AN INTERVIEW WITH KATHY CANNON WIECHMAN
You are a newly celebrated author. How did you get your first book, Like A River, published?
KCW: LIKE A RIVER was my first published novel, but it was not the first I wrote. It was the eleventh novel I completed. After many years of not being published, I began attending the Highlights Foundation workshops, where I met editor Carolyn Yoder. She read the early chapters of LIKE A RIVER and helped me to make them better. She asked me to submit the manuscript to her when I finished it. I did, and that’s what led to getting the book published.
What inspired you to write Like A River and Empty Places?
KCW: Like A River began when I first heard about the Sultana disaster, a steamboat explosion on the Mississippi River that killed more people than died on the Titanic! I was stunned I had never heard of it, even though I had studied the Civil War for decades. The more I learned about the disaster, the more I felt the need to share the story. Even though the disaster is only a small part of Like A River, it was the incident that led me to write it.
Most of what I write is inspired by events, but Empty Places was inspired by a place: Harlan County, Kentucky. I had read and heard a lot about the Great Depression, which affected nearly everyone in the nation. I wanted to do a story about how it affected those who were already poor before the depression. The people of that region are tough and resilient, and I wanted to show that spirit.
What do you hope kids will learn from Like A River and Empty Places?
KCW: I mostly want readers to be entertained by the stories. If they get caught up with my characters, perhaps shed a tear or smile, I feel I have accomplished my goal. If they also learn a little about our nation’s history (the Sultana disaster, for example), I have exceeded my goal.
Are your characters based on real people?
KCW: Not really, but a few of them are inspired by real people. Raynelle in Empty Places was inspired by my husband’s sister, who was integral to his upbringing. And her mama, who is talked about in Empty Places but never “seen,” was influenced by my husband’s mother, who died when he was an infant.
What is the hardest thing about writing historical fiction?
KCW: The hardest thing about writing the subjects I have chosen to write about is telling accurate stories that do justice to the people who lived through those experiences without making the book depressing. Andersonville Prison (in Like A River) was a horrible place, and I had to show it for the grim place it was. The Great Depression (in Empty Places) was a tremendously difficult time. It was a struggle to balance the hard reality with the hope and triumph that some people managed to maintain.
You talk about “playing with words”. Is that the best thing about writing? Why?
KCW: I do love to play with words and often spend a great deal of time looking for just the right word or phrase to show what I want the reader to see. But my favorite part of writing comes from creating and getting to know characters who become alive for me. My hope is they will also live for the readers.
I too believe that everyone has a story to tell. I love this quote of yours: “The stories have been lodged in my brain crying, “Tell me, tell me.” What is your favorite quote?
KCW: I have many favorite quotes by very eloquent people. Some of them are tacked on my bulletin board above the desk where I work, and I would have a hard time picking a favorite. The quote I wish I had heard earlier in my writing career was told to me by Kent Brown of the Highlights Foundation. When I told him it had taken me 39 years of rejection before I was offered a contract for a novel, he told me, “Don’t think of it as rejection; think of it as just not being chosen yet.”
What is the best advice you have for aspiring young writers?
KCW: Read a lot, write every day, love the process, and never give up.