Q & A
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World
Originally published in eBook Selected Writings: On Writing Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: Because I love compelling, significant, and underreported historical stories, especially about women. All of which I found in the unlikely friendship of two fascinating and inspiring women – - Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony – - who fueled the controversial, contentious, and momentous nineteenth century fight to improve the social, civil, and economic
conditions of women’s lives. It is a heroic story of progress and betrayal with a host of supporting characters, from the admirable to the controversial. It is an illuminating story about democracy, citizenship, voting rights, and gender equality. In short, how could I not write this book?
Q: What was the most challenging part of writing your book?
A: Dealing with the mountains of primary and secondary source material!
Q: Who was your favorite – - Elizabeth or Susan?
A: Both of them, but for different reasons: Elizabeth because she was a scintillating thinker, prolifically influential writer, and a fearless orator. Susan because she was an indefatigable doer, an organizer and planner extraordinaire, and a principled pragmatist. And both of them, for the same reasons: Because of their unwavering commitment to the cause, fierce
loyalty to each other, and razor-sharp wit.
After reading my manuscript, my editor wrote in an email that “at first” she “felt partial to Stanton, finding her ability to juggle family life with work quite impressive.” As she read on, however, she “became so enamored of Anthony’s strength and powerful ethical core” that she “ended up
loving both women equally.”
Q: Do you think Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were in love?
A: If you mean “in love” as what many of us experience with close, long-lasting friends, or to use my granddaughter’s term BFF (best friends forever), they certainly appeared to have had that type of “love.” If you mean “in love,” as in were they lesbians, a twentieth century concept? There is absolutely no evidence, and I say that as someone who has been in a same-sex relationship for more than twenty years.
Q: What writer influenced you in the way you write history?
A: I have a quote by Barbara Tuchman, who wrote prize-winning, best-selling historical narratives, (although not about women),taped above my computer: “Whether in biography or straight history, the writer’s object is – - or should be – - to hold the reader’s attention . . . to turn the pages and keep on turning to the end.”
Thanksgiving: The True Story
Q: What is the biggest misconception people have about the history behind the holiday?
A: The biggest misconception about the holiday is that the first Thanksgiving dates back to 1621 when the “Pilgrims and Indians” shared a feast. Another misconception is that President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
Q: What was the most interesting fact you uncovered in your research?
A: The most interesting fact I uncovered in my research is that there are at least twelve other claims for the “first” Thanksgiving—two in Texas, two in Florida, one in Maine, two in Virginia, and five in Massachusetts.
Q: Discuss your approach to researching this book. Any surprises along the way?
A: I started my research for Thanksgiving: The True Story by listing everything I needed to know—topics, ideas, issues, people, events, etc.—and identifying where I was going to find out what I needed to know—archives, libraries, historic sites, museums, my extensive collection of source material, online resources, experts. (Of course, what I thought I needed to know at the beginning of my research process expanded as I delved into the subject!) I built a bibliography and webliography. As with all my projects, I set up a filing system to manage what I knew was going to be massive amounts of complicated material. I developed a “Thanksgiving Survey” and accumulated a variety of sources—firsthand reports, Native American accounts, Thanksgiving proclamations by governors and presidents; poetry and folk songs; magazines, including Godey’s Lady’s Magazine, Harper’s Weekly, and The Youths’ Companion; newspapers, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Christian Science Monitor; journal articles by historians and social scientists; historic markers, online museum and library exhibits. I consulted with experts, in particular I had fascinating conversations with David Lewis-Colman, one of my sons who is a history professor.
My research revealed many surprises such as uncovering the origins of Thanksgiving in two very old traditions and Sarah Joseph Hale’s key role in establishing Thanksgiving, learning about the emergence of the “Pilgrim and Indian Story,” discovering Fantasticals and Ragamuffins, and reading about the brouhaha in 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt changed the date for Thanksgiving.
Q: Talk a little about your survey pool and how this information informed your writing.
A: To get a sense of people’s beliefs, traditions, and menus, I created a “Thanksgiving Survey,” an informal information gathering technique inspired by my days as a journalist when I wrote round-up articles for magazines. I mailed my survey to an eclectic group of people—teachers; librarians; members of the American Society of Journalists and Authors; alumnae of Western College for Women, now part of the Miami University; middle school students in Florida and high school students in Cleveland, Ohio, etc. One hundred thirty-eight people, more than 50 percent of the people I sent it to returned my survey. They ranged in age from twelve to eighty-nine years old and were racially and ethnically diverse. Women, men, girls, and boys responded from Maine to California, from Florida to Minnesota: Their responses were a rich source of information and quotations that I wove into my narrative.
Q: Does your teaching experience affect how you choose topics for your books, as well as how you write them? Briefly explain.
A: Teaching teachers gives me first-hand information about what teachers and students need and love—nonfiction books about real people, real events, real ideas illustrated with photographs! Hands-down that is what teachers tell me, at the same time they describe the paucity of nonfiction books. When I do school visits and give speeches, school librarians echo that too. As for how I write, my teaching confirms that readers want what I aim to create—fascinating, accessible, page-turning nonfiction books. Wherever I settle in to write a book (and I’ve moved from the 3rd floor, 2nd floor, to the basement with windows in my old house), I tape a piece of fat-lined, yellowed notebook paper with bent corners by my computer with these words by the Pulitzer-prize winning nonfiction writer Barbara Tuchman: “Whether in biography or straight history, the writer’s object is—or should be—to hold the reader’s attention . . . .want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning to the end. . . . absorbed in tale and wondering what happens next. Accomplished only when the narrative moves steadily ahead.” Note: Years ago when I copied this I double-underlined “hold the reader’s attention.”
Q: If you had to sum up the Thanksgiving holiday in a sentence, how would you best represent it?
A: Thanksgiving is an open-ended holiday that deals with universal themes.
Q: Do you think the Thanksgiving holiday is more important to Americans today than it used to be? Do you think it will be as important a holiday fifty years from now?
A: Once Thanksgiving got off the ground after the Civil War, it has always been an important holiday for Americans. Yes, Thanksgiving will be an important holiday fifty years from now. A holiday that celebrates universal ideals—giving thanks, gathering with family and friends, feasting—Thanksgiving is uniquely suited to thrive in a kaleidoscopic country like the United States of America.
Q: Discuss the photo research involved in this book and how you chose the pieces to include.
A: I look for images in old books, magazines, and newspapers; in picture collections in museums, archives, libraries; and in on-line collections. I am particularly interested in primary source documents and in images that have not been widely reproduced or reproduced at all. I contact historical organizations and individuals. For example, for Thanksgiving: The True Story, I contacted the El Paso Trail Association to locate a picture of the 1598 reenactment of the “first thanksgiving.” (p. 13) After I spotted a picture of the turkeys who were adopted instead of eaten for Thanksgiving in a magazine in my dentist’s office, I got permission to use it from Farm Sanctuary. (cover and p. 109)
Oftentimes, I’ll “see” an image in my mind or imagine something that I’d like to include in a book. That is when I set off with my camera For Thanksgiving: The True Story, I attended Chusok, the Korean harvest festival (p. 26). I drove to Newport, New Hampshire, to photograph the historic marker to Sarah Josepha Hale (p. 42). I visited the Sarah Josepha Hale Room, Richards Free Library in Newport, and photographed a less than pristine copy of the November 1865 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book to give readers a sense of the wear and tear of history (p. 47). To convey the fact that history is everywhere (and because I like to include a few quirky images in my books), I photographed street signs in Weymouth with the names Pilgrim, Squanto, Massasoit. (p. 23)
I do picture research as I am writing the text because I am a very visual writer. There are always more images than can possibly be included in a book. How do I choose? Here are my criteria: each image must serve one of more of the following purposes: it augments or clarifies the text, adds emotion, elicits curiosity, adds complexity or nuance, provides evidence, or creates a particular aesthetic. One of my all time favorite examples of an image that provides evidence appears in Thanksgiving: The True Story. It is a 1911 postcard I bought from a dealer that illustrates how merchants were trying to extent the Christmas holiday buying season. (To see what I mean check pp. ii and 107).
Q: What do you hope your readers will take from the book?
A: I hope readers will take from Thanksgiving: The True Story the understanding that the true story is fascinating and provocative and a very cool thing to know about!
Q: What is your favorite way to spend your Thanksgiving?
A: My favorite way to spend Thanksgiving is with my family and friends talking about ideas and issues, playing games, and eating turkey, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, string bean casserole, cranberry sauces, my grandmother’s dill bread, pumpkin pie and chocolate torte, and exciting new dishes that people bring!
Q & A:
A conference call with students in ERL 517— Literature for Children, a graduate class at the University of Maine, Professor Janice V. Kristo
On March 4, 2008, I did a Q&A telephone conference call with students at the University of Maine who were taking Professor Janice V. Kristo’s class, ERL 571—Literature for Children, a graduate class. They had to read one of my books: Rosie the Riveter: Women Workingon the Home Front in World War II, Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made a Difference: Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America
, and Corpses, Coffins and Crypts: A History of Burial
Here is a transcription of an email exchange we had before our conference call that served as a springboard for our conversation. The transcription is in the order that I received the questions. The student’s first name is underlined and followed by the book she read.
Laura: Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America
Q: Have all the ideas for your books just “popped” into your head like the idea for Girls?
A: No, some ideas have come from interactions with an editor, e.g., my forthcoming books, Thanksgiving: The True Story and Stirring Up the World: Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony, A Biography of a Powerful Friendship. Others were initiated by an editor, e.g., Corpses, Coffins and Crypts: A History of Burial and Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II.
Q: How do you begin your research for a topic (it seems like it would be very overwhelming!)?
A: Multiple ways, such as thinking about what I think I know & need to double-check and what I need to find out (e.g. with Louise Boyd in Adventurous Women I had to learn about Arctic ice), and listing places/ways to find out, e.g. my personal collections of materials, brick & mortar places such as archives and libraries, online sources, experts & friends. Early on, I start a bibliography & a “To Do” list.
Allyson: Rosie the Riveter: Women Working On the Home Front in World War II
Q: Have you ever published a book for an early elementary audience?
A: Yes, Fannie Lou Hamer and the Fight for the Vote (32 pages), Mother Jones and the March of the Mill Children (48 pages) and Madam C. J. Walker: Building a Business Empire (48 pages), plus two fiction picture books. I have also written a number of fiction and nonfiction pieces for children’s magazines.
Q: How do you create a balance in nonfiction writing that is informational, yet smooth and easy to read?
A: By driving myself crazy finding just the right structure. By moving between narration and exposition. By using a conversational style, paying attention to rhythm, to thinking about how to facilitating comprehension, i.e., use of repetition, noun and pronoun placement, etc. Reading everything aloud to my partner who is a fierce listener—if she doesn’t say “it’s skipping right along”—then I rework it until it does. I revise, revise, revise.
Q: How do you organize your topic before putting it all together?
A: Depends on the topic—but always in an orderly fashion & typically in a multilayered structure. See my article, “A New Way to Look A Literature: A Visual Model for Analyzing Fiction and Nonfiction Text,” for my discussion on structure, a critical feature of my books.
Q: What advice would you give an audience of early elementary students about writing and reading nonfiction?
A: Read different types—profiles, news articles, Q & A, personal essays, biographies, etc. on different topics—sport, politics, travel, true crime, adventure, nature, etc. Find authors whose writing resonates with you and figure out how they do what they do, i.e. why you like their style, e.g. choice of topics, lots of adjectives, use of literary devices, varied sentence lengths, use of questions, etc.
Denyell: Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made a Difference
Q: Is there one woman, in particular, whose story moved you more than the others. If so, who and why?
A: For different reasons, they all moved me.
Q: What was your favorite place you visited when doing your research for this book? Why was this place so special/interesting to you?
A: I was thrilled to see Moosehead Lake in Maine, because that is where a young girl (Mary Gibson), on a camping trip with her father, from a city fell in love with a tiny flower.
Q: What is the greatest adventure of your life (or adventure you want to undertake??
A: Hitchhiking throughout Europe and working in a frozen food factory in the mid-60’s (there’s an entry about that on my blog).
Q: What inspired you to write this book? Select these women?
A: I wanted to dedicate a book to my first grandchild. I selected women who provided the best mix of age, marital status, race, class, and type of adventure.
Q:What advice would you give to women of today?
A: Don’t be afraid!
Christine: Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial
(Many of the questions that I had while reading the book were answered on Penny’s web site.)
Q: What happened in New Orleans to all the coffins and crypts after the flood?
A: Many were ruined; others are now being restored.
Q: How did you find the people who you interviewed in the book?
Q: This book was different from most of your other books. I think many of us adults think about death and the contents of this book, but have never thought about reading about it. I was very interested in it and had a hard time putting it down once I started it. How has the response to this book been?
Courtney: Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America
Q: Where do you find the inspiration to write your books?
A: It’s my career & how I put my kids through college and graduate school & support myself.
Q: How do you decide which topics to write about?
A: What sticks to me like a burr.
Q: How do your life experiences affect what you choose to write about?
A: Every way.
Q: When you choose a topic, where do you begin your research?
A: I start by piling up resources—books, articles, documents, images, lists of experts, places to visit, etc., I start with my collections then I head for various libraries, in particular the Columbia University Library. Nowadays, I also search the Internet. (See my previous answer to Laura’s question.) I start a chronology.
Q: Have you ever considered writing fiction books?
A: I’ve written numerous fiction stories for kids’ magazines and picture books. I also have an unpublished fiction book in my desk drawer.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face as an author?
A: Carving out enough safe-time, i.e., free of distractions and pressures.
Q: What are the greatest rewards that come with being an accomplished author?
A: Making a difference in readers’ lives.
Q: What is your favorite that you have written?
A: Each one is for a different reason.
Q: What are some of your favorite authors/books?
A: Martha Gellhorn, Alice Steinbach, Terry Tempest Williams, Barbara Kingsolver, Pearl Buck. I also devour international thrillers, e.g. Gayle Lynds and legal thrillers e.g. Lisa Scottolini, and mysteries, e.g. Margaret Coel. Currently I am reading People of the Book (fiction) by Geraldine Brooks.
Q: What do you want readers to come away with after reading your books?
A: That’s up to the reader.
Q: How would you describe yourself as a writer?
Q: When did you decide to become an author?
A: My mid-40s. I became a full-time writer a month after my 45th birthday.
Q: What do you attribute most of your success to as a nonfiction writer?
A: High standards and always keeping my readers in mind.
Q: What is your inspiration for book topics?
Q: Do you have tips for young authors?
A: Find authors you love to read and figure out why you love their writing, What do they do as a writer that keeps you turning the page? Be specific. Don’t just say “makes me laugh;” explain what the writer does to make you laugh.
Q: What is your favorite book of all times.
A: That changes as the times (and I) change.
Nikki: Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial
Q: What is the most interesting thing you discovered while doing research for the book.
A: The variety of epitaphs.
Q: What types of reactions have you gotten from readers?
A: Everything from—it’s a scary topic to finally a book that enabled to me deal with the death of _________(people have told me this regarding their mother, father, a grandparent, a young child, a sibling).
Sarah: Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II
Q: As a child, you enjoyed riding your bike, especially without hands so you were able to read. What children’s books do you remember as your favorites? Did you always read historical books or did you venture into other genres (mystery, fantasy, etc.)?
A: Honestly I don’t remember having favorite children’s books. I remember books and The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. As a kid, I read biographies, i.e, the Landmark series with the person’s signature on the front. I read Nancy Drew, but no fantasy.
Q: You mention that in your spare time right now you are spending time with your granddaughter, Sophie, and you enjoy reading, writing, and traveling to museums. What books do you find yourself picking up as an adult or is most of your pleasurable reading research-based?
A: A mix—I dip in and out of a wide variety of books.
Q: Do you find yourself getting “lost” in a book still, and if so, what was the most recent book you couldn’t put down?
A:Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of An Extraordinary Mind by Paula Kamen
Q: Some of your topics seemed unrelated to me, especially the book on toilets, bathrooms, sinks, and sewers, until you stated that they all deal with “who” is typically involved in each circumstance: WOMEN. You are currently working on a book that will be released in September called Thanksgiving: The True Story. How did you come with the idea for this book since it doesn’t seem to follow your pattern of “who” being women?
A: But think about WHO typically prepares the Thanksgiving meal! Also I discovered the key historical figure in the story is a woman.
Q: One of your many jobs includes teaching. What grade(s) did you teach? How long did you teach? What advice do you have for teachers today, since the profession has changed drastically over the last 10 years.
A: I have had an eclectic teaching career: 7th grade in a public school in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1964, (history); 6th grade in a Roman Catholic boys’ school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, (math & sex education) in 1978; 10th grade in a Roman Catholic boys’ school in Montvale, NJ, 1886 (history). I’ve taught at various universities, e.g., as an adjunct, English Department, Teachers College, Columbia University. (Feminist Perspectives in Literature, Critical Approaches to Literature). Currently I’m a distinguished lecturer in the department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education, Queens College, the City University of New York (Nonfiction Children’s Literature, Issues in Children’s Literature, Writing Nonfiction Literature, Exploring Problems in History Through Children’s Literature). My advice is to be subversive whenever and wherever possible.
Aimee: Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II
Q: Do you usually know a lot about the subjects that you’re going to write about, or are they things you wonder about and therefore research them and write about them.
A: Mostly they are things I wonder about and therefore research them. Even with topics I do know a lot about I always discover there is so much more to learn!!!
Q: What is the hardest thing about writing?
A: Finding just the right structure & writing the first sentence.
Q: Why mostly nonfiction?
A: Because I’m hooked on & passionate about reality—real people doing real things, real ideas, real events!! Nonfiction is what kids need to figure out life!
Q: What were your favorite books as a child?
A: I don’t have any clear memories. I do remember reading biographies, poetry, Nancy Drew, and Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (which I loved).
Laura: Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front In World War II
Q: I’ve notice that you mainly focused on women and girls in history, but you’ve also dabbled in other topic such as Corpses, Coffins and Crypts.
A: All my topics fit under the general heading of Social History.
Q: How do you finds such rich sources of information to provide real life accounts and stories?
A: By looking everywhere, listening, talking & training myself to be able to discern what is and isn’t truly interesting. It’s a delicate, tricky and time-consuming process, but infinitely interesting and fun!
Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made a Difference
Q: Why did you write Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made a Difference?
A: Because I love true stories, especially about women. I love doing the research and writing about incredible historic women who have so much to offer us. In Adventurous Women, I wrote about Louise Boyd, an Arctic explorer; Mary Gibson Henry, a botanist and plant hunter; Juana Briones, an entrepreneur and family head; Alice Hamilton, a scientist and industrial toxicologist; Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and humanitarian; Katharine Wormeley, a Civil War superintendent on a hospital transport ship; Biddy Mason, a former slave, midwife, landowner and church founder; and Peggy Hull, a journalist and war correspondent.
Q: What do these historic women have to offer us?
A: Inspiration. Empowerment. Life lessons. Excitement.
Q: What was the biggest challenges in writing Adventurous Women?
A: There were two. The first was defining adventure in a way that encompassed a wide range of experiences that included the adventures of an Arctic explorer to a former slave who won her freedom and built a prosperous life as a midwife. For me, adventures are about being bold, about defying set ways of thinking and behaving, about taking risks, going beyond the boundaries, the limitations, about overcoming obstacles, about daring to be different.
The second was dealing with vast differences in the amount of primary source material: Alice Hamilton wrote reports, letters, speeches, articles, textbooks, and her autobiography. Juana Briones never learned to read or write. There were also differences in the duration of their adventure: Katharine Wormeley’s adventure lasted three months. Mary Gibson Henry’s lasted almost forty years. To deal with this challenge, I wrote each chapter as an essay, a flexible form that I love to read and write. In Adventurous Women, some chapters feature extensive first-person and eyewitness accounts, one chapter has two parts—an essay and letter excerpts, and in another chapter, I write about my experience in “meeting” one woman.
Q: Of the eight women, do you have a favorite?
A: No, each one is my favorite, although for different reasons. However, some people who read the manuscript do have favorites. To date, they are Biddy Mason, Mary Gibson Henry and Katharine Wormeley.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from reading Adventurous Women?
A: I hope that reading about the women’s adventures will be a springboard for readers to reflect on their experiences and be inspired to take on new adventures.
Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II
Q: Why did you write Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II?
A: I found my first book about a women war correspondent—Margaret Bourke-White— on an outdoor book stand in New York City in 1997. Next I found, Lee Miller’s War: Photographer and Correspondent with the Allies in Europe in 1944-45 on a sale-book table at the Getty Museum in California
A: Then there was Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War and Dickey Chapelle’s What’s A Woman Doing Here? (A Reporter’s Report on Herself). Reading women war correspondents’ words and seeing the women photographers’ pictures was an extraordinary experience that affected me deeply and compelled me to write their true story.
Q: What was your favorite part of writing this book?
A: I loved the hours I spent in various libraries reading the women war correspondents’ articles and seeing their photographs that were published in newspapers and magazines during World War II.
Q: Why is the title: Where the Action Was?
A: Men war correspondents were permitted to go to where the action was—the frontlines and combat. Women war correspondents weren’t, but some did, including Margaret Bourke-White who was the only foreign correspondent to cover the Nazi attack on Moscow and Martha Gellhorn who covered Allied troops in Italy and stowed aboard a hospital ship to cover the invasion of Normandy and Dickey Chapelle who reported from the front lines on Iwo Jima and Margaret Higgins who entered the concentration camp at Dachau before American troops arrived to liberate it.
Q: What kind of pictures did you include in this book?
A: There are more than 70 black and white pictures either of women war correspondents or taken by them, including Margaret Bourke-White’s spectacular photograph of the Kremlin in Moscow lit up by Russian antiaircraft tracer bullets and German magnesium flares used to provide light for their nighttime bombing raid, Dickey Chapelle’s powerful picture of a critically wounded marine, and Toni Frissell’s poignant picture of an American soldier in Italy on Easter Sunday, 1945. Actual newspaper dispatches by women correspondents are included. Each chapter opens with a front page headline from newspapers throughout the U.S. that heralds a major event in World War II.
Q: What would you want readers to take away with them after reading this book?
A: Just as I am, I hope that readers will be in awe of the women correspondents’ courage, determination, and resourcefulness. I hope that readers will understand why correspondents risked their lives to report from where the action was—and is today.
Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America
Q: What inspired you to write the book?
A: I love the true stories of girls’ and women’s lives. My idea of a great time is a trip in search of women’s history. I go to many places, including historical sites, museums, cemeteries, and libraries. Wherever I can, I take pictures and buy books—new and used. In 1995, I drove across the U.S. By the time I got to Los Angeles, my car was full of books, including the diary of a young girl Caroline Richards (see chapter 6) that I found in a used bookstore on the way to Yosemite National Park. I shipped the books home, so I could fill up my car with more books on the return trip.
Q: How did you select the girls?
A: I selected girls whose voices and experience I could weave together to tell the compelling true story of growing up female in America
A: I included girls and women from different geographic regions who represent various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic perspectives. Each girl’s account adds various elements to the narrative, including historical facts, fascinating details, dramatic incidents, lively anecdotes, and poignant memories.
Q: What was your greatest challenge in doing the research?
A: Finding primary source text and visual material that reflects the diversity of girls’ perspectives and experiences across the span of American history.
Q: What do you hope people will learn from this book?
A: That girls always were and always will be an integral and dynamic part of the American story. I hope that my passion for the true stories of girls’ and women’s lives is contagious.
Q: In the course of the research you did for Girls, did you discover anything that surprised you?
A: The most fascinating things was the fact that girls throughout history were such active participants in American politics, in economics, in every facet of life. Every single event in American history could be told through the voices of American girls. They thought about things. They had opinions. The evidence is right there, in history. That evidence is incredibly exciting.
Q: Was there any one thing that was particularly moving to you?
A: The profound sense of strength and power of these girls. They were multidimensional beings beyond the stereotypes that they were only concerned with boys or knitting.
Q: Do you think the 21st century is the best time to be growing up female?
A: I can’t say whether it’s the best time. There are still so many issues, for example, violence against girls and women and pay parity. But I think there’s enormous hope and possibility in the fact that, for the first time in history, women and men of goodwill can reach across generations to talk and act on the negative impact of gender stereotypes. I think the mandate for all of us is to keep communicating and making these connections.
Q & A with Girls, Inc. for their website in March 2006
Q & A Part One — Q & A Part Two Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial
I wrote it because I believe that death, a hard, sad, unavoidable fact of life, is easier to accept when we are able to talk about it and get answers to our questions. When we hear other people’s stories. When we learn about the variety of attitudes and rituals that have existed concerning death and burials. Nobody is immune to death. People die. I will and so will you. But if we are prepared, we can deal with death, however and whenever it happens.
Q: Why did you incorporate your own and other people’s experiences into the text?
A: Before I actually start writing any book, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to present the factual material: how to make it irresistible, informative, and empowering. With this particular book, I added the challenge of how to minimize queasy feelings—my own and those of potential readers. As I proceeded with my research for this book, I realized that the factual material was irresistible, informative, empowering, and minimally queasy to me when I incorporated it with my own experience and the experiences of other people. So that is how I wrote this book, and, for example, why the chapter about what happens to dead bodies begins with Ann Sparanese’s account of her trip to the morgue.
Q: Is this book for all ages?
A: Absolutely! All too often adults act as if they can protect kids from dealing with death. But they can’t. Death is everywhere—in real life and in the popular culture—and kids know it. The what, why, and how of death and burial worries some kids and overwhelm others. But, in my experience, most kids are curious and full of questions. They want the truth and they want it presented in a matter-of-fact, respectful way, not a gross-out-the-reader, ghoulish way.
Q: What was it like to write Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial?
A: Writing the book was a roller coaster ride—up and down, funny and sad, fascinating and I-don’t-think-I-really-want-to-know-about-that. At times, it was intensely personal, especially when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and died four months later as the book was going into production. At one point, as I was checking and double-checking the text, photographs, and captions, I said to my son Stephen, “This is the wrong book to be working on now. ” When Stephen replied, “Actually, it’s the right book,” I was startled. But as we tended to my mother’s dying, death, and burial, I realized Stephen was right. Because of researching and writing Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial, I was full of useful information and I had gained a measure of calmness about death and the burial process that I shared with my family. Together we dealt with my mother’s dying, planned her funeral, dug her grave, provided our own urn for her cremated remains, and had a funeral procession with a Dixieland band and a fire truck.
The whole experience reaffirmed for me the truth of the words that I had written in the preface to Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial: Understanding death doesn’t necessarily take away our anxieties or fears about our own death or our sadness about other people’s death. But it does help us find ways to continue on with our lives.
On Writing Women’s History
Q: You have written 16 nonfiction books 11 are biographies or social histories about women in 14 years. Why?
A: Because I am passionate about women’s history! For most of my life, historical women were invisible or confined to traditional roles. Then I discovered the truth about women’s indispensable contributions to American history. I uncovered true stories about real women overcoming odds and obstacles to do what they needed to do and wanted to do in life. I realized that historical knowledge empowers all of us to know who we are and what we can do in the world. I figured out that knowing women’s history protects girls and women from being duped into thinking that they are inferior, or unfit, or incapable. That is why I am passionate about women’s history!
Q: You have written about toilets, bathrooms, sinks and sewers; corpses, coffins and crypts; strikes. What do these have to do with all the books you have written about women’s history?
A: Everything if you think about who typically cleans the bathroom, who is responsible for many of the emotional and practical tasks of dealing with death, and who needs to fight for better working conditions.
Q: How do you go about writing a book?
A: Regardless of the topic, I approach each book in generally the same way. I search for relevant material in archives, attics, libraries, used bookstores, and museums. I immerse myself in words and visual images, listen to available audio tapes, view videos, and visit historical sites and cemeteries until the material takes over my mind.
People’s voices are an integral part of all of my books. In selecting voices, I look for quotations that make something happen—spark insights, evoke feelings, amplify ideas, inspire action, illumnate personalities, illustrate facts, and/or provide role models. A good example of the role model function of quotes are the words of Dolores Huerta in Strike!, “One thing I’ve learned as an organizer and activist is that having tremendous fears and anxieties is normal. It doesn’t mean you should not do whatever is causing the anxiety; you should do it ”(Strike!, 70).
A quote from Mother Jones illuminates her personality: “I am not afraid of the pen, the sword or the scaffold. I will tell the truth wherever I please. ” (Mother Jones, 15).
Edna “Shorty ” Hopkins, a welder during World War II, illustrates a fact: “We were doing the same kind of welding that the men were. But they didn’t call ours certified. We only got $1.20. I asked, ‘Am I doing certified welding?’ ‘No, Shorty, you’re not.’ But I was, and I knew it, but there was nothing I could do” (Rosie the Riveter, 88-9).
As for words that inspire action, Joe Hill’s last words to Bill Haywood provide a powerful example: “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize” (Strike!, 46).
Using pictures to help tell the story
In addition to the text, the visual images and captions are an important element in my books, which is why I do my own photo research and write the captions. In some cases, I do my own photography. I look for vivid, interesting, and unusual images. In Mother Jones and the March of the Mill Children, I photographed and reproduced images of actual newspaper accounts of the march. I also photographed and reproduced images of newspaper accounts and company newsletter articles in Rosie the Riveter.
For my book, A Woman Unafraid, I drove to Maine where Frances Perkins was buried to take a photograph of her gravestone that has these words on it: “U.S. Secretary of Labor.” Many of my photographs are in my new book, Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial. Read the captions and you will see how far I traveled to take pictures for that book. Some of the photographs are sad. Some are funny. All of them, I trust, are interesting.
After I finish writing…
Before my books go into production, fact checkers and expert readers review the manuscript. After I respond to all the questions, comments, and suggestions, the book goes into production, and, although authors do not have much if any say about the design of their books, I have been thrilled that my books have been beautifully designed. The art director who designed two of my books told me that she was “deeply moved by the text” to create books “that would attract readers.”