“Urgency. Please.” Writer Beth Kephart on the need for honest, relevant fiction


Beth Kephart

I need them urgent. I need them to persuade me of their relevance, to yank me by the hair, to stop me in my whirling tracks, to somehow give me faith (still, still) in this planet rotten with injustice.

I am a bore, I am a scold, I am no fun, excuse me and but:

There is a girl in the Gaza strip paralyzed neck to foot and (also) orphaned. There is an Ebola virus mad with intent. There is a lake that holds no water in California, a husband murdered by the cops, so many lost Syrians that we are losing count, disappearing birds, confounding politics, Salvadoran children running toward a country that will turn them back, a comatose boy in a hospital bed, a mother’s young son going blind and if, in this time, in this place, you ask me to understand narratives built merely to sell, stories packaged merely to distract, books sold merely on the basis of hollow hype—well, I can’t.

I’m sorry. I can’t.

I need my books urgent. I require the meticulously unveiled. I insist on purposeful, on stories that sizzle in. I need characters that help me believe that we human beings are capable of deep thinking, tenderness, complication, problems solved, humanity. Humans capable of humanity. That’s what I want. I need the books I read to give me signs of that.

Desperation—the news fills me with it. Intelligence—I’m desperate for that. For sentences that surprise me, structures that appease me, characters who give me something like truth, and something like hope, and something like proof that both are still possible, still available to us. Don’t talk down to me, don’t try to trick me, don’t fudge, don’t diminish, don’t pimp your characters or your storylines out. Don’t tell me the book before me is the next Eat, Pray, Love or the Hunger Games on steroids or Andrew Smith without the grasshoppers or the sideways, because imitation doesn’t sound like urgency to me. It doesn’t sound essential. It sounds nugatory and also pyrrhic; it sounds cruelly hollowed out.

There are people out there hurting. There is a planet splitting apart. If we, as writers, are going to make a difference, we have to stop writing toward headlines, toward gimmicks, toward sales, toward the inevitable flaming out. We have to know where we are living, and what is at stake, and what we can do about this here, and this now.

We must write the book that might proudly stand as the last book ever written, ever read.

Time is running out.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 18 books, including, most recently Going Over, a Berlin Wall novel (Chronicle Books), Nest. Flight. Sky.: on love and loss, one wing at a time (Shebooks), and Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham).

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10 thoughts on ““Urgency. Please.” Writer Beth Kephart on the need for honest, relevant fiction

  1. Good post, Beth. Have you read the work of Patty McCormick? (Sold, Cut and more). I tried my hand at a very serious subject in Refugees. These books are hard to research, hard to write, but worth it, for sure.

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    • I can vouch for the power of McCormick’s latest book, Never Fall Down (about Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge). I haven’t read Cut, but it has been very popular with my female students for several years. It gets checked out from my classroom library, then passed around, and I never get it back. That’s a sign of a book that students find so compelling that they can’t help pressing it upon friends. I don’t mind when I lose a book this way. It’s worth the cost of a replacement copy (or two).

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  2. Patricia McCormick is a dear friend and one of my very favorite writers. Thank you, Catherine and Bill, for mentioning her. I think of her when I write about urgency. I also think of Ruta Sepetys.

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    • I loved Ruta’s “Between Shades of Gray” and added a hardcover copy to my classroom library. A book that works equally well as YA and adult fiction. I hope a lot of people bought it expecting that other trashy book and ending up liking it.

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  3. Agreed! Thank you for this, Beth. I’m a YA writer who until recently felt torn between writing romance, which comes naturally to me but felt too ‘flat’ to pursue, and addressing the frightening/fascinating troubles in the world which have always kept me up at night. I’m working on my second manuscript now, and this time I’ve found a way of blending the two elements that excites me. Even better, I can see doing this with one book after another – new ideas spring up frequently. I now feel urgent about writing each day, and the trick is to find patience to slow down enough to do the work justice.

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