KN: I love the diverse and vibrant characters in ROCKY ROAD. How did you create characters that feel like best friends?
RK: Thank you, Kate. Character development is a process that I work hard at, and it takes time. I liken this to the way close friendships develop and blossom. First you meet, have an exchange and a spark of connection that grows stronger as you get to know each other on, during both good times and bad. Sometimes I’ll “interview” a character before I write a scene. I ask her questions about what makes her mad or sad or what she wants. The process of writing down responses feels like a chat over tea and cookies. (Okay, sometimes I enjoy tea and cookies during these interviews!)
I am drawn to “diverse” characters in many senses of the word. Tess, for example, stood out with her gentle spirit and fashionable style, even if she was a kid who had struggled and hadn’t lived a privileged life. I’ve noticed in stories that the stylish girl is usually the snooty one. (Think Sharpei in “High School Musical.”) I wanted to create a character whose face lit up when she talked about plush fabrics she could sew with, but who would also do anything in the world for her little brother. Winnie, Tess’s senior, African-American friend from the Mohawk Valley Village, drew me because she was a breath of fresh air. Her love of Motown coupled with her wisdom, caring nurse instincts, and spry sense of humor were very appealing -- and just what the Dobsons needed in their lives.
KN: Along that same line, how did you distinguish your characters’s voices from one another?
RK: I think some of this happens on a subconscious level. It’s kind of like how we know our family members so well that, when one calls us from afar, we don’t need to see their faces to recognize them. I work at finding the essence of my characters’ voices before I begin writing. How they speak, how they feel, even the words they chose to make a point. Take Delilah Dobson, for example. She considers herself a proud Texan through and through, and I wanted to reflect that, in part, through her language. For this reason I studied up on Texan slang. That was fun research, even if it didn’t all make its way into Rocky Road. For example, here’s a Lone Star description that makes me smile: “To a Texan, ‘arrogance’ means you’ve got more crust than a pecan pie factory.”
KN: Why did you choose to feature mental illness in ROCKY ROAD?
RK: A few years back a family friend was in crisis after his teenage son made a suicide attempt. I remember my friend telling me that he felt like he couldn’t share this heartbreak with many of his friends, even though it was the most difficult thing he and his wife had ever endured. The stigma attached to mental illness prevented him from doing so. And in a few cases, when he did confide to others about it, friends seemed paralyzed, unable to respond. That stayed with me. It must be hard enough to cope when your child is in such crisis, and twice as hard if you feel you can’t reach out to others.
In any given year mental illness affects about fifty-eight million people. That’s one in four adults struggling with bipolar disorder (like Delilah Dobson) and other mental health conditions. I wanted to shed some light on this. And I also wanted to show hope. Having a mental illness, though difficult, is not a terminal diagnosis. I don’t think many people realize that the best mental health treatments are highly effective. While it is far from easy, people can take care of themselves and live quality lives, providing they get the support of medical personnel and their families. I also have empathy for family members with a loved one dealing with mental illness. In Rocky Road I wanted to show the impact that mental health has in a family and in particular, on children who feel so powerless.
KN: Your first novel, Kimchi and Calamari, has a food-based title. When you set out to write Rocky Road, did you intend to pick another food-based title based on your favorite ice-cream flavor or did the story lead you to the title?
RK: I didn’t set out to give Rocky Road a food-related title, like Kimchi & Calamari. Its working title in fact was “Whatever It Takes” because that epitomized Tess’s spirit. The title drew upon the Dobson family motto: “Ice cream warms the heart, no matter the weather”. Then I learned about a study that linked ice cream flavor preference to personality, and it hit me that Tess indeed was a rocky road lover who had experienced a rocky road life. (Rocky road lovers are balanced, charming, and goal-oriented.) That, of course, served up the title. (Pun intended!) Full disclosure: coffee is my favorite ice cream flavor, although I certainly wouldn’t turn down rocky road if you offered it to me.
KN: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
RK: I want to thank you for your time and for your blog, Kate. It’s a terrific source of information for me as an author. I love hearing other writers reflect on their craft & the inspiration for their work. And I am in awe of how teachers take texts, analyze and interpret them, and facilitate so much creative learning with students through them. Three cheers for you and for all educators!
And before I forget... I’m excited to share my book trailer with your readers. It gives a little “sample” of Rocky Road. You can view it at http://www.rosekent.com/Enjoy!
KN: Thanks so much for the interview. Check out the March 14th post for Rocky Road activities.