Carol Gordon Ekster: I was so blessed to participate in Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple’s picture book boot camp in 2015 and wrote about it in an older post . In addition to all I learned, meeting amazing #kidlit authors was one of the sweet benefits of this retreat. Here’s an interview with one of those fabulous folks, Kerry Madden-Lunsford. She has a new book coming out soon, one she workshopped at that retreat more than three years ago.
Kerry, can you tell us about your journey to becoming a published author?
KML: First of all, Carol, thank you for asking me to do this interview, and it was wonderful to meet you at Jane Yolen’s Boot Camp in 2015.
My journey in publishing began a long time ago.
My first novel, Offsides, was published by William Morrow in 1996 and Diane Keaton was interested in it, hoping to make a film, but it never happened. I then scribble-scrabbled around, raising our three kids with my husband, racking up rejections.
In 2002, my book, Writing Smarts, came out with American Girl Library, and I was freelancing, writing from fashion to health to ghostwriting to soaps.
I needed to make a change so I began writing my first middle-grade novel set in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, a little town I’d found by accident on a family trip with our kids.
After many false starts and more rejections, Gentle’s Holler finally found a home at Viking Books for Young Readers.
Viking published two more companion novels to Gentle’s Holler, which were Louisiana’s Song and Jessie’s Mountain. The three books were sometimes called The Maggie Valley Trilogy or the Smoky Mountain Trilogy.
Then my editor, Catherine Frank, who was my editor on those novels, asked me to write the YA biography of Harper Lee for the Up Close Series.
That changed my life. I wound up moving to Alabama from Los Angeles the year Up Close Harper Lee was published to accept a tenure track job teaching Creative Writing at UAB.
In 2013, my first picture book, Nothing Fancy About Kathryn & Charlie, that my daughter Lucy illustrated, came out with Mockingbird Publishers – a small publisher out of Fairhope, Alabama.
We did a tour of rural Alabama libraries, offering art and writing workshops for kids of all ages. The late storyteller, Kathryn Tucker Windham, was the subject of the book, and she was a friend of Nelle Harper Lee’s. Mockingbird Publishers donated most of the proceeds of the book to the Selma Dallas County Public Library in Kathryn’s name. My latest book is Ernestine’s Milky Way, which will be published by Schwartz & Wade (Random House) this March.
CGE: What is the story behind the story of your upcoming picture book, Ernestine’s Milky Way? Did you have to do any research since this book is set in the 1940’s?
KML: I met the real Ernestine in 2005 when Gentle’s Holler was published, and we became great friends. I just adored her. She passed away last year, but she was my mountain mother. I wrote about her in this blog post. One of Ernestine’s first jobs was carrying a mason jar of milk through the mountains to the family in the other holler who needed milk. Ernestine did this chore for her mama after school, but in my story, she goes in the morning, so the Milky Way can light her way as she carries the milk on her own “milky way,” which was a big journey for a five-year-old girl even in 1941.
CGE: You immerse yourself in the writing life – teaching creative writing, writing screenplays, poems, books and articles. Can you tell us how your writing influences your teaching and how your teaching influences your writing? And do you prefer one genre over another?
I guess I do immerse myself, don’t I? I was teaching a workshop at Donaldson Prison the other night and one of men asked a similar question – “Why would you come out here and teach us and talk to us when you’re a writer? Why?”
I told him I had a wonderful job and was lucky to get to do what I love – write and teach. I think both my writing and teaching influence one another.
Here is something I’ve thought about, too. I don’t think I would have written a picture book if I hadn’t had to teach them. I considered myself a novelist or essayist. But I was teaching, “writing picture books” to students, having NEVER written one myself. So I thought, well, how hard can it be? That was in 2010. That is how hard it was! I am a very slow learner, and I never made page turns or book dummies or storyboards. Of course, now I do all of that and more, but it was a long learning curve for me. I also studied with Ann Whitford Paul and of course, Jane Yolen – the best!
My friend, Ernestine, actually told me the story of how she carried milk through the mountains in 2009, and I knew it would make a beautiful picture book, but I just didn’t know how to write it. So I practiced writing other books until finally, I thought I must write Ernestine’s Milky Way. I knew the title from the beginning and that never changed. It was a story that wouldn’t leave me alone.
What else? I love writing essays. For example, when I was teaching at Donaldson Prison last year, too, I read them Where the Wild Things Are, and I could tell they loved the book. And I knew I had to write about it. Here is the link to that story.
Sometimes, I feel like my head is crowded with too many stories, so I’m taking little breaks from teaching to open up my brain space more, but I absolutely love my students. It’s like we go on journeys together when the semester begins.
CGE: Congratulations on your fabulous Kirkus and Publishers’ Weekly reviews. That’s definitely a high for an author to get great reviews. What other highs and lows have you had in your writing career?
KML: Highs and lows, I’ve had a few, as they say. It was wonderful when my agent called up in 1994 and said, “Diane Keaton would like to meet you.” That was really exciting, and it was hard to be seven months pregnant with a third kid and receive the letter that Offsides was going out of print.
Here is an essay called “Rock Bottom” and it will tell you all you might want to know about hitting bottom as a writer. It is about a disastrous experience ghostwriting.
But I’ve had many highs too. It was exciting to receive the key to the town of Maggie Valley for writing Gentle’s Holler and to have Popcorn, the local moonshiner, show up to buy a book in his Model T truck.
It was wonderful to be in workshops where kids write poems that bring them joy, especially the reluctant writers. It’s lovely to have a beautiful writing day.
Sadly, a close relative struggles with addiction and that has been one of the lowest points in my life. Al-Anon has saved my life and allowed me to find the joy in writing again whether I’m writing joy or pain – it’s all wrapped together and it helps me make sense of my life.
More joy? Being on the road with my daughter, Lucy, and my younger daughter, Norah, was so much fun when we visited the rural Alabama libraries to do workshops with kids. We took Olive, the dog, too. In Monroeville, we had a 100 kids show up and the librarian, Bunny Hines, said, “We had us a goat-roping!”
CGE: What does the future hold for Kerry Madden-Lunsford?
KML: I am going on a book tour in the spring with Ernestine, and I’m overjoyed. My husband, Kiffen, is coming with me during his spring break to Tennessee and North Carolina. Olive, the dog, is coming too!
I am working on Millie G and Vulcan, a middle grade novel that I just sent to my agent. It’s my first foray into magical realism about the family of an undocumented stepfather in Birmingham, Alabama.
I’m working on an adult novel, Hop the Pond that I’ve been writing forever about three generations of women with themes the Brontes and addiction, and it’s finally coming together.
I’m revisiting another middle-grade novel, Boy of a Thousand Faces, that got rejected by one and all a few years ago, but I’m now workshopping it with my online writers’ group.
I have some more picture books getting rejected right and left, and I’m writing essays, some yesses and some no’s. What else? For almost ten years, Kiffen and I have lived apart during the academic year between Alabama and California. I desperately want us to live under the same roof again all the time and not just during the summers and December, but he is so close to retiring with full benefits from LAUSD we are just trying to stay the course.
Finally, I just met my beautiful new cousin, Maureen O’Sullivan, (Mo) last May, and she and I have been exchanging letters about life, Ireland, recovery, family, and the joy of finding each other after living parallel lives in LA for decades. I’m putting all our letters and texts together into a kind of memoir, I think, and my friend, Laya Steinberg, suggested I call it 23 and Me and Mo.
Again, thank you so much, Carol, and thank you for being such a wonderful reader for one of the early drafts of Ernestine’s Milky Way and for Georgia Ivy and the Old Pump Organ too. That latter has still not found a home, but I’m hoping.
CGE: Thanks, Kerry. And by the way, I welled up reading the story about your night at the prison reading to the prisoners and having them write stories. You are an inspiration!
You can find Kerry here: