A few weeks ago I read Not on Fifth Street, a novel for children by Kathy Cannon Wiechman, and I am still thinking about it. I didn't used to read so much historical fiction, but lately I am drawn to it, fascinated by how people in the past respond to events, and wondering if we have learned the lessons history has to teach us.
The answer is often, sadly, no.
Not on Fifth Street takes place in Ironton, Ohio, 1937. It's the dark days of the Depression and the town is about to suffer through a record-breaking flood. The story centers around two teen brothers, the narrative unfolding as the rains begin and the river rises, each brother challenged by the crisis in different ways, believing what the adults have told them, that the water will never reach them
until it does.
I met Kathy Cannon Wiechman at a writers retreat several years and since then I have been following her career and her stories closely, and I am so happy to have her with me today, On the Verge.
Jody: First, Kathy, I have to tell you how much I loved these characters-- their relationship with each other and how they reacted to the same event and also their very different way of interacting with their father. I know from the author's note at the back of the book that these boys are based on people in your life.
Kathy: That's right. The 1937 flood was an event my father experienced.
Jody: Are all of your books inspired by family experiences? I imagine that you've heard lots of stories from older relatives about things that have happened to them when they were growing up. What makes you think: THIS is an anecdote that could be made into a novel?
Kathy: My books are usually inspired by an interesting event, like a steamboat explosion that claimed more lives than the Titanic (Like a River, 2015). When I hear about any event that makes me want to know more about it, I figure readers might be interested too.
Jody: Once you have that spark for a story, what do you next?
Kathy: Research. And I keep researching until the idea begins to gel into a possible plot. My next step is to create the characters I want to tell the story through. I can't begin the book until my main character is real enough for me to step inside his head.
Jody: Do you outline your books in advance?
Kathy: No, but I do make notes about possible scenes. Once I begin, I am not the kind of writer who writes a rough first draft all the way through. Each day, I read over, make changes, add details, and tweak what I wrote the day before. That puts me back into the flow of the narrative to continue from there. Some days I write a scene I feel should have been hinted at earlier. The next day I might go back and add that change before I go on.
Jody: So, lots of reworking as you go.
Kathy: Yes. My "first draft" is what one member of my critique group calls a "first-ish draft." When I am finished and have comments from my critique groups, I sit down for a serious and thorough revision.
Jody: You write historical fiction for children. What draws you to that genre? Do you see yourself ever writing for other age groups/in other genres?
Kathy: I began my writing life as a poet and my novelist years writing contemporary fiction. But contemporary fiction became out-dated too quickly. I loved reading historical fiction from the time I was a kid, but I was intimidated by the amount of research I would have to do to write it.
Jody: How did you get past that initial fear?
Kathy: At some point I realized I would probably enjoy that research. And I do!
Jody: When I met you at a Highlights Retreat, you were working on your first novel and my own first book was just about to come out. Both of us, I think it's fair to say, had been writing and pursuing publication for a very long time before snagging our first book deals. For me it was five novels and seventeen years. What about you?
Kathy: Between the time I first submitted a novel manuscript to an editor and the day I was offered my first contract, I wrote eleven novels--and thirty-nine years passed.
Jody: This business is not for people who give up easily! What advice do you have for writers like us--people are not beginners but who have not yet broken into publication and may be feeling discouraged?
Kathy: Learn everything you can about the business, read a ton of books, write every day, and love what you do. If I didn't love writing I would never have stuck with it for thirty-nine years. If writing is what you love, never give up.
Jody: This is so important. We can't control the end result. We can only control the time we give to the process. What are you working on now?
Kathy: My current WIP is another Civil War novel. This one takes place in North Carolina. I have 26,000 words so far in my first-ish draft, and am eager every day to get back into it.
Jody: And I am eager to read it, Kathy! Okay, are you ready for the lightning round?
Kathy: I am!
J: What are the books on your nightstand?
K: The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli
J: What's your non-writing-related hobby?
K: I spend time with family and organize our family reunions. I play cards and board games.
J: Do you have a family story that will probably never make it into a book?
K: My mother was brought to the US from Germany at the age of six to be adopted by her aunt. The adjustment was difficult for her. It's a story she always wanted to write, but never did. She's gone now, and I don't feel I know enough to do it justice.
J: Give me one surprising fact about Kathy Cannon Wiechman.
K: I have been a Type 1 diabetic since I was sixteen.
Jody: Thank you, Kathy, for chatting with me today. And readers, if you'd like to find out more about Kathy and her wonderful novels, see below.
Kathy Cannon Wiechman is the author of Like a River: A Civil War Novel, which earned a Kirkus star and won the 2015 Grateful American Book Prize, and Empty Places, about life in a 1930s coal-mining camp in Kentucky.
She lives with her family in Cincinnati, Ohio, not far from where the story of Not on Fifth Street takes place.
Facebook author page: Kathy Cannon Wiechman
Twitter account: @KathyCWiechman
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