Two Things I Learned from Beth Kephart

Last night I went to the Radnor Public Library to attend a reading and launch party for Small Damages, a novel by one of my favorite writers, Beth Kephart. Beth’s writing is poetic and moving, and she’s so prolific that she makes it look easy. But what I especially liked about last night’s reading is that Beth revealed what many writers don’t: the amount of time and effort that went into her latest book. Small Damages, Beth revealed, took ten years and eighty drafts to get right.

As she introduced the novel, Beth showed the audience pages of various drafts that she worked on while figuring out exactly how to tell the story. Different story lines came and went. Characters fell in and out of prominence. Even the tone changed slightly from one draft to the next. What remained the same throughout the process, however, was the setting. Indeed, throughout her novel, Seville, Spain, comes alive on every page. As Beth revealed over the course of the discussion, setting isn’t simply an important part of a story; the setting itself can take on the dimensions of a character.

My takeaway from the evening was twofold. First, if a project calls out to you and is worthwhile, then you’ll stick with it — year after year, draft after draft — even if the final draft is so far off as to be all but imperceptible. Second, what keeps you going through all of those drafts may simply be a desire to capture in words a place that’s close to your heart, the need to be true to that place and to tell a story that allows that place to come alive for your readers.

Whatever it is that keeps you writing, the important thing to remember is that you’re doing it because you want to — because you feel a need to share a particular truth with the rest of the world, or maybe just because there’s something you’re trying to figure out for yourself and you can only do it through the written word. Regardless of the reason, Beth Kephart stands as a shining example of what a writer can accomplish through tenacity and hard work. If a story is worth telling, it’s worth telling right.

Advance Praise for The Grievers

I just wanted to send out a special thank you to Beth Kephart for saying some wonderful things about my forthcoming novel, The Grievers, on her blog. I’m a huge fan of Beth’s work, so this praise means a lot to me. Her latest novel, Your Are My Only, is a haunting, beautiful work of art.

Writers Are Cool

I feel very fortunate to live in a region with a vibrant community of people who love to read and write. One of the great things about living in this kind of community is that I get a chance to see a lot of authors read and discuss their work. Last week alone, I had the opportunity to see Steve Almond read from his latest collection, God Bless America, at Germantown Academy, Robin Black and a handful of other writers speak on the subject of contemporary fiction at Bryn Mawr College, Beth Kephart read from her haunting new novel, You Are My Only, at the Radnor Library, and Chuck Palahniuk — well, it’s hard to describe what he did, but it involved inflatable brains, and it was wonderful — at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Obviously, this is a wide range of writers, each with different styles and interests, but what struck me about all of them is how really kind and thoughtful they all are. They’re just really nice people. At the end of each reading, the authors generally took time to answer questions from the audience, and when they did this, I got the sense that they were really listening to the questions and answering from the heart. I also got the sense that these authors not only love writing, but they love that people read their work as well — and thus feel indebted to their readers to some extent. To put it another way, I got the feeling that the respect between the readers and the authors was mutual.