Kate Messner and Beth Kephart on the real-life prison break that fueled their new middle grade stories
In June of this year, precisely three years after two prisoners broke out of Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York, Kate Messner and Beth Kephart published middle-grade novels inspired by the incident—BREAKOUT (Bloomsbury) and WILD BLUES (Atheneum), respectively. Kate’s book takes the form of a time capsule—a collection of letters, images, notes, and reports spearheaded by a young journalist in the making, a journalist whose desire to understand her world provokes others into observing, understanding, and finally uplifting theirs. Beth’s book is also a fictionalized version of the breakout, in which two best friends, a biology buff named Lizzie and a Salvadoran boy named Matias, get caught up in a post-break kidnapping deep in the woods. How is it that same event produced such different books? Kate and Beth talked to each other to find out.
Kate: Let’s start with the incident that sparked both of our novels. Where were you when you found out about the prison break? And how quickly did you know that you wanted to write about it?
Beth: I was ten months into helping my father clean out the family home here, outside of Philadelphia. I’d left behind most of my work (except for my teaching at Penn) and was just there, nearly every day, packing boxes, discovering shards of family history. At one point the books of my antiques-impassioned uncle were sitting next to the books of my scholar-turned-camper-turned-Great-Smoky-Mountains-defender great-grandfather. And I thought. Wow, okay. These two extremely different men are the writers in the family. What do I carry forward of them?
So I had that question in my head during the days and would return each night to my Salvadoran-artist husband. Physically exhausted, I’d turn on the news. The news was the break of the Clinton Correctional Facility. Two men, one of them an artist, who had tunneled out of a maximum-security prison. They were out there. They were dangerous. No one knew, for a while, where they were. I couldn’t stop watching the news, couldn’t stop reading about it, couldn’t stop Googling, couldn’t stop imagining myself there. I had previously been obsessed with prison breaks when I wrote an historical novel called DR. RADWAY’S SARSAPARILLA RESOLVENT. And I’d always been obsessed with the woods—they both terrify and electrify me.
So this was it. I was compelled to tell this story about two best friends—an American girl and a Salvadoran boy—caught up in a heart-pounding kidnap in the wake of a prison break.
I wrote in a mad fury. And what a fury. What a mess the first draft was.
Beth: You come at this from a place of living the break, that world, that landscape. Where were you when it all went down? When did you pick up your pen? Or pencil? Or laptop? Or journal?
Kate: I was at a book festival in the Thousand Islands when the inmates were discovered missing. I’d driven right past the prison at 5am on my way there, but it was quiet then because no one had discovered the escape yet. I found out when my husband and daughter, who were on their way to meet me, texted to let me know they’d be late because they kept getting stopped at police road blocks.
When I returned home, it was to a community swirling with police officers, circling helicopters, and fear. My house is just fourteen miles from Clinton Correctional Facility, so I was scared, like everyone else, but also fascinated. I’m a former journalist, so a couple of days after the prison break, I drove to Dannemora, attended the daily press conference, and then hung out at a nearby coffee shop, talking with people and listening to their stories. On the second day of listening and scribbling, I knew that I was going to write a novel about a prison break to explore some of the issues and emotions that were swirling around that small town.
But like you, there were other ideas swirling around my writer’s imagination as well. I’d been reading a lot about race in America and why we have such a difficult time talking honestly about it, especially in small towns where people like to think racism is something from history. I’d been toying with the idea of time capsules and collected perspective on historical events. And in the middle of revising, I went to see the musical Hamilton and the lyrics inspired a whole new exploration of who tells our stories and whose voices aren’t heard. All of those elements came together in the book, which is told through a collection of documents collected for a community time capsule project. But that structure didn’t come about until I’d already finished a draft written in first person point of view.
Kate: It sounds like we both had massive revisions with these prison-break projects, and I wonder if that’s because the intensity of the story and the rush of emotions involved led the first drafts to be poured out so quickly. What did your revision process look like?
Beth: I love this—not that you experienced it, not that your husband and daughter were stuck at police roadblocks—but that you stepped in with your journalist passion and fine eye. I have a thousand questions to ask you. But right now I want to say that every student should do the summer project that you describe on page 5 of BREAKOUT. This community time capsule project that you reference. After we complete this conversation, I might just spend the rest of my summer that way.
But you ask about revision. Good glory. What didn’t I do? For WILD BLUES I had the characters—my young biologist Lizzie (which was one of my childhood nicknames), my young artist Matias (whose Salvadoran childhood and watercolor talents reflect my husband’s), my fabulous Uncle Davy and his renovated schoolhouse, my great-grandfather’s outdoors wisdoms (I channel those directly from his books), and the person to whom Lizzie is telling the story through the device of a victim impact statement. But man, did I have a lot of loose sentences. I had to tighten everything to give the story its proper, accelerating pace and to make my theme even clearer—to write about how it is ultimately up to us to keep each other safe.
Beth: You write, in your acknowledgments, about how your book came together like a puzzle—BREAKOUT is a book of many voices, many modes of communication, even sketches. Did you ever take a picture of your room, your shelves, your corkboard as you were piecing it all together? Which is about as close as we might get, I suspect, to seeing a picture of the inside of your head?
Kate: I try to remember to take photos throughout my writing process, because sharing that process is such a big part of the outreach I do with student writers in schools. So I have photos of everything from the initial “maybe-this-is-a-story” scribble in my writer’s notebook to my editorial letter and marked up pages. I’m wondering if you saved a lot of that, too. It might be fun to compare notes!
Usually when I do research for a novel, that involves lots of library time and traveling, but because I started working on BREAKOUT just days into the 23-day manhunt for the inmates who escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility, my research happened in real time – as I sat waiting in line at police roadblocks and was re-routed about roads that were deemed too unsafe because of the intense search.
Here are a couple of pages of my notes from those early days in Dannemora, written at the coffee shop near the prison. The second one is where the story for BREAKOUT started to take shape.
Kate: I’d love to see your earliest scribblings for WILD BLUES if you can dig them up!
Beth: Very cool to see that, Kate. And for the record, your handwriting is INFINITELY better than mine. Since I tend to be a visual writer, I surround myself with images to get going. Here are a few that carry forward into the story.
First, my Uncle Danny who becomes Uncle Davy in the story. Uncle Davy and Lizzie’s mother aren’t speaking to each other in WILD BLUES. But once, when they were kids, they were close, once they rescued one another, and this photo offers proof—here and also in the book.
Next, Matias—he is a character, as I’ve said, that erupted from my husband’s Salvadoran childhood and from my trips to El Salvador. I took this photograph at the coffee farm where my husband spent many childhood days—and many of Matias’s memories are located here.
Here are the books that inspired me—my great grandfather’s outdoor manuals (which are still beloved and in use today) and my uncle’s books on antiques. It’s because Uncle Davy is antiques-obsessed in WILD BLUES that Lizzie has a copy of the camping handbook that will help save her.
Finally, one of my husband’s watercolors, which is included in WILD BLUES. In the story, Matias is the artist and his watercolors provide some of the clues to his location. But in real life, all of that belongs to my husband.
Beth: Speaking of images, Kate, sometimes, when I’m teaching, I ask students (from children through my Penn students to the adults I teach) to condense their entire story to a single image. As a last question here, I wonder what, in BREAKOUT, emerges, for you, as the one telling metaphor, moment, or color.
Kate: It has to be the searchlights, I think. When the prison break was happening and you’d drive down the road at night, you could always tell where searchers thought the inmates might be hiding because the entire area — huge fields and tree lines — would be lit up with searchlights. Those bright, focused lights flooded from police cars and streamed down from helicopters circling overhead. I hadn’t realized it when we chose that image for the cover of BREAKOUT, but it’s so representative of the story — not just as it relates to the search for the escaped inmates but also in the way this incident in the story shines a light into some of the more shadowy corners of the town and forces my main character Nora to see things in her neighbors and her family that she hadn’t before.
Kate: What about you, with WILD BLUES?
Beth: I love that we both have deeply blue covers and what you say here about the searchlight. For me, the image may well be a sound—the call of the loon—which Lizzie hears after spending a dark night alone in a cave as she searches for Matias. There’s sadness in that call, and there is a deep aliveness, too. Which speaks for all our characters, which speaks to all of us.
Kate: We have loons on Lake Champlain and hear that call on lucky mornings, so I know just what you mean about the sadness and hope. Thanks so much for making time to chat about our books. I love that the same headline inspired us to write in such different directions! Let’s wrap up with information about where readers can find our books…
BREAKOUT is available from all of your favorite booksellers, and my local independent bookseller, The Bookstore Plus, has signed copies on hand if you’d like to order from them.
WILD BLUES is available in all of your favorite booksellers, too. And if you’d like signed bookplates, I’m happy to send some your way. Contact me through my web site, www.bethkephartbooks.com
Kate Messner is an award-winning author whose books for kids have been New York Times Notable, Junior Library Guild, IndieBound, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. was the winner of the 2010 E.B. White Read Aloud Award for Older Readers. Kate also spent fifteen years teaching middle school and earned National Board Certification in 2006. She lives on Lake Champlain with her family and loves spending time outside, whether it’s kayaking in the summer or skating on the frozen lake when the temperatures drop. You can find her online at www.katemessner.com.
As the author of 23 books in multiple genres, Beth Kephart has been named a National Book Award finalist as well as a winner of the Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant for Creative Nonfiction, a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Top Fiction grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Her books have received multiple starred reviews, been named to Best of Year lists, and been translated into more than fifteen languages. You can find her online at www.bethkephartbooks.com.
Kate and Beth, I love this Nerdy conversation and am thrilled you two found each other’s books. I hope you can find a way to collaborate in some conference presentations and school visits. It wold be fabulous to see you both signing together. Did you notice the color schemes of your books? I’m sure you did. The books belong together. I hope librarians create displays for them.
Beth, you know I love “Wild Blues.” Your writing and Lizzie’s wisdom are so luminous.
Kate, I have “Breakout” in my nightstand. I love the artifacts in it and am excited to read.
Both books will be part of my first days of school book talks. In AP Lit we’ll look at structure w/ both. In speech we’ll focus on the observant eye necessary for finding topics and inspiration.
Thank you both for making my reading and teaching experiences more fulfilling and relevant.
Glenda, you have the best ideas, always. Thank you.