Please help me welcome my first children’s book author, Kitty Felde. I think you’ll find her very interesting and refreshing, so let’s take a gander at her bio and then get to know her better.
Kitty Felde is an award-winning journalist, podcaster, and writer of children’s mysteries set on Capitol Hill.
She is also host and executive producer of the Book Club for Kids podcast – named one of the top 10 kidcasts in the world by The Times of London. The show has won the DC Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Humanities and the California Library Association Technology Award.
Her award-winning debut novel Welcome to Washington Fina Mendoza (Chesapeake Press, 2020) is the tale of the 10-year-old daughter of a member of Congress who solves the mystery of the Demon Cat. It’s been adapted to the dramatic podcast The Fina Mendoza Mysteries.
Book 2 in the series State of the Union was released in August. A mysterious bird has pooped on the president’s head during the State of the Union address. Fina must find that bird and learn its secret message.
Kitty is a veteran public radio journalist, named “Radio Journalist of the Year” three times by the LA Press Club and Society of Professional Journalists. She hosted Southern California Public Radio’s daily “Talk of the City” for nearly a decade. She covered Capitol Hill for nearly another decade. Kitty’s also an award-winning playwright.
Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
Kitty: I covered lots of State of the Union addresses over my years as a reporter on Capitol Hill. I loved that night of the year! The Capitol is even more lovely at night. Everyone dresses up special and has dinner and probably lots of wine, so everyone’s in a really good mood. It’s fun to lean over the balcony railing to see generals and Supreme Court Justices and all the Senators smushed into the House Chamber. And something always happens: Justice Bader Ginsburg falls asleep, a congressman yells “you lie!” at the president, there’s always a chance the first lady will stumble down the steep stairs.
I wanted to take everyone with me on one of those nights. To introduce the pomp and circumstance to kids. In this day of bitter partisanship, I want to inspire the next generation to think about public service. To see themselves in the future as a lawmaker. Or at least to show up at the polls and vote!
Betty: Which character arrived fully or mostly developed?
Kitty: Fina’s older sister Gabby just showed up. Her voice was clear and distinct. She’s probably more like me than Fina.
Betty: Which story element sparked the idea for this story: setting, situation, character, or something else?
Kitty: There was a woman who worked in the Capitol snack bar who used to wear a different wig every single day. For months, I thought it was a different person every day. I had been to the Bahamas one time, taken away from the town up into the hills where neighbors would gather in someone’s yard that had been turned into a restaurant. I could imagine a character like my wig lady dreaming of opening such a restaurant of her own. So she became Bahamian. And the Bahamian island of Andros, there’s a myth about a mysterious bird with long legs, the face of an owl, and the tail of a lizard named Chickcharney. That was the beginning of “State of the Union.”
Betty: Which character(s) were the hardest to get to know? Why do you think?
Kitty: I think Papa (Congressman Arturo Mendoza) is a tough one. He dearly loves his girls. And his mama. But he’s also very protective of his inner life. He’s still grieving for his late wife and feeling great responsibility for his constituents back in LA. So it was hard to get inside his head.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
Kitty: I know a lot about Congress and the U.S. Capitol building and all the people who work there. But I keep finding things I DON’T know about. Luckily, people who work for the Architect of the Capitol helped me with statues and construction and such. The House Historian was happy to share back stories. And the House Chaplain’s office was thrilled to take me “behind the altar.” The US Capitol Historical Society has been most helpful with tales of ghosts and scary things in the Capitol. (Aside from insurrectionists…)
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
Kitty: I’m not sure about the number of drafts. I have a terrific critique group and we tackle a chapter at a time. Maybe four drafts?
Betty: How long did it take for you to write the story you’re sharing with us? Is that a typical length of time for you? Why or why not?
Kitty: “State of the Union” is the second book in the Fina Mendoza Mystery series, so I already knew the characters and the setting and the “format” of the book. Book one took about five years. Book two took about a year. Book one (Welcome to Washington Fina Mendoza) took longer not only because I didn’t know what I was doing (it was my first book!) but also because I didn’t have the confidence to send it out in the world.
I am more confident now. And I have a roadmap for the series. There will be 5 books and a podcast season for each book. I know some of what is coming next, but not everything. But I want to finish the series! So I’m expecting the next books will take less than a year.
Betty: What rituals or habits do you have while writing?
Kitty: Tea. Pots and pots of tea. Walks when I’m stuck. And short bursts of writing on a consistent basis.
Betty: Every author has a tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
Kitty: You know, more than repetitive words, my downfall is punctuation. Where does the period go? Should I use a dash or an ellipse? Why CAN’T I use capital letters to make a point? I’m hopeless.
Betty: Do you have any role models? If so, why do you look up to them?
Kitty: Years ago, I wrote to an author to gripe about some small thing in one of his books. He wrote back, outraged at my critique. I realized that he was feeling the way I did back when I was an actor and got a bad review. So I wrote back. We were pen pals for year. It was because of Ron Powers that I even imagined that I was good enough to be a writer.
Betty: Do you have a special place to write? Revise? Read?
Kitty: My husband and I have an agreement: he gets the second bedroom for his office and I get the rest of the house. That said, my writing desk (an antique secretary that I’ve had since I was 12) is in the bedroom. It’s where I write first drafts. Then I print out pages and get out of the house. Pre-covid, I’d sit in coffee shops or libraries and work. Now I sit in my car at parks.
For reading, I have a cozy nook in the living room. Or if it’s particularly fine day, I camp out underneath the sycamores in the front yard.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
Kitty: I was a public radio reporter for three decades. I started my first book early in the morning those days.
These days, I produce the Book Club for Kids podcast as my “day job.” But it doesn’t require a 40 hour a week schedule. I edit on Mondays and tape author interviews, conversations with my young reviewers, and collate celebrity readings from the books whenever they come up.
I enjoy talking to young readers about what they love (and hate) to read. It helps me with my own writing. But more than that, the things that resonate with kids is SO different from what I get out of a book. And those conversations about those “left turns” are what inspire me.
For example, a trio of 7th grade girls explained to me that dystopian novels are popular because the protagonist is a girl and the boys treat her with respect. Okay.
Betty: As an author, what do you feel is your greatest achievement?
Kitty: I remember one of the first comments I got from a little girl who said she thought the book was going to be scary. She proclaimed it “not too scary.” That was the kind of kid I was: I wanted the kind of book this is, one that’s not too scary and full of family and heart.
I love the opportunity to go into classrooms and not only introduce kids to Chickcharney and the Demon Cat and Fina and the Mendoza family, but also to introduce them to Washington and the way government works, to hopefully inspire them, or at least to introduce basic civics.
Betty: What other author would you like to sit down over dinner and talk to? Why?
Kitty: Ngaio Marsh. She was a theatre maven like me and writes those lovely mystery novels set in Britain and New Zealand (where I spent my honeymoon). She’s not as smarty pants as Dorothy L. Sayers (who I also love, but feel I’m missing a lot because I never went to school in Oxford) with a good sense of humor. I’d love to talk about plotting a mystery. And about how she managed to be SO prolific!
Betty: Success looks different to different people. It could be wealth, or fame, or an inner joy at reaching a certain level. How do you define success in terms of your writing career?
Kitty: I’d love Fina to get picked up by Netflix or Nickelodeon and turned into a TV series. But success for me is getting my books into the hands of young readers, visiting classrooms, answering questions, and writing more books to spend more time with Fina Mendoza. And maybe someday, I’ll get a letter from an angry fan who will turn into a pen pal and maybe even run for Congress someday.
A mysterious bird poops on the head of the president during the State of the Union address. Can Fina Mendoza, the 10-year-old daughter of a congressman, outsmart the Secret Service, the Capitol Police, and most of Capitol Hill to find that bird…and learn its secret message? Fina is assisted in her investigation by a pair of congressional dogs – a giant orange Briard named Senator Something and a tiny mutt called Saint Sebastian. While Fina’s father is working on immigration reform legislation with his House colleagues inside the Capitol, her grandmother is nearly arrested outside with a group of activists.
What a fun concept, Kitty! Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your books and your writing process with us.
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