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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Lesley Kagen's new e-novella, "The Undertaking of Tess," works as a prequel to her upcoming novel, "The Resurrection of Tess Blessing."

Author Kagen revisits characters, cities in "Tess Blessing" book duo


It's not unusual for artists and writers to revisit some of their past works and explore new sides of the characters they've brought into the world. In Lesley Kagen's case, however, her latest work is revisiting characters that haven't even been introduced yet.

The Wisconsin-based author started by writing her latest novel, "The Resurrection of Tess Blessing," set for release on Oct. 14. Set in Wisconsin, Kagen became so enraptured by the characters unfolding on the page that she needed to write more about them, so she wrote "The Undertaking of Tess," an e-novella officially released on Tuesday, July 29 that serves as a kind of childhood prequel.

OnMilwaukee got a chance to talk with Kagen about her two new works, why she wanted to come back to these characters, the books' Wisconsin and Milwaukee settings, and what books inspired her (spoiler alert: all of them).

OnMilwaukee.com: How did you come up with the story idea for "The Undertaking of Tess," the e-novella?

Lesley Kagen: I'd actually completed the novel, "The Resurrection of Tess Blessing," first. And as I was reading through it, I kept thinking that I wanted to know more about these girls because this novel takes place much later in the Finley Sisters' lives, when they're middle aged. I thought I'd really like to know, show and write more about how they got to be who they've become. I wanted to talk more about what happened to these kids.

I just thought I'll just start and see what happens. I don't know what the hell I'm doing; I'll just see what happens. And it just took off. I wrote it much more quickly than anything I've written before. Usually it takes me a year, a year and a half to write a book, but this – and, of course, this is shorter because this is a novella, but it's almost a full-length novel word count wise – just took off for me. I enjoyed writing it so much.

I figure I must have finished it in a couple months, which is really fast for me. I was stunned when I actually finished, and I was like, "Gosh, I have enough time – the book's not coming out until October – that this would be awesome if it came out like a prequel before the novel to get people interested in the Finley Sisters." It's just a great little appetizer to lead into the novel. So there you go. Voila! (laughs)

OMC: What was it like writing in reverse, having these characters as older people and then going back in time to fill in those blanks?

LK: Well, part of the novel has flashbacks in it, so I was already familiar with some of their children. But the novel is told from the viewpoint of an adult, as opposed to the e-novella, which is told in the voice of a ten-year-old child. So I thought, well, let's see what she has to say for herself. So I not only shifted by about 30 years backwards, but I also went from an adult voice to a child's voice, which is something I'm really, really comfortable writing in. I think that's maybe why I liked it so much.

OMC: What is it about these characters – both as kids and as adults – that really intrigues you?

LK: Their resourcefulness. The amount of loss that they deal with and how they handle it. I'm always intrigued by beginnings, how we become the people that we become and what happens to us as children. What about our wiring and our personalities, how much of that figures into who we become as grownups? How different are we as grownups from who we were as kids.

My contention is that we're really not very different, soul-wise and who we are deep down – our essences. As grown ups, we learn skills. Not me particularly, but there are people who know how to balance a checkbook and parallel park cars and hold down a 9-5 job. But those are just skill sets. Really, who they were as kids is who they still are. It's how we all still are.

OMC: Was there a real-life inspiration for this duo of books and these characters?

LK: I'm not one of these writers who can write science fiction or 1700s romances. Everything I've ever written is based on something in my own life. The setting for both of these stories is Milwaukee, which is where I was born and raised. And for the kids, I think I always draw upon my own childhood, who I was and where I lived and the kids I hung out with in the neighborhood.

It's kind of a big mosaic of a lot of different things, but I think the characters almost always come from life. They're not purely representational of people that I've known or met, but there's something about almost every single one of the characters that I can say, "Oh yeah, you know who that one is. She's got a little of (fill in the blank) in her." (laughs)

OMC: Both of these books take place in Wisconsin. Were there any places from your experiences in Milwaukee that you really wanted to get into the book?

LK: The novella takes place in Milwaukee, and the novel takes place in a fictional small town in Wisconsin called Ruby Falls. And as much as possible. For the novella, primarily it's got that blue-collar neighborhood feel that I grew up with. Holy Cross Cemetery plays a huge part in the novella; I know that sounds a little grim (laughs) but it plays a huge part.

Then in the novel, though it is a fictional town, it's based on where I live, which is Cedarburg. So there's a bunch of Cedarburg-y type of stuff in the novel, references to historical sites and stuff like that.

It really, really was fun because I love Cedarburg and I love Milwaukee, so both books cover both settings.

OMC: Did you have to do any research on older Milwaukee, or did you pull it all straight from memory?

LK: Not really. (laughs) I have an excellent memory, and when I wrote my very first book, "Whistling in the Dark," it was set in the adjoining neighborhood to where "The Undertaking of Tess" is set in, so it was almost the exact same setting. I have a lot of knowledge; I mean, it's where I grew up.

OMC: Were there any authors or other books that inspired your vision for this book, or throughout your career?

LK: No, nothing specific. I think that everything you read – the back of cereal boxes, fantastic novels, classic literature – it impacts and affects you as a human. I think if you're open to it and you allow it to happen while you're writing, it's bound to affect how you write. So I would say nothing specific, but everything.

OMC: That makes sense because you build up a library of everything you've seen and read, and that helps develop our own sense of what you want to write about.

LK: Exactly right. There's so many different type of books and writing, and for me, I have this incredible need to make it as authentic and genuine and real as possible. That's my primary goal when I'm writing, for somebody to pick up and read the book and say, "Oh wow, I know what that character is feeling," or "I can so relate to that."

It's just all up to the individual person for what satisfies them and gives them the deepest sense of accomplishment. Just like with movies, there's Hollywood blockbusters, which are great in their own way, and there's indie movies, which are also great in their own way.

OMC: Would you ever consider coming back to these characters for a third time? Or are you going to let them go after this?

LK: You know, I don't know yet. It's funny; I'm so caught up right now still doing some of the editing on the novel, but I was so taken by writing a novella. It was the first one I had ever written, and I enjoyed that shorter form so much. I keep thinking that I would love to come back to those two little girls and write another story – perhaps a series – about what happens to them in that neighborhood.

It's hard to tell. I never know what I'm going to write next. I don't usually do for a long time because I usually have to take a little bit of a break in between writing one book and starting a new one because my brain has melted. (laughs)

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