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home : features : features June 23, 2017

9/10/2014 12:01:00 AM
Taking her 'Words' to the big stage, Harbor Light editor's debut novel is released this week

Editor's Note: This is an especially exciting week for all of us at the Harbor Light Newspaper and one of us in particular. Harbor Light editor and long-time member of the staff here, Kate Bassett, realizes a lifelong dream as her book "Words and Their Meanings" was officially released this week. A special book release event is being held Saturday, Sept. 13 at Between the Covers.

Kate has been part of the Harbor Light Newspaper family for some 14 years. We have watched her family grow and grow up with Noah, Max and Lizzie all familiar faces in our office. Raising three children with her husband Justin, writing for and helping create a weekly newspaper, and writing a book seems daunting, to say the least. Kate will be the first to shrug it off and say, 'you just have to do the work.' Watching the hard work, the emotional ups and downs, that go into becoming a published author, we can verify that Kate 'did the work.'

The O'Neill family is so happy for Kate and so grateful that she lends part of herself to helping us bring you a first-class weekly newspaper. For myself, I am exceptionally proud of Kate and honored to call her both a colleague and a friend. She has been an incredible person to work with and a true help to me in many, many ways.

Congratulations from all us, Kate!

Enjoy the following interview conducted by Emily Meier, Harbor Light Newspaper contributing writer and monthly LitChat editor, who has been a close friend of Kate's for many years.

-Charles O'Neill

By Emily Meier, Special to Harbor Light Newspaper

Some kids dress up as superheroes and dream of saving the planet. Others want to blast off in rocket ships or race fast cars. Some stand in front of mirrors and practice Oscar worthy acceptance speeches, while others jam out with an air guitar.

For a rare few, it's all about stringing words together on a page.

The dream is to have a book of one's own slide onto the bookshelf among the most favored and respected storytellers. Kate Bassett was the kid with the words on paper dream.

As editor of the Harbor Light Newspaper, where she's worked for the last fourteen years, she made it to adulthood with her dream still in tact. Bassett has completed her first novel, Words and Their Meanings. It has just hit bookshelves this week to starred reviews. I was thrilled to celebrate with her as we sat down and chatted over a few Tom's Mom's Cookies.

EM: I know you have always wanted to be a writer. Where do you think that first took root in your life?

KB: When I was little, I used to lie, A LOT. I was always getting into trouble for it. I would tell the neighbor kids I was growing money trees or that I was really from France and my parents had adopted me. My mom finally had enough. She suggested I try writing a story and "put all that make believe on paper".

It's funny because I've been thinking about this question lately. I found a box of stuff my mom dropped off at my house, and the first book I ever wrote was in there, complete with a cover made out of wallpaper. It's the story of this girl with red hair, who was very nice, and loved her neighbors' dog so much that they gave him to her.

My mom reminded me that I actually gave the book to my neighbors in hopes of getting the dog.

Yeah, that didn't happen.

I guess that was my first taste of rejection as a writer.

EM: And first taste of the potential power of words?

KB: Yes, definitely. But I still didn't get the dog.

EM: You kept writing through elementary and high school, even winning awards for your writing?

KB: Yes, I was terrible in math and science. Writing was what I seemed to be good at in school. But I was writing really bad poetry.

It was my high school English teacher, Louise Harrison, who helped me move away from my overwrought Doors wannabe poetry. She took me aside and told me that I had an ear for language but what I was writing? It was pretty terrible.

EM: She really said that to you?

KB: Yes, she didn't hold back. But she did it in a loving way and told me that I needed to write more about what I knew. She encouraged me to "write small". She mentored me all through high school, introducing me to specific poets like Li-Young Lee, Sandra Cisneros, and Sharon Olds.

EM: And then you stopped writing for a while after high school?

KB: I had my crazy teenage years, and sort of fell off the writing wagon. In college, I went from being a creative writing major to thinking I might want to be an environmental journalist, or a psychologist, or a teacher, or maybe just not finish college. I was trying to figure out what to do with the writing thing, or if I even wanted to write at all anymore.

And then I met Skip Renker, at Delta College. I'd moved back to Saginaw after I'd traveled the country and "lived a little." Skip was the creative writing professor at Delta. He pulled the words back out of me. I took every class with him that I could. I lived on this green vinyl couch outside his office. It was my safe place. He was the one who taught me about sticking to it. The lesson: If you are going to be a writer, you need to actually write.

EM: I know you'd been thinking about Anna O'Malley, the main character in Words and Their Meanings, for a long time. How long had you been thinking about this book before you started writing it?

KB: A long time. A very long time. I wrote an entirely different novel just as practice to prove to myself that I could write 80, 000 words start to finish.

EM: But that had nothing to do with this book?

KB: Nope, it was just practice, although I didn't realize it at the time. But after I proved to myself I could do it, I started writing Anna's story. It was a teenage runaway story at first. It took five drafts before I found Anna and Mateo's voices. It was a full year and a half before I got the story right.

I didn't know it was about grief at first. I didn't know how Mateo and Anna would be tied together in that grief. I didn't see, until later drafts, how this was really about a specific grief. And then it became something more. It became about identity and art, the pressure that is created unconsciously by others, or oneself, when you are young and getting accolades for a talent that has come naturally. This talent can take on a defining role and become scary because you think, is this really me? And what if it was just luck and I'm actually a fraud?

There's a time in life, at seventeen or eighteen, when everyone wants you to know what you're going to do with your life. It's crazy. The world should be open to you at that age. At seventeen, you can be really good at a lot of things or really good at nothing and that's not going to mean anything in five years.

As I uncovered how this pressure played a role in both Anna and Mateo's lives, they started to become real. I knew I'd found the story then.

EM: For most writers, an idea for a book begins with a character or a place. Where did this novel begin for you?

KB: I think it was a mix. I'd had Anna in the back of my mind. But I also felt strongly about the place, Saginaw (Grey Iron in the story) and the auto factories along the river. The changing face of the auto industry felt like a death in my hometown, and it represents a parallel to the grief the characters are dealing with at the same time. And yet, there is hope at the end. That was really important to me.

EM: The place is such an important backdrop to this story. But we also have to talk about Patti Smith and how she came to play a role in this book.

KB: I had no plan to put Patti Smith in this book. I read Just Kids while I was writing my third or fourth draft, and it blew me away. Her resilience in the face of so many heartbreaking experiences, and the way she chose to remain an optimist in the face of such tragedy, really hit me.

I was thinking a lot about Anna while I was reading that book.

And then, I saw Patti Smith interviewed on some morning show. They took her back to the Chelsea Hotel where she'd lived with Robert Mapplethorpe. The idea of their relationship being about art, and that not all relationships end in a fairy tale love story, struck me.

I knew that there was this piece of Anna that was missing and Patti Smith was the missing piece of the puzzle.

Literally, it was after watching that morning interview that I went home and wrote the fifth draft of the book to include Patti Smith. It just made sense.

EM: I love that Patti Smith is a part of this novel. But it leads me to the question about what a young adult novel (YA) truly is. Your novel is categorized as a YA novel. It's a genre that has exploded in recent years--Sherman Alexie won the National Book Award for his YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It's interesting that you bring Patti Smith into Anna's story and not someone more of this time like Alanis Morissette or Taylor Swift.

KB: Patti Smith adds a different layer because she is the real deal. She's learned her lessons and stood the test of time. I liked that about her from the start.

And YA...well, there are a couple ways of looking at YA.

Some differentiate YA by the perspective from which it's written. YA is written from a teenager's perspective from the present or very recent past. There isn't the adult reflecting back with a twenty-year gap of time. It's written as it happens. And it's usually dealing with firsts--first loves, first disappointments, first experiences with grief, etc.

I think YA is accessible. It is purposefully stripped down so the truth and universality of the story is available in the first read. A reader isn't going to find a thirty-page description of a garden in a YA novel.

EM: This relates to an article I was just reading about the poet Billy Collins, former two-time Poet Laureate of the United States. Critics often take him to task for a "lack of complexity" in his work. His response was that he'd take that over "willful obscurity" and explained that good writing is about finding balance between "clarity and mystery". While critics may define accessibility in poetry as a bad thing, Collins is more concerned with his readers finding an entry point into literature. I think this applies to the debate that is being waged in regard to the YA novel.

KB: I think that a good book is just a good book. Sometimes I wish we could do away with all the labels and just say a book is a book is a book. There are a lot of bad adult books and a lot of bad YA books. What is a really great book for one reader is not for another. And so the debate goes on. But for me, my characters come out with a seventeen year old voice. So I am a YA writer.

When in life are we more open than when we are teenagers? It's the time before we have built up all our walls. It allows for a certain freedom when writing about feelings and emotion. It's raw and unrestrained.

EM: What is the connection between music and writing for you?

KB: Growing up, music was a big part of our house. My parents always had music playing. As a teenager music took on another role, it gave me a sense of community. I could be up in my room with my records and my angst and not feel alone in it.

EM: I think a lot of teenagers find this to be true. But why do you think so many people leave that love of music behind? It reminds me of that saying: "The creative adult is the child that survived".

KB: It's funny you say that because for a long time, after I'd had my first child and was working a real job, I didn't play as much music. And I was a teenager who traveled around the country following bands. But then, one day I found myself listening to some local Michigan musicians. And that was a way back into music and a way to reconnect with writing and a new community.

It was true with this novel too. Something was missing until I found the connection with music, Patti Smith.

EM: I love that there is another aspect of art that appears in your novel, the origami. Explain how that came to be a part of this family's story.

KB: I was thinking about secrets, family secrets specifically. I wanted to give Anna's grandfather an art form of his own. He is surrounded by these expressive people but he is more linear and mechanical, a literal fixer in his family. Origami is precise but it's an art form. It also embodies the idea of a secret. You can look and see the whole, the paper crane, but unfolded there is an art to the pattern of creases on the page. I love the idea of art within art and secrets folded into art.

EM: What bands and/or musicians inspire you now?

KB: I actually create playlists for books as I'm writing them. So music plays an important part in the process. The playlist for this book included:

May Erlewine

The Civil Wars

The Decemberists

Patti Smith

Ingrid Michaelson

Stevie Nicks

Miles Davis

The Bahamas

Bruce Springsteen

Simon and Garfunkel

Ben Folds

And a song from the band The Fray called "Be Still"

EM: I love that a song entitled "Be Still" was a part of this playlist, as it seems fitting with Anna's "coffin yoga" practice. How did you come up with the idea of coffin yoga?

KB: I was lying on my bed thinking about how someone so absorbed in her own grief would feel and it made me tense up. Coffin yoga is the exact opposite of real yoga. Instead of focusing on your breath and connecting your mind and body, it's about staying as stiff as possible, tightening all your muscles, opening your eyes so wide that they begin to hurt, and not breathing. It fit Anna's state of mind. It's the teenage thing of trying to not be noticed by doing something that screams for everyone to pay attention.

EM: Do you listen to these playlists while you are writing? Or just as warm up?

KB: Warm up. But I listened to Anna and Mateo's playlist all the time, in the car or while doing laundry, cooking, cleaning. It kept me thinking of them and the story. It kept them alive while I was dealing in regular life.

EM: So what is your writing process and has it changed?

KB: The writing process for this book was not a sustainable process. I would start writing at eleven at night, write until three or four in the morning, and then have to get up with the kids. Or I would lock myself away in my room for really long blocks of time. But, again, it just wasn't sustainable with a family and the demands that come with all of that. Justin (Kate's husband) had to pick up a lot of the slack during that time.

One of the best parts of getting an agent was that she put an end to that with a come to Jesus lecture on process. She basically said that telling yourself that you need to write when the muse strikes, or late at night in huge blocks, was a bunch of hogwash.

It was really freeing to have this person, in the business of writing, who has worked with big names like Meg Cabot and Judy Blume, tell me that I don't have to be sleep deprived, or tortured, or always floating between family life and work life to be a successful writer.

I'm really trying to write when it's time to write and have more normal hours. I use the playlist to get me into that place. Or I pull a book from a shelf and read a section that may relate to something I am trying to do, like dialogue or description and that also helps kick start the process too.

EM: Share with us some of your favorite authors and books

KB: Raymond Carver. I always go back to him when I start writing because his writing is so paired down, yet so full of emotion.

I love Sara Zarr for her simple, small slices of real life. There isn't some fancy hook or huge exploding plot in her books. As a YA writer, her books and career are inspiring to me. She writes the books she wants to write and is true to her own voice.

Richard Brautigan. I did my honors thesis on him and his book, Trout Fishing in America. I still reread that book every couple of years.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I reread this one and love it for its slower pace and cadence.

Nick Butler's, Shotgun Lovesongs uses language in a way that reminds me why I wanted to be a writer in the first place.

EM: What would you tell your seventeen-year-old self?

KB: Trust that your voice is worth something. Every person has her own story. At seventeen, I didn't know that my story--my voice, my artistic perspective, and what I had to offer--was worth anything. I thought it had to be validated to have worth. It doesn't.

The door to Tom's Mom's Cookies has a bell that announces customers. I'm sure it's been ringing intermittently throughout our interview, as groups of people have been moving in and out of the store around us. But it isn't until this point in the interview that I actually hear it and take note. It seems to punctuate Kate's last few sentences. "Trust that your voice is worth something." This is the kind of lesson that is hard won. And Kate Bassett has earned every bit of it. I'm so excited her voice has made it to bookstores.

Words and Their Meanings has been warmly received. It has garnered great reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, VOYA, and a starred review from School Library Journal . I look forward to reading what Bassett's next playlist brings to the shelf.

FCB 2017

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