“I think that what is changing about my writing is my willingness to go darker so that I can come out with more light,” says memoirist and fiction writer Beth Kephart C’82. In her new novel, Dangerous Neighbors, set in Philadelphia during the Centennial, a young woman contemplates suicide following the accidental death of her twin.
BY JOHN PRENDERGAST
Beth Kephart C’82 doesn’t sleep much. “Last night I went to bed at eleven, and I woke up at one in the morning,” she says. “So there’s a lot of day in there.”
While most of us, faced with such a situation, would probably roll over and go back to sleep, “I take advantage of the time I have,” Kephart says. That may help explain how she has managed to publish a dozen books in as many years. (Not that she can count on devoting those wee hours entirely to her literary writing—she also runs a “boutique” marketing-communications firm, some of whose clients are in Singapore, India, and other faraway time zones, “so they have me up” as well, she adds.)
Kephart’s work has attracted praise from critics and fellow writers for its close observation and lyric intensity, and she has built an audience that, if not the stuff that bestsellers are made of, is both enthusiastic and devoted. (“Yay!!!” “Hurrah!” and “I can’t wait to read it!!” were typical comments greeting Kephart’s recent announcement of a new book deal on her blog, beth-kephart.blogspot.com.)
Raised in suburban Philadelphia, Kephart majored in the history and sociology of science at Penn [“Coming Home,” Nov|Dec 2000], but she has been writing “since I was nine,” she says. Poetry was her first love, and is a continuing one—one of the joys of blogging, she jokes, is that she gets to publish her own poetry—and she also placed short stories in literary magazines early on. But she made her first real mark as a memoirist, with the publication of A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1998. It was followed by four more memoirs exploring issues of friendship (Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things that Matter), the mysteries of romantic love and marriage (Still Love in Strange Places), parenting that gives kids space to dream (Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast Forward World), and coming to terms with middle age (Ghosts in the Garden).
Among her other works is Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River [“Channeling the Schuylkill,” July| August 2007]. A pairing of vignettes told in the voice of the river itself and explanatory footnotes ranging from the Schuylkill’s beginnings (“like all rivers … the product of crustal deformations and time”) up to the near-present, Flow is Kephart’s most unconventional book and appears to be a current touchstone for her.
Kephart also writes essays and book reviews for magazines—including, occasionally, the Gazette—and teaches writing at Penn and elsewhere. Since 2007, she has shifted from memoir primarily to fiction writing, publishing a series of young adult (YA) novels. The first was Undercover, which centers on Elisa, a 15-year-old ice skater with a sideline in ghostwriting love letters for the boys in her high school (the class is studying Cyrano de Bergerac).
The mood is considerably darker in Dangerous Neighbors, her fifth novel, published in August, which stretches the boundaries of the YA category in telling the story of two sisters in Philadelphia at the time of the nation’s Centennial celebration in 1876. As the book opens, 19-year-old Katherine is meticulously planning how she will commit suicide, overcome with guilt and grief over the death of her twin sister Anna. In a scene indicative of the book’s deep engagement with Philadelphia history, she passes through the streets of Center City to the Philadelphia Colosseum, which then stood at Broad and Locust streets, where she views a cyclorama of “Paris by Night” and then makes her way to the roof, planning to throw herself off, imagining “the unbending nature of the street. The smack of absolution.”
But her plan is thwarted by Bennett, Anna’s lover, who has spotted her and followed, and she is forced to return home “with too much time to remember.” The book shifts into the past as Katherine, who has always felt responsible for Anna, the “more delicate twin … who often stood too dangerously close to things,” recalls the events leading to her death in an accident when the girls slip away to go skating on the frozen Schuylkill River, where Anna plans to meet Bennett. She drowns when the ice cracks while Katherine is off skating elsewhere.
Kephart deftly sketches in the sisters’ intense bond—disturbed when Anna secretly falls in love with Bennett, a “baker’s boy”—and home life (loyal cook, a mother distracted by feminist politicking, a reticent businessman father), and she does a superb job of evoking the sights and sounds of the era, both in the city streets and on the Centennial grounds in Fairmount Park, and during a summer excursion to Cape May, New Jersey, where Katherine digs for clams with her father in a rare moment of informality. Drawing on real events, Kephart stages the book’s climax during a fire that burns down the shantytown set up opposite the Centennial’s Main Exhibition buildings (see excerpt on page 66).
Dangerous Neighbors “came out of a lot of places,” says Kephart. “It came out of my love for writing Flow and my love for the Schuylkill River, and from some surprise discoveries I made during the research for that book, and the fact that I love this city,” she says. “My books are very different from each other, but they are about place. They do take place on the Main Line, or they take place here in the city of Philadelphia. Place is character for me.”
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FEATURE: More Light by John Prendergast
Photography by Chris Crisman C'03
©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette