Thursday, June 25, 2009

Book Review and Author Interview: Nothing But Ghosts by Beth Kephart

After the death of her mother, Katie takes a summer gardening job at the estate of town recluse Miss Martine who hasn’t been seen outside since she was 16. Katie herself is burdened with grief, but she has to wonder what kind of tragedy would make you voluntarily disappear from life. With the help of two brothers and a glamorous librarian, Katie begins to decode the mystery and gain the strength to go on.

“Things disappear and vanish. That’s a fact. Before you’re ready for them to go, they go, and after that all you can do is keep the idea of them bright inside yourself.” p 80 ARC (may not reflect final published version)

I admit, ever since the death of my own mother when I was 19, I tend to shy away from books where the mother is recently deceased or dying. I’m just always afraid they’ll be too depressing, too sad to handle. But Beth has done a beautiful thing here – she takes us to the truth of what it’s like to deal with loss (the too-big house that feels empty, the withdrawing from friends, the keeping busy to dull the pain) and then lets her characters (and her readers) find comfort and a renewed sense of purpose.

The story elements, the well-drawn characters (Katie’s father, chic Ms. McDermott, and estate caretaker Old Olson were favorites), and spare, lyrical writing all contribute to making this a genuinely affecting reading experience. In fact, as far as books about grief go, I’d rate it up there with Kate DiCamillo’s THE TIGER RISING.

Beth will be doing a chat/reading/party at My Friend Amy’s blog on Tuesday June 30th at 9 PM EST. By attending or buying the book and sending in your receipt, you are entered into a massive contest with great prizes including amazon gift cards and a customized header by soon to be published illustrator Daniel Jennewein (IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN? Balzer and Bray/HarperCollins July 2010). Attending AND buying the book (which is out now in hardcover) will get you two entries.

Not only that, but Beth agreed to an interview (lucky me!) right here on Presenting Lenore. Let’s begin shall we?

Nothing But Ghosts is dedicated to the memory of your mother. Are there pieces of her in the narrative? Is there something of hers that you hold on to that keeps her memory alive?
My mother’s life, her qualities, her passions, her sudden, unexpected passing were hers alone, and I did not try to recreate them in Claire, Katie’s mother. It is the loss that Katie feels that is so true to my own life, and also all those things that occurred in the wake of my mother’s dying that assured me that the spirit of my mother remained—that she was near, not utterly vanished. A goldfinch would knock against my office window, repeatedly, and I sensed my mother near. A song would play in a nearly empty restaurant, and there she was. A warm breeze would kick up on a winter day, and I knew. My mother’s final words were for me, and I hold onto those. She said, in the very end, “I love you.” That was for me. That is what I will always have. Yes, my mother was a great gift giver, and all around my home are things she left to me. Her favorite painting hangs above my head as I work. But it’s those words that matter most, those words that I had yearned to hear.

Katie’s father throws himself into cooking after the death of his wife. Is cooking cathartic for you as well?
Cooking is cathartic for me. Absolutely. So is gardening, so is dance, so is photography, and so, of course, is writing. But Katie’s dad throws himself into cooking because my mom was the world’s best cook, and I worried deeply about my dad after she was gone. I cooked a lot for him, and I still do. But how would he take care of himself? How would he enjoy a meal again? My concern for my own dad is Katie’s concern for hers. My dad doesn’t cook yet, but in creating a character who finds his way, I was, in some small way, trying to heal my own dad’s future.

Katie recalls details from a family trip to Barcelona and refers to an ancient underground Roman city. Does this really exist? Is it open to the public? (I am going to Barcelona next week!)
Oh, gosh, you are going to Barcelona? Yes. This exists. The Barcelona and Portugal scenes come directly from my own life and travels. You’ll find this in the old city, easily marked, very central. Go down below. Tell me what you see when you return. I can’t wait to hear.

How do you balance writing novels, writing for your company, and writing your blog? What do you see as the perks/downsides of each?
I’m always out of balance, I think. I work on the blog and the novels early in the morning (except for when my UK client company calls, which can happen from about 5 AM on). I work on the business throughout the day. When there’s a break in the business, I go back to the blogging. There’s always a book on my desk that I’m reading as well. The business and the blogging keep me in touch with the greater world (not to mention, the business pays the bills for our small household and the blogging makes me happy). The writing keeps me in touch with me. I am often frustrated by my patchwork days and feeling as if I have not gotten enough done, or not enough done well. But I am grateful for a life that puts me on so many paths and forces me to use different parts of my mind. I’ve met people I value in all aspects of my life—CEOs and presidents who dream big, bloggers full of heart and soul, writers and editors and readers who demand more.

How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?
Hmmm. Well, typically I have one book in progress and one in revision and then a lot of books somewhere in my office that failed overall, but that have pieces to which I wish to return. I never measure the commercial potential of a book, though of course I should. I measure the quality of its song, the depth of its meaning, the authenticity of its characters. I have, for example, been writing a book that takes place in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War for years and years. I thought I had it, this past spring. When I looked at it again, I realized that the pacing is off in places and that some story lines have been left thin. That’s not something you just go in and fix. It is something that you let stew. Probably next spring I’ll go back and see what I might do, see if I can write that book right, after all this time.
It’s always a question. I have spent many years on books that simply just don’t work. But then I’ll find a piece — the Cascais piece in Nothing but Ghosts, for example — that can and should be adapted to a new use. The same thing holds true for the poems I write. A line of a failed poem can become the beginning of a successful story.

What's up next for you?
Next March, my fourth book with HarperTeen, The Heart is Not a Size, will be released; this tells the story of a group of teens on a mission trip to Juarez and touches on issues — anxiety, eating disorders — that have pressed down upon my own life. Next fall, with Egmont, I am publishing an historical novel about Centennial Philadelphia—it’s a very exciting book for me, a five-year effort, a new kind of writing. At the moment I am writing a novel for adults. And someday I hope to return to Seville. After that, the future is wide open.

Thanks Beth!


celi.a said...

I wasn't sure about this book when I read the synopsis originally, because I don't deal well with reading about death. However, this review (and interview) have changed my mind. After spending time in Spain and Portugal a couple of years ago, I can't wait to read the bits about Katie's family trip to Barcelona.


kristenspina said...

wonderful! Thank you for sharing this. I ordered my copy of the book this week.

bermudaonion said...

Glad to hear this is so good, since I bought a copy on Tuesday! ;)

Fantastic Book Review said...

Thanks for sharing with us! I will be ordering a copy too! Great Interview!

Julie P. said...

Great interview. I ordered the book earlier this week and can't wait to read it!

Tessa said...

Excellent interview and interviewee - thank you both so much, Lenore and Beth.

Staci said...

She's so personable! I love her style of writing and Nothing But Ghosts sounds like another wonderful read. Excellent review and interview.

PopinFresh said...

I'm in love with the cover, so I'm glad the book was good. Great review and interview. Both make me want to read the book sooner, rather than later.

~ Popin

Woman in a Window said...

Continually you amaze me. Really. Of course you don't find total balance. You've so much on your plate.

I have problems just balancing a plate.

Priya said...

Fabulous interview! Beth is such a wonderful person and I love her writing.

Elizabeth said...

This book sounds just lovely.

Solvang Sherrie said...

Great interview, Lenore! I'm looking forward to reading Nothing but Ghosts.

Sadako said...

This looks totally fun! Great interview as always, Lenore.

ravenousreader said...

I loved reading the interview, and learning more about Beth and her work. I'm looking forward to reading Nothing But Ghosts as soon as it arrives on my doorstep!

Kelly H-Y said...

Wonderful interview with such fascinating questions! Thank you!

Debbie's World of Books said...

This book sounds wonderful and what a coincidence that I literally just bought this book for the book drive before reading your review. Glad to hear you liked it. I can't imagine not having my mom around. #extra entry

writemeg said...

Wonderful interview! I got teary-eyed. I'll definitely look for the book very soon.

Beth F said...

Wow!! Excellent interview. My book club will be discussing this in August. I can't wait to read it. And I'm so happy to hear of another book coming out.

I think I'll suggest this to my niece. Her mother died when my niece was 3.5 yrs old, and her father (my brother) has been an amazing single parent for the last almost 11 years.

~The Book Pixie said...

This book sounds so good and I really want to read it. Thanks for posting this review and interview!

I've got an award for you over at my blog! :)


Laina said...

Rocks that you liked it!! It's fun when it surprises you to like a book, isn't it?

#extra entry

ProdElektra said...

Firstly, sorry about the early loss of your mother. I admire your strength of getting up again. Since I don't want to address sucha personal issue at length, let's move on...
I was a little hesitant about reading this book since I'm not exactly comfortable reading about death. But I love books based off real life because then the imagery and the emotions are more raw and vivid than ever. i'm sorry about kephart's loss too; I can;t imagine the pain caused by the loss of such a dear one.
Aaaaand..BARCELONA!!! I LOVE that place (altho I've never visited). Ahh...the Spainness of it all...
And I love FC Barcelona too:D
Lucky you, you get to visit. Bring gifts and stories to share for us:P
#extra entry

Kristen said...

I just bought this book for the drive! :) What a great effort by Amy. I do want to say - as a librarian - I love in the description where it says "With the help of two brothers and a glamorous librarian". Woot! Go librarians! I'm really looking forward to this book now after reading your review and interview.

#extra entry

Paradox said...

I don't really care for the cover, and books where people die usually make me teary, but this one sounds mysterious and interesting! And every review I've seen of Nothing But Ghosts has praised it, so I'd be willing to try this one.

#extra entry

Breanna said...

Wow. Great review. I'm not a big fan of reading books where the mother has recently died either. My mom didn't die or anything I'm just not a big a fan of really sad stories like that. I have to be in the exact right mood to want to read a book like that.

But this one sounds really good. It's really great that despite the fact that you usually shy away from books like this that you actually read it and enjoyed it. That must be a good feeling.

If I ever have a chance I'll definitely check this one out.

I love the cover too. It looks so mysterious. It's really pretty.

#extra entry


Book Sp(l)ot said...

I've been seeing this book cover around but never really read much of what the book was about--I'm glad I finally have because it's really different from what i (somehow) thought it was about. And it's definitely one I'll want to read...I'm also glad that you said what you did about how the death/grieving is addressed becaus for my own reasons I've been sort of shying away from books involving death recently. I might still give this one a try :)

#extra entry