Tag Archives: Liza Ketchum

Family History

Family stories have inspired a number of my novels. Readers of this blog know that my great-grandmother’s elopement with a vaudeville musician led me to write The Life Fantastic. But my brother and I heard many other family stories, growing up.

Adventures of a Young ManA story written by one of my mom’s ancestors, James Ohio Pattie, played an important role in my first novel, West Against the Wind. My mom’s great-uncle Chuck Bray, hearing of my research into American pioneer history, sent me a copy of Pattie’s book, The Personal Narrative of James Ohio Pattie: The Adventures of a Young Man in the Southwest and California in the 1830s (the University of California Libraries has made the book available online through archive.org).

Pattie and his father, Sylvester, were fur traders and explorers before the opening of the Oregon Trail and the later stampedes of the California Gold Rush. When James returned to Missouri, he described his travels in a wilderness that was completely unfamiliar to most white Americans. According to Pattie’s account, he was the hero of every expedition, the savvy pathfinder when they were lost, the brave hunter who saved their party from a grizzly bear, and the keen-eyed miner who discovered a rich vein of copper in the mountains.

Westward Against the WindIn spite of these obvious exaggerations, and my distaste over Pattie’s racist treatment of native people, his detailed descriptions of the west—written before photography was available—helped me to recreate the actual settings, wildlife, and physical challenges my characters encountered on the journey.

I even gave Pattie a cameo role as the crusty but friendly trapper who appears in West Against the Wind. He shares sound advice about the perilous ferry crossing ahead and recognizes my narrator’s resourcefulness as a trader.

Copper mine in Arizona

(An amazing postscript to this story took place decades later. My husband and I were driving a scenic route from Tucson, Arizona to Mountainair, New Mexico, where our daughter-in-law was coring piňon pines for her doctoral research. We pulled over at a roadside attraction, and found ourselves on the precipice of a gargantuan copper mine. As I gaped at the size of the cratered landscape, John—who always reads historical markers—shouted: “Your ancestors were here!” I hurried over. To my astonishment, James Ohio Pattie and his father were memorialized on the sign, as the trappers who originally discovered the copper—just as Pattie had claimed. It’s hard to describe the mix of emotions I felt: despair and shame over the egregious mistreatment of the Apache and other tribal groups in the area; heartbreak over the rape of the landscape—combined with the stunned realization that my ancestor’s dramatic tale may have held more truth than I realized.)

To return to my mom’s family: by the time she was nineteen, my mom had lost her adored father and all four grandparents. But Mom brought our grandfather to life through stories focused on his sense of humor. She told us how he teased Weezie, our grandmother, by putting coat buttons in the collection plate at church, and how the neighbors loved his homemade bathtub gin.

Dancing on the TableWe spent most summers with Weezie at her Vermont home. Though she insisted on high standards for us, she was famous for dancing on tables at parties during the Roaring Twenties. We even had a picture of her, dancing the Charleston in her flapper dress, with wineglasses at her feet. That photo, along with Weezie’s second marriage to my Grandpa Gil—which took place during a hurricane in Vermont—inspired my middle grade novel, Dancing on the Table.

On my dad’s side, I was lucky to know my grandfather, George Ketchum, for many years. He loved history in general, and also enjoyed sharing family history. He captivated us with stories about his peripatetic, hardscrabble upbringing. He told us that he was working as a court stenographer when he was “barely out of short pants”. A fine writer, he recounted his early years in an inspiring, personal memoir, “So When They Ask Me.” Though I haven’t drawn on Grandpa’s life directly, young characters in my stories often have jobs, such as selling newspapers (Amelia in Newsgirl), helping with sheep shearing (Gabriel in The Ghost of Lost Island) or working in a pizza parlor (Brandon in Out of Left Field).

Where the Great Hawk FliesMy grandfather’s eccentric brother, Carlton, delegated himself the family historian. I treasure his cramped, handwritten letters, sharing details of our Randolph, Vermont ancestors. When Uncle Carlton learned I was writing historical fiction, he insisted that I had to tell the story of our Griswold ancestors: Joseph, a farmer, and his Pequot wife Margery, a midwife and healer. They settled in Randolph at the time of the American Revolution. Carlton sent me an article about this couple, as well as newspaper clippings about their life together. Those letters and articles sat in my “Idea File” for twenty years, until the Mashantucket Pequot Museum opened and I decided I could fictionalize their story. Where the Great Hawk Flies was the result. I’m only sorry that Uncle Carlton didn’t live to read the story that his demands inspired.

I’m lucky that I could draw on rich family resources for my fiction. Now I think about the stories I’ve passed on to my own children and grandchildren. Which ones will they remember? And why?


The Boston Athenaeum

For many decades, it has been my great pleasure to be a member of the Boston Athenaeum. What a resource! I have spent many hours in that wonderful library, doing research for non-fiction books as well as for my historical novels. 

The Gold RushTheir collection of books on Western history has been particularly helpful. When I was working on The Gold Rush, a companion book to the Stephen Ives/Ken Burns PBS series, The West, I came across a first edition of J.D. Borthwick’s amazing book, Three Years in California. Like many of the thousands who traveled to California in search of instant wealth, Borthwick—a talented artist from Scotland—discovered that it was easier to earn money serving the miners rather than to join them in the arduous search for gold.

Faro by J.D. Borthwick, 1851

Faro by J.D. Borthwick, 1851

In the 1850s, photography was in its early stages, so Borthwick drew pictures of miners at work and play, and sold the pen and ink drawings to his subjects. Eight of these wonderful portraits appeared in his book, giving me a realistic glimpse into the daily lives of the miners. Thanks to the Athenaeum’s help, I was able to use a couple of his drawings in my own book. 

I am pleased that the library has included me among their Athenaeum Authors. Here’s the article on their website:

Boston Athenaeum


Why Baseball?

October 13, 1960. Game 7 of the World Series: Pittsburgh Pirates vs. New York Yankees. I left school on a run and raced up the hill to our house, where I found my mother—who never watched TV in the daytime—glued to the set. Ninth inning: the game was tied. At that moment, Bill Mazeroski smashed a home run out of the park. Mom and I screamed and jumped up and down as Pirate fans went beserk. The phone rang: my dad was calling from the office, over the moon. He’d grown up in Pittsburgh and was a life-long Pirates fan. Gritty, blue-collar Pittsburgh had beaten the stuck-up, entitled Yankees.

This statue commemorates Bill Mazeroski rounding second base after his series-winning home run for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960. Photo: Creative Commons BY 2.0

Mazeroski’s home run—famous as the one and only Game Seven walk-off win in World Series history—is my earliest, most memorable baseball memory.

Baseball was like background music in my family: always there. My dad, uncle, grandfather, and brother talked baseball and kept track of their teams. Dad alerted me to writers who wrote lyrically about the game. Without realizing it, baseball lingo and metaphors became imbedded in my brain. In high school, my boyfriend took me to a Red Sox game, where bleacher seats were $5, but I didn’t become a true fan until later in life. Raising my kids in Vermont without television, we didn’t see games often—though our neighborhood watched the debacle of the ’86 Sox/Mets series in a friend’s basement. I’m sure our screams of horror could be heard for miles when the ball skipped through You-Know-Who’s feet.

Out of Left FieldDuring my Vermont years, friends Rosie and Peter Shiras, ultimate Sox fans, talked baseball and urged me to follow the game. A Civil Rights activist, Rosie taught her students about baseball’s failure to integrate, as well as the Red Sox’s shameful distinction as the last team to sign an African American player. When she retired from teaching, Rosie’s students gave her a signed, framed Jackie Robinson baseball card. (Those who have read my baseball-themed novel, Out of Left Field, might recognize her card as that story’s endowed object.) Last year, I attended the annual game honoring Robinson at Fenway—the day when everyone in baseball, from players to coaches to the grounds crew, wears Robinson’s retired number 42. I raised my cup of beer to Rosie and Peter (RIP) in thanks for sharing their love of the game.

Liza KetchumWhen I married a rabid Red Sox fan and moved to Boston, I became an ardent fan myself. Though baseball can be agonizingly slow compared to soccer (a game I also enjoy and have written about), I love watching a team come together through the season. I love the way Fenway Park feels intimate, even with 37,000 cheering fans, and it’s fun to see how the view of the game changes, depending on where you sit. The city and the region bond with the team, in ways that can be heartbreaking or magical. (That was most evident after an impossible World Series win, when much of New England went berserk with joy—but also after the horror of the Marathon bombings, when the team helped bring the city together.) I love the way the park erupts when a player makes a sensational catch or hits the ball over the Green Monster. I appreciate the smell of pretzels and French fries, the first sip of beer on a hot night, the sappy way we belt out “Sweet Caroline,” no matter the score. I’ve been in awe of the grace and intelligence of a pitcher like Pedro Martinez; I admire the grit of Dustin Pedroia, a small player with an outsize heart. For years, we celebrated the strength and dominant personality of David Ortiz—and now it’s a delight to watch fresh young talent coming up. Hope, despair, joy, tedium, pandemonium, astonishment, laughter—you can never predict what emotions will dominate on any given night.

This year, in particular, baseball provides a much-needed escape from the horrors at home and in the wider world. We have tickets to a Sox-Cardinals game, the team we beat in the World Series after our eighty-six year drought. Like the narrator in my novel Out of Left Field, we’ll emerge from the concrete walkway where—as Brandon says—“The first sight of that green expanse, glittering in the sun, never gets old.” We’ll watch the players warm up, making lazy, impossibly long tosses across the field. We’ll find our seats, stand for the Star Spangled Banner, take that first sip of beer, and wait for the announcement we love: “Play ball!”

And the game begins.


Growing Up as a Writer, part two

Liza Ketchum

Question
Harvey Swados, your writing instructor at Sarah Lawrence College, sent you out into the world to observe and experience before you wrote. Can you share some of those experiences with us? Do you still work this way when you write?

Answer
When I enrolled in Harvey Swados’s creative writing class, I was a naïve young woman with little worldly experience. I wanted to write, but what would I write about? I knew nothing about Swados, but the class description was intriguing and something told me I needed that course. However, I was a transfer student and arrived to find the class had already filled. I was devastated. So I sat outside the classroom every day until Swados finally gave in and let me enroll.

Harvey Swados

Harvey Swados

Each week, Swados sent us into New York City on assignment. The city was just twenty minutes away by train, but the sites we visited were completely removed from our privileged campus existence. “Carry a notebook,” he told us. “Listen, ask questions, use your senses. And always bring a friend.” Turid Sato, my intrepid Norwegian roommate—who had crossed the Atlantic by freighter, and cross-country skied north of the Arctic circle—was the perfect companion. 

Swados sent us to Night Court, a 24-hour courtroom where men and women were arraigned for shoplifting, assault and battery, and gun possession, under the weary gaze of a judge who’d seen it all. Turid and I visited the New York produce market after midnight and listened to grocers haggle with wholesalers over prices. We went to the Fulton Fish Market, at Manhattan’s tip, at four in the morning. There we watched burly men unload crates of fish and heave them into refrigerated trucks before stomping into the local diner. We followed them in, and ate the best pan-fried fish I have ever tasted. We also brought live lobsters home in paper bags—which caused a commotion on the subway when a loose claw started waving at our seatmate.

On the Line by Harvey SwadosHarvey Swados wrote about the working world. Before he was a published professor of writing, he worked as a metal finisher at a Ford Motor plant. His experiences there led to the publication of his story collection, On the Line. The pieces we wrote for his class were full of gritty sensory detail, realistic dialogue, and interesting characters. While I didn’t become a reporter, as my friend Carter Stith did (for the St. Louis Post Dispatch), this class gave me the confidence to write non-fiction.  And I learned the importance of immersing myself in the places that I wrote about; that no question is too dumb to ask; that most people enjoy talking about themselves, their lives, and their work.  

Out of Left FieldSince that class, I have always included workplaces in my stories and novels, and that includes work done by young characters as well as adults. The work may be incidental to the story—as Brandon’s work in a pizzeria is, in Out of Left Field—or the focus of an entire story, such as Newsgirl, where Amelia disguises herself as a newsboy in order to support her family, or The Life Fantastic, about Teresa’s struggle to become a star onstage. My novels have included a woman geologist and “powder monkey,” a photographer, a ticket seller at Fenway Park, a carpenter, a retired electrician, a newspaper editor who sets his own type, a social worker, a baker, a seamstress, a child who labored as an indentured servant (against his will), a Hollywood screenwriter, a banker, a sheep farmer, and a tattoo artist. (Thanks to Swados, I knew that I would have to spend time in a tattoo parlor, watching and asking questions, in order to create convincing scenes for Blue Coyote.)

In addition to helping to reveal character, writing about a workplace allows the writer to use more interesting nouns and lively verbs, since every type of work has its own vocabulary. Most important: even the most tedious workplace could hold the spark that inspires a good story—and that’s a gift for the writer.

[For more about Harvey Swados]


Growing Up as a Writer, part one

Liza Ketchum

Question
Liza, you’ve shared that your early fascination with acting and a love of the theater have informed your writing. How do you apply your knowledge of theater to the writing you do? How can other writers make use of this?

Answer
Since I was very young, I loved making up stories and acting them out. As a child, my friend Sally and I dressed up in my grandmother’s cast-off dresses from the Roaring Twenties. Playing in the shade of the elm tree, at my grandmother’s house in Vermont, we became Greek goddesses, queens and servants, and other invented characters. As teens, Sally and I hung out at the local summer theater, trying to help out (but probably getting in the way). I acted in plays in high school, attended theater school after graduation, and ran the drama program at a summer camp in my college summers. Though I didn’t continue acting, my experience with theater was incredibly helpful when I began to write fiction. In drama school, I learned to inhabit the characters that I played, both physically—down to their tics, their posture, their manner of walking, the timber of their voices—as well as emotionally. What were their fears, desires, foibles, needs, secrets? As actors, we needed to know everything about a character’s background, her family, her friends, and enemies—in short, everything a writer needs to think about when creating characters for her novels.

When I taught with Kelly Easton, who is both a playwright and novelist, I realized how important it was for our students to read plays and/or attend theater performances. Watching or reading a play can help the novelist understand the structure of scenes, and the scene’s forward momentum is often more sharply defined in a play than in a novel. I have always thought of dialogue as the spine of a story; the source of a story’s energy as well as its backbone—so reading plays is an excellent way for the writer to hone her skills with dialogue. It also attunes the writer to the sounds of the words on the page. Because young readers also enjoy live theater, I thought it would liven up their reading experience to add three scenes, written in play form, to The Life Fantastic, so that they could take on the roles of my characters and interpret them themselves. 

I’m lucky to live in a region where I have access to excellent major theater productions, but summer stock, university theaters, and smaller neighborhood productions also provide inspiration for fiction writers—so buy a ticket and enjoy!

Summer Stock theater, this one in New Hampshire


Join us for a lively discussion!

SCRIBBLERS THREE: How does being in a writer’s group expand and sustain your work? Eileen Christelow, Karen Hesse, and Liza Ketchum, authors for young readers, have been in a critique group for more than thirty years. They will discuss how their writing changed and developed as the group evolved, and will share their most recent books:  Robins! How They Grow Up! (Christelow), My Thumb (Hesse); and The Life Fantastic (Ketchum).

Join the discussion on April 29, 2017, 4:00 pm at the. Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vermont.

Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, VT


Maeve’s Warning

When Thunder ComesIn The Life Fantastic, Maeve warns Teresa to be careful in her friendship with Pietro, an African American vaudeville performer. She tells Teresa that black men and boys in the South “get lynched if they look at a white girl.” Maeve also shares the story about a civil disturbance in Springfield, Illinois in 1908, where a white woman lied about being raped by an African American.  Two black men were arrested, and when they escaped lynching, white residents rioted, causing massive destruction in the black community. The woman’s lie wasn’t discovered until after the riot ended and a number of people were killed. After that, Maeve’s father took part in Ku Klux Klan meetings.

Many people think that the KKK was only active in southern states, but in the novel, Teresa remembers her father talking about the Klan having meetings in Vermont. Do you know the history of the KKK? Are you aware of their continuing presence in America today?

Learn more with these recommended books:

Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: the True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate, written by Rick Bowers, National Geographic Society, 2012.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group, written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders, written by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engle, John Parra, and Meilo So, Chronicle Books, 2012.

Witness, written by Karen Hesse. Scholastic, 2001.

Wreath for Emmett Till, written by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.



You’re Invited!

The Life FantasticPlease join us for a party to celebrate the release of The Life Fantastic: A Novel in Three Acts. The story takes place in 1913, at a time when vaudeville was America’s most popular form of entertainment. The book was inspired by a family story: Liza’s great-grandparents eloped and ran away to the vaudeville stage. In keeping with the vaudevillian backdrop of the book, the evening will include theatrical entertainment and music, as well as a reading and time for questions. The book has received kudos from teen readers as well as adults.  

When: Thursday, March 9, 7 PM

Where: Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Cambridge, MA.  617-491-2220

For more information about the book, see Liza’s website: www.lizaketchum.org

Or follow Liza on Facebook.

The Life Fantastic provides a fascinating window into the 1900s New York vaudeville scene, while examining the complexities of family support and expectations, as well as burgeoning black activism … Ketchum fits it together seamlessly and entertainingly. Her love of vaudeville shines through Teresa and her descriptions of 1913 Broadway, but she does not ignore the built-in limitations placed on people of color.” (VOYA Magazine)


Blacks and Vaudeville

Marvin Jones and his son Pietro are two of the characters in The Life Fantastic. An African American father-and-son dance team, they appeared on vaudeville stages across the United States. In spite of challenging color barriers in place throughout the country, they learned the unwritten rules and abided by them so that they could continue to perform.

Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham

Popular comedian Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham is featured in the PBS documentary, “Vaudeville,” in a 19-minute segment on blacks in vaudeville.

Learn more about the challenges presented to black performers on this segment from PBS’ Vaudeville on “Blacks and Vaudeville,” narrated by Ben Vereen. This segment also focuses on successful black performers such as the Nicholas Brothers (whose dance routines are similar to those performed by Pietro and his father), and the comedian Bert Williams, who some called “the Jackie Robinson of show business.”

The full show from PBS American Masters, Vaudeville.



President, Comedian, Immigrant

President Harry S. Truman

President Harry S. Truman (Wikimedia Commons)

Harry Truman grew up in Kansas City, where he never missed a vaudeville show playing at the Orpheum or the Grand Opera House. Sons of German Jewish immigrants who originally settled in New York City, the Marx Brothers moved to Chicago in 1910, so they were frequently onstage in Kansas City, where young Harry Truman saw and loved them.

When Harry Truman became President of the United States in 1945, there were thousands of Europeans displaced after World War II who had no place to go.

Groucho Marx

Groucho Marx (Wikimedia Commons)

Prompted by his strong feelings about these immigrants, Groucho Marx wrote to Truman, encouraging him to make a stronger effort to open America’s borders to re-settle the refugees. In his correspondence with Groucho, Truman concluded, “Your ancestors and mine came to this country to escape just such conditions. There is no place for people to go now unless we can arrange it.” Groucho’s words echo into the present, as refugees still struggle to find a safe haven in America.

Vaudeville left its mark on a President and helped to shape history long after its stages went dark.

Read the full story from The National Archives.