Novel Ideas: An Interview with Author Kezi Matthews
Originally published in the SCBWI-MI Newsletter.
Kezi Matthews had several careers before she became a writer: she worked in television and radio, on and off the air; crafted original porcelain and cloth dolls; and created designer doll patterns. Her first book, JOHN RILEY’S DAUGHTER (Front Street/Cricket Books, 2000) was one of School Library Journal’s Best Books of 2000 list, and was a Children’s Literature Choice for 2000. It also received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers 2001 Award for Best Children’s Book by a Northwest Author. Her second book, SCORPIO’S CHILD (Front Street/) was released in fall, 2001. Kezi says, “I’m an intuitive writer and don’t pay much attention to writing rules, though I do think you have to know what they are!”
On your website, you describe yourself as a “late bloomer.” How do you think the things you did before becoming an author affect your writing? The other things broadened my perspective and gave me a deeper understanding of human nature. The length of my life, though, has been a great gift, affecting my writing enormously. What I write today is light-years away from what I was writing at age twenty-or even what I was writing twenty years ago. There are things you learn about life and about people that only come from having lived a long time. You grow to understand that each person’s ‘truth’ is authentic, whether you like it or not-and that the necessity for forgiveness is absolute. Live long enough and you eventually arrive at the place where you actually treasure all of life’s precious little insanities!
You published several short stories before you sold JOHN RILEY’S DAUGHTER. Is starting with that shorter format something you’d recommend to aspiring novelists? I write short stories because they’re my first love and I have a facility for that form. The discipline I developed while writing short stories taught me the beauty of lean, clean writing and, of course my novels benefit from that during revision and rewriting as I don’t have to pare away a lot of verbiage. Any form of writing practice is valuable and, in the beginning, a writer must write regularly in order for her genuine voice to emerge. But learning to write short stories is no guarantee that you’ll then be able to successfully tackle the work of creating a novel. If you have your heart set upon writing novels, then concentrate on learning how to do that!
Your first novel sold to the first editor you submitted it to. How much revising had you done before you submitted it to a publisher, and how much did you do after it sold? The editor of JOHN RILEY’S DAUGHTER was already familiar with my work through my short stories which he’d edited. When I told him I had completed a novel, he said to send it along. I heard back within six weeks. “Would I be willing to take out one scene that was considered too intense, plus give stronger closure to the relationship between Memphis and her grandmother?” Do chickens have feathers? I revised, rewrote, and re-submitted within two weeks. In December of 1999, four months after my initial submission, I had a contract in hand. Further revision was minimal, mostly copy-editing decisions. JOHN RILEY’S DAUGHTER was released by Front Street/Cricket Books in June 2000 and is now in its second edition. It keeps picking up steam and will be out in paperback summer of 2002.
Did the critical acclaim for your first book make writing the second one easier or harder?
Psychologically harder. I knew in my bones that I wasn’t a one-novel writer but the fear of writing a second book that “didn’t measure up” stalled me for about three months. Then I decided to give the second book (SCORPIO’S CHILD) a different format. Instead of set chapters I decided upon segments of varying lengths as needed and gave each segment a title that also serves as a ‘hook.’ But I needed to distance this story from JOHN RILEY’S DAUGHTER even more. Because (SCORPIO’S CHILD) is set more than fifty years in the past (1947) I opted for first-person-present tense to give it a sense of immediacy. That took some getting used to, bam-bam-everything happening right now! But I came to really enjoy writing it and best of all, (SCORPIO’S CHILD) stands on its own legs…a sister and not a clone.
How much character development do you do before you sit down to write? Is it in your head or on paper? If you know your characters, you can throw anything at them, anything, and you know how they will react. I know my characters very well before I write that first opening sentence. I know what they look like, where they live, what their relationships are, what they like or don’t like, most of the mundane aspects of their lives. But they can still surprise you, so just before starting, I have my protagonist write me a letter, telling me about her deepest secrets, no holds barred. It’s a great preliminary step and gets me right into the heart and deeper motivations of that character.
Do you outline a story before you begin? No, I make a few notes here and there. I lose interest when I know all the details; the need to write the story dissipates. So, I know the theme, the basic story line, the immediate problem, the beginning and the end, but the middle is all discovery for me and the fun of writing. I find when playing with all of the ‘and thens’ and ‘what ifs’ that my creative genie slips out of the bottle and joins the party, releasing a delirium of possibilities I’d never have thought of while trying to slog through an outline.
Do you revise as you go along, or do you wait for a complete draft? I lightly revise the previous day’s writing as a way of getting back into flow. After the first draft is completed, novel or short story, I put it away for at least two weeks. Before starting on the second draft, I read the manuscript aloud and mark up the awkward phrases, etc. I follow this process for each succeeding draft. How many drafts do I do? As many as needed-sometimes four, sometimes fifteen. How do I know when to stop? I simply wake up one morning and say, “That’s it!”
How much do you write each day-a length of time, a number of words? I don’t wear that particular harness. I think a writer is always writing even when words are not being put down on paper. I’m capable of putting out 1500 to 3000 words a day, but they’re words I’ve been thinking about for weeks as I read, cleaned house, shopped for groceries or just sat on the back porch staring at an apple tree.
Are you a member of a critique group? If so, what kind of feedback is most helpful for your writing? No, I’m not…different strokes for different folks, and I respect that. I do have a “hapless victim” that I often corner for a reading session. He is an occasional reader and knows very little about the writing process and therefore never confuses content with technique. I don’t ask silly questions such as, “So, what do you think…is it any good?” I ask specific questions: “Why do you think I have that dog in there?” “What do you think is the relationship between these two characters?” I sometimes even ask him to tell me in his own words what he thinks I wrote in this or that chapter. I get some very strong, eye-opening feedback at times! Other than that, prior to submission, I depend almost entirely upon my internal editor to keep me on track. I realize that’s not an option for everyone, but it works for me. I have little ego where my writing is concerned and don’t fall in love with my words. My truest philosophy is that the writing can always be better.
Do you read a lot in your genre? Who are your favorite writers? I read a lot of nonfiction and I’m also a mystery buff and love using the suspense device in my work to keep the pages turning. In the YA field, there are some terrific writers coming on stronger and stronger, but my admiration goes first to Robert Cormier. I think it will be a while before we see the likes of that giant talent again. His fearless work blazed the trail for so many of today’s YA writers. In addition to old loves, Welty, O’Connor, and McCullers, other authors who light my way on a regular basis are Joyce Carol Oates, Angela Carter, Banana Yoshimoto, Elizabeth George, Tobias Wolff, and James Lee Burke.