Literally Speaking: Author Interview with Beth Kephart

“Beth Kephart doesn’t sleep much.”
This is how a recent article about author Beth Kephart in her college alumni magazine, The Pennsylvania Gazette, opened. In fact, this is something pretty much everyone who has ever spent time with Beth Kephart, or heard her give a talk or lead a writing workshop says about her. We say this to make ourselves feel better, to justify why we are not as productive as this prolific and talented writer. In the last 14 years of nearly sleepless nights, in addition to raising a son, maintaining a happy marriage, dancing, exercising, and doing the mundane activities of life, Kephart has written and published 14 books, with three more coming out in the next 18 months.
Kephart’s newest book, Small Damages, published on July 19 by Philomel, was just today nominated for the prestigious YALSA 2013 BFYA Award. (Translated, that’s the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, Best Fiction for Young Adults Award.) Kephart says she feels blessed to be nominated. “I don’t know how it works—it’s very mysterious,” she explains, but she is grateful to whomever is behind this nomination.
This is not the first acclaim for Small Damages. The book received an excellent review in The New York Times Book Review, where the reviewer lauded Kephart for taking an uncommonly frank approach to the issue of teenage pregnancy, where the consequences of this pregnancy are “far more nuanced” than other books, making it “more a coming-of-age story than a knee-jerk jeremiad against teenage sex.” Reviewer Jen Doll also commends the author’s poetic and “dreamlike” writing style.
The book has also collected starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, endorsement from other published authors including Caroline Leavitt, and great support in the blogging world.
Kephart’s works have covered a multitude of genres. Her first five books were memoirs, including the National Book Award-nominated A Slant of Sun. She calls her book Flow, which tells the story of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill river from the river’s point of view “in the history/poetry bucket.” (To which I can’t help responding “it must not be a crowded bucket, Beth,” and she replies “I think I’m the only one in it. But that is what I love to do: redefine genres.” She also wrote a “corporate fable” (another small, but not empty, bucket), and then she turned to Young Adult fiction.
It is with young adult fiction that she is having her most recent success, although she does see these as crossover books. She writes in a recent column in Publishing Perspectives against the “labelization” of books, questioning the utility of labeling a book in a particular category.
As far as her publishing experience for Small Damages, that too, according to Kephart, has been dreamlike. She describes some of the story of the book’s journey to publication:
“There were ten years of creation involved—this is the book I refused to give up on.” Inspired by a trip to Spain to visit her brother-in-law and falling in love with the people and the place, she experienced “the beginnings of a novel.” At an ALA Convention she was connected to Philomel editor Tamra Tuller, who helped the author work to improve a particular scene, bought and published the book, and together with the team at Philomel (a division of Penguin), including President and Publisher Michael Green, publicist Jessica Shoffel, and a supportive sales staff, brought her through to a great book launch.
“I’ve just been blessed,” Kephart says. “It feels like it’s all going on without me.
I haven’t been out there touring, reading from the book. It’s beautifully quiet, the sense that the right book found the right home and they did the right things for it. I just let it be—and it was the right thing to do.”
It helps that Kephart is now starting to be more vocal about “what I think of the publishing world,” writing for Shelf Awareness and Publishing Perspectives and speaking on panels. Still, she says, “Fourteen books is a long journey for someone who people are just starting to get to know.” And yet she concludes: “I am just super grateful for the kindness people are showing.”

  • Serena Agusto-Cox

    It amazes me how authors like Beth, who are clearly so talented and have great stories to tell, are mostly unknown to the general public…but as a blogger, I’m happy to introduce her to new readers…and get her more recognition…recognition she rightly deserves for all of those sleepless nights and hard work…and faith.