6 Feb 2017

Author Interview with Liza Ketchum

Can you tell us a little about your latest book.
It's 1913 and vaudeville is America's most popular form of entertainment. Thousands of theaters across the country host vaudeville troupes. In Brattleboro, Vermont, fifteen-year-old Teresa LeClair—who has a "voice like a nightingale”—remembers the thrill of singing onstage as a child. But her parents have given up life on the road, and her father has decided that Teresa, blessed with perfect pitch, should drop out of school and work in the tuning rooms of the organ factory.
Determined to escape the life her father plans for her, Teresa wins an amateur singing contest in Brattleboro's opera house and steals away on the night train to New York. She hopes to become a star on Broadway's "Great White Way," but has no idea of the challenges that lie ahead. There she runs into Pietro Jones and his father, talented African American dancers. Teresa and Pietro become competitors as well as unlikely friends.
At a time when young black men could be lynched for simply looking at a white girl, Pietro understands, better than Teresa, the danger of their relationship. Teresa's quest to find her voice onstage and in her life, far from the support of her family, takes place against a complex racial backdrop of American history.
And thanks to VOYA for this recent review: “The Life Fantastic provides a fascinating window into the 1900s New York vaudeville scene, while examining the complexities of family support and expectations, as well as burgeoning black activism. It sounds like a lot to juggle, but Ketchum fits it together seamlessly and entertainingly. Her love of vaudeville shines through Teresa and her descriptions of 1913 Broadway, but she does not ignore the built-in limitations placed on people of color, who ironically had to perform in cork (blackface) to satisfy a touchy cultural sense of appropriateness. Such expectations will never allow a romantic relationship between Teresa and Pietro; while his father is reluctantly willing to toe the line to get by, Pietro, fueled by reading [W.E. B.] Du Bois, envisions a better future.”—Lisa Martincik
The Life Fantastic by Liza Ketchum

What inspired you to write it?Vaudeville has fascinated me since I was little and my father told me the romantic story about my great-grandparents, who eloped and ran away to join a traveling theatre troupe. My great-grandmother was a singer and pianist, and her husband played the fiddle. The couple’s elopement—and their divorce later on—caused a scandal in the small town of Shreve, Ohio, where my great-grandmother grew up. Sadly, my grandmother was ashamed of her history, so she refused to answer questions about her parents and their stage careers. For my grandfather, vaudeville was the only entertainment he could afford as a young man. He told stories about sitting in the cheapest, rowdy seats, high above the vaudeville stage—and he taught me many vaudeville tunes. As an adult, I visited the Tabor Opera House in Leadville, Colorado, a restored and spectacular vaudeville theatre. As I walked down the silent aisle between rows of plush seats, I decided it was time to invent a story about what was once America’s most popular form of entertainment.

Is it part of a series?
I wrote it as a stand-alone novel, but a number of readers have been pestering me to write a sequel. I’ll see what happens!

What made you want to become an author?
I have been inventing stories since I was a little girl, when my father drew pictures to illustrate the stories my brother and I made up about our stuffed animals. I created my own palm-sized books out of construction paper when I was in second grade. I was lucky to grow up in an artistic family: my mother danced with the famous contemporary dancer Martha Graham, and my father wrote and edited books about American history. Books and story telling were always a part of our family life. My 8th grade English teacher, Norman Wilson, encouraged me to become a writer, and I was fortunate to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College. In a creative non-fiction class, Harvey Swados sent us out on wild field trips all over New York City for inspiration. Grace Paley was my advisor in Sarah Lawrence’s Senior Writing Seminar. Her ear for dialogue and voice had a lasting influence on my work. I’ve been a teacher all my life, so when a friend encouraged me to use my writing skills to write books for young readers, it seemed like a natural fit.

Name one of your all-time favourite book covers?

A hard choice! I’ve always loved the simplicity of Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse’s award-winning novel about the dust bowl during the Great Depression. The haunting Walker Evans photograph is the perfect image for Billie Joe’s stark, moving story.

Name one book that made you think 'wow'? Why did it have such an effect on you?
What an impossible question! I’m going to be disobedient and name three: First, I will never forget reading Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway for the first time. I was blown away by the structure, the beauty and rhythm of her sentences, the way she used stream of consciousness to enter into her characters. I admired the way she revealed the events of two dramatically different lives during the course of a single day. It’s a book I reread every few years. Another novel that had a profound effect on me was One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Marcía Márquez. The moment I read that dramatic opening sentence, I shivered—and I was hooked. It was my first exposure to magical realism. And I was profoundly moved by Toni Morrison’s Beloved. When I reached the last sentence I wondered: “How did she do that?” I went right back to the beginning to read it all over again.

Who, or what, inspires you?
I am inspired by young people who dare to be “upstanders:” those who speak up when they see someone being bullied or treated unfairly. Every year in the Boston area, sixth grade students write an essay about the meaning of courage. Their stories are collected and published in an anthology. Last year, Urbanity—Boston’s contemporary dance company—dramatized their stories, bringing them to life through music and dance. Hearing those stories gave me hope and motivated me to follow their example in these difficult times.

Where is your favourite place to write?
I write first drafts by hand, on lined pads. My favourite place to do that is on a comfy love seat in our bedroom alcove. It looks out towards my flower garden. I plant with pollinators in mind, so in the summer months, I’m distracted by butterflies, bees, and other insects, as well as the birds that swoop over the yard.

What is your favourite movie that was based on a book?

“The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” based on Milan Kundera’s novel of the same name.

Who is your favourite author (s) and why?

My favorite authors change from year to year, but the following have been mainstays throughout my career as a writer: Grace Paley, E.B. White, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Jim Harrison, James Baldwin, Colum McCann, Ellen Levine, M.T. Anderson, and Gary Snyder.

If you could have a dinner party with any authors from any time in history, who would you choose and why?
I’d love to listen to the stories and witness the inspirational sparks that would fly if Virginia Woolf, Rachel Carson, Toni Morrison, and Grace Paley—four strong, opinionated, brilliant women—shared a meal at our dinner table. And the evening would be even more exciting if my dear departed friend and rabble-rousing fellow writer, Ellen Levine, could join us.

Tell us a random fact about yourself.
I’m a climate activist and an environmentalist. For years, I got up once a month at 5 AM, to test the water quality in the Charles River. I’m now a member of our town’s Bee Committee (we work to protect endangered pollinators). I also write letters to the editor of newspapers on issues related to climate change and our need to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere.

Tell us something interesting about the area where you live.

Our Massachusetts neighborhood is very diverse, and our town is 30% Armenian. This means we have wonderful local markets with delicious food from the Middle East. Sometimes I’m the only person speaking English in a market where others have lively conversations in Armenian, Arabic, Turkish, or Greek. For the first few years we lived here, the Jewish community broke their Yom Kippur fast at a local Palestinian restaurant. Friends from Iran run the dry cleaner’s a few blocks away, and an Armenian family owns our favorite coffee shop. As recent posters and signs have stated: “This is what community looks like.” We’re lucky!
For more information, visit Liza's website or visit her on Facebook.

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