We discovered Kate Klise (from Norwood, Missouri) while researching Ella Ewing, Missouri’s giantess. Kate and her sister wrote a children’s book about Ella Ewing. Her book was so inspiring, we had to find out more about her. Read on!
Tell me a little about your childhood, where you were born and where you grew up.
I was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois, where I attended Catholic schools and spent many long hours diagramming sentences and memorizing the prepositions in alphabetical order. Sounds boring? It was. But the older I get the more I believe there’s nothing like dull assignments and repetitious chores to free the mind to dream and imagine. I know in my case I got a lot of good dreaming done during Sr. Theogene’s English classes. And diagramming sentences helped me to understand the rules of grammar, so that I felt free to break them later on when it seemed appropriate.
What piqued your interest in writing children’s books?
My sister Sarah, who lives in Berkeley, California, and I started creating books together when we were kids. I always wrote the words and she drew the pictures. Later, when we were both at Marquette University, we revisited the possibility of creating children’s books together. I’m glad we did. Writing for kids is such a kick in the pants. And unlike writing for adults, you can make a living writing for children. Writing for adults is trickier unless you happen to be named John Grisham or Jonathan Franzen or even Sarah Palin.
Are there any particular themes you hope to get across to your readers?
Not really. I rarely really think about themes until someone points out the fact that all my books are about outsiders—or people who break the rules—or the importance of questioning authority. And I’m like, “They are? Really?” I have no idea. I’m drawn more to characters and stories than themes or morals.
How did you learn about Ella Ewing, and why did you want to write a children’s book about her?
I first read about Ella Ewing in Rural Missouri, a monthly magazine published by my electric cooperative. As I kid, I grew up memorizing the names and facts from The Guinness Book of World Records, just like I memorized the prepositions. So my first question was: How did I miss Ella Kate Ewing, the Missouri giantess, who toured with all the big circus acts of the day as the Tallest Woman on Earth? But my second question was: Wow. Who was this woman with this mysterious Mona Lisa-like smile? I could tell just from looking at the old photos of Ella that she had a story to tell—and she did. I loved learning about her, from the silly pranks she pulled during her travels to her more serious attempts to maintain a sense of dignity for herself in an industry built on exploitation. I simply fell in love with her and thought kids would, too.
What is it like collaborating with your sister?
It’s fun and easier than you might think, mainly because I completely defer to Sarah when it comes to the look and feel of the books. She has a much better eye and feel for design than I do. And she lets me have my way with the stories because I think we both realize my sense of humor pretty much peaked in fifth grade.
Who would you consider the greatest influence in your life and why?
I guess for most of us, our greatest influences are our parents, right? My dad, Thomas Klise, was a writer. His book, The Last Western, had a certain cult following on college campuses during the 1970s. And my mom, Marjorie Klise, was a schoolteacher-turned-stay-at-home-mother who read to all six kids every night and took us to the public library every two weeks from the age of birth until we were sixteen and could drive ourselves. I think that—combined with all those boring hours spent diagramming sentences and dreaming of other, more interesting worlds—pretty much made me the person I am.
Do you have advice for women who would like to pursue writing?
Yes, I do. Write! You don’t need an agent or a publishing contract. Just write. Write your first drafts fast and messy. I try not to spend more than thirty days on a first draft only because I think most of us tend to do our best writing when we’re completely engrossed in the story and somewhat sleep deprived. For picture books, don’t spend more than a day or two writing a first draft. Then, put the story aside for a few days or weeks. Take it out again and write a second draft. Then a third. Then a fourth. Then, if you’re still in love with the manuscript, start researching publishing houses. For anyone interested in writing children’s books, check out the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (www.scbwi.org). It’s a great way to connect with editors, agents, and other writers.
Do you plan to do any other books about Missouri women?
Well, my newest book, Grounded, which came out in November, is based on the life of my friend Deb Baird who also cuts my hair. For years as she’s washed, conditioned, cut, colored, and done other mysterious things to my hair, Deb has told me stories about growing up in the Ozarks in the 1960s and ’70s. After the death of her brother and father, her mother got a job as a hairdresser in a funeral home. She styled hair and polished the nails of everyone who died in her small town. I used that as the basis for Grounded, but then added a sly man named Clem Monroe who comes to town and tries to swindle the good country folks by opening a crematorium. My editor in New York calls it Because of Winn Dixie meets Six Feet Under.
Do you have any future projects in the works you can tell me about?
I have a book coming out next spring titled Till Death Do Us Bark. That will be the third book in the 43 Old Cemetery Road series, which is popular with third, fourth, and fifth graders. I’m also working on the fourth book in that series, as well as a picture book, and some longer projects. And I’m also spending a lot of time lately on the road, leading writing workshops for kids, teenagers, and adults, which is a ton of fun.
Please share anything else you feel is relevant.
If you want to read more about Grounded and see a picture of Deb and me, go to:
And for more than you’d ever want to know about me and my books, visit my website: www.kateandsarahklise.com