Interview with Kathi Appelt, 2013 National Book Award Finalist, Young People's Literature

Kathi Appelt

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt Kathi Appelt

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster
Photo credit: Chandler Arden

Interview by William Alexander

William Alexander: Is there truth to the rumor that you wrestled gators as research for The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp?

Kathi Appelt: No truth whatsoever. I have, however, seen a wild hog up close and while it was a memorable experience, it wasn't exactly pretty. Trust me, no wrestling took place.  

WA: Are you yourself a great climber of trees?

KA: I actually have a great fear of heights, so I am in J'miah's category when it comes to climbing trees. He and I are soul mates.

WA: I understand that raccoons run amok in your own yard. What sort of mischief have they made?

KA: An enormous female raccoon took up residence in our chimney. I'm fairly certain she would have built a nest there if not for my brave and daring husband who made a lot of commotion with a flashlight and scared her away. The next day, we had a cap put on the chimney, whereupon she took up residence in our garbage can. And once, on a camping trip, we witnessed a raccoon break in to our ice chest and steal all of the cold cuts. Since he was something like ten to twelve feet long, with razor sharp fangs, we decided to let him have the cold cuts.   

WA: I gather that you have a theatrical background. As a similarly stagestruck author, I'm curious to know what elements of narrative craft survived the switch to novel writing.

KA: I try to put myself in the heads and hearts of my characters as much as I can, but I'm also aware of the "stage." That is, I try hard to figure out what the backdrop is, what furniture or props or even costumes need to be there, what the lighting feels like. I like to dress the stage in other words. In addition, I like to think about the music that is happening between the lines, between the scene changes, underneath the emotions. And finally, I think that some experience in theater helps when thinking about pacing and beats. I once had the good fortune of studying with Bruce Coville, and one of the things he always recommends for writers is to participate in theater. He's the guru, no question.  

WA: Practically all of your characters, the various people and critters both local and invasive to Sugar Man Swamp, are point-of-view characters—far more POVs than is generally considered advisable. Furthermore, the prose of narration delights in its own sense of sound and exceeds the legal limit for puns in at least forty continental states. Have you no restraint?

KA: Not a whit.  You know, when you live in Texas, idioms grow like cotton. There for the pickin'.  

WA: What's the very first bedtime story you can remember?

KA: My father read Rudyard Kipling's poetry to me; in my deepest memories, I hear his voice reciting "Mandalay" and "Gunga Din" and all of those old poems. When I'm quiet, I can still hear my dad, still hear Brother Rudyard.  

William Alexander won the National Book Award in 2012 for his debut novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. He studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at the Clarion Workshop. He teaches at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.