Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Beth Kanell, The Secret Room

AUTHOR: Beth Kanell
BOOK TITLE: The Secret Room
PUBLISHER: Voyage (Brigantine Media)

Please tell me how long you've been writing, and why you decided to become a writer.
My mother celebrated all occasions with poetry, so I started writing poetry by age five – but it took me a long time to find my way into fiction. After a few “practice novels” (two of them burned up when my home burned!), I found my fictional voice in 2003.

Are you a full-time writer or a part-time writer, and how do you organize your writing time?
I earn a living copyediting science journals, always on tight deadlines, so writing gets “the rest of the time” – usually on the last few days of each month, or at midnight if I’m still awake!

What influences your writing?
Mountains, rivers, the track of a deer, stories of my grandparents’ grandparents and those of my neighbors, the moon rising full over the field, the call of a hawk – all these become for me a beckoning into the next story. How I craft those stories comes from the hundreds of books of mysteries and poetry that I read each year. (I’m also a book reviewer!)

Is this your first published work?  What other types of writing have you done?
The Secret Room is my second published novel; my other published books include three books of adventure travel, one of poetry, and three of regional history.

Why did you choose to write a children's story?
Just the way standing on a mountain looking outward draws me, I’m fascinated by the moments near the end of “childhood” where we see how different life can be, depending on our own choices in the moments ahead of us. That takes me back, again and again, to “middle grades” and “young adult” writing. The Secret Room works well for people ages nine to adult because of this approach.

What was the process of creating this book from the first idea to the final published book?
This book took root in two pockets of discovery: first, standing inside a local “hiding place” that people said had been used during the Underground Railroad, and second, learning that Vermont’s version of the Underground Railroad was very different from, say, Pennsylvania’s or even New York’s. But people haven’t always realized that. I always need three “strands” to braid a novel, so my first strand for this book was history and skepticism; my second was a tiny village not far from here, where “everyone knows everyone’s business” but an event from the past may not get mentioned for years, until it comes up again; and the third strand came from two girls – me and my best friend in grade 8, Laurie Toker – standing in the lunch line solving math problems out loud and knowing the boys hated us for it! You’ll also find in Shawna and Thea’s interactions some of the questions I think are important about faith and community.

What are your thoughts on traditional versus self-publishing?
I value traditional publishing because a good editor will push a writer to be clearer, stronger, even fiercer, and the story will be a better one as a result. Of course, if you can edit your own work that way, self-publishing can work well! But most people have trouble even finding their own spelling mistakes (the page is already familiar), and it’s even harder sometimes to see where a book needs to change and grow before publication.

What is your marketing strategy?
This book and the one before it, The Darkness Under the Water, can light up historical controversy while also wrestling with what it means to be a good friend and how to be true to yourself and your family, while accepting other people’s differences. So I talk about my books with readers, teachers, librarians, and history lovers. A special part of the strategy includes working with entire classrooms who tackle the book as a reading project and then create their own “history mysteries” – I actually do the research for any classroom, and provide a list of a dozen parts of the town history (where that classroom is) that could be used to launch a mystery story or novel, including suggestions of characters who might be involved. This is SO much fun! Write to me and I’ll do the same for your location.

What are your thoughts about children's writers needing an agent or not needing one?
An insightful agent is a gift from heaven! An agent’s interactions with multiple publisher editors can speed a children’s book manuscript to “the right desk.” When it works, I love this process! And when it doesn’t, then courage, compassion, and connections take over.

Where can people find out more about you and your writing?
I write about my books and research at BethKanell.blogspot.com; please join me there.

Do you have any tips for writers who are new to children's literature?
Remember, you are not writing for the child you used to be – you are writing for the readers all around you. Reach beyond your younger self, and bring the wide, marvelous, and frustrating world into all of your work.

Please give us a brief synopsis about your current book and when and where it will be available.
 The Secret Room (available now, through booksellers and online): Shawna and Thea are working together on a math project for their eighth-grade class. But the numbers don't add up, and they make a startling discovery: a secret room in the basement of Thea's house, an old Vermont inn. The code on the walls makes the girls and everyone in town wonder why there was a secret room. Was it part of the Underground Railroad, or perhaps something less, well, heroic? Discovering the truth is harder than they would have thought, especially when the truth is not what some people want to hear.


  1. Thanks, Penny, for this interview -- you had me thinking deeply and working hard! I was so glad we did it in advance, too, as this past week turned out to be wildly complicated. Full of love (family first!) but wildly, wildly complicated. And we write from our complications, as well as from the love and trust that make it all worthwhile, right?

  2. Beth, it was a pleasure hosting you. Yes, we do write from our complications. While many people didn't leave comments, I do know the page was visited by quite a few folks.