Tag Archives: Liza Ketchum

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.



Book Love

A friend asked me to list “five favorite books throughout my life.” What a difficult question! Those titles change from day to day and year to year. But here is my Valentine’s Day card to a few books that changed the way I saw the world, or thought about the written word. (Ask me tomorrow and I might come up with a different list.):

Charlotte's WebCharlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. I first read this book as a child, reread it many times, then shared it with my sons, and now their children. Growing up in the country, I knew barns and animals like those in the story, and I loved hearing my parents’ voices when they read the novel out loud. The story also taught me that words have the power to change a life and a community.

The Secret GardenThe Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Gardens have always been important in my life. Some of my closest relationships, as a child, were with relatives who gardened. The novel showed me that a child’s relationship with nature could be healing and transformative. I’m now working on a memoir that views my life through gardens and gardeners. There’s a direct connection between the memoir and my reading of that novel.

Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. I will never forget reading Woolf’s novel for the first time. I was blown away by the structure, the beauty and rhythm of her sentences, the way she used stream of consciousness to enter into her characters’ inner lives. I admired the way she revealed the events of two dramatically different people during the course of a single day. It’s a book I reread every few years.

One Hundred Years of SolitudeOne Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Marcía Márquez. His famous opening sentence pulled me in: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Bendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”—a sentence I often quoted when teaching, to illustrate a strong hook. The novel was my first exposure to magical realism. I loved the characters and its sweep of history and time. I even went through a period where I reread the book every year.

BelovedBeloved, by Toni Morrison. This novel shook me to the core. I was profoundly moved and changed by reading her story, which left me feeling shattered and ashamed of my country’s history, yet grateful that she had offered these complex and indomitable characters to the world. When I reached the last sentence of the novel, I wondered: “How did she do that?” I went right back to the beginning to read it again. I cheered when Morrison won the Nobel Prize years later.

The Race to Save the Lord God BirdThe Race to Save the Lord God Bird, by Phillip Hoose. Okay, I know this is a sixth book; I’m being disobedient—but non-fiction is extremely important to me, especially as the planet faces extreme challenges from climate change. This is a wonderful story about the man who was determined to find—and save—the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. It shows that non-fiction can be as thrilling and suspenseful as a novel and its characters just as fascinating. This is one non-fiction book where I even read the footnotes.

How about you? What are your five (or six) favorite books?


The Trajectory of a Celebrity

Nora Bayes

Nora Bayes

Not all stars of the vaudeville stage are still remembered today. One of the most well-known singers in the 1910s and 1920s was Nora Bayes. Born in Joliet, Illinois as Eleanora Sarah Goldberg, she was on-stage by the time she was 18. She was a star of the Ziegfield Follies.

If you know the songs “Shine On, Harvest Moon” (probably written by Dave Stamper) or “Over There” (written by George M. Cohan) and you’ve heard the first recordings of those songs, then you’ve heard Nora Bayes singing.

Shine On, Harvest MoonAnother huge hit for her was “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” 

And yet her name has not lived on. An interesting classroom discussion would be to talk over which celebrities today will still be known in one hundred years … and why. Why is Will Rogers still a fairly well-known name today but Nora Bayes isn’t? 

You can listen to Nora Bayes singing here,