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INTERVIEW: Beth Kephart, YA author

by Rosella Eleanor LaFevre
Beth Kephart, author of the historical young adult novel Dangerous Neighbors, discusses the inner workings of her characters, the meaning behind the title, and the symbolism of birds.

Beth Kephart, known for writing adult nonfiction, has broken into the young adult fiction market with books quite different from the cookie cutter vampire and zombie romances that are crowding the YA shelves of your nearest Barnes & Noble. In May 2009, HarperCollins Publishers released her debut YA title, Undercover, about a girl who ghostwrites love letters from the boys at her high school which works fine until she falls for one of her clients. Since then, she has published House of Dance, Nothing but Ghosts, The Heart is Not a Size and most recently, Dangerous Neighbors, a beautifully written novel about a grieving twin set in Philadelphia during the World Fair of 1876. Recently, the author talked with magazine about Dangerous Neighbors.

REL: The book Dangerous Neighbors is labeled “Ages 12 up” but it reads like it's for an older audience. There are lots of layers of meaning that I don't necessarily believe the average 12-year-old would pick up on.

BK: I write books that are not bound by specific age group limits. I have tremendous faith in young readers’ ability to pick up on clues. This is my fifth young adult novel. What marks them, as young adult, is the age of the narrator or protagonist. I don't believe in writing down to my readers; why should I? A lot of the young readers of my blog leave really sophisticated comments. I've taught children and some of them write poems far better than I write. I've taught younger reader pieces of Beowulf and they're right there with me. And so I believe in the young reader's ability to decode. I believe they want the challenge. Some of the young adult novels I love were originally designated for adults; The Book Thief  is a prime example.  John Green, for his part, writes keen, young adult-oriented stories. I was the chairman of the National Book Awards Young People's Literature Award in 2001, and I had to read 163 books. The ones that rose to the top were not bound by age. I value that type of literature.

REL: Do you imagine this story is very specific to its setting? The interactions of the sisters feel decidedly contemporary.

BK: That was intentional. They are on the verge of something new. I did not want to write a book that was fusty and old. [In September 1876,] liberation is in the air. And I did, on purpose, give the girls a way of interacting with each other and the world that was more modern. I wanted the readers to fall in love with Philadelphia through characters they could empathize with. I just gave them the most modernity I could.

REL: Where does Katherine's sense of right and wrong, of impropriety, come from? She's so against Bennett from the beginning but recognizes her parents eventually would have given in and let Anna marry him. Who does she think is watching her and her sister and why does she care so much?

BK: Well, when you are endowed with that protective gene, you are also often burdened with a judgmental quality. It's just Katherine’s way of being and seeing. She's afraid to be alone and doesn't know how to be herself yet. She cares so much because she cares about outcomes and consequences 'They will know if Anna gets hurt. They will know it's my fault,' is what runs through her mind. She's thinking of consequences all the time.

REL: Throughout the novel, Anna appears to be very modern and believes that love is more important than social boundaries or customs. Katherine was more traditional and judged her sister's behavior harshly. Did you intend their battles against each other to also represent the battle of past and future, old and new?

BK: I would not say that that was in my mind there. I was interested in their mother, who was so progressive – who spent her time fighting for a feminist future, but also, correspondingly, was simply not home for the daughters she was ostensibly fighting for. Between Anna and Katherine, I'm more like Katherine. I was interested in what happens when the responsible sister can't save the one who was more beautiful. One of the questions I asked myself was, How does one keep on going when what was most brilliant in one’s life is gone? When I was writing the book, I was in a position to understand jealousy very well, and I sought to find out what damage jealousy does.

REL: Why does Katherine feel so guilty over her sister's death? I understand she considered herself Anna's protector but I don't think that the blame for her sister's demise could be assigned to Katherine. And as a side note, I thought throughout the novel that Anna had killed herself.

BK: It was an accident. Katherine felt the guilt I think all survivors feel. Katherine had pulled away from Anna. Anna did not say to Katherine, “I don't want you around.” She said, “My world is growing.” Katherine's wasn't. She decided to skate with this stranger because it was her way of possessing her own private thing. Still, how could she not feel guilt? Do I blame Katherine? No. Should readers blame Katherine? No. But she blames herself.

REL: Please explain what or how the “dangerous neighbors” theme plays into the plot, etc.

BK: "Dangerous neighbors" refers to many things in the book.  It refers to the strangeness of having so many people descend upon Philadelphia at once—10 million strangers.  It also refers to the fact that Katherine and Anna both end up falling in love with the “wrong” boys.  But for me, mostly, "dangerous neighbors" refers to the proximity of Shantytown [a whole area of shanty houses constructed right across the street from the main entrance to the World Fair grounds], with its opium dens and shacks and wood structures, set nearly against all the immaculate new of the Centennial grounds.  

REL: What is the significance of the birds?

BK: Birds run through my life and through my books. I just finished a book that will come out next year (YOU ARE MY ONLY) and again, this motif of birds came up. I like to imagine landscapes from the bird's eye view. When you put yourself in that place—high above—you can see the world unfolding in novel ways.  In Dangerous Neighbors, Katherine seeks to fly—to get away from everything.  Flight and wings are both a metaphor, an idea, and a reality, for in the book she encounters a young girl who has a bird named Snow.  Snow is what brings Katherine and William back together by the story’s end.

REL: What did Anna's giving Bennett the robin's nest mean?

BK: It has to do with Anna’s ability to see beauty in things and her generosity in sharing those things. They share that worldview. It’s one of the things Anna loves about him [so the gift represents that mutual love of beauty].

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