Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Author Interview: Katrina Kittle

Today, I'd like to welcome Katrina Kittle, the author of Reasons to Be Happy to my blog.

A bit about Katrina (as found on her website): Katrina was born in Illinois but has lived in the Dayton area since first grade, (except for her Year as a Gypsy). She attended Ohio University and was Outstanding Graduating Senior for both the English and Education departments. She taught high school English and theatre at Centerville High School for five years, and she taught middle school English and theatre at the Miami Valley School for six. She has also worked as a house cleaner, a veterinary assistant, a children’s theatre director, a costumer, and as case management support for the AIDS Resource Center (formerly AIDS Foundation Miami Valley). When not writing, Katrina enjoys gardening, cooking, traveling, acting, and time spent in the presence of animals (especially horses and a particular goat named Humphrey). 

One of the things I love finding out about is the story behind the story. What inspired you to write Reasons to Be Happy? 
     As a middle school teacher of several years, I grew so disheartened by a particular phenomenon I saw unfold over and over again: bright, bold, curious girls - strong and confident in their abilities - would hit the wall of self-doubt in sixth or seventh grade. They’d lose all sense of their own unique identity, stop taking any risks, and retreat into approval-seeking behaviors that made them all seem like watered-down clones of each other. Because I taught where the high school was on the same campus, I’d get to see my former students as they grew up and evolved, so I knew that mid-high school, most girls came through this on the other side, regaining their “personhood” and courage. But why did they have to go through it at all? Why were a few exceptional girls strong enough to withstand this challenge while others (who seemed equally exceptional) were not? And why was body image still such a huge part of this identity crisis? Instead of improving the situation with our awareness and understanding of body image and eating disorders, body image issues seem more pervasive than ever before - 40% of 9-year-olds have already dieted!
     All of my novels begin with social issue that I’m passionate about, and one day I realized this concern and obsession I had with “keeping girls brave and confident” was my new story. I began to seek the cast of characters who could inhabit this story, and Hannah Anne Carlisle came into existence. 

How much research did you do so that Hannah's experience with bulimia is depicted accurately?
     I'd studied classical ballet very seriously when I was younger, so I'd seen firsthand some varying levels of eating disorders. Then, when I was teaching middle school and high school, I had the experience of working with therapists and parents when my students fell into such behavior as well. I've long been fascinated with all kinds of addiction, and, really, an eating disorder is a kind of addiction. Like all addictions, the only way to stop it is to truly examine and explore why it began and what the person is getting from it. Until you recognize the source, or the need it fills, treatment will be very ineffective. It's necessary to find something else to fill that same need … but that's not possible until you know what it is. Eating disorders are just that: disorders. It's very complicated psychology. So, while I say I'm fascinated with addictions, I think I'm mostly fascinated by stories of human resilience. I think all my books share that theme. I'm interested in stories about the way people have been broken, but then become stronger at those broken places. I was inspired to capture the resilience of students I'd seen come through an eating disorder on the other side (which can take years and years), and possibly stop further girls from having to go through that horror at all. 

Although you have published books for adults, Reasons to Be Happy is the first novel you've written for tweens. How was your writing process for this book similar to and different from writing for adults? 
     I've written four novels for adults, but Reasons to Be Happy is my very first venture into writing for a younger audience. I tried not to change my approach or process too much. All of my stories have begun with a social issue I care deeply about (and because I'm such a sucker for comeback stories, second chance stories, and phoenix stories, those issues tend to be tough ones). I've written about AIDS, addiction, divorce, child abuse, and now, with Reasons, body image and eating disorders. Although the issue is always my seed for a story, I then work to create a cast who would populate a story about that issue, because a novel must be a story above all else - it can't just be a public service announcement! This felt even more crucial for a tween audience than for my adult audiences. No one wants to be lectured, after all, and because I was a middle school teacher for several years, I know that middle schoolers in particular have a built-in resistance to stories “with a lesson” for them. If you're patronizing them, they can smell it a mile away.
     It's more satisfying for the reader if any discoveries and revelations come through the character, not from me. I hoped readers, young women especially, would identify with Hannah's doubts, fears and struggles, and maybe think about Hannah's mistakes (and then, a writer's dream - to apply that knowledge to their own lives). My goal is always to invite the reader to think about the issue, but not necessarily tell them what to think about the issue. One of the greatest joys, for readers of any age, is to have something to discuss at the end of a book. Discussion isn't possible if everything is too black-and-white with no room interpretations and perspectives.
     In early drafts, I made the mistake of “watering down” and playing it too safe. A wonderful editor encouraged me to “forget your audience.” That sounds crazy, right? But she said, “I picture you picturing this room full of middle school girls. Forget them. Just write the novel you'd always write. The only difference is that all the protagonists happen to be in middle school.” This advice really spoke to me and allowed me stop trying to “filter” for the tween audience. Those attempts to filter will always show and will inevitably be insulting.
     Don't get me wrong. Of course there is a difference in presenting tough subject matter for a tween audience and an adult audience. But for me the key was my protagonist. Especially since Hannah tells the story in first-person, the only “filter” I needed was her. She tells the story with her perspective and understanding of events, not mine. That became important in revision: I would comb through looking for lines or passages that were colored by my own, more experienced viewpoint. When I found them, they had to go. Hannah could only know what she would know as an eighth grader with her own life experience so far.   
    The overall hope for any story, though, is the same no matter what age you're writing for. Above all else, I sincerely hope readers are entertained by the journey. Another quote I love (I heard it in a writing lecture once, but have no idea who to attribute it to!): “A novel is not a message clamped to a passenger pigeon's leg. It should be the experience of watching that pigeon fly from A to B.” 

With hobbies like traveling and acting, you seem to have a very busy life. How do you balance writing with all the other things you do? 
     I keep a very disciplined writing schedule. I taught for many years, so I keep the “school day” schedule as my writing day - at the desk working by 7:45 AM and sticking to it until 4:00 PM. I can't write new material all day - my brain just doesn't work that way - but I usually give the work in progress the first, best morning hours. After lunch, there's research, editing, correspondence, marketing, etc. I allow myself a certain number of “personal” and “vacation” days a year, just like any other job, and I really hold myself accountable. I even keep a “time card” to track my time on email and Facebook! (I know myself too well). 
Wow, there’s no way I could ever be so disciplined!

In Reasons to Be Happy, Hannah keeps a notebook of all the things that make her happy. What are five things that make you happy? 
It's so hard to pick just 5! :-)
  1. My amazing tribe of family and friends
  2. My very odd, very dysfunctional, very sweet cat named Joey
  3. Books
  4. Movies (I love stories, in any form! And I have a special spot in my heart for zombie apocalypse stories)
  5. Dark chocolate

Feeling the pressure to be perfect and dealing with a lot of changes, Hannah copes by trying to control her weight. What advice do you have for young girls who think that being thinner or controlling how much they eat will make them feel better about themselves or solve some of their problems? 
     I think it's important to encourage young girls to focus more on how they feel than on how they look (I know, I know, easier said than done). Just as Aunt Izzy encourages Hannah to “divert” the binges with something else Hannah loves - like running - young women can be encouraged to focus on activities that make them feel strong and empowered (and in control) in other ways. I also love Aunt Izzy's advice that “when you eat, just eat. Don't do anything else.” Really focus on the food and your eating, instead of zoning out with television or a book. Savor your food. Honor your appetites by giving them full attention. 

A big thanks to Katrina for taking the time to give such detailed answers to my questions!

Katrina can be found on: [her website] [her blog] [Twitter] [Facebook] [Goodreads]
Reasons to Be Happy can be bought from: [Amazon] [Barnes and Noble] [The Book Depository]


  1. Fabulous interview! I find it so disturbing how girls are worried about their image from a very young age. I can't imagine 9 yr olds on a diet! That's absolutely ridiculous and frightening. Kudos to the author for not watering down a difficult subject. Stories like these need to be told. Really looking forward to picking up "Reasons to be Happy".

  2. The answer to the first question almost made me cry because I recognize my 12 year old cousin from what the author observed. A part of me thinks it's just 'that' phase and she'll out grow the approval seeking from her friends, but another part of me worries that bigger issues will develop because of it.

    Hannah's plight sounds like it is very relatable and hopeful. And I love her top 5 list, those things make me really happy too.

  3. That notebook is def. a great idea from Hannah. Especially when you feel down one day, you can just read what makes you happy. :)

  4. This was a very thorough interview. I'm not a fan of dark chocolate, but I loved her answers!


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