Kephart relishes the research process for her books (“Writing is the best excuse for reading,” she says), amassing a library of material related—though sometimes distantly—to the work at hand. She has “a tower” of books on the “history of Philadelphia and everything else” gathered for Dangerous Neighbors, and she mentions old recipe books and descriptions of hydrotherapy as among her recent sources. “When you research you find out about how other people live, or what other people know, or what excites other people,” she says. “And so it de-isolates the process. I’m not that interesting, and I don’t know very much. So I’ve got to go to other people’s books.”
She typically has more than one book under way at a time. Her writing process has developed over the years—she recently began writing early drafts by hand, for instance—but “What remains is a great reliance on seeing, and the photography that I do; a lot of movement, dance, and walk that gets me into the lyric and sound of the sentences that I make,” Kephart says. “And I trust myself more to do things that might not be seen as popular.”
Dangerous Neighbors, she says, is a prime example. “Everybody looked at it, and said, ‘an historical, literary novel for young adults, are you kidding me?’” Yet the book scored a starred review in Publishers Weekly, which called it “a tantalizing portrait of love, remorse, and redemption,” as well as receiving raves from many bloggers on books for teenagers and reading in general.
“When you finish a book like Dangerous Neighbors, and when you’re lucky enough to get the reception it’s gotten, you are more fortified in your determination that whatever you do next will feel as original, you know, and rich,” says Kephart.
“I think that what is changing about my writing is my willingness to go darker so that I can come out with more light,” she adds. “Hope comes from a raw place. And at my age now I know that.”
She traces the insight to her work on Flow. “I think that I worried too much early on about beauty. And that is a function of worrying about making beautiful sentences. And in Flow, that river gets awfully angry in the middle of that book. And that allowed me to—I was angry when I was writing about what happened to her environmentally.”
Since writing Dangerous Neighbors, Kephart has finished two more books, one set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and the other inspired by the old Byberry Mental Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia. It doesn’t feel to her like she works unusually fast, Kephart insists, but she does feel a sense of urgency.
The Spanish Civil War book “took 10 years and went through 90 drafts,” while the Byberry one took “three years, several drafts,” Kephart says. “And I’m not talking about editing. I’m talking about utterly different voices, different time periods, different themes.
“And because I work on these books in overlapping fashion and because I have to fight for them to be published, each one is a victory. Each one is a surprise,” she adds. “And I’m a literary writer, of course, not a commercial writer. So it’s harder and harder to be that kind of person in this environment. And every time out I feel this could be my last one. Make it your best one.”
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FEATURE: More Light by John Prendergast
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