Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired: Tracie Vaughn Kleman

In honor of Women’s History Month, Great Parks is celebrating seven local women writers who find creative inspiration from the natural world around them.

The views and opinions expressed in the interview are those of the artist and do not represent the views or positions of Great Parks.

Tracie Vaughn Kleman

Meet Tracie Vaughn Kleman, poet and children’s novelist

Great Parks: Can you tell us a little bit about you and your work?

Tracie Vaughn Kleman: I’m local. I grew up and went to Lakota [School District], which is now where I teach. I also freelance wrote for 10 years. I wrote teacher guides and discussion guides, book club guides for major publishers for 10 years, and then I published eight books of my own, for kids. And I’m working for Lakota now. This is my 15th year. It’s my 25th year in education.

GP: So when did you first want to become a writer?

TVK: Oh, that’s an early dream. Really, when I fell in love with books, probably elementary school. I started keeping a journal, a diary from the fourth grade on. It’s barely literate if I go back and look at it. I repeated a lot of words. It was such a dream to have a book that I had written. I just didn’t really think it was possible. I come from a real blue-collar, hardworking background of tradespeople, and college was a dream too. I wasn’t sure I had what it took to get through college. It’s all been a dream.

GP: It all worked out.

TVK: It has.

GP: That’s good. Before we get a little further, I did want to ask what name would you prefer us to use because I know your author name is Tracie Vaughn Zimmer [maiden name]. And then there’s JD Vaughn [penname for books written with a co-author]. And then there’s Tracie Kleman [current name].

TVK: So yeah, I know. Isn’t that terrible? That’s the question that’s hard? What is your name… I think I would prefer to use Tracie Vaughn Kleman, and then just mention that some of my books are under a different name. Vaughn is something that is consistent.

GP: Okay

TVK: This is the trouble about being a woman, isn’t it? It’s such a public thing. I know a couple authors who never publish under anything but their maiden name for that reason.

GP: Interesting. I didn’t know that.

TVK: Hashtag regrets.

GP: Alright, so from what we’ve observed, it looks like your audience for many of your books is middle-aged children. What inspires you to write for this age group?

TVK: I think because that’s when books just became my own lifeline and greatest love. Like I read the Narnia books probably 10 times. I love the Little House on the Prairie series. I read that all the time too. I don’t know. Maybe inside I’m just 12 to 14 years old. I also have taught that age most of my career too. I taught freshman in high school for most of my career. I taught middle school at the beginning, so I think I’m just super familiar with what it feels like to go through those big transitions, and I like that age because they still have one foot in childhood, but they are also experimenting with what it means to be an adult. And it’s a tough time. It’s a really tough time. You could give me millions of dollars and I would not go back to be that age.

GP:  How has teaching at a public school changed your approach to writing?

TVK: I mean it informs my writing for sure because I’m such an eavesdropper. In the hallways, and in class, and just having that that pulse of what kids think is important to talk about. And things never change really. The way people act the things out changes, because of technology and you know modern society. But what’s important to people? It hasn’t changed all that much.

GP: The conversations are consistent.

TVK: The language changes, and the methods of communication. But not the topics.

GP: So like you said, you grew up in Cincinnati and you lived in Ohio for a long time. So how has the Cincinnati community impacted your career as a writer?

TVK: Well, it’s funny because when I first started writing, I was living in the South. I was living in Virginia and then North Carolina, and I was homesick. I wrote a lot about home to kind of visit it in my mind. And then miraculously, there’s this great children’s bookstore in Northern Kentucky called the Blue Marble Bookstore. They became a very early champion of my second book, Reaching for Sun. And they hand sold hundreds of copies of that book, because they just loved it so much. That really helped my career. Those small independent booksellers really make a difference. They didn’t even know at first that I was from here. It was a lovely connection.

Then, you know, it’s home. I think Ohio is very representative of most Americans too. Most of us live in the great swath lands of Middle America, and I think it’s a great place to represent a lot of kids’ upbringing.

GP: Writing is meant to connect an audience to a theme. How can reading and writing help an audience connect to nature?

TVK: I think the great nature writers and poets, they help you see nature in a new way. If you memorize something, like for me, it’s Mary Oliver, then you get to carry her with you as you interact with nature.

GP: I like that.

TVK: Hey, will you be posting like a poem or something like that? I have a poem that would work. It was in a National Geographic anthology, and it’s called “Lessons in September”.

Lessons in September

In the first golden hour of autumn
when light slants away from summer's angry eye
and the leaves, not yet blushing, mute and soften
I went to the woods
with nothing to tether me to this world-
to remember how to listen
to the wind cascade through leaves in cresting waves
to finches squabble like tetchy spouses
to the soft music of the creek.
To remember how to see
a spotted toad vault into the underbrush
a white caterpillar wend its way across the footbridge
a red-tailed hawk slide past the window of sky.
A birch tree, I've passed hundreds of times
without notice, stood sentinel all the same.
Someday, I hope to stay
who I am in the woods
when out of them-
-Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

GP: What does your writing process look like?

TVK: I have done different processes. Sometimes I have been a planner and sometimes I have been a pantser, so by the seat of my pants. When I wrote The Second Guard, I was working with a co-author and so that was a really different experience, because she’s really great at plot. She would give me an outline for the chapter—I’m talking 10 words or less—about what needed to happen. I would draft it, and then we would talk about it. I would add more, and then she would revise it out. So that was a really different process for me. I liked it because plot is definitely not what I like about writing. It’s just a weakness for sure.

The thing I like about poetry most is that I get to the part I love best, which is the words—the individual images and words. I don’t like the blank page, so I try and get the draft phase over as fast as I can, but it starts usually as a feeling or an image and I just kind of follow and see where it leads.

GP: So it’s different depending on the kind of writing you’re doing.

TVK: Yes, very much.

GP: And if you’re working on it with someone or not.

TVK: Right, and I probably wouldn’t do that again. It was a great experience, but there’s nothing that people feel more tied to than their own creativity, I think. It ended up being more challenging than we both thought. I think it was better in a lot of ways than what we could have produced individually. But yeah, it was hard. The first book was easy, and then the second book was just 10 times harder for whatever reason.

GP: Interesting.

TVK: I don’t want to compromise anymore.

GP: You want it to be what you want it to be.

TVK: Right! Like the colors I want to choose and the things that I want, you know?

GP: Yeah, that is totally understandable. Are there any other projects you’re currently working on that you’re excited about?

TVK: I want to write a series of gratitude poems about the smallest moments of our day that we take for granted. A lot of that is nature-based for me because I love the woods. I love walking in the woods. Rentschler Park is my park. Of course, I’m in Butler County. I do love Miami Whitewater too. When I used to teach out at Ross where I started my career, I would grab my bicycle sometimes to take it to work with me and then go after school. I love the routes out there and the Shaker connection is really cool. I actually wrote a manuscript inspired by the Shaker Village out there. Didn’t get published, but I wrote it.

GP: That would be a really cool book, the gratitude poetry book. Thank you so much, Tracie.

TVK: Thank you.

Tracie Vaughn Kleman is one of the local artists whose artwork will be on display at Instinct: Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired, a nature-themed art show happening March 22 & 23 at Fernbank Park.

Jack Fogle
Nature Interpreter, Miami Whitewater Forest