Interview with Memoir and YA Author Author Beth Kephart

By Jerry Waxler

A couple of years ago, I heard Beth Kephart deliver the keynote speech at the Philadelphia Stories “Push to Publish” conference. She offered an interesting perspective on memoir, having written more than one, including an unusual first person account of a river. After the talk, I went up to meet her, and that was the last I thought about her until I picked her memoir “Slant of Sun” out of my ever-deepening pile and started to read. The book impressed me as a lovely, deep, impeccable memoir and I stopped and stayed with it for quite a while. The longer I lingered the more I saw and appreciated. Within the pages, I identified twenty lessons for memoir writers, which I shared in previous posts. In this entry, I interview Beth Kephart about her experience as a writer.

Jerry Waxler: Considering the authentic feel of your dialog, I’m guessing you kept a journal. So did you?

Beth Kephart: The truth is that essay writing and, now, blogging is my form of keeping a diary or a journal.  The chapters that ultimately became A Slant of Sun were often written in the near wake of the events they record.  “Waiting for the Red Baron,” for example, was written the evening and next morning following an experience I’d had on the playground with my son. Dialogue in memoir is, indeed, very tricky.  It, above all else, can lead to doubt in the reader’s mind.  I tried to record only that that was fresh in memory or that which had remained there, indelible, for good reason.

Jerry: When did you decide to write a book about this period in your life?

Beth: I never planned on writing a book per se.  I was simply writing down the stories as they happened and reading them to my son–a way of memorializing the days we had together.  It all came together as a book after Jayne Anne Phillips and Rosellen Brown and others saw the pieces and suggested that they may make a meaningful whole.  I spent a long time considering whether or not to follow that suggestion.

Jerry: Do you keep a writer’s notebook now?

Beth: My blog serves, in many ways, as my notebook.  And my last many books have been fiction, and so I scrawl things to myself in strange places and hope I can find them later.  But mostly, when I write fiction, I am writing sentence to the next sentence.  Each new sentence unlocks an unforeseen door.

Jerry: When I read the memoir a month ago, it didn’t matter to me that you had written it years earlier. Your experience moved me just as much as if it happened yesterday. As a reader, that seems kind of obvious. But what does it feel like as a writer? Do you love your old books or are they hard to relate to?

Beth: I don’t, by and large, go back and read anything I’ve written once it is published–it’s even difficult for me to do readings from books I’ve just recently put out into the world.  I imagine that that has to do with a certain kind of fear that the book isn’t all I might have wanted it to be, or all I would do now, and that there simply is no way to change things.  Memoirs are particularly difficult to return to.  When I do–when I must–I am left raw with surges of emotion.  A sense of loss.  A sense of what if?  A sense of if only.  But mostly a sense of time passing.  The people we write of in memoirs grow up.  We grow up, too.  Nothing is permanent, save for those words on the page.

Jerry: I imagine most memoir writers don’t think (or can’t even guess) how this memoir will feel to them ten years later. What have you learned about memoirs and the passage of time that you wish you could have told yourself when you wrote it, or that you would tell other memoir writers as they aspire to publish their stories?

Beth: You are absolutely right:  We are incapable of imagining ourselves ten years on, our books beside us.  Incapable.  I have written five memoirs.  In each, I was working and writing toward universal messages and themes, and not toward a simple chronicling of my own small life.  With each I thought I was speaking for all of time.  I wasn’t.  I’m still learning about those themes.  I’m still making decisions or changing my mind.  I’m still emerging, despite my age.  My advice to writers of memoir is to be aware, always, that a memoir is not an absolute, not a black and white, not a he said, she said.  It is a grappling toward understanding, and that grappling will continue long after the book is out.

Jerry: To the reader, a memoir looks like a complete book that starts on page one and proceeds to the end. But the author has to do a lot of work to decide where to start and how to focus the book. Can you tell us about that process for you, how did you make those decisions?

Beth: It all comes back to those themes.  I have done all my shaping–all my deciding about what goes in and what stays out, about how much emphasis to put on one thing or another–by standing back and asking myself:  Does this scene advance your themes? Often some of the very best stories must be set aside.  But memoir is not autobiography.  The point is to leave the reader understanding more not just about you, but about him or herself.  It’s up to the writer to help the reader in that process.

Jerry: How did writing the memoir fit into your journey of becoming a lifelong book author?

Beth: Well, I’ve been very lucky, in many ways, with writing.  Before I wrote memoir, I published dozens of short stories in literary magazines, and each time out, I learned something new.  Memoir taught me many things — and the published books and the honors they received opened more doors, let me experiment with new forms, gave me a platform from which to speak and teach.  That is not to say that it is easy.  Ever.  In many ways, in this publishing environment, it gets harder.  But everything you write, published or not, teaches you something about what you are capable of and what you are still battling.  And every reaction you get to your work helps you see your best efforts from the outside.

Jerry: How did the memoir writing inform your later YA novel writing? (Note: Beth Kephart’s fifth YA novel Dangerous Neighbors is winning critical acclaim.)

Beth: After I wrote the five memoirs, I wrote an autobiography of the Schuylkill River called Flow, which felt, very much, like a river’s memoir.  I clung to that first-person voice, because I understood it, because through it I could speak most honestly.  My first four young adult novels were all first-person novels, and in each of the books the main characters contained aspects of me that I understood and unfurled, just as if I were unfurling my own thoughts in memoir.  The other day I was teaching in a classroom and the students, who had read one of my YA novels, were sure that the novel was memoir.  I asked them why.  They said because it felt urgent and honest.  The blog, too, allows me to exercise the first-person voice.

Jerry: Writers have many responsibilities: to say a thing clearly being in my opinion number one, and get to the heart of it, perhaps number two. But to do those two things and at the same time to add beauty of language seems to me to be almost a transcendent goal. Not only is it difficult to find colorful language. It can even be risky.

Beth: You are very right about language being risky.  But in my mind, there’s no point to writing a book if you aren’t willing to put your heart, soul, and imagination on the line, in almost every sentence.  Push as hard as you can, then edit back. Try to create something original and new.

Jerry: As a writer, I limit my use of metaphors and other artistic devices, because I fear they could be distracting, calling attention to the words and away from the purpose of the sentence. Then I read a book like yours and remember how uplifting and invigorating language arts can be.

Beth: Thank you.  Part of my “style” comes from the fact that I was a skater as a kid and I’m a dancer now and I believe in choreography and movement and color.  They are like religions to me.

Jerry: On many pages of Slant of Sun, I caught my breath, gasping at the simplicity, elegance, and originality of your word choices. Your phrasing lifted me, made me happy, and at the same time brought me deeper into your experience. On only two or three sentences in the entire book, I thought the word-image was a tiny bit out of center, but instead of distracting me, those moments merely made me grateful for all the passion you had put into your writing.  Could you give me some idea about how you achieve your style or voice? Do you practice? Is it a lifelong obsession? Did you go through a period of honing your voice? Do you remember some of the tools, techniques, or strategies you used to develop the knack?

Beth: Thank you (again).  I think voice–real voice–comes from an authentic, untrained place.  The impulse for an image, the idea for a metaphor — it can’t be taught.  What can be taught is self editing.  Toning it down.  Making it work.  I work on that all the time, and sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I don’t.  There’s no getting anywhere, though, if you don’t read a lot.  I do that all the time. Just this morning I finished reading and blogging about one of the best memoirs I’ve read in years–Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home.  I think it’s pitch perfect, all the way through.

Jerry: Will you write another memoir?

Beth: Sometimes I wish I had the courage.  I teach memoir writing at Penn.  I think about it.  I do.  But nothing is in the works.  My blog is my memoir at the moment.

Jerry: What are you working on now?

Beth: I am in the midst of finishing two novels — one, ten years in the making, the other, three.  I have just released a book that took me five years to write. It means a lot to me, for it is about Centennial Philadelphia.  Normally I run from promoting a book.  This new book, Dangerous Neighbors, is a book I am fighting for.  I’ve prepared a teacher’s guide (which is on my blog) and I am spending the time and energy it takes to share the book with teachers with the hope that local students will read the book and be transported back in time to a city I love.

Visit Beth Kephart’s Blog
Amazon page for “A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage” by Beth Kephart

Here are links to all the parts of my multi-part review of “Slant of Sun” by Beth Kephart and an interview with the author:

Use this memoir as a study guide: lessons 1 to 3

Lessons 4-5 from Beth Kephart’s Memoir, Slant of Sun

Four More Writing Lessons from Reading a Memoir

Memoir Lessons: Mysteries of emerging consciousness

Memoir Lessons: Moms, Quirks, Choices

Lessons from Kephart: Labels, Definitions, Language

Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond

Interview with Beth Kephart

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Author Interview: Curtis Smith talks about publishing in Literary Journals

By Jerry Waxler

At this year’s Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish conference,  Curtis Smith played an important role, by throwing in a few choice comments about how much fun writing is. (To read more about his comments, click here ). One of the parts of writing that seemed to be working especially well for Curtis was his regular publication in literary journals. Since he was getting so much satisfaction from that aspect of his craft, I asked him to share some tips and pointers with the rest of us. Our interview follows:

Jerry Waxler: Your bio says you have published in 50 journals. Could you say more about how you found these journals? How much legwork do you do to become familiar with the journals in your “space.”

Curtis Smith: In the pre-internet days, I found them using books like The Writers Market or Dustbooks Small Press directory.  I’d familiarize myself with them mainly through the stories reprinted in the annual anthologies like Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, or the O’Henry series.  Sometimes I’d order a particular journal; other times I’d go to the local college library, which carried quite a few lit journals.  These days I mainly use websites like Duotrope or New Pages to find markets.  And I visit the journals’ websites and see what kind of work they post.

JW: Do each of the journals tend to have their own “voice” — and if so, when searching for a journal you will submit to, how much must you understand their voice preferences?

CS: Some journals do have a unique voice, the independents mostly, print places like Hobart and Monkeybicycle and online places like Smokelong.  These days, a website will give you a good indication of a journal’s aesthetic.  I think if you’re dealing with a journal affiliated with a college, you can find the turnover of editors may lead to a somewhat less defined voice–that said, many university-sponsored journals are beautiful and have a long history of publishing great work.

JW: How did you decide which journals would be most appropriate for the nonfiction essays you wrote about your relationship with your young son?

CS: That’s been more of a crapshoot–since many journals only have one or two essays per issue, it was harder for me to get a feel for that.  Some markets I did target–I had a piece in The Humanist and a few others in special theme issues.

JW: During your writing process, do you ever write with a particular editor or publication in mind?

CS: Rarely–sometimes I’ll see a call for a theme issue that piques my interest, but usually I just write for myself.

JW: You mentioned at the Philadelphia Stories conference that once you have published in a journal, you develop a rapport with the editor. Could you say more about that process or give an example of how it has worked for you.

CS: I’ve been lucky to click with a few editors–the collection of essays coming out next year will feature three essays that first appeared in Lake Effect and two that first appeared in Mississippi Review.  I’ve developed a long relationship with other editors with my fiction–my last two story collections featured a trio of very long stories that first came out in The Greensboro Review.  I also have a couple places that have taken a number of my flash fictions.  If I enjoy an editor and his journal, I’ll gladly submit more in the future.

JW: When your work is published in a journal, of course the journal’s stamp of approval gives you authority as a writer. I imagine, then, that as an aspiring writer, you would want to be accepted into the most prestigious publication, the higher the better. Right? How do you even know which journal is more prestigious and which is less so?

CS: Of course you want your work to appear in the best journal possible.  And there are some wonderful journals out there, but outside that first tier of places like The Paris Review and Ploughshares and Georgia Review, there are any number of fine journals putting out great work.  How does one know which journals are good?  I think you just have to keep your eyes open–check out the annual anthologies like the Best American Series and Pushcart and see where they’re getting their work from.  Listen to what your friends are reading and where they’re publishing.

JW: What sorts of feedback do you get when publishing in a journal? Do you hear from readers? Is it like a tree falling in a forest? Is there a specialized audience that gets to know your work?

CS: It used to be pretty rare that you’d get feedback.  If you were lucky, you’d get a Pushcart nomination or a mention in the Best American series.  But now with the advent of social networking sites like Facebook, you get a lot more feedback.  If I read a story or essay I enjoy, I make sure to drop a line to the author if we’ve hooked up on a site – and many people do it in return.  The audience is pretty much limited to writers and fans of lit fiction and journals, but it is a bigger audience than before.

JW: Do you put much of your own marketing/networking energy into publicizing your piece in the journal?

CS: Not much beyond a posting on Facebook.  I add links to online pieces to my website.  I save the bigger pushes for my books.

JW: Please give examples of journals you published non-fiction essays in, and some thoughts about why these particular ones worked out for you.

CS: I’ve published a number of essays in Mississippi Review and Lake Effect.  Others have appeared in Turnrow, Bellingham Review, Philadelphia Stories, Red Cedar Review, Inkpot, The Humanist, and a number of others.

The two essays from Mississippi Review were theme issues, so they worked out because my work could address those themes.  And the same for the Humanist.  The others were just nonfiction spots in lit journals–and I think they fit because my writing comes from a fiction-writer’s perspective, and I bring fictional techniques into my work.

JW: Many of the readers of my blog “Memory Writers Network” do not come from a “literary” or “creative writing” background. They are just looking to develop the best writing skills possible so they can share parts of their lives. Are there journals that would appeal to this segment of the writing public, the well-told stories, that would not necessarily earn high grades in a creative writing class?

CS: That’s an interesting question.  I’m not sure.  I’m guessing that journals would, by nature, appeal to the folks with literary and creative writing backgrounds.  That said, I think there are some wonderful journals that have fine literary work that is also very accessible.  For the readers of your blog who are interested in nonfiction more than fiction, I’d suggest Creative Nonfiction or Fourth Genre.  The online journal Brevity is also very interesting (short-short nonfiction).


Click here for Curtis Smith’s home page.

Click here for Philadelphia Stories Home Page

Looking for the onramp at Philadelphia “Push To Publish” writer’s conference

by Jerry Waxler

At the Philadelphia Stories’ “Push to Publish” conference in the Fall of 2009, I peered into a room filled with cabaret tables, each with an editor on one side and an empty chair on the other. Christine Weiser, who along with Carla Spataro organized the conference, stood guard at the door. When the moment arrived she opened the gate and the pack of us hustled in, eager to sop up every one of our allotted 15 minutes.

“Speed dating” is my favorite way to meet editors. In fact it’s my only way. Over the last ten years, I’ve met a dozen of them, and from each interview I take away some insight about the gatekeepers who stand between me and my future readers. Probably the most informative meeting was the very first, when a young editor told me, “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.” Since then I have refined my message, learning to be as clear and concise as possible. I’ve also become increasingly curious about them. By turning the tables and asking them to talk about themselves, I deepen my respect for them as real people with whom I may some day do business.

At many conferences, attendees only get one chance, but “Push to Publish” offers multiple interviews. First I headed to Fran Metzman who represented the online Journal Wild River Review, as well as the printed Schuylkill Valley Journal. I told her of my interest in finding a outlet for my essays about memoir writing. Even though Metzman was responsible for fiction at these journals, she also writes a nonfiction column on women’s issues for Wild River Review. “Yes, submit a proposal,” she said. “Just be sure to do a professional job.”

My other date was with Christine Yurick, the publisher of the new print publication “Think Journal.” I asked her to describe her journal’s specific slant. She said she likes structured stories. I was puzzled.

“I assumed that by definition a story has a structure.”

“No, not all,” Yurick said. “Some journals emphasize experimental pieces.”

This explained why I sometimes can’t understand literary journals. Today’s ah-ha revealed that these publications differ in their philosophy of Story. I filed the concept away for future reference, to help me look for the place most appropriate for my writing.

When we finished, she said she would check out my blog and get back to me if she thought there was a match. Note to Self: “Gatekeepers read blogs.”

The net result of the two interviews was a glimmer of hope that literary journals might someday provide an onramp into publishing.

Creative Nonfiction Craze

When it was time to go to the first workshop, I selected a panel called “Tapping Into The Creative Nonfiction Craze.” The assigned room was locked, so about 40 of us trooped down to the auditorium, and arranged chairs into a makeshift meeting area. Our numbers and eagerness suggested that Creative Nonfiction is indeed a craze. And yet, despite its popularity, most literary journals still publish mainly fiction and poetry. The one exception, not surprisingly, is the journal “Creative Nonfiction” which is devoted exclusively to the genre.

As each panel member offered their observations about writing stories of truth, I began to grow optimistic that perhaps memoir writers have a widening channel through which to publish their work. Curtis Smith reinforced my suspicion when he said, “thanks to the proliferation of online and print journals, this is a great time to be a writer.”

The last time I heard offer such an upbeat claim for writers was years ago when Kurt Vonnegut said in an interview that during the 1950s many writers got their start by publishing in magazines. His nostalgia made me curse the day I was born, wishing to be alive in a good time for writers. Curtis Smith claimed those times had returned. Happy day!

Continuing my search for the onramp to publishing, I attended another panel called “The Joys of Small Press.” Moderator Barbara Berot said that small presses are an easier entry point for new writers. Marc Schuster, Acquisitions Editor for PS Books, pointed out another advantage. “Big publishers are looking for products that will sell while small presses are looking for books they love.” Another panelist Debra Leigh Scott said that because of advances in printing technology, the cost of starting your own small publishing house has never been lower.

Like so many other people in the business, these panelists agreed “there isn’t much money in writing.” From there, the session sputtered back and forth between the strategies of publishing and the difficulties of earning money. Naturally I would like to be rich, but I keep this motivation at bay, because the more I think about money, the more likely that I’ll focus on its absence.

Curtis Smith, the same guy who cheered me up in the previous panel, offered a way out.  “Keep your day job and write for fun.” His reassuring smile reminded us that money is only one of the many rewards of writing.

In my younger years, when offered a choice between a dark thought and a happy one, I always chose dark, believing that was automatically the smarter of the two. I soon became adept at seeing darkness at the end of every path. After a few years, I had my fill of smart despair, and decided I’d rather be happy. I diligently studied the art of finding something pleasurable in almost every situation.

The business of writing provides a perfect opportunity to exercise this discretion. Given the choice between misery and fun, I follow Curtis Smith’s advice and choose fun. In fact, fun is precisely the reason I attend writing conferences. By coming together with other writers, I enjoy the pleasure of their company, transforming writing from an isolated activity to a social one.

At the end of the day, I thanked Christine Weiser for another great conference. She said, “By the way. Would you be willing to submit some of your essays to the Philadelphia Stories blog?” Here was another opportunity to participate in the writing community, and another way to reach readers and writers. “I’d love to,” I said and walked out to my car. Skipping past puddles from the all-day autumn rain, I eagerly anticipated the approaching winter, looking forward to a whole season full of excuses to stay inside and write.

This is the second article I wrote about the 2009 Push To Publish Conference.  To read Part 1, click here.