Author of Flow
I was first introduced to Beth Kephart’s writings though her book, flow, an autobiography about Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River. Here’s what noted author Buzz Bissinger said of flow: “Beth Kephart’s flow is just a sumptuous book-haunting, poetic, lit up with gems of beauty and history. We engorge ourselves on materialism. The legacy of our generation will be our consumerism. But flow and its exquisite evocation of the Schuylkill River reminds us that nature still trumps everything. Which makes the book all the more beautiful and all the more rare.”
The gravel beneath me slides. Blueback herring and eel, alewife and shad muscle in through my wide blue heart, and through. The smudged face of a wolf pools on my surface, and for that one instant I go blind.
Hemlock to either side. Nut trees. Laurel copses. The stony backs of snapping turtles on the shore, muskrat, shrew, and from the unlanterned forest, the bark of a fox, the skith, skith, skith of snakes over leaves, the prowl of a bobcat, and when it rains the rain is its own kind of song, not just a drumming by a lyric.
Were there language, I’d be my own lone letter.
Following the publication of five memoirs and flow, Beth turned her attention to young adult fiction. Undercover and House of Dance were both named a best of the year by Kirkus and Bank Street. Nothing but Ghosts, The Heart Is Not a Size, and Dangerous Neighbors were critically acclaimed. You Are My Only was released by Egmont USA and Philomel just released Small Damages.
WWR: Mary Gordon, in her book, Final Payments, wrote about a woman in her 40s who was making observations and decisions as if she were in her 20s (because she had been a caretaker for her father until he passed away when she turned 40). On one occasion she introduced two friends of hers to each other. She was surprised to learn that the friends didn’t get along – that each friend spoke to a different side of her. As you write about young adults from an older vantage point, can you say how that vantage point helps or hinders your views and your writing of young adults? What are one or two of the views of young adults that you know you never entertained when you were a young adult yourself?
Kephart: I’m not quite sure how to answer this question. Perhaps it is best just to say that I spend a lot of time around young people—I teach them, travel with them, seek them out, correspond with them, read their work—and so I am always learning. At the same time, young people are almost always smarter than I am. My younger characters are always quite smart, quite perceptive. They reflect the young people I know. I don’t judge their views, I guess I’m saying, and so I don’t compare them to what I myself thought years ago. I’m just interested in who they say they are, who they hope to be.
WWR: George Bernard Shaw said “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” Many of your writings put children in really tough situations. Pregnancy in your new book Small Damages; the death of a sister in Dangerous Neighbors; the pending death of a grandfather in House of Dance? Yet you use dance, music, skating and poetry to tell your story. Is the appeal of the beautiful things in life that they help us cope with the sad or is the appeal of the sad that they make us appreciate the beautiful?
Kephart: This is a beautiful question, and of course the answer is yes and yes. There is tremendous beauty, always, no matter what is happening. We have to look to see it. Consider the way the Japanese turned toward the flowering of the cherry trees in the wake of the terrible tsunami a few years ago—and found beauty. Consider all that Abigail Thomas finds to celebrate in her memoir, A Three Dog Life, despite the tragedy that has forever dramatically changed her husband.
WWR: Have you ever thought about having a male protagonist for one of your young adult novels? Or a book centered on how the parents look at their children? Or a book about one of the female protagonists later in life?
Kephart: I have a book coming out next spring that is utterly boy-centric. Called Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, it takes place in 1871 Philadelphia, features the William of Dangerous Neighborhoods fame, his best friend, Career, and flashbacks of William’s brother, Francis. This is a story set in Bush Hill, featuring Eastern State, Baldwin Locomotive Works, the river, George Childs, and other intimations of that era. I loved writing William’s story.
WWR: Can you comment on the creative process that drives your works, especially the young adult fiction? You wrote you don’t like outlines. But do you have a general idea of how the story is supposed to work and fill in the details as you go? Or do you create certain characters, set them in motion and see what story makes sense depending on how the characters interact. Or is there a middle approach? Anne LaMott, in her book, Bird by Bird, wrote how she uses an artistic approach. She just splashes some ideas on a page and constantly reshapes them to create her story.
Kephart: I feel poorly equipped to explain the process, or even to categorize it as a process. I grow obsessed with something. I follow the tangents, look for the heart, play with words until I have a voice I like, and go. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not writing anything right now, and so it all seems very far away, very distant. At this moment in time, it is hard to remember or imagine how stories get written. There’s something mysterious about it.
WWR: You’ve written, “I write every scene at least two dozen times. I am only happy when it feels true and when it reads lyrically. I read the passage aloud toward the end of the drafting. I listen for any off rhythm, any redundancy, any flatness. And then I ask myself: Does it mean what it is meant to mean?” Is writing a science or an art?
Kephart: Not a science. Hopefully an art. I’m seeking music, in the end. I do not lean toward formulae.
WWR: Your blog says you try to create 5 metaphors daily. What are your 5 all-time favorite metaphors?
Kephart: The fun is in the making of the metaphors—in the mental exercise. I would never catalog the metaphors, though sometimes they appear on my blog, as part of the story or thought I am writing. They emerge, I wrestle with them, I let them go. And then I wake up to a new day.
WWR: I love your love of words. Here’s a sample from your first column for the Currents Section of The Philadelphia Inquirer:
In the high heat of this summer I find myself again returning to Chanticleer — walking the garden alone or with friends. The sunflowers, gladiola, and hollyhocks are tall in the cutting garden. The water cascades (a clean sheet of cool) over the stone faces of the ruins and sits in a black hush in the sarcophagus. Bursts of color illuminate the dark shade of the Asian Woods. The creek runs thin but determined.
I don’t know why I am forever surprised by all this. I don’t know how it is that a garden I know so well — its hills, its people, its tendencies, its blocks of shade — continues to startle me, to teach me, to remind me about the sweet, cheap thrill of unbusyness, say, or the impossibility of perfect control. We do not commandeer nature — gardeners know this best of all. We are born of it, live with it, are destined for return.
Dust to dust, yes. But why not?
I used to love reading writers like Russell Baker in The New York Times and Bill Lyon and Steve Lopez in The Philadelphia Inquirer for their lyrical way with words or their ability to tell a story. Can you say what columnists you liked/like for the way they write as opposed to the content? Is there room for lyricism in today’s information driven online journalism? I used to love reading writers like Russell Baker in The New York Times and Bill Lyon and Steve Lopez in The Philadelphia Inquirer for their lyrical way with words or their ability to tell stories. Can you say what columnists you liked/like for the way they write as opposed to the content? Is there room for lyricism in today’s information driven online journalism?
Kephart: I think that some of the best writing we have today lives inside the pages of The New Yorker. Those movie reviews, those book reviews, those essays and profiles — many of them thrill me. At Salon.com and Slate.com and so many other web magazines, beautiful writing is getting done. I was delighted to be asked by Avery Rome to write for the Inquirer. I hope to have more opportunities. If I do I will again just find my way—write what feels right, wait for the response, and not put a label on it.
WWR: Judge Norma Shapiro, the first female Federal Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said “conversation is not successful because of what you’re saying. It’s successful based on what the other person is hearing.” I would think the toughest thing about fiction is getting the dialogue correct. Each character has her own way of speaking and her own way of listening. How do you get the dialogue right?
Kephart: Dialogue is very hard. Dialogue is daunting. I wonder if this video in which I describe the process would be helpful to your readers.
WWR: Since you love Philadelphia history and writing I’ll conclude by asking your thoughts on these sayings by Philadelphia’s two most notable figures. Ben Franklin wrote, “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten Either write things worth Reading or do things worth Writing about.” William Penn, who people forget was also known for a lot of his own writings, wrote. “Where wisdom has wit to express it, now there’s the best orator.”
Kephart: Hmmm. I don’t know that I have immediate thoughts. I like both these fellows, very much, and they were always so smart, so wise. But. I am just trying to live my life so that I don’t regret anything, don’t feel as if the time was lost. Some of the most important parts of my day, my life, are the invisible, unnote-worthy things—time spent with my son and husband, time with friends, time discovering a new kind of cheese, time alive in a garden. I won’t be remembered for it. But I will have lived.
Joe practiced law in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for 14 years and designed large scale databases for AT&T for five years. He currently works for NextLevel Web Strategies, a legal marketing firm based in Princeton, NJ. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, received his J.D. from George Washington Law School and he has a Masters Degree in Computer Science from Drexel University.
Joe’s book, Philadelphia Originals, was released for publication by Schiffer Publishing in 2009. The book shows that the unique styles (how Philadelphians paint, sing, practice law, tell a joke, cook) of Philadelphia’s most notable professions can be traced back to the perfect complement of the spiritual William Penn and the practical Benjamin Franklin.
His second project. Philadelphia Before You Were Born, is a study of the last time Philadelphia newspapers used artists for all their illustrations. It was published in 2011.
Joe’s many other published writings include a humorous look at book clubs for the Bucks County Writer and the literary stages of a baseball season for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He also writes the Interviews with the Famously Departed Column for the Wild River Review.
Joe Glantz in this Edition
Dick Perez: Sports Artist for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Phillies
From Washington DC to Salt Lake City: How Nancy Boskoff became Executive Director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council