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So What Do You Do, Kerry Madden, YA Author?

An author expounds upon the of-the-moment YA genre

By Kate Coe - August 15, 2007
Young adult author Kerry Madden says her gift for storytelling grew out of her distaste for housework -- as a kid, she'd make up tales while doing the dishes or cleaning the kitchen. Growing up as daughter of a football coach, Madden moved around quite a bit, continued her roaming ways as an adult (she and her husband taught in China), but has settled down in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles. Louisana's Song, the second book in her Smoky Mountain trilogy has just been released, with the third scheduled to be published in 2008.

Name: Kerry Madden
Position: Children's author, teacher of fiction writing workshops of all ages
Resumé: Offsides, Writing Smarts, and the Smokey Mountain trilogy: Gentle's Holler, Louisiana's Song, and Jessie's Mountain
Company: I teach at Vroman's and the UCLA Writers Program ... that's as close to a "company" as I get. Does it count if Jim Henson Productions optioned my football novel, Offsides, a million years ago? [1997].
Hometown: Ten states, and England & China. I grew up on the gridiron in football towns -- my father is NOT John Madden. Now, I'd say my hometown is Silverlake where we've raised our kids -- all our friends are here -- but I've got this pull to go back to the South one day. That's where all my fiction is set.
Education: BA from the University of Tennessee with a junior year at Manchester University in England. MFA in Playwriting from the University of Tennessee.
Family: Married to husband Kiffen for 20 years, with three kids: Flannery, 18, Lucy, 16, and Norah, 8
Favorite TV show: Life on Mars. Every year, one of my best friends from England, Mike Tait, brings us must-see DVD seasons centered around Manchester, so I won't forget. I love the show. And I love watching Gray's Anatomy with my daughter, Lucy.
Last book read: To Kill A Mockingbird...again.
Guilty pleasure: Pie. I love pie: lemon meringue, cherry, blueberry. My son makes a mean pie from the Elvis Cookbook, Are You Hungry Tonight?

What is your average media day like?
If I'm on a book tour, it still ain't much. I did Alive at Five in Chattanooga at the crack of dawn, and I was on after the "cornbread segment" in Knoxville on Channel Ten last year during the Dogwood Arts Festival. My kids' novels are set in the Smoky Mountains of Appalachia, so it's regional media.

How do you carve out time to write?
I write everyday or try to...but the best is when I can go away to a cabin and write (no wireless), and I get so much done without the distraction of home, chaos, kids, email. But this happens so rarely that I just have to be disciplined and not answer the phone or check email. The house here, sadly, is often a wreck. How did you arrive at your audience -- YA, middle school, kids?
Madden: Desperation.

Describe your writing 'area' -- any rules for yourself? Schedule you try to adhere to? Special pens, paper, pets? Strange routines we would delight in hearing?
When I begin a book, I surround myself with the maps, pictures, books of the region. I have a wall covered with old photographs of bookmobiles from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. I have Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams photos on the wall from Ernest Tubbs Record Shop in Nashville. I try to collect things my characters love -- I even have some old comic books with "Saturn Girl" from the "Legion of Superheroes" because in my book, one of the boys is crazy for Saturn Girl. I have some old dolls and fairy rocks, mostly for our youngest, Norah, to play with when she comes in while I'm working. The Synonym Finder is a must book. It's also a comfort to have Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor stories nearby. I write downstairs or sometimes at the kitchen table -- a big teakwood table where I can spread out and use my laptop. The light is better in the kitchen. Sometimes, I play old Carter family tunes [on] a running loop until it's time to come back to the 21st Century and pick up kids at school or go watch Lucy throw the shotput. She's discovered shotput and she loves it -- it's a word and an activity that never even entered my realm of consciousness until a month ago. Our oldest, Flannery, is a freshman at UCSB, and it's been on odd year with him gone, but he comes home plenty for his rock band, The Flypaper Cartel.

How did you arrive at your audience -- YA, middle school, kids?
Desperation. My first novel for adults, Offsides, came out in 1996 and went through the Hollywood mill for years, but died eventually, both in print and pilot. I wrote a book for American Girl, called Writing Smarts, which was fun and easy to write. But I was also writing such dreck to stay afloat -- my husband is a teacher, and we have three kids. My stories included: "How To Stay Healthy if You Sell Insurance" and "How to Stay Healthy if You're an Agent." I basically wrote a series of health stories. The lifeguards and camera operators were interesting, as were the coalminers and stonecutters, but those stories didn't make the cut. Then, I was writing "What's Hot and What's Not for 2000" for a fashion thing online discussing plasma TVs and crap. It was so boring -- and then I got desperate and began ghostwriting to make money -- worst decision of all! But it turned out to be the best because I was writing for such crazy people that when it all blew up, I vowed never to write anything again that I didn't love and care about.

How did you come to this story?
I thought about how Kiffen, my husband, grew up one of thirteen children. I thought about his father struggling with all those kids -- playing fiddle on the Grand Ole Opry but mostly at honky-tonks and even with gospel singers. (My father-in-law said the gospel singers could cuss the best of all). I thought of Kiffen's mother trying to hold it all together and I figured I could write some novels about a big family growing up in the Smoky Mountains, because I miss Tennessee and North Carolina. I picked one of the kids to be the storyteller and songwriter of the family. She writes songs about everyday life from "Daddy's Roasted Peanut" and "Mama's Biscuits" to "Grandma's Glass Eye." And that's how I came to write Gentle's Holler, the first in the trilogy. Louisiana's Song comes out in a few weeks, and Jessie's Mountain comes out next year. My own kids were editors and inspirations. Kiffen's great uncle, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, was a songcatcher and banjo player in the mountains, so I thought about him too.

What are you working on now or next?
I am writing the YA biography of Harper Lee for Viking/Penguin's Up Close Series for Teens to be published in 2009. Now I'll be making several trips to Alabama. I am just back from one.

Who's the biggest influence on your work?
I really love Flannery O'Connor. I discovered her in college after England when I had to face life in Knoxville again. After her, I began to read southern writers all the time. I even went to Milledgeville, GA a few times to see where she lived. Anyway, Flannery O'Connor said she was seated at her typewriter every morning whether she felt like it or not -- and she also didn't outline. She said, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" I'm like that. It's messy and plotless for a longtime, but story begins to emerge.

If you weren't a writer, what would you do?
I don't know. I love reading work aloud. I read Gentle's Holler on tape for the Braille Institute. I also wish I could play guitar or banjo -- maybe be a musician? Or work in the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. There is something mystical about that place.

As a follow -- what would you love to do?
I'd like write a book the requires a passport. I haven't traveled out of this country in so long, and I'd love to do that again. I've been on the road to Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina, but I sure would love to go to Paris or Rome or Istanbul. I'd love to travel for months too.

Work's over, kitchen's clean, kid is occupied -- how do you kick back? Music, book, DVD? What's your relaxation preference? (And please don't tell me you go for a nice 5 mile run.)
A glass of wine and Life on Mars, or if I'm ambitious, I'll go to the movies and eat Junior Mints. Thank God for Laemelle and Arclight! When I'm in the mountains, I love driving the back roads listening to Lucinda Williams. My sister and I came upon the Cross Garden outside of Prattville, Alabama last week, which was like walking into a Flannery O'Connor story of the Southern Grotesque.

This interview has been excerpted for length and clarity.

Kate Coe is a blogger at FishbowlLA

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