10 years later, right on time

Posted: August 17, 2012

FOR A PROLIFIC author like Beth Kephart who has published 14 books (and counting), it would appear odd that her latest young-adult novel, Small Damages, took 10 years to complete.

Kephart had the setting and most of her characters early, but she didn't know what the tension was. She felt that no problem she came up with was good enough or strong enough - until she discovered Kenzie, the pregnant college-bound teenager who became the focus of the book.

During the period she worked on the novel, Kephart met a number of extraordinary young women who taught her a lot about young motherhood and whose characters and stories impressed her. "I was led toward Kenzie through those friendships," she said.

"I think when you work on a book like this, one that's so intense and full of research, you have to keep walking away so that you can see it fresh," she said. She explained that she would often walk away and write another book, and come back to the story that would one day be Small Damages. "I think your imagination is always working on things," she said.

Born in Delaware and now living in Devon, Kephart is a buzzing name in the area literary community.

While many of Kephart's books focus on historical and geographical aspects of Philadelphia - Flow, for instance, is about the Schuylkill River - almost half of them fall into the young-adult genre.

Small Damages also grew out of trips Kephart took to southern Spain, where she has visited her brother-in-law. On one trip, she stayed in a cortijo (a large farm) owned by a man who was best friends with the king of Spain - a man who raised some of the most famous fighting bulls.

As Damages unfolds, the reader soon learns why a college-bound girl from the Main Line has been sent off for a few months by her mother to Spain: She, like many other young women, made an unplanned choice with unplanned consequences, and her mother cannot bear to have her home as living proof of the choices she has made.

Within the first 15 pages of the novel, both the reader and Kenzie are introduced to Miguel, a 61-year-old man with thick long white hair who drives a "cranky" old car named Gloria; he is the man whom young Kenzie will stay with during her time in Seville.

It is here where Kephart's Kenzie relives one of the author's fondest memories of her own time in Spain: riding in an open Jeep among the bulls.

After 10 years of on-and-off work, Kephart is quite pleased with the finished novel. "I could not be happier that I waited this long because I am now at the best [publishing] house that there possibly is. . . . All of the people at Philomel [a division of Penguin Books] have made this book what it is," she said. "It was a good 10 years worth of positive waiting."

Time has matured the author's perspective, and she passes that on to readers: Problems are problems, no matter what phase of life one faces them. If a reader hasn't gone through the challenge of an unplanned pregnancy, he may have a friend who has or could meet someone who has or may one day have a child involved in such a situation.

"It's important always to keep in perspective young dreams, your dreams - moments in time - and what you can do to make the world more whole instead of more fractured," she said.

Small Damages is Kephart's seventh young-adult novel, and a number of organizations, like BookPage, are recognizing it as a book adults should also read.

"I think that the best young adult literature is universal and applicable to readers of all ages, so I see this book that way," she said.

When she's not writing, most of Kephart's time is spent running her marketing business, Fusion Communications, where she works with her husband, a Yale grad.

Kephart also teaches an advanced nonfiction class - revolving around the idea of "truth" and the morals involved in reading and writing - during the spring semester at her alma matter, the University of Pennsylvania, where she graduated magna cum laude.

The author's strong sense of emotion, love for Philadelphia and the heart and soul she pours into her novels are evident; she has a passion to entertain, engage and enlighten readers and thus, teach them something.

"I am not ever going to write a cute little nothing-much-happens novel, because I would be bored. I feel that when you're putting books out there, especially if you're hoping teen readers will read them, you have a responsibility to give them more than [just] your story," she said. "And I love doing it."

To learn more about Beth Kephart, including a list of her upcoming events, visit her blog at beth-kephart.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter @BethKephart.

Email carena@phillynews.com.

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