A Peek at the Creative Space of Liza Ketchum

Liza KetchumJoining us this week for Creative Spaces is author Liza Ketchum. Liza is the author of fifteen books for young readers, including Where the Great Hawk Flies (which won the Massachusetts Book Award for Children’s Literature and the Boston Author’s Club Young Readers Award), Orphan Journey Home about the American pioneer experience, and the nonfiction titles Into a New Country: Eight Remarkable Women of the West and The Gold Rush.

Where the Great Hawk FliesHer most recent book is Newsgirl, a historical fiction novel set in 1851 San Francisco. Twelve-year-old Amelia Forrester and her family have newly moved to the mostly male town. When Amelia discovers how much money newsboys can make selling east coast newspapers, she cuts her hair to pass herself off as a boy and joins them. She enjoys the new freedom being a newsboy gives her until she takes an unexpected balloon flight that lands her in gold fields and more adventure than she ever imagined. Newsgirl received a starred review from School Library Journal who wrote, “Ketchum nicely interweaves actual events into this engaging story. She also covers the topics of discrimination and same-sex couples with aplomb. Amelia is a well-rounded character: imperfect, persistent, unsure of herself, and likable. An educational and entertaining read.”

Liza in currently on the faculty of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Hamline University and teaches at the ASTAL (Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature) Summer Institute at Rhode Island College. This month she is co-leading the Whole Novel Workshop in Historical Fiction with Ellen Levine through the Highlights Foundation. Liza also blogs for the Hamline University MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. To learn more about her you can visit her website here or here, and you can join her fan page for her novel Newsgirl here.

Describe your workspace.

We live in a tall, skinny house not far from Boston.  My writing room is in a converted attic on the third floor.  From my high perch, I look into the lush, productive gardens in the backyards of our neighborhood. I love to garden, and The Secret Garden was my all-time favorite book, when I was growing up—so I enjoy this view of other yards.  Our Armenian neighbors are skilled gardeners who raise grapes, peaches, tomatoes, Armenian squashes, cucumbers, and beans, as well as flowers. 

I have two writing tables in my room. The cherry table at my window, which was built by a friend, holds everything related to the novel I’m writing at the moment. In this photo, you see some of the eleven drafts of a novel that still needs one last revision.  It is a vaudeville story, so the books on the table are those that I used for research.  Boxes of file cards, along with notebooks full of handwritten early drafts, also clutter the surface. 

My second desk is my computer table, where I do most of my writing.  That table is tucked under the sloping ceiling where I pin up poems I like, as well as quotes from other writers.  When I was working on Newsgirl, my most recent historical novel, I surrounded this desk with period photographs, prints, maps, and drawings to help me visualize San Francisco at the height of the gold rush. I wanted to be sure that I was describing the buildings, clothing, tools, steamships, etc. as accurately as possible.

This old photograph of a girl, disguised as a boy, was the prototype for my main character, Amelia.  She watched over me during the two years it took for me to write the book.

To the right of my desk a narrow wall holds art by my illustrator friends, Eileen Christelow and Lisa Jahn-Clough, as well as reproductions of huge graphite drawings created by my son, Ethan Murrow.  He works in graphite on paper.  (These prints are from an earlier show of his called “The Pinto Brothers.”) Although I don’t draw myself, visual art is as important to me, for inspiration and ideas, as books and writing.

Describe a typical workday.

In an ideal day, I would start writing before I’ve even had my first cup of tea, because I think the most uncensored, imaginative writing flows onto the page when we are only half conscious.  But most days, I don’t get to my room until after breakfast.  My work life is divided between writing and my work as a teacher of writing.  I am on the faculty of Hamline University’s low-residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Students and faculty travel to St. Paul, MN, twice a year for intensive 12-day residencies; I work with my students online throughout the semester.  For 8-10 days in the month, I’m reading and critiquing my student’s writing.  Once a week, I write a blog post for the Hamline blog

For the rest of the month, I work on my own writing projects. Mornings are my most productive time. At noon, I take a walk along the Charles River, work in the garden, meet up with a friend, or practice Tai Chi. I often get a second wind in the afternoon, especially if I’ve had a “Winston Churchill catnap.”  If I’m stuck with the plot, the best way to break out of a jam is to take a nap, a long walk, or a shower. In the summer and fall, I sometimes take an early morning swim in Walden Pond with my writer friend, Janet Coleman. I spend Wednesday mornings with my little grandson; that’s the highlight of my week.

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

Photos of family and friends take top billing.  But here are some other essential things:

This line of turtles marches along a shelf at the top of my stairs. I started collecting turtles in the mid-90s, when I was moving a lot, because a turtle always knows where her home is.  My family and friends have added to my collection over the years. My husband and I also visit a small Caribbean Island where endangered loggerhead turtles nest in the spring.  They are ancient, fascinating creatures that need our protection.  The photos were taken by my pal and teaching colleague, Jackie Briggs Martin. Jackie and I enjoy walking through the St. Paul neighborhoods near Hamline.  A few summers ago, we watched as families painted life-sized turtles on the intersections in their neighborhoods.

This wonderful illustration, by the artist C.B. Morden, is the first thing you see when you enter my room.  C.B. Morden illustrated my serialized novel, Orphan Journey Home, with scratchboard drawings for each chapter. C.B. sent me this original drawing soon after the story began to appear in newspapers around the country. Morden has recently created new color illustrations for a revised edition of the story; these are even more stunning than the originals. (The stories are distributed by Breakfast Serials.)

I often talk to my students about the importance of “endowed objects” in their stories.  These are objects that have special significance, power, or meaning.  My room is full of endowed objects.  This view of my table shows a few: hawk and wild turkey feathers I found on Vermont hikes; stones and shells that I have collected in Nova Scotia, Puerto Rico, and other places we have traveled; and “Monsieur Oiseau,” a bird created by my friend, the sculptor and writer Leslie Sills.

What do you listen to while you work?

Actually, noise drives me crazy, especially the sounds of two-stroke engines (leaf-blowers, chain saws, lawn mowers, etc.).  They release more CO2 than some cars, and their high-pitched, insistent motors make my skin crawl.  I prefer a very quiet space, with two exceptions: first, if my character enjoys music or likes to sing, I play the songs he or she hears in the story. For my vaudeville novel, for example, I listened to music from that period each morning before I started writing.  That helped me to imagine the songs that Teresa was learning for her stage performances.  Second: I love writing with the sound of running water in the background, such as a stream, or surf hissing on a beach. 

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

A good day, for me, is one where I DON’T snack while working. I drink hot tea in the mornings to wake up; water in the afternoons.  (Believe me, there’s no magic involved in any of this.  The drink or snack of choice does not help the writer—this writer, at least—to be more creative or productive.)

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

That’s my biggest challenge because I’m so easily distracted. The invention of email has robbed me of hours of writing time.  But if my story is humming along, I can get lost in the writing. Best of all is when I don’t know what will happen to my main character, and the only way to find out is to write the next scene. At the end of each day, I end each chapter or scene with a cliffhanger or even a half-finished sentence. That gives me a reason to come up to my room the next morning.

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

I write most of my first drafts by hand, though often not an entire scene or chapter.  It takes me a while to get started on a scene, and writing by hand helps me to get rid of my inner editor, that whiny, negative voice that starts to criticize the sentence before I even get it down on the page.  Once I’m a page or two into the scene, if things are going well, I can sometimes switch to the computer—but not often.  A typical routine is to hand write a scene in the morning and type it up after lunch.  My first drafts are messy; terrible writing that no one ever sees.  For me, the real writing comes in revision.

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

Outlines are essential for non-fiction projects, but I don’t find them helpful for fiction.  However, I usually know where a novel is going; sometimes I even write the last scene when I’m just a few chapters into the book (although the ending may change after multiple revisions).  Every book I write begins with an image, with my narrator in a specific setting, usually involved in some sort of action.  I can’t start the book until that image and/or action is fixed in my mind.  The middles of novels are very difficult for me.  Rather than outlining, I list What If? questions. At other times, I’m asking my narrator questions I hope she can answer.  I also try to visualize the novel’s shape in my mind, to help me with pacing and scene placement. My writing tables are covered with little scraps of paper where I’ve scribbled ideas for scenes, or jotted down bits of dialogue I can imagine my characters saying.  It’s random and chaotic.  I often feel as if I’m bushwhacking in the dark with my hands out in front of my face.

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

Sharing my space!  What a terrible thought.  Once in a while, my son’s dog visits, and she’s allowed into my workspace—but I need quiet, isolation, and privacy to write.

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

Two simple things: Keep the Hand Moving.
And: Butt in Chair.


3 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Liza Ketchum”

  1. Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina

    Thanks for such a good post. I read Newsgirl and LOVED it. It had everything: great story, exciting adventure, memorable characters, wonderful historical detail. This is a great site to learn about writers.

    I sure envy Liza Ketchum her writing space.