Today, I’m so happy to introduce Katherine Rothschild, author of Wider Than The Sky. Kath has spent almost her whole life around writing–earning bachelor’s and master’s of fine arts degrees in English and creative writing, as well as a PhD in composition and applied linguistics, and now she teaches in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Standard University. (Wow!) Her debut is part family drama, part swoony love story. Here’s a bit about the book, which will be out in stores January 19:
Sixteen-year-old Sabine Braxton doesn’t have much in common with her identical twin, Blythe. When their father dies from an unexpected illness, each copes with the loss in her own way—Sabine by “poeting” (an uncontrollable quirk of bursting into poetry at inappropriate moments) and Blythe by obsessing over getting into MIT, their father’s alma mater. Neither can offer each other much support . . . at least not until their emotionally detached mother moves them into a ramshackle Bay Area mansion owned by a stranger named Charlie.
Soon, the sisters unite in a mission to figure out who Charlie is and why he seems to know everything about them. They quickly make a life-changing discovery: their father died of an HIV- related infection, Charlie was his lover, and their mother knows the whole story. The revelation unravels Sabine’s world, while practical Blythe seems to take everything in stride. Once again at odds with her sister, Sabine chooses to learn all she can about the father she never knew. Ultimately, she must decide if she can embrace his last wish for their family legacy—along with forgiveness.
Amy Noelle Parks: So Kath, you’ve written a pretty quirky protagonist. Sabine recites poetry when she’s anxious. Where on earth did this idea come from?
Katherine Rothschild: I grew up with poetry, and memorization was very important in my family. My dad was a memorizer—he could recite Shakespeare soliloquies; he could recite the long-form poem “Casey at the Bat”—off the top of his head. When I was a kid and he did story time at night, sometimes he wouldn’t read a book, but instead would recite poetry. I learned, through my childhood years, to internalize poetry. Over time I got a little obsessed with Emily Dickinson. I began to memorize her work. I can still recite many poems, and I do (in my head) when I need to focus or calm down. So I gave that trait to Sabine—but I exaggerated it so she’s vocal about the whole thing. And then a friend and beta-reader said: what if Kai (Sabine’s would-be love interest) is kinda the same way, but with lyrics? That became really fun to write.
ANP: Your story includes both the story of a teen’s first love and a pretty serious exploration of the effect of secrets on a family. Can you tell us why you were interested in occupying this emotional space?
KR: Many of us are thrown in the deep end as teens with loss or other traumas, but we also still have daily lives to lead. For me, I had a lot of loss when I was young; I didn’t realize how much until I went to college and I was open with friends about my past, and they said things like “no way—whaaaaaat?” Then I knew maybe it hadn’t been totally normal. But at the time I was going through these losses and traumas, they felt normal, and I still had teen obsessions. I had crushes and fears about how I looked, I had things I loved and wanted to reach for. So I brought all of that to the book—so even as Sabine is faced with what might be called deeply complex grief from truths revealed about her parents, she still makes time to crush and to obsess about fashion—because that’s the reality of life. We can hold and process deep traumas, and the things and people we enjoy and love help us to do that.
ANP: What were some of the books you loved as a teen that were in your head as you were writing Wider Than the Sky?
KR: I often compare Wider Than the Sky to Nina LaCour’s Hold Still and Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere. But I didn’t read those books until I was out of high school. In high school I went to poetry slams and bought chap books and local homemade newsletters with poems and illustrations. I immersed in writing that was difficult for me to understand, that challenged my perspectives. I loved Brideshead Revisited even though some themes were likely lost on me then. But mostly what I wanted to recreate was the sense of reading beyond my lived experience. Fiction can let us inhabit a space of pre-understanding that one day, years after reading a book, might make sense. I hope for some people, even for those who think this scenario can’t be true, or that it’s wrong in some way, will understand through lived experience how complicated close relationships can be.
ANP: As someone who’s studied writing pretty seriously, I’m wondering if there were particular literary challenges or techniques that you wanted to take up in your book?
KR: First I want to say that studying writing doesn’t make someone a good writer—practicing writing can, though. And with each book I’ve written, I’ve grown in a new way. In my first book, Wider Than the Sky, I wanted to incorporate poetry, and I found a way. And in my second, I had the main character write poetry—which meant I had to write poetry. The third book I wrote I tried something I wasn’t sure I could do—and that was to write in dual perspective, and I included poetry in one character’s perspective. The fourth book I wrote in dual perspective with one main character written entirely in verse and the other in expository—and this was the most challenging by far, and I’m still working on revisions. The fifth book I wrote has a magic system, which I’d never tried to create and am still not sure what I’ll do with, and the sixth, which I’m drafting now, has a magic system and is written from three different perspectives. I have no idea what I’ll do next but I’ll likely try something insane, like a play within a book. Not a bad idea.
ANP: Can you tell us a little about the experiences in your own life that drew you to writing about family secrets?
KR: I grew up in the 1990s, and there were secrets in many families, not just mine. It was a time when many young people were coming to an awareness of queerness as a hidden world, and of queer people as people we already knew and loved, and who were in the shadows and possibly afraid. It felt like a secretive time. I was too young to understand a lot of what was going on, I just knew there were secrets that we were keeping. People would say that someone died of cancer, but it was AIDS. That was a secret that wasn’t just within one family—but many families. And even now, those same secrets—maybe less often regarding AIDS—but similar secrets, are there.
ANP: Tell us about a favorite scene or moment in your book.
KR: I love both poetry and lyrics, and some of my favorite scenes in the book were cut or trimmed because they had lyrics from The Cure in them. But one that stayed was the scene in the rose garden, where Sabine and her love interest, Kai, are walking, and it’s not on the page, but he quotes the Cure to her, and she relates to it in this really deep way. Lyrics and poetry can cut to the heart of what it is to be inside our minds and bodies. The scene portrays the way we can connect with lyrics that scour our hearts—and it’s the moment she starts to fall for him and he becomes more than a crush. I love when music intertwines with love stories.
ANP: Lightning round:
Morning Writer or Nighttime Writer: Both!
Music or Silence While Writing: Both!
Drafting or Revision: Both!
Google Docs or Word: Both!
Instagram or Twitter: Both!
Comedy or Tragedy: Both!
ALL THE THINGS!
ANP: Finally, what feeling do you want Wider Than the Sky to leave readers with?
KR: I want to make people cry. I really do. It’s cathartic to cry as you feel someone else’s experience in the world. As funny as the book is at times, I want the overall experience to be poignant. I think not many young people understand how complicated love can be. Sabine and Blythe are enamored of their own lives, but when faced with their parents’ realities, they learn to accept more than just their own unusual situation, but to understand that nothing is as simple as falling in love and just staying together. They find that they can accept a family that is different, and includes a whole host of people and lives they never thought they would know. That openness to change, and to embracing truth and accepting a different type of life than they thought they would have is what I hope those who read the book begin to internalize as well.
Congrats on the release of your debut novel, Katherine! You can visit Katherine’s website to learn more and follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, as well as order WIDER THAN THE SKY on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound. And don’t forget to add it on Goodreads!