I started writing palm-size handmade books out of construction paper when I was seven. I wrote and illustrated these books at night, under the covers, with a flashlight. The stories often featured a girl who performed heroic deeds on horseback. (Totally imaginary, as I was a city girl then.) I was lucky to have wonderful teachers on my writing journey. My 8th grade English teacher, Norman Wilson, posted my poems on his wall and encouraged me to become a writer. My high school English teacher, Kay Herzog, taught me how to revise. And I was blessed, at Sarah Lawrence College, to study with Harvey Swados—who showed us the relationship between writing, work, and life; and with the inimitable and brilliant Grace Paley, who taught me so much about voice and dialogue. I have always combined teaching and writing; I co-authored a book on British Primary Schools when I was just out of college. I later published magazine articles on education, rural life, nature, and gardening—topics that I still explore in my non-fiction writing today. Then, in my thirties, I met the children’s book writer Katherine Leiner, who asked me a question that changed my writing journey: “Since you work with children and love to write, why haven’t you written a kid’s book?” A few years after that, I published my first YA historical novel, West Against the Wind. Since then, I have published 15 more books for young readers, both fiction and non-fiction.
What I love most, about being an author:
The wonderful messages I have received from my readers. Sometimes these messages inform me of unexpected connections—such as when I wrote a novel, Orphan Journey Home, based on the adventures of a real family who made a heroic journey in 1828—and then heard from the family’s direct descendants. Sometimes I hear from a reader that my work has touched him or her in a particular way. My YA novel, Blue Coyote, came out before there were many novels with gay protagonists. A number of readers wrote to thank me for writing the book, saying that they identified with Alex and that the novel made them feel less alone.
My most recent novel, Out of Left Field, was published as a YA but it has become a cross-over book. I’ve heard from many adult readers who remember the Vietnam conflict and want to share their stories of that era. Some were drafted, fought there and survived—but lost buddies. One woman told me about her boyfriend who went to Canada, like the father in the story; other readers recalled participating in peace marches; a close friend shared the story of her young husband’s death after he was wounded in battle. Brandon, the protagonist, loses his father at the novel’s beginning, so I’ve also heard from readers who lost a parent when they were young. I’m moved and honored to hear all these stories.
As a child, I always wished I could drop into the setting of The Secret Garden, and spend a week with Dickon. I was in love with his thick accent and curly hair. I envied him his freedom, his humor, his knowledge of nature (both plants and animals), his down-to-earth common sense, and his ability to heal two damaged children.
If your book was made into a movie, who would you cast as the leads?
My historical novel, Newsgirl, would make a great movie. It takes place in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. The main character, Amelia, is twelve. She should be portrayed by a feisty, athletic actor who is comfortable disguising herself as a boy; who could hold her own in the nearly all-male population of a rough gold rush town; and who would survive many dramatic moments, including a balloon ascent (and crash) in the gold fields; a narrow escape from being Shangaied; and a fire that nearly levels the growing city. Anyone interested?
If you had a time machine, which era would you go back to?
When I write about the past, I hope my readers feel they have been transported to that era and location in a time machine. I’ve written four books that take place during the California Gold Rush (two novels, two non-fiction) so I’d love to be transported back to that period. (Sometimes I wonder, if we do have past lives, if I’ve lived there already.) I’ve spent more than half my life in Vermont, and my novel, Where the Great Hawk Flies, is set there just after the American Revolution. I’d love to visit my beloved state as it was a few hundred years ago—as long as I could return to the present.
My most recent novel, Out of Left Field, takes place during the Boston Red Sox’s winning baseball season in 2004, only 11 years ago—but it has echoes to the Vietnam War, an era that I lived through myself. In that case, I felt I was in a time machine that allowed me to revisit my own past. I returned to recent memories and our excitement as the Red Sox pulled off that spectacular win. But I was also haunted by the ghosts of the Vietnam era, when I lost my cousin and a dear friend to the conflict, causing me to join in the anti-War movement.
If you could be a supernatural creature, what would you be?
Rather than being a supernatural creature, I’d rather stay in the natural I’ve studied the lives and habits of sea turtles and have written about them with two friends. My husband and I have swum with green sea turtles, while snorkeling in the Caribbean, and measured leatherbacks’ nests on the beach. I’d love to inhabit a sea turtle’s world for a while, to swim with their ability to find their way over vast distances. Or I’d cruise along the ocean floor, nibbling sea grass in the turquoise water as giant sea fans wave and colorful parrotfish wriggle past.
I’m lucky to have a quiet studio on the top floor of our house outside Boston. I write well here—but I also find inspiration in natural settings: forests, the seaside, the mountains of Vermont, the path along the Charles River, or in my garden. For this reason, I always carry a notebook in case an idea comes to me when I’m away from my desk.
What was the last book you read and what did you think?
The last book I read is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I found it stunning, brilliant, passionate, inspiring. I loved the characters, and I was touched by Doerr’s compassion for people on both sides of the conflict, caught up in violence that was not of their making. His historical detail brings that era (WWII) vividly to life. And I was impressed with the book’s structure, the way the action moves back and forth in time so seamlessly. It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time. And I’ve just begun to read M.T. Anderson’s brilliant and fascinating biography of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony for the City of the Dead. I can’t put it down.
If you didn’t write in your genre, what genre would you write in?
I actually write in more than one genre. Two friends and I have recently finished a non-fiction picture book. On my own, I’ve written biography, historical and contemporary novels—such as Out of Left Field—as well as magazine articles, poetry, and essays. My friend, the writer Phyllis Root, asks a great question: “What would you write if you knew you could not fail?” My answer to that is that I’d love to try writing a play.
Where can fans find you online?
To find me online: visit my website: lizaketchum.org, which has information about all my books; I also blog at that site. Or visit my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/liza.ketchum. I blog occasionally for Bookology, the online magazine focused on children’s books: www.bookologymagazine.com