Author discusses writing, inspiration for Newberry Honor book

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By Special to the Monitor

Author Jacqueline Kelly will sign her 2010 Newberry Honor Book, “The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate,” at 1 p.m. Thursday at Otowi Station. Not only can readers meet with Kelly, but they can share a lunch with her as well. There will be a dutch-treat luncheon at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at the Hill Diner.

The summer of 1899 is hot in Calpurnia “Callie” Virginia Tate’s sleepy Texas town, and there aren’t a lot of good ways to stay cool. Her mother has a new wind machine from town, but Callie might just have to resort to stealthily cutting off her hair, one sneaky inch at a time. She also spends a lot of time at the river with her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist. As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.

In a recent interview, Kelly discussed the inspiration for the book, writing and her personal interests.

“‘The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate’ was inspired by my huge 150-year-old Victorian farm house, a fine example of moldering splendor, in Fentress, a tiny community on the San Marcos River in Texas,” Kelly said.

She continued, “One summer, I was lying on the daybed in the living room under the ancient, wheezing air conditioner, which was barely cooling the room and I thought to myself, ‘How did people stand it in the heat 100 years ago, especially the women, who had to wear corsets and all those layers of clothing?’ The house suddenly started speaking to me about life in those days and Calpurnia and her whole family sprang to life to answer the question for me.”

Kelly said she promised the house that if the book sold well, she would use the profits to restore the house to its former glory.

Asked about the creation of Calpurnia, the spunky main character, Kelly replied, “Callie is a combination of me and my mother. We both hate to cook, sew and do any kind of housework. It must be genetic. I also need to add that my mother is very funny and not at all like the mother in the novel. The easiest characters to create were Callie and Granddaddy. I could hear them carrying on long conversations in my mind.”

Calpurnia’s grandfather is a major character in the book and Kelly explained how his character developed. “My parents and I left New Zealand when I was very young,” she said.

“I never met my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandfather was on the other side of the world. Since I essentially grew up without a grandfather, I had to create my own.

“Granddaddy is a combination of my own father and a couple of my friends. One of the things I love about Granddaddy is that he does not treat Calpurnia as a child. He cannot even see that she is just a young girl. If she is going to study science with him, then he expects her to approach the subject rigorously, as a true, single-minded scientist. Standards must be maintained.”

Family relationships, particularly Callie’s relationship with her grandfather, are central to the book.

In explaining the importance of showing the different connections, Kelly said, “The family connections mean a lot to me for a couple of reasons. I’m an only child and although I loved growing up as one, now that I’m an adult, I wish I had brothers and sisters. I just don’t understand people who are on bad terms — or no terms — with their siblings. I also grew up half a world away from my grandparents and only saw them once a decade or so. I would have loved the chance to know my grandfather better.”

The novel takes place in Texas in 1899 and the story is rooted in its specific moment in time. The people in the book are about to enter a new century and the sense of impending change is palpable.

When asked how much research was involved in creating such a strong sense of time and place, especially because Kelly has not always lived in Texas or even the United States, she said, “I really didn’t have to do as much research as you’d think, because I’ve always been fascinated by this period of time. Over the years, I’ve soaked up details about turn-of-the-century life like a sponge. My mother’s description of her mother’s childhood was helpful.

“Then, of course, there’s the Internet. Most of my online research consisted of seeking out old family photographs from that period. There’s something about them that I find so appealing. Having your photograph made in those days was a very important event. I looked at those faces and wonder about the stories behind them. About half-way through my writing, I stumbled across a photograph of a young girl that reminded me so much of my mental picture of Calpurnia.”

She continued, “Here’s an example from the first page: people really did sprinkle their sheets at night with eau de cologne to try to cool themselves down. Where and when I read this I have no clue, but it stuck with me and I thought it was a charming and fascinating detail. The whole pace of life was changing so fast then. I once saw a couple of old photographs taken on Congress Avenue between 1900 and 1910. In 1900, the mud street was filled with horses and carriages. By 1910, every single horse was gone. They had all been replaced with cars — such a shock that it happened so fast.”

Kelly went on to describe her development as a writer.

“I started out writing short stories some years ago, taking classes and workshops whenever I could find the time,” she said. “My novel started out life as a short story. I presented it to my writing group and they all said that I should turn it into a novel. My reaction to that: ‘Aaaargh!’ It just felt like too much to take on. A short story is relatively manageable, but a novel consumes your life for far too long.

“I entered three chapters in the Writers’ League Agents and Editors Conference in 2002 and ended up winning the mainstream division. The woman who judged the contest, Marcy Posner, became my agent. At first I couldn’t confess to her that what she’d read as my entry was all there was. But I think she figured it out when it took me several years to get the rest of the book to her.”

Kelly said she improved her craft by being willing to be criticized.

“I got over my self-consciousness about showing my work to others,” she said. “I wanted so desperately for my writing to be good, but I was worried that it might not be, so I kept it hidden away in a drawer for a long time.

“If you want to improve as a writer and if you want your work to see the light of day, you have to be willing to hold it up for criticism. Now I’ll show my work to anybody.”

What advice does Kelly give to writers? “Just do it,” Kelly said. “Just sit down and write. You can’t wait for the muse to show up before you sit down. It won’t all be good, but a lot of it will be and it will get better, the more you do it. Writers write.”

Asked about what has been most helpful to her development as a writer, Kelly replied, “What has been most helpful to my writing is simply being a voracious reader my whole life. I’ve run into a few people along the way who want to be writers but don’t read much. I don’t get this. Plus it’s not going to happen. I always tell young people when I talk at their schools that you can’t be a good writer without being a big-time reader.”

Kelly has a degree in law and is a practicing physician.

When asked about the influence these fields have had on her writing Kelly said, “Actually, neither of these had that much to do with ‘Calpurnia.’ What really influenced the book is my undergraduate degree in biology. We did field studies that still influence the way I look at the world when I go outside for something as simple as taking a walk. I often just sit on the front porch of the old house, as Calpurnia does, and wait for something to move and catch my eye.”

When not writing, Kelly spends time in Fentress. “I enjoy visiting with friends and family. I love reading fiction and I love talking about it with other fiction writers,” she said.

“My husband and I travel quite a bit. Two years ago we hiked across the Grand Canyon, a feat of which I’m inordinately proud, and I have the T-shirt to prove it.”