A Peek at the Creative Space of Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery

Kirby Larson
Mary Nethery
I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving! My husband and I spent our holiday with my side of the family in California and are full of gratitude for the time spent with family and friends, lots of great food, and returning home to our pets who were spoiled and incredibly well taken care of by my in-laws.
The feelings of gratitude continue today as we have a special treat with a joint Creative Spaces interview with authors Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery. Together they have collaborated on two award-winning nonfiction picture books, Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival (illustrated by Jean Cassels) and Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine, and a Miracle (a collaboration that also included Major Brian Dennis).

Two Bobbies is a wonderful, tear-jerker of a story about a dog and a blind cat (both with bobbed tails, hence the names) who helped each other survive Hurricane Katrina. Their story was featured on Anderson Cooper 360º, which is where Kirby and Mary first learned about the Bobbies and got the idea to turn their story into a picture book. In addition to being a heartwarming story of friendship and survival, Two Bobbies also celebrates the hard work of animal rescue organizations and the many volunteers who traveled to New Orleans to help in the aftermath of Katrina. If there is an animal-lover you are buying gifts for this holiday season, I highly recommend this book. (And Mary and Kirby are donating a portion of their proceeds from this book to Best Friends Animal Society.)

In addition to their collaborations, Kirby and Mary also work on solo projects. Kirby Larson is the author of the 2007 Newbery Honor book, Hattie Big Sky, a young adult historical novel inspired by her great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who homesteaded by herself in eastern Montana as a young woman. Kirby’s latest book, The Fences Between Us, is leading off the relaunch of Scholastic’s Dear America series. The Fences Between Us is about 13-year-old Piper who lives in Seattle in 1941 during the bombing of Pearl Harbor where her brother has recently been stationed. Her father is the pastor for a Japanese Baptist church and when Piper’s Japanese neighbors and her father’s congregants are sent to an incarceration camp, her father follows, bringing Piper with him. Also make sure to keep an eye out May 2011 for Kirby Larson’s next novel, The Friendship Doll.

Mary Nethery is a best-selling author of several picture books. In addition to her collaborations with Kirby, she is the author of Mary Veronica’s Egg, illustrated by Paul Yalowitz, and Hannah and Jack, illustrated by Mary Morgan. Mary Nethery’s newest picture book is The Famous Nini: A Mostly True Story of How a Plain White Cat Became a Star, illustrated by John Manders. Set in Venice in the 1890’s, a plain white cat, left to fend for scraps, makes his way into the heart of a cafe owner who has nothing to spare. From the School Library Journal, “Before there was Dewey Readmore Books, there was Nini, also a humble stray, practicing random acts of kindness in 19th-century Venice . . . At the heart of Nini’s appeal and talent is the fact that he is simply a charming stray. Nethery has a lot of fun with Nini’s story, creating characters openhearted enough to be touched by a purr or a nudge against the shins; she provides an analysis of the fact versus her fiction in the author’s note.”

To find out more about these authors and their books, visit Kirby Larson’s website and blog, and Mary Nethery’s website.

Kirby Larson’s writing space

Mary Nethery’s writing space

Describe your workspace.

When our son went off to college, I took over his bedroom (I had been relegated to a corner of the guest room/sewing room previously). The walls are a soft gold which glow warmly on our gray Seattle days. Two windows bring in light and a spectacular view of two enormous Katsura trees, whose delicate heart-shaped green leaves blaze red and gold in the fall (and also smell like cotton candy!). My office has two bookcases and needs at least two more, a desk, a file cabinet, a rolling file cabinet for work in progress and a dog bed for Winston the Wonder Dog.

Winston the Wonder Dog

Mary:  My office is in a loft area, with two windows to my right. Two rows of white shelving flow along the long wall I face each morning as I sit at my computer. My baby muse, Dash, has a basket on the bottom shelf for musing in. Against the wall to my left stand two Tuscan cabinets filled with books. The ceiling is painted white. Three walls are a chameleon-like magnolia that sometimes looks the softest hue of pink, and the fourth wall behind the cabinets is painted a deep berry called Crushed Velvet, as directed by my Feng Shui Master!

Describe a typical workday.

Kirby:  Ha! No such thing exists. When I’m home, however, I am generally in my office by 8:30 or 9, coffee to my right, work in progress on the screen. I shouldn’t, but I answer emails first thing. When I’m in the thick of things, I do turn off my email and find I get ever so much more accomplished. Most days I’m in my office until it’s time for dinner—though Winston is adamant that, rain or shine, we take a walk around 3 p.m. each afternoon.

Mary: The typical day I fantasize about begins with a lovely breakfast on a terrace in the morning sun, followed by a massage, after which I sit in my office and write twenty pages with ease and no interruptions and then enjoy a nutritious yet tasty lunch prepared by anyone but me! However, back to reality. I have a Pilates class at 8:30 a.m. After that I write or return emails, do promotional tasks, etc. until noon. I return to my office around 2 and write until 4 or 5. Then I return again in the evening for another couple of hours of work. It works best for me to break up my day and not sit for long hours at a time.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

Kirby: I look across the room at one of my bookcases to a shelf holding a photo of my Write Sisters, women I’ve known for ages who have been key encouragers in my writing career (one of them is Mary). The windowsill to the right of my desk is home to an acorn from Walden’s Pond, a wishing rock from our beach house, and stones I have picked up from various beaches I’ve visited. These mementos remind me of travels and adventures that have enriched my life. On my desk sits a shabby copy of The Synonym Finder, ed. by J. I. Rodale, which I use daily.

Mary: I adore my baby muse, Dash. He sits in his basket as I write. He came to us from what he likes to call an orphanage in Atlanta, Georgia. He really is a godsend—slipping me a great detail when I need it the most, and now that he’s getting Dr. Dictionary every morning via email, he even suggests word replacements! Pictures of people I love, like Kirby, adorn the top shelf above my computer. My other favorite thing is my ever faithful iMac which allows me to work with the least amount of frustration possible.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

Kirby: It’s not my ritual, but Winston’s: he generally sleeps on my lap while I work so is always trying to get me upstairs to my office as soon as breakfast is over in the morning.

Mary: I wish I had a ritual, but I don’t. I think rituals can be happy things that bring you comfort and safety and assure you that yes, you can get through this really difficult chapter where you’ve got your main character, alone in her bedroom without her cell phone, with a possible intruder, and nothing but a baseball bat for protection, and how am I ever going to be able to write it so it scares the pants off my readers, and . . . Yes, I believe I need to put together a ritual ASAP.

What do you listen to while you work?

Kirby: Nothing, aside from Winston’s snores. I prefer quiet while I work.

Mary: I like silence and the sound of the water tinkling over the rocks in the fountain downstairs. The only time I like music is if I’m writing a particular scene and need the playlist that I think would accompany it—for inspiration. But I’m too easily moved by music—music can be hazardous to my psyche!

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Kirby: Coffee or a homemade latte are fairly essential and, most afternoons, a cup of tea (I like Harney & Son’s African Autumn or Paris) and a Trader Joe’s Fig Bar, which gets shared with a certain four-legged muse.

Mary: I have a Jura Capresso that grinds the French Roast beans and makes one cup of coffee at a time with a lovely crema. And almost everyday, my husband bakes sunflower seeds for me—they’re excellent for increasing seratonin.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Kirby: My love for what I’m doing! And the fact that I really do see it as a job.

Mary: I’ve learned to be really disciplined. You can’t create unless you produce something, and what could possibly be more heady than creating a universe? And I know I’m meant to write—I feel like the real “me” when I’m writing.

Do you write longhand, or on a computer, or another way?

Kirby: Always on the computer (old habit from my journalism degree), though I print off drafts and hand revise on them.

Mary: I always write on the computer. But sometimes I need to trick my brain into moving out of the box by writing long hand. I revise both on the computer and via printed drafts.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

Kirby: It depends on the story. With the nonfiction picture books, because Mary is so great at seeing the story arc and plot points, we tend to write in scenes. With my own work—which has come to be fairly exclusively historical fiction—historical events are the dots that I try to connect with characters and action. I am not an outliner, but I do spend a lot of time writing about the story. I have just this summer used a program called Scrivener to write a historical novel and I liked the rhythm and discipline of it so I’m using it again for the current WIP.

Mary: I spend a lot of time just cogitating and writing down ideas that may seem disparate but begin to work together in some odd way. When I think I’ve got a handle on the story, I begin to shape it by writing a brief sketch of each scene with major plot points, on a big piece of butcher paper—at some point, everything that’s on the butcher paper is transferred to a document. I don’t like outlining. It bores me. But fashioning the shape of a story to the point where I can no longer hold back from beginning to write it, keeps me intrigued and works for me.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

Kirby: Couldn’t do it anymore. Not even with Mary! I’m too spoiled.

Mary: I think I’d enjoy sharing a workspace! But it would have to be with someone really fun-loving with an offbeat sense of humor—like my husband or my son or maybe even Stephen Colbert! I take myself way too seriously and that can impede my writing. I’d like to be interrupted with goofy ideas and just plain old happiness and laughter. But they’d have to settle down on command!

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

Kirby: Don’t listen to advice! 😉 I think if a writer reads voraciously and learns the basics of her genre, she should avoid using other people’s road maps and create her own.

Mary: Hmmm, follow your muse, write about what makes your passions burn, and create your own path.

3 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery”

  1. Natasha Wing

    Mary is a fellow writer friend of mine and I've been to her office. You really captured her and how she works! I know Kirby, too, but have never been to her office, so it was fun to see her space.

  2. Kim Griswell

    I'm seriously green as kudzu in summer with envy. Although, right now I'm lucky enough to be in the Sterling Writers Room at the Multnomah County Libary in Portland, Oregon, I currently have no writing space to call my own. The joys of boomeranging kids!

  3. LadybugSF

    I love this one! I shall no longer listen to other people's writing advice. Except on Jenn's blog. Also, I really want a Cavalier. They are sooooooo cute.