This is the first part of a two-part interview
Beth Kephart, author of five prior memoirs, has two new books out: Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business and Undercover.
I asked her about her memoirs because it seemed as though she and I have different definitions of memoirs. I was quite taken by two comments she made: "I am more interested in using my personal story to explore shared universal themes than to say ‘hi, I'm so important, let me tell you what just happened to me’."
She also said, "I do think that our personal stories are first and foremost prisms by which the larger world must be viewed, as opposed to a be all end all."
Undercover is her seventh book, Zenobia her eighth. Undercover came out in September while Zenobia comes out in January.
What is Zenobia about?
Zenobia is a story, at one level, of a young woman who answers a mysterious help wanted ad. She’s to come to a place called Zenobia and report to room 133A. There is just one problem: No one knows a thing about this room; no one can help her find it. And so our heroine sets off on a journey that introduces her to a strange, sclerotic world where her challenge soon becomes persuading those long stuck in their ways to look at things newly and join her in her mission.
On another level, this is a story about the power of the imagination in corporate America. About what happens when you set aside preconceptions and set out to make a difference?
What is Undercover about?
This is the story of a young, aspiring poet—a girl so facile with language that she writes love notes on behalf of boys pursuing the quintessentially popular girls in her high school. Of course, Elisa isn’t entirely happy in this invisible role, nor is her home life comforting, for her beloved dad has been away a long time, and it’s not clear whether he is coming home. Into this mix comes a wise English teacher, a boy named Theo, and a pond where Elisa teaches herself to ice skate. Undercover is about daring to be one’s self, about taking the stage in one’s own life.
Why should people check out your books?
Hmmm. Well. I don’t want to sound presumptuous in answering this question. My books are for those who love language and who like to think deeply about the world around them and their place in it.
You know what this book reminds me of so far? Phantom Tollbooth, which is one of my favorite books of all time
I LOVE the Tollbooth! And appreciate your blog note on it. Good for you, the grandfather, and her grandson!
How did you get into writing?
I was an active kid—always running, always dancing, ice skating since the age of nine. Words felt like motion to me—the way you could string them together, rhyme them, create a sense of urgency or stillness. I can’t honestly remember my first poem. I only know that I filled many blank journals with free verse and (after the age of 15 or so) sonnets and what I now understand to be prose poems. It was a rather private endeavor. I don’t think anyone really noticed what I was doing until a high school English teacher took notice of my work and began to publish it in the school’s literary magazine.
How would you describe the other books you have written besides these two?
I’ve published five memoirs, which were never primarily about me (I am just not that interesting!) so much as they were about bigger, universal themes such as what it means to be a parent, a friend, a wife, a woman nearing middle age, a woman living in a world in which children aren’t given enough room to imagine. My sixth book, Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, is a work of history and prose—a book in which a river tells the story of her life from time immemorial until now. Talk about loving a project! I really did love that one.
How did you and Matthew hook up on this project, Zenobia? What was your goal with Zenobia? Did you accomplish it?
I’ve known Matt for a more than fifteen years—ever since I began to work as a freelance writer and strategist for a pharmaceutical company called AstraMerck. AstraMerck was in many ways Matt’s creation—its spirit, its spunk, its utter originality, and its phenomenal success required someone like Matt at the helm. I’d interview Matt for employee news magazines and annual reviews and provide input to him during company-wide meetings. Matt made all of us laugh and want to do a better job, and in time, Matt and I became friends. We’ve stayed in touch, and in recent years, as the strategic writing partner of Fusion Communications, I’ve been consulting to Matt’s colleagues at Shire, a specialty pharmaceutical company based in Basingstoke, U.K., and Chesterbrook, PA. Matt has been Shire’s CEO since March 2003. He’s’ lifted the stock price from something hovering near single digits to something close to 70 during that time, and helped instill the place with a vibrant culture.
A little more than two years ago, Matt called me into his office and said that he’d had an idea about collaborating on a book that would, as he explained it, posit the importance of risk-taking and creativity in corporate America, in a risk-taking and creative fashion. “Don’t say yes or no right now,” he said. “Just think about it and get back to me.” I went back home and began to re-read some classic fables, as well as Italo Calvino. An idea began to form. Two days later, I said yes. It’s taken a long time to get all of the elements just right, and after we finished we enlisted the help of my husband and business partner, who brought the story to life with illustrations.
Our goal was to remind readers of the power of the imagination. To encourage them—goad them, even—into being brave, into knocking down barriers, into helping colleagues communicate about the right things again. Our goal as co-authors was also to have fun. Our readers will have to tell if we succeeded at the first goal. I know that Matt and I succeeded at the second.
How did you come to write Undercover?
It’s a funny thing: Sometimes a story has been living inside of you for years and years, but it takes someone to pry it open. That’s what happened with Undercover. Laura Geringer, an editor at HarperTeen, had read some of my early books and sent me a beautiful letter asking if I’d consider writing a novel for young adults. I’d chaired the National Book Awards Young People’s Literature jury in 2001. I’d taught young people writing for years. After thinking about it for a long time, I decided to give it a try, and to unearth long-sleeping parts of my past as fodder for a book that is indeed mostly fiction.
This is your first young adult novel, right? What made you decide to write a Young Adult novel? What is the best part and worst part of writing books aimed at young adults?
I wouldn’t have written the first young adult novel without the encouragement of Laura Geringer, and without taking note of all the really fine work being created for this audience. But now, frankly, it’s hard to stop myself, and I have three other books due out over the next few years for this age group. I think it could be difficult to write for this audience if you felt as if you needed to step your language down, to be less than yourself on the page. Fortunately, I don’t feel that need. I know how intelligent so many young people are. I don’t think they like to be condescended to. I’m invigorated by the challenge of writing for them.
In what ways are you similar to Undercover’s protagonist, Elisa? In what ways are you different?
Elisa is a far better writer at her age than I was then. She’s more isolated than I was. There’s more at stake for her than there was for me. But: I, like Elisa, lived for the world outside the windows. I lived for words. I lived to skate. And, for better or worse, I was a person that many boys turned to for advice about how to attract the attentions of girls who were always so much prettier than me.
How did the idea of having a girl write love notes for boys come to you?
While I didn’t write love notes for others per se as a teenager, I did dole out advice. And now, as a consultant, I am also often invisible, behind the scenes, not to be seen, but relied on. It wasn’t hard to extrapolate. Besides, I love Rostand’s play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” and I wanted to create a book that taught as much as it entertained.
What are you working on currently?
At this very instant I am working on an historical novel and doing some research that thrills me beyond description—but doing that only in between my work for Fusion, which is often all-encompassing. I’m also doing some pro bono work on behalf of the young ballroom dance program that inspired the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom.” My next book of young adult fiction is called House of Dance, and is due out next summer. Obviously, I still can’t get enough of motion.
What question do you most wish interviewers would ask you??
Truthfully? I don’t like talking about myself, so I find being interviewed daunting. I often like to turn an interview around and to find out something interesting about the person asking the questions.
What question are you most tired of answering?
Nothing is static, is it? The same question asked of the same person over and over can prompt a new response. I don’t believe in fixed answers, and so I don’t get tired of familiar questions. When I hear myself repeating myself I cringe, and that’s when I get tired.
Causes Beth Kephart Supports
PumpAid St. Christopher's Foundation for Children National Book Foundation's BookUpNYC Dancing Classrooms