1. Thus far, you've written two nonfiction picture books: Thank You Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution (due out in June), both of which have been illustrated by Matt Faulkner. Thank You Sarah tells the story of Sarah Hale, activist and author, who spent years lobbying for the creation of a national holiday called Thanksgiving. Independent Dames tells the story of more than 80 women and girls who made contributions during the American Revolution by fighting, acting as spies, and more. As I mentioned in my review on Saturday, Independent Dames includes a narrative, a timeline, specific biographies and copious author's notes.
Many books about history seem to discuss historical matters in a very serious tone, yet you seem to prefer a slightly more informal and occasionally irreverent tone in your nonfiction historical picture books (as when you write "Never underestimate dainty little ladies" in Thank You Sarah, or in the opening pages of Independent Dames where you not only use the term "dames" for women, but ask "Hello? How about the women? What about the girls? They wanted a free country too. They worked, they argued, they fought, and they suffered -- just like the men and the boys. They didn't teach you this yet? Listen up.") Why did you make the choice to frame the narrative as you did? Was it a difficult choice to make to break from the more typical, stentorian sort of presentation?
The traditional heavy-handed (“this is serious business, young reader, so prepare to be bored to death”) approach to history is ridiculous. History is filled with exciting, fascinating, engaging characters and dynamic situations. Our job as authors is to show them in a way that does not compromise the accuracy of their stories.
The turning point for me was when I working on the early (dreadful) drafts of Thank You, Sarah. I was struggling to figure out how to combine the history of Thanksgiving with the significant details of Sarah Hale’s life. The early drafts were written in that dry, dull, old-fashioned tone. I hated it. I hated every word that I pinned to the page. I felt like I had killed my story before anyone got the chance to read it.
One day, while busy loathing myself and my lack of ability, I doodled a large capital S, for Sarah, on the manuscript. Then I drew a border around the letter. The result looked like the shield that Superman wears on his shirt. This was my light bulb moment, my epiphany. I realized that Sarah Hale was a superhero and that was how I wanted to tell her story. The overwhelming positive response from readers made it clear that I was headed in the right direction.
2. Both of your nonfiction picture books have a feminist slant to them, both bring to light seldom-told stories from history, and both highlight (overtly or explicitly) the absence of women's stories from American history, as well as showcasing women about whom we all should have learned (while debunking some that we did learn about, like Molly Pitcher - dude, there's a rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike names after Molly Pitcher, so she must have been real, right?) Given the feminist aspects (about which I am thrilled, having ranted for two years running on the paucity of attention given to Women's History Month), do you primarily see these books as appealing to female readers and as empowering future generations of independent dames?
I hope that my books will help educate a generation (or two, or three) of American children to value the contributions of all the people who contributed to our nation’s heritage. I don’t write for girls, I don’t write for boys. I write for kids because they deserve the entire scope of their history, regardless of their gender.
3. With respect to Independent Dames what on earth did your manuscript look like? Did you submit it as one document with weird breakouts per page, or as three separate manuscripts that were meant to be woven together? Was it more or less challenging that a straight narrative? How did you decide which women and girls to feature large on the page and which in the timeline? Was it difficult to know where to put them in relation to the ongoing timeline ticking across the bottoms of the pages?
I ask because there is a running narrative set apart in its own frame on each two-page spread, plus interesting profiles of women and girls (groups and individuals) who made contributions to the American Revolution, plus a running timeline across the bottom of the pages throughout the book that explains historical events throughout the time period leading up to and during the Revolutionary War, including some of the items kids will have learned in history books and classes, as well as including additional information about women and girls. And in many cases, there are dialogue bubbles within Matt Faulkner's drawings - were those your creation or Matt's?
The manuscript wound up being quite a beast. Much credit has to go to my editor, Kevin Lewis, who very patiently accepted my need to include the time line, and the profiles (we call them “bio bubbles”), and all of the other copious details.
I originally presented Kevin with short biographies of thirty women whom few people knew about. (This grew out of a much earlier project, a book that highlighted six women of the era. I could never get a publisher interested in that manuscript, so it went back in my file cabinet.) Kevin was very excited about my approach and encouraged me to dig deeper. I realized that in order to set the activities of these women in context of the Revolution, I would have to explain the war itself.
(Side note: as part of my research, I studied the Social Studies curricula and state standards for elementary and middle school students in order to understand when children were exposed to information about the Revolution.)
I made up many, many dummies for myself in order to figure how to flow the story properly. In later drafts, I presented the text spread by two-page spread. I broke each spread down into sections: Main Text, Bio Bubbles, and Bottom Crawl (the time line and miscellaneous details). The final draft of the manuscript clocked in at nearly 11,000 words. I sort of broke the rules about keeping pictures books short.
Matt came up with the text for the speech bubbles, though I edited a couple of them. I think he did a brilliant job, both with the illustrations and the fun tone that the speech bubbles add to the book. His artistic vision of the book was critical to pulling off this monumental challenge.
4. Your historical fiction novels for middle graders include Fever, 1793 and the forthcoming Chains (due out in October). Fever, 1793 tells the story of the outbreak of yellow fever in the City of Philadelphia during the summer of 1793 through the eyes of its protagonist, Mattie, a 14-year old girl living and working in her mother's tea shop. Chains tells the story of a young slave girl trapped in New York City in 1776 as the city is occupied alternately by the British and Patriots. The book examines the notion of liberty by focusing on a main character who is not themselves free, directly and implicitly addressing what the so-called goal of the revolution as set forth in the Declaration of Independence ("life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness") issued that summer means.
Both stories are set in late 18th century, with a focus on lesser-known stories of American history. Was United States history a particular interest of yours when you were in school, or did you come to it later in life? Do you prefer to read nonfiction historical texts and biographies, or historical fiction? In historical fiction, how important is historical accuracy and detail to you? Do you have any concerns about including actual historical persons (particularly famous ones, as you did with George Washington in Fever, 1793) in a historical novel?
I did not enjoy school very much. In fact, I loathed English class. (In my defense I will point out that I read almost all of the books in the library!) The one class that I adored was Social Studies. There is just something about the study of history that has always resonated deeply within me. I am a proud and patriotic American and continue to be fascinated with our history. Our experiment with democracy is an astounding thing to witness.
Historical accuracy is vital to my work. My manuscripts have all been reviewed by historians whose special expertise is the time periods or events covered by my story. Most of the characters in my novels are fictional, but they are as true to what people were like back then as possible. When “real” people wander across the pages of my books, like George Washington, they only do or say things that I can prove they did or said.
I am grateful that my editor allowed me to include the non-fiction back matter in each novel to explain the events of the story. I also love weaving in the primary source quotes that open each chapter. That’s a lot of fun.
I prefer reading history books, primary source texts, and biographies to historical fiction.
5. My first question, before moving to actual historical-fiction related questions, is whether you have any plans to write historical fiction or nonfiction for the YA market. Why or why not?
I am not sure how a historical novel or a non-fiction history book written for the YA market would differ from the same book written for adults. Until I figure that out (assuming there actually is a difference) I won’t be doing it.
6. With respect to historical fiction and nonfiction, how do you go about selecting your topic? Is it a conscious selection, or something that niggles at you and won't let go? If you were giving advice to writers interested in starting a work of historical fiction, how would you advise them to go about selecting a topic?
I select topics that fascinate me. If I don’t have an overwhelming curiosity about a time period or situation, I won’t touch it. Some people select topics that they feel are marketable or trendy. If that works for them, that’s cool. But it won’t work for me. I need to be on fire about something in order to commit to the research and the challenge of writing.
7. I am assuming that the type and amount of research required for your nonfiction picture books and your historical novels is roughly equivalent (and I hope you'll correct me if I'm wrong, and say how they differ if, in fact, they do). How do you go about collecting, organizing and synthesizing your research? Apart from putting your Beloved Husband to work at the copier, do you use research assistants (as some biographers and historians have done)? Why or why not?
It helps that I read quickly and I am rather compulsive about organization. I read constantly, both popular books about the time periods I care about and specialized historical journals. I belong to a number of history-based listservs and take advantage of the expertise of others. Once I have the broad outline of what I want to accomplish in a book, I delve into academic libraries, looking for the writings of historians who have made my topics their life’s work, and using their bibliographies as my guide to primary source materials. I keep copious notes and often have nightmares in which I am drowning in a sea of citations.
I have not used a research assistant. The concept is tempting, but I imagine it would be expensive, and (more importantly) I would be afraid that I would miss out on those little details that can be so significant if I farmed out the research. My husband, Scot, does do most of the photocopying. I am pretty sure it will take me several lifetimes of baking bread and making homemade jam to pay him back for taking on this tedious task.
8. With respect to research, how do you knew when enough is enough, or, conversely, when to go back for more?
It is very possible to get so caught up in research one forgets about writing the book!
Generally, I do two rounds of research. The first is a global kind of research; looking at possible topics or events to study, getting a sense of the hows and whys. Then I set to figuring out the lives of my characters and how they intersect with the history. Once I have a rough scene-by-scene outline, I go back to the archives to hunt for specific details.
9. Chains comes out in October of this year. What's next?
My next YA, Wintergirls, should be out in May, 2009. After that, I should have a historical novel in 2010 and another in 2011, if all goes well. I am hunting for new historical picture book topics right now, so I expect you’ll see more of those, too.
Can you tell us a bit about Wintergirls?
I’d prefer not to go into WINTERGIRLS details yet because I’m still revising. I guess you can say that is dark – maybe the darkest YA I’ve done so far.
Cheese or chocolate? Cheese
Coffee or tea? Tea – first thing in the morning. Coffee in the afternoon.
Cats or dogs? Dogs
Favorite color? Green
Favorite snack food? Popcorn
Favorite ice cream? Pumpkin pie
Water or soda? Water
What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? Stevie Ray Vaughn
What's the last movie you memorized lines from? I, Robot
Quick follow-up: What was the line? "You have so got to die.” Spooner, just before he injects the nanites into V.I.K.I.’s brain. Said with conviction and absolutely spot-on timing.
Those of you looking for more information about Laurie are commended to her website and her blog, Madwoman in the Forest. Those of you looking to do a good deed (and gain a tax write-off) are advised to sponsor Laurie's husband, Scot, who is trying to meet a fundraising goal. Scot and Laurie will be running in a Half Marathon at Lake Placid, NY sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in honor of Darcy Skinner, Laurie's cousin, who is battling Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
Other SBBT stops today:
Adam Rex at Fuse Number 8
David Almond at 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast
R.L. Lafevers at Finding Wonderland
Dave Schwartz at Shaken & Stirred
Elizabeth Scott at Bookshelves of Doom
Susan Beth Pfeffer at Interactive Reader