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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Sept. 22, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Milwaukee author Lesley Kagen returns to her hometown setting for her latest novel, "Good Graces."

Author Kagen keeps fans in mind with "Good Graces"


When Milwaukee author Lesley Kagen set out to write her debut novel, "Whistling in the Dark," she never anticipated returning to the 1950s Vliet Street neighborhood of her main characters, Sally and Troo O'Malley.

The New York Times bestselling author headed south for three years instead, exploring two new settings for "Land of a Hundred Wonders" and "Tomorrow River."

Still, fans wanted more from Milwaukee.

"After I wrote "Whistling in the Dark," so many book clubs and so many emails said, 'We want to know what happens to the girls," said Kagen. "I thought at first, 'OK, I'm going to come back and I'm going to set a book in small town Wisconsin,' but every time I tried to start it I would think of those readers who wanted to hear more about the girls, and I would hear the girls' voices in the character that I was presently writing. So finally I just said, 'To heck with this, I'm going to try it and see if I can write a sequel.'"

What resulted was "Good Graces," which returns to the lives and adventures of the O'Malley sisters just one year after the events of "Whistling in the Dark."

"It was overwhelming to me at first. I had not written a sequel before," said Kagen. "It was amazing to me how easily I slid right back there again. I thought it would be hard to recapture the girls' voices and just the whole feel of Milwaukee after hanging out in the South for three years, but it wasn't. It was a breeze."

It also doesn't hurt that Kagen can draw from her own well of experience growing up in the very neighborhood in which both books are set.

"It's just incredibly helpful. When you're talking about the neighborhood you grew up in, it's so much easier to remember and to recall all the details," she explained. "As I say in the book, the devil's in the details. And if you can paint a clearer picture of what it felt like back then – the lingo, the clothing, the times – I just think that it makes for a much more authentic read."

Her characters, whose ages range from 10 to 12 years old over the course of both "Whistling" and "Good Graces," offer an extra dose of earnestness. While Kagen finds this voice a comfortable fit as a writer, it's not without its challenges.

"When you're writing from the viewpoint of a child, the only difficulty is you have to watch your language," she said. "Kids don't have the same vocabulary as most adults, and their perceptions are limited. You have to understand how they talk to one another, you have to understand the way they look at the world."

The authenticity of Kagen's material, coupled with the genuine perspective of the books' main characters, help soften the edges of her engrossing yet dark subject matter.

"I think when you tell those kinds of stories with a child narrator, it makes it go down just a little bit easier in some ways," she said. "In other ways, because the reader is so much more in the know, it can almost create a different kind of suspense, I think, than when you're dealing with an adult narrator. A child can be in danger and not even be aware of it."

"Good Graces" is already following in the footsteps of the O'Malley sisters' previous adventure. To further promote her successful sequel, Kagen is in the midst of a series of Midwest appearances, which features many southeastern Wisconsin bookstores and includes a hometown stop at Boswell Books Sept. 14.

"I hope Milwaukeeans enjoy reading about their home and noticing all the sort of landmarks and places I think everybody in Milwaukee holds near and dear," said Kagen. "Milwaukee's a really unusual place. I've lived a lot of places, and I always come back to Milwaukee. It's not like any other place there is, and I hope I've done it justice."


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