Tag Archives: Vermont

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


The Life Fantastic, Question Three

Canary in a cageLiza, how did a dead canary inspire you to write this novel?

Vaudeville has fascinated me since I was a small child. That’s when my father told me the romantic story about my great-grandmother, Carrie Lebo. She stole away from home in the night to elope with a vaudeville musician, leaving her pet canary behind. The family found the bird dead in its cage the next morning and declared it a bad omen. 

William Patton, Carrie’s sweetheart, was a charming red-headed violinist. Carrie had a lovely voice and played the piano. The couple sang and played with a vaudeville troupe that moved from town to town, performing in small theatres. They had two children: a son; and my paternal grandmother, Thelma June. 

The couple’s elopement created a scandal in the small town of Shreve, Ohio, as did their divorce a few years later. Growing up, I often asked my grandmother about her parents. She told me that Carrie loved to sing, and that she was a skilled seamstress and music teacher. Although my grandmother had inherited her parents’ love of music (she also played piano), she refused to speak about her father, except to mention his red hair, and the fact that he seldom visited. Sadly, she was ashamed of her parents’ history.

For my grandfather George Ketchum, who started working when he was eleven, vaudeville was the only entertainment he could afford on his meager earnings. From the time I was four or five, Grandpa and I sang vaudeville songs together. He taught me silly, off-color tunes such as “Everybody works but Father, he sits around all day,” (here’s Groucho Marx singing it) and “There lay Brown, upside down, lapping up the whiskey off the floor.” Grandpa described what it was like to sit in the cheapest gallery seats, high above the stage, enjoying the shows with a rowdy audience.

From the National Trust for Historical Preservation, credit: Huw Webber

Thanks to my grandparents’ stories, I wondered: what was life like for vaudeville performers of all ages and backgrounds? One summer, while driving across the country, I stopped in the town of Leadville, high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, and visited the Tabor Opera House, which has been restored to its former grandeur. As my footsteps echoed in the quiet aisles, I looked up at the empty stage, with its beautiful forest backdrop, and tried to imagine the theatre packed with miners and other residents who were grateful for entertainment in their remote mining town. Since my grandmother couldn’t—or wouldn’t—tell her parents’ story, I decided to invent one myself.



The Life Fantastic, Question Two

Liza, why are you so interested in theater?

Ever since I was young, I have loved theater, music, and dance. The arts were an essential part of our family life, growing up. Music was always playing on our living room turntable, and our parents sang in the car with us on long drives. When our Nashville cousins came for summer visits, with their guitars, ukuleles, and their wonderful collection of songs, we sang for hours. 

My brother and I made up stories about our stuffed animals when we were young, and my friends and I invented characters and put on small plays. With the Ransom family—six boys whose mother loved theater—we put on plays (such as “Winnie-the-Pooh”) and played charades late into the night. I also liked dance, as this picture shows. I have no memory of the story behind it, but I recognize the dance studio in Vermont, where I spent childhood summers. I must have been about seven. 

Liza Ketchum dancing in Vermont

Here I am, dancing in Vermont. I’m the dancer on the left.

In "Ghost Train," I'm the actress seated on the chair.

In “Ghost Train,” I’m the actress seated on the chair.

In Junior High, I sang the lead of Mabel in “The Pirates of Penzance” (Gilbert and Sullivan), and in high school, I performed in the melodramatic play, “Ghost Train.”  (My most vivid and embarrassing memory of that performance was hearing my father’s laugh ring out from the front row of the audience. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized the play was a farce.) During my senior year, I was head of the Drama Club and often went to see theater in Boston, some of it experimental. I had a minor role in Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” probably the most difficult role I would ever play—because I was onstage for the entire play, but only had four lines. I had to act without speaking.

After high school, I attended The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City for a summer, and there I was introduced to Method Acting. In a funny way, that eight-week course—where I had to improvise and inhabit roles of people totally different from myself —was excellent training for writing novels. Just as in fiction, I had to imagine what it would be like to inhabit the body, mind, and emotions of another person. I had to invent that person’s history, family, and experience—not easy for a young adult who didn’t know much about the wider world. (Just out of high school, my fellow students were all adults working day jobs while trying to break into the theater.)

I was a camp drama coach for three summers, but by the end of my first year in college, where I took a terrific writing class, I knew I would become a writer. I’ve never lost my love for live theater and I’m lucky to live just outside Boston, a first-class theater city.



The Life Fantastic, Question One

The Life FantasticLiza, what is The Life Fantastic about?

It is 1913 and vaudeville is America’s most popular form of entertainment. Thousands of theatres and opera houses across the country host vaudeville troupes, including the Princess Theater in Brattleboro, Vermont. There, fifteen-year-old Teresa LeClair—who has a “voice like a nightingale”—remembers the thrill of singing onstage as a child. But her parents gave up life on the road, and her father has decided that Teresa, blessed with perfect pitch, should drop out of school and work in the tuning rooms of the local organ factory. 

Determined to escape, Teresa wins an amateur singing contest in Vermont and steals away on the night train to New York.  She hopes to become a star on Broadway’s “Great White Way.” She has no idea of the challenges that lie ahead, and her younger brother, Pascal (a budding juggler) complicates her adventure by stowing away on the same train. In the city, Teresa struggles to follow her dream and care for her brother, while fearing that her father will find them and force her to return home.

Brattleboro Vermont

Brattleboro, Vermont today … the historic district

Luckily, a more experienced vaudevillian named Maeve—who performs with a troupe of circus dogs—takes Teresa and Pascal under her wing. She coaches them as they perform in two-bit, amateur night competitions. In New York, Teresa runs into Pietro Jones and his father, talented African American dancers who had also performed in Brattleboro. Teresa and Pietro become competitors as well as prickly friends. At a time when young black men could be lynched for simply looking at a white girl, Pietro understands, better than Teresa, the danger of their relationship. As they compete in one contest after another, Teresa’s father tracks her down in New York—and demands that she return with her brother to Vermont. Instead, Teresa slips away again, wins a place on vaudeville’s Silver Circuit, and travels west with Pietro, his father, Maeve—and the dogs.

W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. DuBois

Performing in Western cities and towns, their vaudeville troupe appears in five or six shows a day. They “jump” from one town to the next, sleeping on trains or in fleabag hotels. Every performer risks audience disapproval, which can cause a stage manager to give them “the hook”—and send them packing. As they travel, Teresa’s eyes are opened to the discrimination her black friends face on the road.  She also learns, from Pietro, about a new movement for equal rights growing under the leadership of the great civil rights activist and writer, W.E.B. DuBois.

Teresa’s friendship with Pietro deepens to attraction, even as they realize they could never be together. When Pietro’s father becomes ill and can’t perform, Teresa and Pietro sing a duet onstage—with dire consequences for their careers and their safety. Teresa’s struggle to find her voice onstage and in her life, far from the support of her family, takes place against a complex backdrop of American history.



Vermont’s Estey Organ Company

Fifteen-year-old Teresa’s father works at the Estey Organ Company. Teresa has perfect pitch, which means she can identify a musical note, or sing a named note without hearing any music. This talent would help her get a job in the factory’s tuning rooms, where organ pipes are tested for accuracy. Teresa’s mother believes the job would destroy her daughter’s beautiful voice. And Teresa knows she would never survive, locked up in the factory all day long.

Based in Brattleboro, Vermont, this website serves as the digital museum for the Estey Organ Company, with photos and history about the once-famous manufacturer of parlor organs that graced the homes of many families and churches across the country.

Estey pump organ

An Estey pump organ. Notice the Stradivarius posed on top of the organ.

Estey Pump Organ

An Estey parlor organ with pipes! Can you imagine the sound in your parlor?