2008 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature

Kathi Appelt

The Underneath


Photo © Chandler Arden.

Interview conducted by Rita Williams-Garcia.

RWG: We’re a long way from Bubba and Beau in The Underneath—or are we? What did you take with you from picture book writing as you wrote this stunning first novel?

KA: While there are huge differences, of course, between picture books and novels, whenever I'm thinking about my characters in either genre, I try to be constantly aware of what it is that they really want, what is tugging at them from an almost cellular level. From that viewpoint, it doesn't really matter what form the story takes. Was Bubba's longing for his pink blankie that smelled like Beau less powerful than Puck's longing to return to his sister? The consequences of course aren't as dire, but is the longing any less? I don't think so. But from a more technical approach, one of the real keys to writing a good picture book is to learn at the most basic level what it means to "show, don't tell." A picture book has no room for explanation or for lengthy description. Years of practice in this were definitely beneficial as far as being able to show what was going on with my novel's characters with a minimum of muck. On the other hand, being allowed to use all those glorious words was a real pleasure. I enjoyed filling up the pages with words and more words.

So, there is pleasure in telling a story with as few words as possible, imagining how the art will finish off the sentences and images of a picture book text; but there is an equal amount of joy in letting the words paint the picture.

RWG: As much as The Underneath is story, it is also song. Who did you listen to while you imagined and wrote?

KA: My husband and both of my sons are musicians, so I have music all around me all the time. But during the writing of this story, I embraced the rhythms and the twin emotions of hope/sorrow that are inherent in old delta blues songs, those wonderful songs that feel like they came straight up from the slow moving waters of the deep south. I could especially hear those songs in my head when I worked on the sections with Ranger. I know very little about ethnomusicology, but I understand that those songs originated as slave songs. Since Ranger was a slave to his chain, and to Gar Face, it made sense to me that he would sing the blues. It seems like the blues just come right up from your feet, like they start with some heartbeat that comes up through the soggy land itself.

As well, I listened to a lot of Cajun music with its hard-driving, emphatic rhythm that comes from washboards and boots hitting wooden floors, all topped off with the piercing and breathy sounds of a concertina being pulled and pushed, almost like a haint in the woods I'd say.

Beau Soleil offers up my favorite Cajun music. It's filled with heart. I like to listen to them while I clean my house--it makes it go faster.

But I think I'm influenced by the songwriters too. I like the lyricism of folk music, the way it tells stories. And my favorites are Patty Griffin, Idgy Vaughn, Greg Brown, Nancy Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Townes van Zandt. Lots more out there.

At one time I thought about becoming a songwriter. But since I couldn't really play or write music, that didn't last too long. However, writing Ranger's songs in The Underneath was like an old dream resurfacing. It was sweet.

RWG: Your characters experience bonds that either liberate or enslave. Without giving away any surprises, can you tell us about empowering a character to choose what binds them?

KA: Wow, what is it that empowers a character to choose what binds them? To choose love? To choose fear? I believe that the engines that propel all of us forward are powered by either one of those motivations--love or fear. The great opposites.

We all respond from some aspect of those; and I suspect that most of the time our responses aren't conscious, that choosing has nothing at all to do with it. We react because we love something or we react because we fear it. But when it comes to our characters, it's always important I think to put them in situations in which they are forced to act rather than react. I think one of the hardest things for a writer to really learn--at least this was/is true for me--is the difference between a passive and an active character. Yes, things happen, but once they do, the active character will eventually need to take matters into his or her own hands/paws. And it's not until they do that they can actually make a choice.

With each of my characters, things happened to them, but each of them eventually came to a point where they needed to move forward of their own will. The moment that Ranger made the promise to protect the Calico cat and her kittens was his moment to choose love or fear. Was he afraid? Of course he was. From that moment on he was afraid that he would lose his little family of cats. The Calico cat also chose love over fear when she swallowed hard and followed Ranger's song. She understood the profound love inherent in his voice and chose that. Was she afraid? Yes. But the choice she made was for love.

What I hope, more than anything else with this story, is that my readers will see that all of us have that choice. We can choose love or fear. Regardless of what happens to us, we have that choice. And by binding ourselves to one or the other, we can face huge obstacles. Fear is just as strong a motivator as love. Gar Face, was always bound by fear, always. But as sorry as his situation was, he also always had a choice to turn to the light rather than the darkness. He never took it. Nobody forced him to live the way he did. Likewise, Grandmother, burdened and encumbered by all her own feelings of betrayal, showed everyone what was possible. She chose love. At the end of the day, that choice is always there. For all of us.

Rita Williams-Garcia is the author of six distinguished novels for young adults: Jumped, No Laughter Here, Every Time a Rainbow Dies, Fast Talk on a Slow Track, Blue Tights, and Like Sisters on the Homefront. She has also published a picture book and has contributed to numerous anthologies. Williams-Garcia's works have been recognized by the Coretta Scott King Award Committee, the PEN/Norma Klein Award, the American Library Association, and Parents' Choice, among others. She recently served on the National Book Award Committee for Young People's Literature and is on faculty at Vermont College for the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program. Rita Williams-Garcia lives in Jamaica, Queens, NY and is the mother of two daughters.