Beth Kephart stops by to talk about her new book, GOING OVER, and shares with us about her own writing journey, favorite Indie Bookstore, and more.
GOING OVER takes place in 1983. Do you see this as a story that is told in the recent past or historical fiction? Does the difference even matter?
I love that you ask — does the difference matter. Because I am just the worst of the worsts when it comes to labeling things. I think of GOING OVER precisely as you describe it—a story that takes place in 1983. Because I live inside that space in my imagination, it feels like right this instant.
What drew you to the story of Ada and Stefan?
I had a conversation with my editor, Tamra Tuller, about Berlin—a city to which we have both traveled and a city with which we both fell in love. We felt it was important to tell a very personal story about the impact of the Wall. The Wall came first, then. And then I began to study geography, character, the historical record. Ada and Stefan emerged from that.
Authors doing research for books have some great tips and ideas for gaining information. Do you have one or two techniques that English teachers could adapt to make writing projects/prompts more interesting for students?
There’s little I love more than doing the research. My gosh, it breaks my world wide open with the new. I think the trick lies in making the whole thing relevant, making it feel urgent. So, for example, Ada has pink hair. I needed to be sure that she would have access, in 1983, to pink dye, I needed to know how the pink hair would grow out, all of that stuff. I hopped on down to my hairdresser. Sat in her chair. Had her talk to me about hair color and its history. And then she began to talk to me about graffiti, believe it or not. And she gave me the details with which I begin the book.
What is your book story? (What was the book that made you a reader/writer and who was the person who recommended it if there was someone?)
The book that made me a reader/writer! What a great question. Well. Let’s see. I was a writer (or thought I was) before I was a real reader, I hate to admit (since everything is wrong about that). Then again, I was only nine years old. But I have to say that it was a research project I did when I was sixteen (the subject: F. Scott and Hemingway) that turned me into a reader. You couldn’t stop me after that. For many years, I read only nonfiction—biography and history. (I majored in the History and Sociology of Science at Penn.) When I was in my early thirties I turned to memoir. Then I became a book omnivore.
Is there an author or authors that influenced your writing journey?
I wish you could come to my house and see the hundreds upon hundreds of triple stacked books on my many shelves. (My house isn’t big, but my shelves are wide and long.) Every single book here has influenced me in some way — either because I loved it or because I didn’t and because, no matter what, I study the pages to understand why. But I happen to love Michael Ondaatje, Alice McDermott, Colum McCann, Chloe Aridjis, and many, many others. Really, the emphasis is on many.
What is your favorite indie bookstore? Where is it located? Why do you like it?
I have visited many a great independent bookstore in my day. Locally I love, for example, that Children’s Book World, the Spiral Bookcase, Main Point Books, Harleysville Books, and Chester County Book Company are still here and near and proud. In Florence, Italy, I love Paperback Exchange. In California, I love Book Passage, Copperfield, and Kepler’s. In Decatur, GA, it’s all about Little House of Stories. In Larchmont, NY, it’s all about The Voracious Reader. When I’m on the Penn campus I always visit the used bookstore, The Last Word, and always bring something home (most recently Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue). But I also have to mention the very first independent bookstore I ever frequented, as a young college girl. It’s called Joseph Fox Bookshop. Fabulously small and fabulously smart, in the city of Philadelphia. I bought every single architecture book they had, way back when. And today, at many Philadelphia events, you can count on Fox to be there.
Any new projects that you are working on that you can share with us?
Gosh, yes. Many new projects. Next year, Chronicle will publish One Thing Stolen, a book that takes place in Florence, Italy, and West Philadelphia. In the fall, Temple University Press will re-release my river autobiography, Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, as a paperback—excited about that, because it’s such an odd, little book and because my river was just named PA River of the Year (woot) and because, after all these years, schools are beginning to assign the book in their science and literature classes. I’m also at work on an essay/photography collection about Philadelphia, based on my monthly columns for the Philadelphia Inquirer. And I have just started work on a new novel.
What is in your TBR (to-be-read) pile? Can you share a picture of it?
Well, you just opened up a huge can of words, I mean worms. Because my TBR pile is the oddest one in the universe. I teach memoir at Penn, and so there are some old and new memoirs in there (not to mention my students’ work). I review adult novels for the Chicago Tribune, and so I’ve got some stuff I cannot show you. I’m still fascinated by Berlin and by walls in general, so I’m reading some new texts like Within Walls and Border Patrol Nation. I’m reading about linguistics and environmental science, I want to read several grand new novels like The Flamethrowers. I’m halfway through Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. And on my Kindle reader is Boy, Snow, Bird. Yep. I’m one confused, crazy person.
by Beth Kephart
Chronicle Books (April 2014)
To read a excerpt: