Beth Anderson “nose” how to sniff out a fantastic story! I’m thrilled to feature her and and SMELLY KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES; How James Kelly’s Nose Saved the New York City Subway on Writers’ Rumpus!
Kirsti Call: You did such a good job of making this book both engaging and informative. What was your inspiration for the story?
Beth Anderson: You nailed what I seek out – engaging and informative. A story that touches the heart and maybe tickles the funny bone, but also allows us to learn in the context of story and “real life”/ “real world” events. The first article I saw on James “Smelly” Kelly was funny and fascinating – about a world beneath the streets that was mysterious and unknown to me, with all kinds of unexpected experiences…and smells! While I’m drawn to history, this story had so much more and seemed to be the intersection of many social studies topics (occupations, community, cities over time, transportation) and science (chemistry, electricity, engineering, invention, natural forces, senses). These all get separated out in school for kids, but the reality is that disciplines interact with cause and effect relationships and consequences to our actions. I also liked delving into infrastructure – something we take for granted. Besides an amazing character, all these aspects inspired me to find a way to tell his story. I couldn’t let it go!
KC: James Kelly had an extraordinary sense of smell. What’s your favorite smell? What’s your least favorite smell?
BA: Oh, gosh, there are so many favorite smells – grinding coffee beans, gardenias, and the nurturing, earthy green scent of a forest come to mind first.
Least favorite…a skunk’s spray, a dog that’s been bathed in tomato juice after being sprayed by a skunk, and some of the dairy farms that make you want to stop breathing or grab absolutely anything (yes, even a sock) to use as a nose filter. (I don’t know what it is – the dairy farms in Wisconsin never stink…I’m stumped.)
KC: I’ll have to admit that I sometimes find research to be a little stinky. What was your like for this book, and how did you decide which details to include?
BA: There wasn’t much I could find on James Kelly, just a few articles. I looked for records of him from Irish sources online, municipal and transit employment records, and ancestry and census records, but with a common name and few specifics, it’s hard to find the person. I concluded pretty quickly that there wasn’t enough to create a solid NF story. My research then turned to learning about infrastructure, what lay between the street and the subway, New York City 1920-1950, culture of the time, and of course the subway – how it worked, the tunnels, maintenance, tracks, growth, and dangers. I also dug into his inventions and tools. I pored over photos of subway construction and watched YouTube videos taken in the tunnels and passageways. I contacted the New York Transit Museum historian, and also was fortunate to find an expert who could answer my questions. I read newspaper articles on what’s beneath the street and some of the current problems. I’m a huge fan of maps and love to use them to help me get the lay of the land. For this story I studied NYC maps, subway maps, and even found industry, sound, and stench maps which really helped me immerse my senses in Kelly’s world.
There were so many fascinating details, but of course you can’t include them all. Anything that didn’t contribute to moving the story forward or didn’t support the superhero or “what makes a hero a hero?” thread I was pulling through went to back matter or was left out. I did a blog post on one scene that I was really attached to but ended up having to cut. HERE’s a link to that post. https://bethandersonwriter.com/2020/09/13/behind-the-scenes-he-had-me-at-rats/
Also, the fact that I wasn’t able to verify family information wasn’t a problem, as that would have been a diversion from the arc focused on his job anyway. Once I realized how I would shape the story, I was able to avoid further dallying in some rabbit holes.
KC: Wow! That sounds like quite a process! What other projects are you working on?
BA: TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE: PANDEMONIUM AND PATIENCE IN THE PRESIDENT’S HOUSE is in final proofs and due to launch next fall. This story of father and son and a boy whose energy proves too much for many is near and dear to my heart for so many reasons! In 2022, I have three books coming out, and those are all with illustrators right now. And there’s one manuscript that just found a home that I’ll soon be working on with an editor.
Honestly, it’s been a struggle to write this year. The world just feels so heavy and squashes any inspiration. Attending online webinars has helped keep me immersed in writing, and, within the last month, I’ve begun researching a few ideas, hoping that closed institutions won’t stall all of them.
KC: I can’t wait to read your upcoming books! What is your advice for aspiring picture book authors?
BA: Immerse yourself in the kid lit world – read and analyze lots of picture books, take advantage of every opportunity you can to learn about the industry and craft, and join the community of authors and illustrators in critique groups and networking forums. And though our current state of affairs is tough to deal with in so many ways, try to stay engaged in some way, connecting with others to pull yourself through. I think we should be encouraged by so many amazing books that have the power to open the hearts and minds of children and give us hope for the future.
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Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. Armed with linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Loveland, Colorado where she laughs, wonders, thinks, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same. Author of AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET (S&S 2018), LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT! (Calkins Creek, 2020), and “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES (Calkins Creek, Oct. 2020), Beth has more historical gems on the way.