Sunday, June 01, 2008

One Writer's Process: Kerry Madden

The oldest of four children, Kerry Madden spent much of her youth telling stories to her younger brothers and sister, and when she was asked to clean the kitchen, she “made up stories... to escape the drudgery of my own life.”

Those early years helped her learn the secret to finding her voice–a voice as rich and captivating as two of Madden’s favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee. Indeed, her voice is so distinctive that you can hear it like the rippling of a pure mountain stream the moment you open the covers of one of Madden’s award-winning novels.

In case you missed it, Madden’s Gentle’s Holler was named one of the best books of 2005 by the Chicago Public Library and the Bank Street College, received starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and was a finalist for PEN USA in 2006.

Louisiana’s Song, the second book about the Weems family set in Madden’s beloved Tennessee mountains, was nominated for a 2007 Cybils Award and named one of the best books of 2008 by Bank Street College. The third book in the trilogy, Jessie’s Mountain, was described in Kirkus Reviews as “a heartwarming family story bursting with love and mountain music.”

When Madden leads writing workshops, she tells students to “write down all the things that get your heart beating and pounding ... what scares you, what makes you laugh so hard?”

And her advice for those who want to become writers one day is this: “Don’t let anyone tell you no!”

Most of all, Madden wants to encourage her students to “be aware with all your heart–to what you see, smell, taste, touch, and smell.”

“Write,” she says, “because of the joy it gives you.”

Madden lives in Los Angeles, CA and is working on a YA biography of Harper Lee for Viking/Penguin. She was kind enough to take a break from her work to share her thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like do you get into the water each day?

Madden: I warm up with notes to friends or I post on my blog. When I'm starting something new, I keep a notebook by the bed to write in first thing in the morning, and it typically turns into a journal in the voice of my narrator. I have several Livy Two notebooks and one for Louise too.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

Madden: When the longer work slays me, I turn to the shorter work. In my novels, I often find myself "treading water" without a plot, so I write a short personal essay about anything from being "a roadie mom for my son's band" or "the insane barking dogs" next door or "an Alabama road trip with my daughter." Taking a break from the longer works to dive into the shorter pieces gives me a fresh perspective.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Madden: Faith. Trust. Long walks. Indie films & Junior Mints. I also find that getting away alone to write is the best, but it doesn't happen much.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Madden: Fear. Fear that it won't be there, but it always is...if I get quiet and allow it to be. If I remember to write with love and joy, my characters are right there waiting for me. This is something I have to relearn again and again. The other hardest part is book promotion--aka book-hawking--but I know it's essential. Still...

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Madden: I look at trees. I look at trees against a backdrop of sky. I look at the way a lost palm frond will find its way into an oak tree after a windy night in Silver Lake and hang upside down like a giant wing (my daughter would call it a fairy wing). I get quiet and try to remember to slow down and be in the moment. I get great joy from encouraging kids to write stories. That helps in the dark times.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Madden: I love it when my characters are doing the swimming and I'm along for the ride, because then it's just flying. We're all in it together and the scene is just racing along. And when I'm traveling to the Smoky Mountains, I love seeing the signs to Maggie Valley, because I feel like part of the little town will always be home now. Sometimes it feels like the Weems kids are playing up in the holler, and I could almost stop by.

For more information about Madden, visit her website:

and her online journal:

To read additional interviews with Madden, visit:

If you want to learn more about Madden's newest venture--Voices From Down Yonder, a group of Southern writers including Kathi Appelt (, Kimberly Willis Holt (, Frances O'Roark Dowell (, Alexandria LaFaye (, Barbara O'Connor (, and, possibly, Deborah Wiles (, who will do "Reader's Theatre" with their novels at various sites around the country--check out:

And if you're attending ALA in Anaheim, CA and would like to meet Madden, you can stop by the Penguin Young Readers Group booth (#2617) on Monday, June 30th, where she'll be signing books from 1:00 pm until 2:00 pm.

Special Note: Wordswimmer's taking a break from posting for the next few weeks. See you in July. Keep swimming!

1 comment:

Barbara O'Connor said...

Great interview, Bruce. I love Kerry's work!

And an amusing little anecdote related to one of Kerry's answers: At a school I've been going to for many years to conduct writing workshops, it's become a running joke that when I get writer's block, I eat Oreos (and one fabulous teacher always brings some into school for the kids). After the workshop one year, I got a letter from a boy who said: I like your Oreo technique. My technique is to stare at trees.

Ha! I always thought that was hilarious - but now, I see maybe it really would work!