Today we welcome Katherine Kirkpatrick to the blog, to talk about her new book, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, Wendy Lamb Books/Random House April 2014.
On the treeless shores of Itta, Greenland, as far north as humans can settle, sixteen-year-old Inuit Billy Bah spots a ship far out among the icebergs on the bay–a sight both welcome and feared. Explorers have already left their indelible mark on her land and its people, and a ship full of white men can mean trouble.
By turns lyrical and gripping, Between Two Worlds is an impassioned coming-of-age novel set in a land of breathtaking beauty and danger, where nature and love are powerful and unpredictable forces.
Now, on to some questions! Katherine, what made you realize you wanted to be a writer? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
In the sixth grade, I wrote a story about vampire bats attacking a scientist. That year I won an English prize, the first of many, and writing became “my thing.”
My advice to aspiring writers is to take all assignments, paid and unpaid. Contribute to your school’s alumni magazine and local newspaper. Think about what organizations you belong to. Blog. Volunteer your talents, make people laugh, feel appreciated, hone your skills.
Why did you choose to write historical fiction for young adults?
My mother loved history and partly for that reason my parents chose to settle in a community rich in colonial and maritime lore, the Three Villages (Stony Brook, Setauket, Old Field), Long Island, New York. My family liked to tour historic houses and visit old cemeteries and our local carriage museum.
When I started to write novels, I found myself drawn to the coming-of-age themes of independence, discovery, maturity, and relationships in young adult fiction.
Where did you get the idea that sparked Between Two Worlds?
In the Hall of Meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I noticed a photo of four-year-old Marie Peary, the daughter of Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary, onboard a ship with a gigantic meteorite. After researching Marie’s life, I started a novel. I showed it to editor Mary Cash at Holiday House, along with stunning photographs of Marie in Arctic Greenland. With the photos in mind, Mary encouraged me to write a nonfiction book, The Snow Baby, published in 2007.
Years later I returned to the novel. It took on new life when I decided to switch perspectives, telling the story from Billy Bah’s, an Inuk girl’s, point of view.
I really enjoyed reading The Snow Baby. Can you tell us a little bit about your work writing both fiction and nonfiction, and how one approach may inform the other?
I’d published four novels before I wrote The Snow Baby, so I brought to that photo essay/biography the novelist’s ability to think in terms of drama and scenes. After eight years of publishing nonfiction books, I returned to fiction with Between Two Worlds. By this time, I’d learned to focus more on character development than historical research and, as a result, greatly improved my craft.
Between Two Worlds is based on a true story. What’s real and what’s made up?
About 80 percent of the book is based on historical events. Sixteen-year-old Billy Bah joined the Peary family on his ship Windward, which became locked in ice for eight months in 1900-1901. Just about everything but the triangle love story and conversations with the ancestor-ghosts is historically based.
Tell us about the real Billy Bah.
Billy Bah, also known as Eqariusaq, was born around 1884 in a remote coastal area of Arctic Greenland. When she was about eleven, she spent a year in Washington, D.C. with Peary’s family. She was both orphaned and married around age fourteen. Peary referred to her as his most expert seamstress. She sewed the fur coat that explorer Matthew Henson wore during the famed Peary expedition of 1909 to the North Pole.
The setting of 1901 Arctic Greenland plays a distinct and significant role in the novel. Also, you use a lot of Inuktun (Polar Eskimo) words in the book. Were these challenges for you, in terms of making Billy Bah’s story come alive for YA readers?
The key to historical fiction is to put the past into the present, to bring out universal themes that a modern-day audience can relate to such as the desire to belong or the need for independence. People have always shared many of the same core fears and desires. One common teenage dilemma is that at some point we must act under pressure and make difficult choices.
In earlier drafts, I used a lot of Inuktun words. My editor Wendy Lamb cut out most of them, smoothing out the prose, while skillfully leaving in hints of the native sounds. Wendy also had me tone down aspects of traditional Inuit life that modern readers might find off-putting. I downplayed the cultural norms of uncombed hair, unwashed bodies, head lice, and body lice.
We all struggle to maintain “balance” in our writing lives. Could you describe your typical writing day?
I block out about fifteen hours of morning time, Monday to Friday, for writing, and this time is for writing only. I’ll work in email before or after, and in between my family-related commitments, such as taking my two middle-school-age children to their music lessons. Though I don’t write in the evenings or on weekends, I’ll sometimes do work-related reading or editing.
What are you working on now?
My novel in progress is set in England and Egypt in 1922-1923, during the opening of King Tut’s tomb. Two years ago, I visited the book’s Egyptian settings. The highlight was flying over the Valley of the Kings in a hot air balloon. This past April, I visited my novel’s main British setting, Highclere Castle in Berkshire, outside of London. Highclere is now popular as the set for the hit British TV series “Downton Abbey.” I’ve been enjoying myself researching and writing, and I hope that spirit of fun and adventure will go into the book.
What was it like to have the great Madeleine L’Engle as a writing teacher?
Madeleine was the most extraordinary person I’ve ever known. Quite tall, regal, and magnificent in her long purple and blue dresses, she projected the same sense of wonder as her classic fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time. Her expansive vision included a belief in angels, whom she was sure appeared regularly to all of us.
As a writing teacher she wasn’t what you would expect. Instead of talking about plot, character, or story structure, she preferred more abstract themes about the larger role of writing and art in our lives. Her belief about writing was that it’s an entry into the larger Cosmos. In the ten years I knew Madeleine, she taught me about the life of spirit and the value of community. To learn more about Madeleine, see A Circle of Friends: Remembering Madeleine L’Engle (http://www.katherinekirkpatrick.com/book_02.html ).
Thanks for visiting with us, Katherine!
Thanks for interviewing me, Susan!
Katherine Kirkpatrick is the author of seven fiction and nonfiction books, including The Snow Baby, a James Madison Book Award Honor Book and a Booklist Editors’ Choice and Top Ten Biography for Youth; and Mysterious Bones, a Golden Kite Honor Book for Nonfiction, a NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, a Washington State Book Award Finalist, and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. She lives in Seattle.