Have you always wanted to be a writer?
It was definitely one of the things I wanted to be. Recently I found a diary I kept when I was 14. In it I wrote that I wanted to be a concert pianist or a writer, but thought that I would more likely end up as a piano teacher or a French teacher or interpreter. I was taking piano lessons and studying French back in those days, and loved them both.
How did you become a writer?
I’ve always loved books and reading, and I’ve worked in publishing ever since I graduated from college, first as an editorial assistant at a children’s book publisher in New York, then as a copy editor at Working Mother magazine, and eventually as a copy editor at Time-Life Books in Alexandria, Virginia. When I was offered the chance to write for Time-Life, I jumped at it. I started out writing picture captions and moved on to writing longer essays for several Time-Life Book series, on topics ranging from UFOs to Civil War weapons to gardening. I worked with incredibly talented editors who critiqued my writing and taught me a lot about the craft. And writing about such a wide range of subjects helped me learn to be versatile. After my children were born I started working from home as a freelance writer. One day about ten years ago I got a call from an editor at National Geographic, who said she had heard about my work (by this time I was writing for a Time-Life children’s series) and wondered if I was interested in writing a children’s book for them. Was I ever! That book, called Sky, was all about the sky and the atmosphere and the weather. I’ve been writing children’s books ever since. It’s the best job ever.
How long does it take to make a book?
It can take me several months to do the research for a book and several months more to write the manuscript. Then the manuscript goes to my editor, who reads it and suggests revisions for me to make. Once the manuscript is in good shape and the pictures are rounded up, all the pieces go to a book designer, who designs a style for the book, including the typeface, and puts everything together using a special computer program. After more editing and revisions, the book—now in electronic form—is sent to a printing company, to be made into bound books. From the time I start my research to the time the actual books are available usually takes at least a year and a half, and often longer.
Do you like doing the research for your books?
I love doing the research! When I’m researching a person for a biography, for example, I like to collect lots of quirky facts or incidents, even though I may not have room for them in the book. But early on I don’t worry about what I can or can’t fit into a manuscript, I just keep digging deeper. The more idiosyncratic things I learn about a person, the closer I feel to her or him personally. As my research progresses, that personal link deepens, and if I’m lucky my subject crawls under my skin and lives with me—and maybe even pesters me—for a while. My problem is making myself move on from doing the research for a book to actually writing it.
Do you like writing?
Writing is not easy for me. It’s not unusual for me to spend several hours writing and rewriting one short paragraph, word by word, sentence by sentence. This makes writing a very slow process for me, and to be honest, I can get pretty frustrated. I have even been heard to mutter, “I hate this.” Sometimes just getting started is the hardest part. Once I finally finish writing a book, however, I feel fabulous and very proud, and I love writing.
Where do you get the photographs for your books?
They come from a lot of places, including the Library of Congress, museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, and photo agencies. Although I help decide which photos go in my books, so far I haven’t done much of the photo research myself. I’ve been spoiled—my publisher, National Geographic, has hired wonderful illustration editors to work with me on my books. One of my goals, however, is to start doing my own photo and illustration research. Not only do I think it will be fun and interesting, I think it will help me discover more cool stuff about my subjects.
Do you also write fiction?
I’ve been fiddling with a couple of fiction pieces for a while, but so far I’m not ready to share them. I’m much more comfortable writing about real people and real events. Still, these stories keep percolating in my imagination, and I hope one day to finish them and send them off to look for a publisher.
Where do you get the ideas for your books?
Sometimes I get an idea from reading an article in a newspaper, magazine, or book, or from visiting a new place or just talking with friends. My editor has also given me some great ideas.