Today we complete the conversation about what writers and illustrators sometimes go through as they prepare for their work. Once again, Sandy Asher and I thank everyone who participated. We hope that you have enjoyed this latest addition to the WRITERS AT WORK series.
SNEED COLLARD III
Like many writers, I’ve had the good fortune of exploring the world by researching my books. Writing has allowed me to hike through Costa Rican cloud forests, scuba dive on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, watch a tallgrass prairie burn, and airboat through the Everglades. However, the experience that left the, ahem, deepest impression on me was the opportunity to dive to the deep sea floor.
Back in 2001, just after 9-11, I was invited to accompany Dr. Edith Widder on a cruise to the Bahama Islands. By then, Dr. Widder had already earned an international reputation for her work on bioluminescent organisms—animals that can make their own light. At the last minute, she had received a few extra days of time using the four-person submersible Johnson Sea Link. Remarkably, she invited me to come along.
For four days, the submersible carried Dr. Widder, me, and other writers, scientists, and students to the bottom of a deep-sea trench 3,000 feet deep. For me, it was better than going to the moon. Why? Even though the deep sea—like space—is cold and dark, it is full of life. At the bottom and in the water column above, we passed hundreds of strange creatures: ctenophores, viperfish, siphonophores, giant salps, angler fishes, and many more. Not only did these dives astonish me, they changed how I felt about the world.
Sitting in total darkness on the sea floor, I realized, “This is what most of the world is like—not the sun-drenched, landscape we humans are lucky enough to live in.” It made me appreciate that much more how fortunate we are to live on Earth and enjoy what really is an almost perfect world.
The dives also highlighted how much we take this world for granted. In addition to the problems we humans have created such as global warming, toxic pollution, and more, I saw that we have used the ocean as one giant garbage dump. Looking out the porthole of the submersible, I saw beer cans, plastic bags, and other trash every few feet. I’d known that humans dumped garbage into the sea, but my submersible dives showed me the vast extent of the problem.
My experiences aboard the Johnson Sea Link resulted in my book In the Deep Sea (Marshall Cavendish, 2005). That book is long out of print, but its effects on me have been permanent. I returned from these dives a changed person, not only with a new appreciation for life, but a new dedication to encourage people to take better care of this amazing gift we all share.
J. B. (JANIE) CHEANEY
Ideas for novels or stories come with a ray of sunshine and gleam of possibility. The inspiration for my upcoming novel about the early days of the Hollywood silent movie industry came from a statue outside the entrance to Universal Studios: a circa 1930s sound stage with actors and technicians. What would it be like, I wondered, to be present at the beginning, soon after the industry had moved from the east coast to the west and filmmaking was still something you cold get into just by showing up?
The inspiration stage is fun. But sooner or later, when constructing a plot, an author comes up against the cold hard facts—or rather, lack of cold hard facts. A bunch of kids making a movie would need some technical know-how and equipment—chiefly, a camera. And more specifically, a camera that two teenage boys of not-especially-prepossessing size could haul all over Los Angeles County without attracting much notice. Books couldn’t give me that information; I needed to talk to somebody. Aftrer stabbing around in the dark (my research methods are not what you’d call professional) I decided to see if I could get in touch with someone at the Smithsonian. Further online research got me the name of Shannon Perich, a curator specializing in photography in the Division of Culture and the Arts at the National Museum of American History.
The Smithsonian is called “the nation’s attic,” and if the nation is looking for a particular object in connection with a particular project, it is welcome to come in and rummage around. Ms. Perich connected me with John Hiller, then retired, whose long career had included studio work in the film industry as well as cataloguing for the Smithsonian. On a lovely day in July, I met Shannon Perich and Mr. Hiller at the entrance to the American History Museum in D. C. and we drove together out to one of the many Smithsonian storage facilities in Maryland. The reader will be gratified to know, as I was, that the entire Smithsonian collection (at least ten times the amount that is on display) is painstakingly catalogued and carefully stored for maximum preservation. It’s possible to find the location of every single item—unlike your backyard storage shed—at any given time. We signed in at the door and went downstairs and walked by stacks and stacks of storage cabinets until we came to the particular aisle, stack, and shelf where the item was supposed to be. There I found the Prestwich Model 14 in its cherry-wood case, a motion-picture camera light and compact enough to carry to the battlefield (World War I forms part of the background for my novel), as well as to a dozen “on location” filming sites. I touched it, took pictures, explored its iron innards.
Even without the camera, talking to John Hiller was worth a trip: he was a wellspring of the sort of little-known facts and telling details historical fiction writers absolutely adore. At least three of these found their way into the novel. I complain as loudly as anybody about some of the uses my tax dollars are put to, but I can’t help but have warm feelings about the Smithsonian. Shannon and John didn’t just share information, but set aside valuable time to take me out to the storage facility and show me the actual item I was looking for—and I didn’t even have a book contract at the time! Many thanks for the kindness of these two strangers.
(J. B. Cheaney’s novel about early Hollywood is scheduled for release October 2015. The title is I Don’t Know How the Story Ends.
latest book: Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous
My neglected Blog: jbcheaney.wordpress.com
The Website: jbcheaney.com )
I write non-fiction; so far 25 books, and over 100 magazine articles. My subjects are mostly historical, biographical, or travel-oriented. I’ve delved into archives and trekked through three continents doing research, but my best fact-finding has come through live interviews.
The interview process was key when I wrote The World of the Trapp Family. Later I re-told the same story for children in V is for Von Trapp, “the Cliff’s Notes version,” a reviewer wrote.
As a 1960s kid, I saw The Sound of Music. On family vacations we visited the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont many times. There, Von Trapp reality collided with the Hollywood version.
The current media blitz marking the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music reminds me that the Von Trapps’ flight from the Nazis is called “one of the best known escape stories ever.” Maria, Captain Von Trapp’s third child, told me the authentic story of her family’s departure from Austria.
Maria said the Von Trapps’ butler, a closet Nazi, tipped off her father that the family was in danger. They had said no to the Nazis too many times. Refusing to sing for Hitler’s birthday, it was imperative that they leave before the borders closed. So they packed up, all eleven of them, as if they were going on a hiking trip. They simply took a train to Italy’s northern Alps, and didn’t return.
Contrary to the movie, no Nazis were in pursuit, no nuns disabled German vehicles, and there was no climbing of ev’ry mountain into Switzerland. “Geographically impossible!” Maria laughed.
The Von Trapps made it to New York, with work visas for a USA concert tour. Theirs was a classic immigrant story. They continued concertizing for twenty years.
Yes, I spent weeks pouring over the Von Trapps’ personal archives. I traveled to Austria for more research. But the interviews with members of the family are what enriched my writing. Woven into my texts are the actual voices of the Von Trapps. I discovered a quiet heroism about each of them. I hope I conveyed this in the books I wrote.
The first books that I wrote and illustrated, The Windchild and The Queen With Bees in her Hair, were purely fiction, just my imagination’s authentic children. But then I wrote one about the Pilgrims, those poor seafaring pioneers who had to make themselves at home in the New World wilderness. Sure, I pored over photos of the 1957 replica, the Mayflower II, and costumed reenactors at Plimoth Plantation, http://www.plimoth.org but I thought, if I was going to nail these illustrations, I’d better GO THERE. And I did. It turned out to be the first of many gallivants. Besides all of the libraries and museums, I went to the former homes – all the places I visited are ‘former homes’ as all my subjects have been dead for years – of John & Abigail Adams, their firstborn, JQA; Abraham Lincoln, Washington Irving, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. I’ve walked about in the White House, wishing I could go upstairs, but that museum’s personnel carry FIREARMS. I did stand in Susan B. Anthony’s upstairs office & peered in at her bathtub. I walked about in the little house in Seneca Falls, where Susan’s buddy, Mrs. Stanton once lived. I marveled, horrified at Teddy Roosevelt’s glassy-eyed hunting trophies at Sagamore Hill. For all TR’s love of the natural world, he sure as hell blasted a LOT of creatures clean out of it!
My dad and I drove along the old Erie Canal. Never would I have thought, back during the Reagan Administration, when I was trying to break into books, that the profession would turn me into a time travel tourist, but so it did.
(I’m probably best known for such books as Remember the Ladies, http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780064438698 and Ghosts of the White House,
http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780689848926 ; also my Laura Ingalls Wilder Coloring Book, https://www.etsy.com/listing/117386394/laura-ingalls-wilder-coloring-book?ref=pr_shop . Most recent book is Flags Over America,
http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780807524701 . Working on a biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton, to for 2016 publication and contribute to Nonfiction Minutes! http://www.nonfictionminute.com ; Look for me at http://www.cherylharness.com or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CherylHarnessAuthorIllustrator?fref=ts .)