Sunday, November 6, 2016

Q&A with Ronald Kidd

Ronald Kidd's many novels for young readers include Night on Fire, Dreambender, and The Year of the Bomb. He also has written plays, chapter books, and picture books, and he is senior editor of the United Methodist Publishing House. He lives in Nashville.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your novel Night on Fire, and for your main character, Billie?

A: My parents grew up in Nashville, and I spent part of my early life there, so my relatives were Southern. Some of them, unlike my parents, had racist views, and early on I was confronted with the question of how someone I loved very much could feel and say such terrible things.

When I saw Stanley Nelson’s great documentary, "Freedom Riders,” that seed sprouted into a story. I imagined the Freedom Riders coming through my town, and I watched as people I loved stood by and did nothing when the riders were beaten up and their bus burned.

What would I do? How could I try to make it right? As I pondered these questions, a 13-year-old girl named Billie came to life, asking these same questions and determined to do something about them.   

Q: What kind of research did you do to recreate Alabama during the time of the Freedom Rides, and was there anything you discovered that particularly surprised you?

A: Besides studying Stanley Nelson’s film, I did lots of reading about the Freedom Riders—histories, memoirs, magazine articles.

When I had gleaned what I could from reading, I drove to Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Alabama, where the story takes place, and I poked around, talked to people, and did more research.

On that trip I went to First Baptist Church in Montgomery, where a rally for the Freedom Riders had been held. Hoping just to see the layout and take some photos, I was greeted warmly by Deacon Benjamin E. Beasley, an elderly man whose mother had played the organ at the rally.

In addition to describing what he knew about the event, he gave me an hour-long tour of the church he loved, including the bell tower that became a key location in my story.

I left there bubbling over with energy, enthusiasm, and a determination to share the Freedom Riders’ story and my feelings about it. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book? 

A: People are complicated. All of us are complicated. We do wonderful things, and we do terrible things. Our job is to recognize it, forgive ourselves and others, and try to do better.

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes along the way? 

A: I always build the story structure first, in the form of an outline or summary of 10-15 pages, so I know my destination and some markers along the way. Then the details and dialogue emerge when I sit down to write.

Often the structure changes as I write or revise, but having it from the beginning gives me a framework within which to work. One writer put it this way: Making up the story as you write is a little bit like building a stage while you're trying to dance on it. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I have three middle-grade novels in various stages of development. I’m finalizing Room of Shadows, which will be published in August 2017, about a boy living in Baltimore whose anger summons the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe.

I’ve just finished Lord of the Mountain, about a boy in Bristol, Tennessee, who witnesses the beginnings of country music with the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers at a series of landmark recordings in 1927, the so-called Big Bang of Country Music.

And I’m working on a new novel about segregation and rhythm-and-blues music in Nashville during the early 1960s. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I enjoy working with my good friend, the renowned composer and brass teacher Anthony Plog, and have provided him with the text for two children’s operas, a cantata, and an oratorio. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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