could be a curse word…

    This interview came at the perfect moment for me. I posted a picture from Tennessee today, and I was just in those better-than-anyplace-on-earth North Carolina mountains last weekend. I feel lucky to have family there, and after this interview, I feel like Kerry is family, too. I’m inspired by her playwriting, too–that’s something I want to learn.

    I feel like I’ve been rocking on the porch with you both…

  3. I loved the dialogue about metaphor with judge. Although I believe there’s a joke that involves “What’s a metaphor/meta for?” Only now I can’t recall what the answer is.

    Excellent, interesting interview, ladies!

  4. I’m so glad I stopped by! I adore Kerry. She’s a whole bunch of warm graciousness with huge talent.

    Thanks for this interview!

  5. Kerry rocks! Thanks for a great interview. I’m glad to learn that we might hear more about the Weems family one day.

  6. Oh, man. And is that biography of Harper Lee gonna be good, or what???? Thanks for this really sweet interview.

  7. Dear Jules,
    Thank you for such a thoughtful and fun interview…and thank you for EVERYTHING you do for children’s books and authors linking us all together in this wonderful community. See you soon in Tennessee!!

    All best

  8. I saved this interview for when I had more time to savor it. I love Kerry and her books, and am really looking forward to the Harper Lee biography. Thanks, ladies!

  9. i can’t wait to pick up these books. they sound fantastic. and a funny coincidence–i found your blog through my mentor (kerstin s.) who spoke fondly of working with you and thought i would enjoy it. and as i was reading this post and clicked on the ‘got married’ bit, i was surprised to find that we both got married @ st. andrew’s. (cue: its a small world music). anyway, i’ll be sure to keep checking back soon.

  10. Hi, Amber. I LOVE KERSTIN! I’m gonna email you!

  11. […] My family and I heard Kerry Madden read from her latest book at a bookstore in Nashville this week. Her sister-in-law played her […]

  12. Hey Mrs.Madden I have started reading jesses mountain, must i say it it is wonderful I love it. I just wanted to come by your page to tell you that I belive in your dreams and your futures and to keep writing because thats what your gift form God is because you are very good at it. Thanks for all your adventurous dreams!!! Love always Brooke

  13. Dear Brooke,
    Thank you for your sweet note and for finding me. I loved my day at Jefferson MIddle School last month. Your school is wonderful, and I’ve never had a group of teachers play all that mountain music to open a workshop. I’ll never forget it. I hope you follow all your beautiful and adventurous dreams too! Write your stories!

    Kerry Madden

  14. […] Kerry Madden (interviewed May 29) on one thing most people don’t know about her: “Every time I start a book, I am […]

  15. […] Kerry Madden (interviewed May 29) on one thing most people don’t know about her: “Every time I start a book, I am […]

  16. Hi Kerry,

    I am in my second reading of “Gentle’s Holler” now and I have reserved the next 2 books in the trilogy at my local library. I’m a teacher in the southern end of mid-western Ohio and I love your book so much that I want to read it out to my class. I think they will really enjoy it….let’s see if they catch the “banjo fever” you’ve given me. I’m not much of an artist, but I have started working on what I think Louise’s painting of Grandma Horace teaching Gentle to read would have looked like. Like Louise, I’m just drawing their hands. And I don’t know the Braille alphabet so I wrote the word “Love” backwards in little round dots for the Gentle hands to feel. But I’m going to look up the alphabet and do another picture for real this time….maybe with real drawing paper and pencils and maybe some color, too. I’ll try to do it right so it fits with your story. And when I move on to the next thing, I’m going to take your book with me – even though it’s in the school library right now. Thank you so much…you did a really good job.

    Bekah in Dayton, OH

  17. […] the Festival, I also got to see Kerry Madden again and finally meet Shadra Strickland (pictured here), who has visited the blog several […]

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