Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Publication Interview: Liza Ketchum

Out of Left Field, the latest novel by faculty member Liza Ketchum, was published this month by Untreed Reads. To learn more about Liza and her writing visit her website.

Please describe the book.

The summer of 2004 is full of promise for Brandon McGinnis. He has a job, a spot on the varsity swim team, loving parents, and loyal friends. Brandon and his dad, ardent Red Sox fans, wonder: could this be the year the Sox end their eighty-six year drought? Then Brandon’s father dies suddenly. A new will, signed just before his death, reveals a secret kept for thirty years. As shadows of the Vietnam War bleed into the escalating War in Iraq, Brandon sets out to solve the mystery his father left behind. His journey takes him to Canada’s Cape Breton Island, where he uncovers bittersweet truths about the past, and a family facing its own hidden demons. Brandon’s courageous search throws him into life’s game with its devastating losses, unexpected curve balls, and thrills as wondrous as a home run on an autumn night.

As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about? When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
The novel actually had its inception in the late ‘90s, when Lois Duncan asked me to write a short story for an anthology entitled “On the Edge.” The story I wrote—“Sables Mouvant”—featured a boy named Brandon, whose father has just died. In the short story, Brandon learns that his father—who moved to Canada to escape the Vietnam War—may have had a son during that time, a fact he kept secret from everyone. The short story takes place in France, near the D-Day beaches. It involved quicksand (sables mouvant, in French), shifting tides, and a boy’s need to understand his father. For years after the story was published, its background nagged at me. I wondered about the supposed half brother in Canada. Did he exist? And I thought about the father. Why would he hide this truth from his family? Years passed, the Red Sox finally won a World Series title after a drought of 86 years, and I found myself jotting ideas in a notebook. My husband and I had visited Nova Scotia many times, and I realized I could set part of the novel in that beautiful area. I recently unearthed my first handwritten draft, dated 2007, so the novel version took almost seven years to complete (though I also worked on other projects at the same time).
The major changes that took place involved the characters themselves. Though Brandon is the central protagonist, I wanted to include characters on the Canadian side of the border, and I decided to let their story evolve through phone calls. (The story takes place in 2004, so texting wasn’t as common then.) I also needed to understand and deepen the father’s side of the story.
The novel’s structure also changed as I revised. Because baseball is an important thread, I decided, during a late revision, to divide the novel into nine “innings,” and to title each scene—within the inning—with a baseball phrase that also relates to the scene’s action and/or emotion. In addition to the phone calls, the novel also includes letters written by Brandon’s father while he was in Canada, as well as e-mails between Brandon and a Canadian friend of his father’s. Decisions about the design of typeface and fonts, for the different textual elements, took place during the final moments of copy editing, just before the book went live.
What research was involved, and how did it affect the story’s development?
Though I lived through the Vietnam era myself, and was deeply affected by it, I didn’t know much about the men who fled to Canada to escape the draft. My Hamline pal and colleague, Marsha Qualey, was tremendously helpful as I researched that aspect of the war. We talked about the era and shared valuable readings. I needed to know what life was like for those who crossed the border. Where did they live? How did they find jobs and housing? Were they in hiding there or living openly? I didn’t realize that the Canadian Mounted Police worked with the FBI to track down deserters, and that not everyone was welcomed when they arrived. I read books about the period, studied newspapers from the time, and also watched old TV footage of the draft lottery that took place in 1969.

I decided to make baseball an important element in the story, not just because I love the game but also because I wanted to balance Brandon’s grief and confusion with something he loved and was passionate about. Though my husband and I followed every moment of the Red Sox World Series championship, I read sports writers’ accounts of the season and also kept a schedule of the games—with wins and losses—pinned up above my desk, so that I followed the season along with Brandon.

Finally, the story required medical research as I solved the mystery surrounding the father’s death.

Why does the Vietnam War cast shadows over this novel? What caused you to write about that period?

My friend and teaching colleague, Jane Resh Thomas, tells her students, “Write what haunts you.” The Vietnam War, and the events surrounding it, have haunted me since 1968-69, when my cousin and a dear friend died in that conflict. I became politically active against the war during college and worked for anti-war candidates after graduation and in subsequent elections. Though the war has been over for decades, I never stopped thinking about it. I have visited Maya Lin’s beautiful memorial in Washington, D.C. many times. Lin’s polished granite wall honors the 58,000 American men and women who died in Vietnam. But I knew that thousands of young men who were opposed to the war fled the country and went to live in Canada. What happened to the war resisters—as they called themselves—after they crossed the border? What was it like for those who came home after President Carter granted them amnesty? I often write novels to explore questions I can’t answer. Out of Left Field is no exception. In 2004, when our government launched a second war in Iraq, I decided it was time to write this story.

West Against the Wind, your first book, was published in 1986. What have you learned about the business of writing since then?

Whatever I’ve learned about “the business of writing” always comes back to craft. Though the business has certainly changed—Out of Left Field is my first novel to be published simultaneously in an ebook and Print on Demand format—the quality of a story is still what matters most. Readers—and editors—still want a gripping story with interesting characters and a situation that keeps them turning the page. I’ve been lucky to teach with inspiring colleagues and to work with talented students over the years.  I learn something new from the writing community every residency and semester, and each book I write is a new experience that presents me with different challenges. Stories now come in many different forms and that’s exciting. I’ve never written a graphic novel, but who knows? Perhaps that will be next.

If very good friends are visiting for one evening, do you cook or go to a restaurant? If the former, what would you cook? If the latter, what restaurant?It depends on the season. Right now, our vegetable garden is laden with fresh veggies, and the farm nearby has fabulous sweet corn, so we’re eating fresh-picked vegetables at home with visiting friends and family. In the winter, we like to sample many of the different ethnic restaurants in our Boston neighborhood, from Indian to Thai to Persian. If we eat at home, dinner is likely fresh fish, caught locally and grilled, and veggies from the farmer’s market that is open year round.

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