Maine Literary Award winner Kathryn Lasky on Switching Genres

From time to time, we like to introduce new Maine authors to our readers. Today we’re delighted to share a post by this year’s Maine Literary Award winner for Crime Fiction, Kathryn Lasky.

Pitch: What happens when a well-known children’s book author switches genres after decades of writing fantasy and historical fiction for middle grade and young adult readers? Kathryn Lasky the award-winning children’s book author is doing just that. As the author of Guardian of Ga’Hoole the New York Times bestselling series that was turned into a Warner Brothers film The Legend of The Guardians directed by Zack Snyder, she is now writing an adult mystery Light on Bone. The story is set in New Mexico and features Georgia O’Keeffe as an amateur sleuth. This latest mystery of Lasky’s recently won the the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction.

Kathryn Lasky: The first thought that often comes to some people’s minds might be, ‘Wow now you can write about characters who drink, have sex and swear.” True but there is a lot more that makes it very different. The fundamental difference is the perspective and that is what I find most fascinating. When I’m writing children’s books and I am in the mind of say a middle grade kid I have this sort of inner eleven year old that I am filtering things through, or if it’s a YA book an inner teenager. In either case, the perspective is always looking forward to what the possibilities of the years, the life ahead might be. It’s a soft yearning for the future, for power, for independence that subtly colors all. Such is not the case when I’m writing an adult mystery as the protagonist is all grown up.

In the case of Light On Bone set in 1934, the protagonist, Georgia O’Keeffe is in her late forties and as with many of us—who like myself are well beyond our forties—our perspective is often looking back. Back to what could have been, might have happened and yes, how much time do we have left to do it. Time is finite for us, for the characters in an adult book. Time is rarely finite for the central characters of a children’s book. And because children are young, they don’t have as many regrets as an older character, but perhaps a bit more hope. However on the brighter side there is the possibility of renewal. So that in a nutshell is the significant difference between writing for kids and writing for grownups.

And it was renewal that drove Georgia O’Keeffe to the southwest desert in 1934. She had been to New Mexico before but it is the first time she had ever gone to the Ghost Ranch. The ranch would become her residence for six months of the year until she restored a house in the nearby town of Abiquiu more than a decade later.

When Georgia arrived at the Ghost Ranch in 1934 she was fragile and almost broken. She had spent three months in a psychiatric hospital in New York following a complete nervous breakdown after her husband Alfred Stieglitz’s very public affair with Dorothy Norman, a wealthy heiress. It was not simply his infidelity; she had been forced by Stieglitz to have an abortion a few years before. Adding to her misery she had been commissioned to do mural for Radio City Music Hall that been a disaster. The wall for the mural had been poorly prepared and began to disintegrate before she had finished the mural. Somewhat ironically, during this period she was approaching the peak of her career and had just sold a painting for an unheard of sum of money. She had fled to the southwest and found herself rejuvenated.

The narrative begins when she discovers the slain body of a priest in the desert. More murders follow. And there is a burgeoning romance between Georgia and the local sheriff. Add to this mixture an international espionage plot involving Charles Lindbergh (who is staying at the ranch with his wife Anne). And then more bodies turn up ultimately resulting in an unforeseen denouement. Of course, the object as with any mystery is to figure out who did it. That is the whole point of mystery fiction and that differs vastly from the point of children’s novels, unless they are mysteries as well. Children’s novels are more often focused on just getting through life, and not simply avoiding murder.

Solving a crime in a mystery seems easier to me than arriving at a resolution in a children’s book. But this is not what motivated me to go back to mysteries. Yes, almost thirty years ago I had written the Calista Jacobs mysteries series. The central character was in fact a children’s book illustrator. It was fun because I knew a lot about that world. The character was very similar to me—her physical appearance, her sense of humor, her situation. She was a mom like me and her middle grade son play a sidekick role. She lived in a house just like mine, in the same city where I live Cambridge, Massachusetts. But when I stumbled across the idea for Light On Bone I could not have found a character more different from myself than Georgia O’Keeffe.

I had of course always loved O’Keeffe’s paintings but had not really done much research about her life. And I was going to have to. Nowadays I write a lot of animal fantasy for children and I have to do an enormous amount of research. People think ‘oh fantasy you just make it up, right’? Wrong! It’s not anything goes. Luckily I live very close to the Harvard Bio labs and the Harvard Natural History. For my children’s series, The Guardians of Ga’Hoole, that is as about a colony of owls, I spent many hours at Harvard which has one of the largest collections of dead owls anyplace! Yes it used to be legal to shoot them. Now most of the bodies come from disastrous collisions with trucks and cars. I needed to find about their anatomy, their feathers which are very complex, their hunting and mating habits. You just can’t make this stuff up even if it’s a fantasy book.

 Well, I took the same approach to Georgia O’Keeffe –you just can’t make it up. You have to do the research. There was one gem of a fact that I discovered about O’Keeffe. She had an odd perceptual phenomenon known as synesthesia. For Georgia it was a blessing. For an amateur sleuth it would be as well. Synesthesia occurs when stimulation of one sensory, or cognitive pathway, leads to spontaneous experiences in a secondary pathway. Imagine, for example, when a person hears images and sees sound. Or as O’Keeffe herself put it in an interview: “You asked me about music. I like it better than anything in the worldcolor gives me the same thrill. . .” She could find the equivalents of color, shape, and imagery in music. She would sit and listen to music for hours. Her favorites were Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, and Bach, as well as Gershwin.

Someone asked me if writing for adults requires the same willing suspension of disbelief as fantasy. It does not at all. Convincing people that an artist like Georgia O’Keeffe can pick up a clue like the glint of a coin in a low-angled sun striking something silver is not hard at all. Convincing a reader that owls do not simply talk but read, do mathematics and forge tools as well as make art is a lot harder and requires a much greater suspension of disbelief.

When Georgia O’Keeffe walked into the desert after her nervous breakdown she discovered a new palette, and I discovered a new protagonist to write about. In certain ways it seemed like a walk in the park after trying to convince readers that owls could in fact do algebra, or that beavers could talk to a swan.

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4 Responses to Maine Literary Award winner Kathryn Lasky on Switching Genres

  1. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    Fascinating! I admire anyone trying something new. And what a protagonist! Much success with the new series.

  2. kaitcarson says:

    Owls can’t talk to swans? Oh, my!

    New series sounds wonderful, looking forward to reading it.

  3. My daughter was such a HUGE fan of your books when she was growing up. She wrote her own animal stories and illustrated them to share with her friends in elementary and middle school, inspired by you (and Jean Craighead George). I’m going to share this blog post with her. She will be excited to hear about your new mystery (as am I). Congratulations on the Maine Writing award!

  4. Vicki Erwin says:

    We met at Malice and I was thrilled to talk to you about your new endeavors. I worked for Scholastic during Gyardians and it was a pleasure and honor to promote those books.

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