Beth Kephart has written memoir, history, poetry, a corporate fable, and many novels for young adults. Among her historical novels for young adults are DANGEROUS NEIGHBORS (Centennial Philadelphia), DR. RADWAY’S SARSAPARILLA RESOLVENT (1876 Philadelphia), SMALL DAMAGES (flashbacks to Franco’s Seville), GOING OVER (1983 Berlin, released April 2014), and MUD ANGELS (flashbacks to 1966 Florence, to be released in spring 2015).
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
It is such a mysterious process. Several things percolate; many things must collide. You need more than a location, a time period, a character, a theme. You need some urgent question. It can all sit there, going nowhere, until you find the urgent question.
How do you conduct your research?
I use everything that I can find—old newspaper and magazine stories, diaries, books, photographs, videos, films, records—and, of course, I travel to the places where the stories take place.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I think that it is important not to know everything before you start, to keep the process mysterious as long as you can. I want to wake up with a desire to find out. I don’t want to follow an historical dot-to-dot map. So I do some research. I visit the place. I take photographs. I dream. And then I fill things in as I go, look for facts as I need them.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I studied the History and Sociology of Science at Penn, and so I feel very happy doing research, very alive digging into old things and looking for connections. I love the unexpected find. The price of a trolley ticket in 1876. The name of a restaurant on a certain corner. The brand of a telescope that an East German would have in 1970. The tonnage of rubble following a bomb.
Why is historical fiction important?
I think it is so important to try to imagine ourselves into the lives of others during critical junctures in world history. It is a hugely empathetic act. And empathy is, finally, what storytelling is all about—empathy for others, and empathy for ourselves.