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M. E. Kerr’s latest book What Became of Her has just been released. In this updated interview, she talks about this book and more. Read and enjoy! If you haven’t read the book yet, you might want to hold off. There are some detailed questions and responses about the characters and events. When you’re done, you can check out other Interviews
Question: Often your stories are set in the State of New York, i.e., upstate, NYC or Long Island. What made you decide on a town in Pennsylvania this time?
Answer: Fell was set, in part, in Pennsylvania, and both recent books, this one and the one I just finished. I lived in New Hope, Pa., for awhile, and I remember it with affection. I get tired of the same settings.
Q: On the book jacket, it mentions that a real life model for Peale exists. Did you know this doll? And was s/he also your model for the similar character(s) in Fell Back? Also, was Rosalind Slaymaster’s character inspired by a real person?
A: Yes, a real life model for Peale did exist. He is now in the Sag Harbor
cemetery. His name was Wambly. When the woman I call Rosalind Slaymaster went out to dinner, a highchair was always brought to the table for Wambly. She, too, is in the Sag Harbor cemetery now. She was from London, originally, and quite
a character, very rich and very self-absorbed. But she was generous to her employees, left her house to the maid, left a lot of money to the tailor who did Wambly’s clothes, put several local kids through college, and gave Sag Harbor a huge whale, Christmas lights, other things. She lived to be ninety-six and the graves are on seventeen plots, very elaborate.
Q: I find it hard to believe a high school clique would actually refer to themselves as “The Sluts”, almost with pride, it seems in the book. The only explanation I could think of is either they are deliberately self-mocking or not too bright. Also, their lack of integrity is upsetting; the same goes for Cornelius Kraft and his friends. Do you think kids can be that shallow and mean-spirited? And why? Is it related to being in a small-town, class issues, adolescence?
A:We had a local group of girls who called themselves The Hookers. They were very privileged and popular girls. They were not self-mocking, since they weren’t hookers, but they were out to shock. They were big show-offs, always calling attention to themselves, the sort who liked to be featured, sometimes all wearing a similar article of clothing, like a yellow sock. They weren’t bad kids at all, but their antics always disturbed some adults…and they weren’t welcoming to kids in school they thought were nerdy.
Yes, at times I think kids can be very mean-spirited. Do you remember what was said about the boys who shot up Columbine? They were harassed daily, according to reports, and were considered outsiders. Outsiders do not always fare well in schools, whether they be kids from bad backgrounds, homosexuals, kids who might not look and act like others- whatever…it is not easy for certain kids. Most rock stars tell of their miserable teenage years, and it’s all through their music. Most were yesterdays’ losers, and today they write the songs. But not all can come shining through. For some it is just too much. Integrity is a trait that comes with maturity. The teenage years are the most uncertain and self-conscious. Cliques and bullies are not just products of small towns, or class, but I do think they flourish during adolescence, often a time of fear and anxiety.
Q: I thought the juxtaposition of the past and present worked very well. I loved how Rose/Rosalind’s diary read. The device of using a diary to introduce a plotline from another time seems to be one you favor, such as in Fell Down. Why might that be?
A: Now and then I use a diary when it is important in the plot to reveal a secret, or very personal thoughts of a lead character.
By the way, the dummy in Fell Down was not based on Wambly. Wambly was just Wambly… but often a ventriloquist uses his dummy as an alter ego, saying things he can’t say. They are two different things; one is a toy (albeit Wambly was a very pampered pet) and the other another self.
Q: You often integrate poetry into your fiction, and I think it’s a great way to introduce the idea of poetry to readers who might be turned off otherwise. Did you write the Chicken poem in What Became of Her? Did you write it just for the book?
A: Oh, how I wish I’d written the Chicken poem. It was written by Jane Mead. I came upon it in an anthology, then began to read whatever I could find of hers. Her latest is called The Lord and The General Din of The World, published by Sarabande. She is a most interesting poet!…I love poetry, and I read it a lot, to relax. Sometimes I write it, as I did the poem in What Became of Her, (just for the book) supposedly written by Julie’s mother, called “Point of No Return.” But I am not capable of writing like Mead, unfortunately.
Q: You mentioned awhile back that you were a fan of MTV. Do you still keep in touch with youth and pop culture? Do you still watch tv geared at the under 35 year-old crowd (as I’ve heard MTV’s audience described)? How do you learn about something like strawberry bidis, which your characters smoke?
A: Yes, I watch MTV at times, when I have time, but most of my imput on kids comes from my neighbors, kids I’ve watched grow up on the street. One is now at McGill in Canada, and he and his friends were all smoking bidis a few years back. Then the local tobacco store began stocking bidis last year. I read a report in the Times about six months ago saying they are a favorite with kids. I don’t want to promote bidis, of course, but the character called Neal, was the type who’d smoke them…the rebel and iconcoclast who grew up to be this conforming businessman…I hear a lot of secrets from the neighborhood kids because they know I’m a writer and they hope I’ll put them in a book.
Q: I think that one characteristic of your writing is the way you don’t underestimate the intelligence of your readers. That said, do you think young adult readers will be able to connect the events and actions of the past generation in the book to how the children of the next generation turn out and are affected?
A: Of course I hope my books are accessible to kids, but they won’t be to all
kids Seldom does a book hold all audiences as the Potter books have…I just try to
tell the best story I can. If a writer becomes involved in trying to reach a certain audience, he probably won’t have a wonderful book. The best books come from within. I aim at my audience but only after I have the idea. I think of the best way to tell the story…The story is first. Next comes the question: how can I tell this to kids and keep them reading? Obviously, some won’t stay with me. Different stories appeal to different kids.
Never forget the importance of a teacher, too, and a librarian. Book talks, recommendations, are all important. I’ve heard educators whose enthusiasm for reading is so compelling! They can make all the difference in whether or not a kid will pick up a book…and even finish it.
Q: If you look on the message board, many questions are about Gentlehands. Would you say this is the most popular of your books to be taught in school? And what gives it that kind of appeal? Also, when you speak to children, do you find that they enjoy the book or do they view it more as an assignment?
A: Yes, Gentlehands is the most popular book. Kids are fascinated by the holocaust, and why not? It is still unbelievable to me, that in my liftetime such a thing could happen. I believe it should never be allowed to be forgotten. When I wrote Gentlehands, I had no idea there was such a thing as holocaust literature. I was trying to add more depth to a story taking place next door to me, a love affair between a have and havenot…I was also reading about this one Nazi, about his cruelty and his stunning looks. I was trying to figure out how anyone could be so sadistic, trying to discover reasons why…Now I am older, and I don’t think you ever discover why someone is evil, anymore than you ever find out what makes some people “saints.”
Some kids really get into reading, and some are reading because they have to.
Again, teachers have a big influence here. So do parents, in the examples they set…Kids are different today because they have so very many media opportunities…and through the internet they have more ways of learning. It is a strange new world, and we all have adjustments to make and challenges.
Q: Here’s a question from the earlier interview: what books have you read recently and what are you reading right now?
A: What am I reading now? THE HUMAN STAIN by Philip Roth, BLUE ANGEL by
Francine Prose…and because I am working on a memoir of Patricia Highsmith,
I am reading memoirs, right now GREENE ON CAPRI by Shirley Hazzard.
Q: You have answered this question on the message board, but if you don’t mind addressing it again, what can readers expect from you next?
A: My next book is called SLAP YOUR SIDES. It is about a Conscientious
Objector in World War II. It features a young Quaker from Pennsylvania.
Q: Thanks a million! I really enjoyed What Became of Her and look forward to your next one!
A: Thanks for your interest!
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Remembering my dear friend and talented author, M. E. Kerr today. I knew her first as M. E. Kerr or…