An aphorism by Will Rogers has been rattling around on my train of thought recently: ‘Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.’ One author who has not only found her right track but is chugging along it at an impressive pace is, Kathryn Apel. And with the recent release of her second verse novel, On Track just a year after her first, Bully on the Bus, Apel has certainly found her rhythm.
Both are extraordinary, breezy reads about not so light and easy life issues, eloquently told without a trace of tangled description. Each word reverberates with emotion, yielding characters of tremendous depth whose flaws are presented as poetically as their triumphs.
The thing you immediately notice about verse novels is their subtle power to deliver the weightiest message with consummate feather touch. Happy to report, both Apel’s novels reflect this promise.
Bully on the Bus follows the emotional downslide of seven-year-old Leroy, almost silenced into submission by the bully on his regular school bus route. Apel explores both the external extremes and internal conflict Leroy endures until he finally finds the courage to be a ‘bully-tamer’.
On Track looks at the relationship between siblings, Shaun and Toby; one with the ability to turn anything he touches into gold, the other a self-professed failure living in his brother’s shadow. Once the real reason for Toby’s weak links are identified however, he learns how to shine and in finding his own inner strength, ironically helps his brother, Shaun understand himself better too. Being imperfect is hard, but living up to the expectation of perfection is no walk in the park either, as this story so beautifully articulates.
There is plenty to cry over and love in these two novels. Apel allows her characters to endure uncomfortable situations that encourage them to hide behind bravado in order to cope or else withdraw into silence. Rather than let them flounder for the answers on their own, she nudges them in the right direction; shows them the safe places to head to for help and how to ask for it, so they are ultimately able to resolve their own problems. A purposeful message of empowerment if ever there was one.
Curious to know what keeps Kathryn Apel on track herself, I invited her to the draft table for quick chat. Here’s what she had to say.
Who is Kathryn Apel? Describe your writerly self.
I’m that awkward balance of private person, public words. D.W. Winnicott said it so well, ‘Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.’ Writing is like peeling skin away to expose bones and pulsing heart – flaws and vulnerabilities. But I do it. Sometimes cringing. Always hoping that my words will resonate and make a positive difference.
What is your most outrageous writing goal (not yet achieved)?
Oh. Heh. Let’s go really outrageous and say book to movie. I don’t know if it’s a goal as such – more an impossible dream. But PlaySchool happened – and I’d never imagined that. (Kathryn’s picture book, This is Mud was read by Justine on Playschool in 2010! DP)
Why did you choose to tell Bully on the Bus and On Track in verse instead of straightforward prose?
Bully on the Bus started life as a chapter book. As I was mulling over it, I read my first verse novel – and loved it. Had to try one! I started writing what I dubbed (for many years) my ‘verse novel about training’, but had only written 139 words when I got a little overwhelmed and put it away. (I’m not a planned writer, so this ‘put it away’ stage happens frequently during my writing process.) It was at that stage that I took my ‘completed’ chapter book to my crit group. And there the strangest thing happened! A critter-buddy made a suggestion about the placement of some words in the text… and in that moment I realised that Bully on the Bus wasn’t the chapter book I had written, but the verse novel I wanted to write.
Turning the chapter book into a verse novel was one of the most exquisitely right things I have ever done. (So right, that I started at 10pm that same night, and kept going until my eyes wouldn’t stay open about 3am.) Once I started, there was never any doubt that it was meant to be a verse novel.
And I’m happy to say that the ‘verse novel about training’ did get there, and is now called On Track.
As to why verse? I love that writing in verse lets me find my voice and express things that I don’t think I could say, in a novel. My picture books tend to be quirky, humorous tales (though there are a few serious MSs in my files) – but my verse novels are all heart.
Do you find it natural writing in this style or is it harder to convey what you want in verse? What elements, if any do you have to sacrifice or conversely, incorporate to produce a winning verse novel?
I’m a very disciplined rhyming poet/picture book author. But rhyme can tangle your brains into a seething pot of worms – whereas free verse unravels the snarls and lets the story flow.
To me, there is no sacrifice in writing free verse. I often hear comments like, ‘After the first few pages I forgot it was a verse novel …’, or ‘Don’t be put off by the fact it’s a verse novel …’ – like it’s a bad thing to be a verse novel. But that’s usually followed by positive comments – that are perhaps twice as nice given their reservations in the first place.
As to what elements to include? Verse novels are almost illustrations with words. As in – your words ARE the illustrations. Consider your readers – their ability to make meaning from your words – but be adventurous. Let the words dictate placement and alignment, so that they speak for themselves. When I read verse novels, the words almost take shape in my mouth.
But don’t forget physical character descriptions. And setting. I say this, because I do. Forget them.* Often! I get caught in the emotions and character development, and forget about physical attributes/descriptions. And writing them in later feels very much like tip-toing through the kitchen with a soufflé in the oven.
* At which point I stop and think and realise there’s not a skerrick of character description in my current verse novel WIP … and it’s 7142wrds long. (?!)
Many of my farm raised relatives devoured crates of books each month as their main source of entertainment. As a country kid yourself, what stories from your childhood have stuck with you as an adult and how have they influenced the kinds of tales you want to share now as a writer?
I was over-the-moon elated when I found a tattered copy of ‘The Cow that Fell in the Canal’ at a library cull recently. I loved this story – and was given it on my graduation from Preschool. So sentiment was running high that day!
When I was in Yr 3 our teacher read ‘Emma’s Story’ by Sheila Hocken, to our class. I remember being very moved. I may even have sobbed. And been saddened for days. But I also remember it as a special story.
And I was an Enid Blyton girl. When I was in Yr 7, our Librarian culled all Enid Blyton books from the school library! I brought multiple Enid Blyton books to school and friends did the same, then we shared them amongst classmates to read in protest in the library – slumped around in beanbags and on the carpet. (For some, it was more about the protest, than the books, but their support was appreciated!)
I loved getting to know characters in a series – and having them stick around for a long while! Pollyanna, Nancy Drew, Trixie Beldon and Elizabeth Gail were some faves. I think because of their ability to make a difference – for good.
I can’t believe I didn’t appreciate Dr Seuss until I was an adult … but it’s a sad truth.
What’s on the draft table for Kathryn?
Always so many things on the go – but the one that’s taking the most time at the moment is another verse novel for early readers – this one about friendships. On the surface it sounds sweet and light, but as with friendship it’s a balance of the good and bad.
And there’s another rollicking rural rhymer getting some attention, too.
Just for fun question (there’s always one!): If you could be any animal on the farm, what would you be and why?
The dog. Because dogs have such a joyful presence. They get in there and help, but their emotional engagement, affection and connection is their biggest asset.
Thanks for including me on the Boomerang Books Blog, Dim, and for the intriguing questions. I’m off to lightly sprinkle some character descriptions through that friendship WIP.
Fabulous, Kathryn! As are these books. Be sure to have a look soon.
UQP May 2014 & June 2015