Ten years ago when I first read The Underneath
, the narrative voice lifted me up and carried me off on a kind of story tide, irresistible and primal. I asked Kathi to talk to me about that voice that moved and stirred and haunted me.
[Uma] Where did the narrative voice in The Underneath come from? What did it take to bring it to the page?
[Kathi] Uma, you ask the best questions. But they are also hard questions. I wish that I could say that the narrative voice for The Underneath came to me in a dream and I was able to channel it directly to the page. But oh my, that would be a big, fat lie.
For me, the voice always begins with the landscape. Each place has its own inherent sound, and what creates the sound for me is the mixture of voices that arise from it. When I was working on The Underneath, I paid attention to how the wind in the trees made a kind of baritone harmonic hum that created a basis for the other sounds to pop up and reflect against. There were the sounds that the various animals contributed—purring, howling, growling, screeching, hissing, etc. And then there were the deeper sounds of those who had once lived in those marshy lands—the Caddo and Hasinai. I listened for their footsteps, for their campfires, for their laughter and sighs. And of course, there was also the sound of their absence, maybe the most heartbreaking of all. I also paid attention to what I think of as regional sounds—the music of the bayou for instance, a kind of zydeco beat—as well as my own southern dialect, the one I grew up with, with its soft extensions of the vowels and its tendency to mush consonants together and expand one syllable into two. And over all of those came the bird calls, with their wings beating against the air—also a kind of thrumming, humming sound.
So, all of this together creates what musicians would call a “sonic landscape,” or maybe a “soundscape.” (I think a great example would be Aaron Copeland’s “Grand Canyon Suite.” Listening to it always takes me right to the Canyon).
I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to capture the voice that encapsulated that landscape and its denizens. And one of the things that occurred to me is that there was no real hurry there, so I slowed down the rhythm of it and allowed the pacing to reflect that lumbering slowness. This gave me room for repetition and chanting and at least a little background humming.
I hope this makes sense. I really do believe that place, and all that it holds, is where we find the voice of a story. Of course, each character will have his or her voices, but they are overlaid against the setting. My flat, grassy backyard sounds very different from that mountain in your backyard.
[Uma] So true. And like the rocks and trees in a yard, there are stories within stories in this novel—the naming of a creek, lovers separated, a lost child, and more—stories of sacrifice and betrayal and redemption, anger and grief and through it all the small, insistent journey of a kitten. How did all these threads come together for you? What existed in early versions and what fell into place along the way?
[Kathi] This whole book started from a short story that I had written about a boy (who very much resembled my older son Jacob) who rescued a kitten from a creek. I kept going back to that story, and it just seemed like there were more to tell. The snake was there already. The hummingbird was there, and all along, the kitten—Puck.
The story was fine as it was, but it kept calling to me, and so I began to pull at it. I’ve often used the simile of taffy. The story felt like that, like taffy, and I just kept pulling at it. And as I did, another strand would appear, and then I’d pull some more, doubling the length, tripling the strands.
The ironic thing is that at the end of it all, it was that boy, that original boy, who was taken out. That was heartbreaking, really. He reminded me so much of Jacob, and he had brought the story such a long way. So, I had to think of him as a kind of navigator, as the book’s director in a way, and once the larger story made its way to shore, the boy was done with his part. Sometimes I think maybe I’ll return to that boy, but in a million ways I believe his story is somehow underneath it all, and he’s completed his job.
[Uma] These words from the book just got me straight in the heart back when I first read them. A decade later, they still get me:
“Who would look out for them? Who would stand watch?”
Photo © Igor Kraguljak, 2015
You, that’s who, I’m thinking. Is that a fair read? Can you talk about how you as writer stand watch and bear witness?
[Kathi] Story is the only way I know how to bear witness. Or maybe I should say it’s the best way I know how. I realize there are other ways.
When I wrote The Underneath so long ago, I think my concern then had a lot to do with the way we treat others in our world, particularly animals. I’ve gotten plenty of comments that are pointedly disapproving about the treatment of Ranger in particular. I always respond that there were no animals harmed in the writing of the book. But it’s interesting to me that most of the concern for my characters is directed toward the animals. Not so much for the singular human. Granted, my villain is a dedicated villain. There’s not much that is redeemable about him. However, he was treated badly as a child, and yet I’ve never had anyone bemoan his fate.
[Uma] Oh, that is very interesting. Do we not care about humans who are treated badly?
[Kathi] In some ways, we are more empathetic towards animals than we are towards children, which is a sadness for me.
But it’s also a call to action. I think this disregard for our children shows up in school shootings, in overburdened foster care systems, in underfunded schools. In a law passed because a puppy died on an airplane flight, only days after that flight. But here we are, almost twenty years from Columbine, and no significant laws about gun control. It’s so infuriating.
Ten years ago, a mistreated dog set my fingers on fire. Today, I look at those kids in Parkland, and my heart says “go there.” Bear witness, as you say. And I’m so happy to have you and so many of my colleagues going there with me. Namaste, Uma. Namaste.
[Uma] It’s a privilege to walk this road with you, Kathi Appelt. Namaste.