While preparing for bed one evening, I flipped through our very small offering of cable channels. The remote landed on a documentary about the Spanish Influenza epidemic. At the time I knew almost nothing about this devastating piece of history and watched the program with rapt attention. The following day I began doing some research of my own and before long I’d stepped back in time to 1918; its pain, its kindness, its hardships, and its hope.
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With joy, in 2000 I accepted an invitation to travel to Southeast Alaska and speak to enthusiastic students, librarians, and educators. The students in particular hoped I might write a book about Alaska but I shook my head no. I could never write with the authenticity of an Alaskan resident. However, while in Ketchikan, I visited Parnassus Books where I purchased more volumes about Alaska than I could carry. Most of the books were shipped back to my home in Vermont. But I kept a couple out to read on the plane. That is when I first learned of the Aleuts and their story. To my knowledge, no one had told their story to young readers and I feared no one ever would. This was such a risky project. How could I ever do the tale justice? I was very fortunate to have the assistance of several people with first hand experience who gave me honest criticism and helped me correct my misunderstandings and mistakes.
I fear the emotional, mental, and physical trauma of being relocated, of living in a refugee camp, has not changed significantly since 1942.
While researching in the 1911 New York Times, I came across a series of articles written about Ida Lewis as she lay dying. Ida Lewis had kept the Lime Rock Light burning off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island, during and after the Civil War, taking over her father’s duties when he became too ill to serve. Ida Lewis never hesitated to go to sea in a storm, placing her own life in peril numerous times to rescue those who would otherwise have perished. Her life was an inspiration. Amelia Martin was created in her image.
Often, when I attend conferences, I walk around the exhibit hall looking at the thousands of books on display. I also attend talks given by other authors whenever possible. I carried home Bill Slavin’s TRANSFORMED: How Everyday Things Are Made from one of those conferences. While losing myself in the wonderful explanations and detailed illustrations I came across an entry on the invention of the Teddy Bear by the Michtom family in Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century. The way the Michtoms came to create the stuffed toy and the idea that the teddy bear was invented by immigrants who had escaped the bear of Russia fascinated me. The more I read, the more intrigued I became. And BROOKLYN BRIDGE was born.
There are times when those campaigning for political office seem alarmingly unfamiliar with, and uninterested in, the American constitution; or even a general working knowledge of democracy. I felt compelled to begin SAFEKEEPING in 2010 when a small group of dissatisfied citizens threatened to divide and destroy the balance of our entire nation. It seems we are in a similar pickle today, six years later, perhaps as a direct consequence of that same divisive element which has managed to shift the political discussion away from civility, tolerance, and functionality. My hope is that the American people will make a wise and informed decision in the upcoming presidential election. SAFEKEEPING is an exploration of what might happen if we choose a candidate who does not understand how to keep the fabric of our country from unraveling.
Our local library, Brooks Memorial, regularly brings lecturers in to speak on a wide range of topics. James Cook scholar David Bisno spoke in the meeting room one evening in late 1998 or so. On a table at the front of the room piles of primary source material beckoned. For me, primary sources are like sweets, I can’t get enough of them. When I started leafing through Beaglehole’s definitive edition of Captain Cook’s journal I felt chills of delight. It took me less than 24 hours to request a copy of this two book collection through Inter Library Loan. Once the books arrived I poured over them…and there I discovered Nicholas Young. At lunch a few days later, I shared with my husband much of what I’d learned so far about the Endeavour’s journey. As I related stories about young Nick, it suddenly occurred to me that I had discovered a perfect narrator. Writing this book was consuming in a way no other had been. I rarely left my desk…just as the men rarely got off their ship. I slept with my head on my desk, I ate at my desk. I stopped calling (and taking calls) from family and friends. What a journey. But I’d take it again in a heartbeat. It was an extraordinary, singular experience.
I love documentaries. One evening, while preparing for bed, I caught the last portion of CHILDREN OF CHERNOBYL, a haunting retelling of the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. Glued to the screen, I watched until the end and then searched for when the show might be rebroadcast in full. Not only did I watch it repeatedly, but I recorded the audio and listened to that over and over. I’d become obsessed. Often, when I fixate on a topic, the only way to move forward is to go as deeply as possible into the material and write my way out of it. That’s exactly what I did in this instance, researching nuclear power plants, the science behind them, the people who run them. I also researched life on a sheep farm once I’d settled on that as my setting. This was perhaps the most challenging two years for my family as I wrote my way out of this obsession. We were all grateful when the manuscript returned to my editor for the last time.
While running a quick errand with my young daughter one morning, I drove past an abandoned car filled with all sorts of things: from pots and pans to pillows, blankets and books. On the roof of that forsaken car (it no longer even had tires on its metal rims) was a two foot tall stuffed unicorn, growing more and more dejected looking by the minute under a steady drizzle. My daughter had not seen the unicorn when we passed it the first time but I knew she would see it on our return trip. I prayed the unicorn would not still be there because I knew if my daughter saw it she would want to bring it home and I didn’t think that was right. As we approached the little parking lot where I’d first seen the stuffed unicorn, I stared in wonder. The car, the pots, the pans, the pillows, the books, and the unicorn had all vanished. It couldn’t have been more than 20 minutes. How could a car with no wheels vanish in such a short period of time? It seemed impossible to me. It seemed like a miracle. Upon arriving home I wrote a short story inspired by the experience. In time the story became the novel you know as WISH ON A UNICORN.
There are multi-year college level courses to answer this question. But I’ll try to give you a brief answer. 1. First you need a good idea and some ability with language. 2. Then you need to dedicate time each day to writing and revising your idea until slowly it evolves into a marketable manuscript. 3. Finally you need a publisher who believes in your book as much as you do. The publisher does the work of actually publishing your book for you and distributing it. It’s hard work, it’s collaborative work, it’s joyous work, it’s heartbreaking work; it’s exhausting, consuming, and the odds against making any kind of profit are unimaginably high, but if you have a bit of grit, a love of language, a familiarity with story shapes, a story to tell, and a fair measure of luck, you might be fortunate enough to publish a book some day. Good luck!
The writing of LAVENDER fits your description perfectly. One day, many years ago, I sat down at my keyboard not knowing what to write, simply remaining open to whatever came to me. What came to me were thoughts of my aunt who has always been a very important part of my life. So I spent the morning writing about my aunt and my happy memories of her. In the afternoon I continued writing about my aunt. At the end of the day I had finished, more or less, writing LAVENDER. Here’s the really fascinating part…It turns out that as I sat down to write that morning, 500 miles away my aunt slipped on the ice in her driveway, breaking her leg in several places. She called and called for help but no one heard her. After dragging herself back into the house, she managed to phone for assistance and was taken to the hospital where she stayed for several days. Do you suppose at some unconscious level I heard my aunt calling from 500 miles away and wrote LAVENDER to comfort her?
I’m happy to report that my aunt fully recovered from this incident. And I suspect her favorite of all my books is LAVENDER. What do you think?