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Newsvine Interview Part 2
Interview Transcript

My Newsvine Interview With Beth Kephart, Author of Zenobia and Undercover – Part 2
News Type: Opinion — Thu Jan 3, 2008 10:24 AM EST
entertainment, interview, sbutki-interview
Scott (Scoop) Butki

This is the second part of a two part interview with Beth Kephart, author of Zenobia and Undercover. The first part was here.

Beth Kephart, author of five prior memoirs, has two new books out: Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business and Undercover. Zenobia was released this week and Undercover came out this fall.

She describes these two books this way:

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?
I asked her what Undercover was 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.
Scott: How did the collaboration work for Zenobia? Did you write a story and then adapt it for Matthew's beliefs? Or did you write it knowing what theories he wanted included?

Beth: Matt and I have worked together for more than 15 years, and I have seen the power of his philosophy (and style) at work in three different corporate environments. I’ve heard the stories that he’s told. I’ve seen him build new teams and leverage their energies and talents. I’ve seen him succeed. In the early stages of writing Zenobia, I spent time imagining a place and a suite of characters that might bump up against some of the classic roadblocks of corporate America. I spent time thinking about the ways in which Matt himself had solved such problems. I’d write a chapter or two, then share those with Matt, and then Matt and I would talk about the "what next" of the book.

He would encourage me to bring more naysayers into the plot, for example. And, toward the end, more told-you-so-ers. Zenobia didn’t happen overnight. It went through twenty-two or more drafts before we began working with Berrett-Kohler, the publishing house. And then it changed some more.

Was one of the intents of Zenobia to mix a strong message about his business philosophies with fiction?

We wanted to create an original book—an intelligent fable that would be fun to read and would appeal to all those adults who loved Harry Potter, Phantom Tollbooth, or Alice in Wonderland. We wanted, equally, to write a book that did change the way people thought about their jobs. That empowered them to make courageous decisions. That celebrated the imagination in corporate America.

What is the best and worst parts about collaborating with another writer like Matthew?

There were no worst parts, thankfully. We had fun, we didn’t disagree about the story’s overall direction, and we both opted to take a risk with this book, as opposed to playing it safe. We’ve been friends for a long time, as I’ve said, and we share many of the same beliefs.

You hold down a regular job in addition to your writing, right? Did that help you write Zenobia ? I ask because some full-time writers might have forgotten the frustrations of being in the trenches with grumpy co-workers and close-minded bosses and such.

I actually run a boutique marketing communications company called Fusion. I’ve been consulting to large and small corporations for more than twenty years, and my husband, William Sulit, joined me a few years ago as the design partner; Bill, by the way, is the fantastic illustrator who designed and illustrated Zenobia.

I have encountered, throughout the years, so many different “types” in corporate America, have gone up against my own What and How machines (that’s corporate communications, in Zenobia-speak), and have found myself feeling frustrated by those who look back more than they look forward.

At the same time, some of my very best friends live and work in corporate America. Many of the chief executives with whom I’ve had the privilege of working have been extraordinary, breathtaking visionaries. Zenobia embraces both the good and the bad of my own experiences, in addition to Matt’s, and, in the end, comes down on the side of the good, which is where I land, in all of this.

What kind of feedback has there been to Zenobia? Are you and Matt going to write another book or was this a one-off deal?

You are one of Zenobia’s very first readers, Scott, for it won’t be in bookstores until January 1. Those who have received early copies have been terrifically kind—they’ve laughed a bit, they’ve nodded their heads in agreement, they’ve wished Matt and me good luck. Late last night I received an email from the original Moira (Moira is the name of the tale’s protagonist), who was a University of Pennsylvania student that I mentored for a semester. She wrote me the most extraordinary note about the quality of the story and the power of the business messages. She then offered to star in the movie as herself, promising never to fall out of character. You have to love her.

What kind of feedback has there been to Undercover?

I’ve had a truly wonderful response to Undercover, and I’m so grateful for it. Younger readers who have never loved to read (according to their parents) have taken to the book, as have young aspiring writers and ice skaters. But adult women have also embraced the book, sometimes choosing it for book club reads, and so have critics and organizations such as Kirkus, Amazon, and School Library Journal, who have named Undercover one of the top books of the year.

What kind of research, if any, did you do for Undercover? Or were you own memories from being a teenager strong enough that you did not need to do any?

I did not do any research for Undercover, which is probably the first time I’ve ever had an experience like that for a book. I wrote from the heart, from memory, and from the knowledge I’ve gleaned from raising a son of my own, and from teaching writing to teens.

Can you tell me about how you yourself got into figure skating? Do you still skate regularly? Now please explain to readers – who have not read your book – why I'm asking?

I got into ice skating when I was nine and living in Boston with my family. My father was getting his master’s degree from MIT, and we were up there during a typically frigid Boston winter. The local lake froze over. My mother bought us all inexpensive pairs of skates. I went out on the ice and didn’t come back to the banks until I was literally forced into such submission. When we returned to Wilmington, DE, at the end of the year I went to a public skating session at the local rink. The star of that rink, a skater named Robyn Rock, saw me out there by myself doing my own versions of jumps and spins, came down from the balcony (where she was sitting waiting for the public session to clear), and taught me a waltz jump. She jumped the opposite direction than most skaters do, taking off from her right foot and landing on her left. And so that became my habit, too.

All of which is relevant to Undercover, for Elisa, the narrator, teaches herself to skate on a frozen pond as a major plot point in the book.

Was it hard to write the letters for the students? Which of them was your favorite?

Lord, no. Not hard to ghostwrite letters; I’ve been ghostwriting notes for more than half my life. My favorite one has to do with the fox: “Lila, It was a red fox in the snow, and I wanted the color of its coat same as I want you. Love, Theo.” The fox is a motif throughout Undercover . It’s also a motif in my life. I discover a fox outside my door only on days of tremendous significance. I find them in the woods, and a poem begins.

Scott Butki