ES: Welcome, Kitty! You have an impressive resume. And somehow, despite your successes as a journalist and playwright, you’ve found time to be an active volunteer. So before we jump into talking kidlit biz, tell us a little about your experiences with Heart of Los Angeles Youth (HOLA)…it sounds like a wonderful organization!
KF: HOLA is a program for kids living in the poor neighborhoods just west of downtown Los Angeles. It's a dangerous, gang infested area. Many of the kids have older siblings who are gang members. One of the writers I worked with was in a wheelchair from a gang shooting.
How I got hooked was through a roundabout connection. 52nd Street Project is a New York playwriting program started by Willie Reale. An actor pal of mine invited me to come help out with a similar program he was doing at HOLA. Zip forward a couple of years, and I was running it.
We'd meet Saturday mornings for six weeks, learning the structure of plays and how to create character and conflict. Each kid would have his or her own adult mentor. Then, at the end of six weeks, we'd head off for a weekend retreat, usually at a youth hostel near the LA Harbor that used to be a military base. We'd trade off cooking and doing dishes, writing all day, playing basketball, hiking down to the lighthouse or the tide pools. At the end of the weekend, each kid would have written a 5-10 minute play.
The acting troupe at HOLA - again, adults and kids - would perform the plays in front of standing-room only crowds.
The kids were amazing, writing about everything from talking fish to gangsters. One of my writers - all grown up - met her husband-to-be at my radio station.
I miss HOLA.
ES: What an inspiring story! And now you have set your sights on kidlit. What do you envision writing for children?
KF: I'd been a member of SCBWI years ago, but never felt "ready" to write a kids book. One of my plays, "The Luckiest Girl," is an original 'theatre for young audiences' piece. But I found that children’s theatres across the country are adapting kids’ books, not producing original work. So I turned "The Luckiest Girl" into a middle grade novel. I found an agent and I'm collecting rejections as we speak.
I had such a good time with "The Luckiest Girl," I started working on a second middle grade novel about Fina Mendoza, a little girl whose father is a Congressman from California who solves the mystery of "The Demon Cat of Capitol Hill." I'm on draft #5.
ES: I love that title! And mysteries are very popular now…where do you get your ideas??
KF: They seem to find me. "The Luckiest Girl" was inspired by my time in Holland, covering war crimes trials for public radio and discovering the Dutch version of Santa Claus - Sinterklaas - and his politically incorrect sidekick in blackface Zwarte Piet. I was shocked to discover that the Dutch saw nothing wrong with “Black Pete.”
At the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the American judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald became my hero – and my model for Gran in “The Luckiest Girl.” Zwarte Piet was always a conundrum, she told me. She and a number of other African-American ex-pats agonized every December about whether to condemn or ignore the caricature. Over the past few months, media outlets around the world have reported on the uproar over Piet. UNESCO proposed putting him on their “naughty” list of human rights abuses. Yet a Dutch Facebook site praising Piet got a MILLION likes in one day!
My newest book "The Demon Cat of Capitol Hill" was inspired by my own experience as a California kid looking at life in Washington as something strange and unusual. I get to capture all those little quirks I see and put them in my heroine Fina's mouth.
ES: I think it’s fabulous how you can bring your diverse life experiences and interests into your writing. What plays do you find you return to again and again, either for inspiration or for the pure joy of it?
KF: "The Importance of Being Earnest" always makes me laugh and "Death of a Salesman" devastates me - not just the tragedy of Willie Loman, but the sheer talent of Arthur Miller. I will never be able to write like that!
But my passion is seeing NEW plays - particularly those by women playwrights.
ES: Thank you for stopping by The Corner, Kitty, and best of luck in all your endeavors!
To visit Kitty Felde, click here!