In my book, the historical research formed only the lightest thread in an otherwise boisterously absurd comic novel. But I've been fascinated by the history of Kent State ever since. And that's why I was so excited to discover Sabrina Fedel's debut LEAVING KENT STATE, a YA historical novel set in Kent, Ohio in the days before and during the on-campus massacre. I've reviewed this amazing novel here, and I was fortunate enough to have Sabrina visit the blog to talk about her book, her research, and her current works-in-progress.
YA Guy: Hi, Sabrina, and welcome to the blog! As someone who's intrigued by the history of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, I was wondering how you came up with the idea for LEAVING KENT STATE?
SF: The idea for LEAVING KENT STATE came to me while watching television (we can’t always be reading!) and ironing. There was a documentary-style program on about the shooting, and it struck me that it was really a story about young people clashing against their world order. I knew I wanted to write about it. I researched and found that there were almost no books that even mentioned the incident, and no YA stories. Because many YA editors don’t want to see a protagonist over 18, I made my protagonist a high school senior. It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine the rest of Rachel's story, as I was a girl who had to go to the university where my dad taught, even though I didn’t want to, just like her.
YAG: What was your research process for this novel? Did you uncover any unusual or out-of-the-way sources? What was the most interesting or surprising thing you discovered?
SF: To research this story, I started with non-fiction books about the shootings. When I felt like I had a beginning, I made trips to Kent. I studied maps and drove around looking for the neighborhood (and house!) that Rachel would have lived in. I saw where she went to school, where the Twin Lakes were, Main Street, and the campus of KSU. I dove into the archives there, reading the local paper for every day between October 1969, when my story starts, until the end of May, 1970. Every year on May 4th, KSU hosts a memorial commemoration, and I attended a number of those where I spoke to people who worked in the archives or who had been there that day. I went to the local historical society and talked with people there, as well.
One of the neatest things, to me, is that KSU has an online oral history project about that day. Anyone who wanted to come forward and describe what happened to them that day could participate. I found these stories really fascinating and got a lot of contextual information that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to experience. I also went online to research speeches by President Nixon, and I read autobiographies and nonfiction books about Vietnam. Finally, I interviewed a Vietnam veteran who very generously helped me understand what it was like for him during his service and then coming home.
The thing that surprised me the most was that many people felt that the students deserved what happened to them. The vitriol against the students, even sometimes by their own parents, was horrific. One woman told me that her father was among those who said that the Guard should have shot them all. When she pointed out that she would have been killed if they had, her father told her it was what she deserved. That was really shocking to me. Another thing that surprised me was that during law school, I had lived VERY near to the grave of shooting victim Allison Krause. I learned that from the Vietnam veteran whom I interviewed, who had been a history teacher and had studied the shootings. When he took me to her grave, I thought it was very ironic that I had lived practically across the street from her little Jewish cemetery for a year and never knew it was even there.
YAG: That's an impressive amount of research, and it really shows in your book. At the same time, one of the things I love about LEAVING KENT STATE is that you never let the historical detail overwhelm the story. How did you make sure that didn't happen?
SF: Thanks! I tried to make sure that every detail had a purpose to the story so that it would feel organic. There were things Rachel had to explain, and sometimes I relied on the fact that her family was a bunch of avid newspaper readers to make that happen, or other times I would have it happen in conversations. I tried to keep to a minimum the times that Rachel explained things to the reader. I also tried to pick details that were special to that era, that spoke of it. I did a LOT of research into guitar and car models, the Billboard top forty lists, and double-checked when things that I believed were iconic to the 1970s happened. Sometimes I was surprised to find that things I associated with the period were actually popular later (like the cartoon character Ziggy, who didn’t materialize until after my story ended).
YAG: You mentioned earlier that when you first formulated the idea for LEAVING KENT STATE, you had to develop a high school-age protagonist so it would fit into the YA genre. What do you like most about writing for young people?
SF: I love writing for young people because teens who are readers want to know about other people and cultures. They are eagerly looking to find out both what separates them from others and what is similar. They want to know what it would be like “if.” I’m always fascinated by the way people live and the choices they make, so I think in that way I am a perpetual teen. I want to know the "why" behind things, and so do teenagers.
YAG: Based on that description, I think YA Guy's a perpetual teen, too! So what's the next project you're working on?
SF: I recently completed a contemporary realism novel about a hockey playing girl who loses her mother and runs away to Venice. It’s all about grieving and the meaning of family. I am shopping that now while I work on my next project, which is also a contemporary realism novel that is kind of The Breakfast Club at a psychiatric hospital. This one is in verse, so we’ll see. I haven’t written in verse before. But so far, I am happy with it.
YAG: I can't wait to read those books when they come out. Thanks again for visiting, and best of luck with your new projects!
SF: Thanks so much for having me visit!
Readers, if you want to learn more about Sabrina and her books, here's where to go!
To buy LEAVING KENT STATE: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1941861245
Sabrina's Goodreads page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15403413.Sabrina_Fedel