Marfe Ferguson Delano is the author of numerous nonfiction books, including Helen’s Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s Teacher, and Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World. We’re very excited to share her answers to our interview questions.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
When I was a kid, a writer was one of the things I wanted to be. I also pictured myself as a concert pianist, as a French teacher, and as a brilliant criminal defense attorney, like the ones I saw on TV who always proved in the nick of time that their falsely accused clients were innocent.
When did you start writing?
I wrote and illustrated my first picture book when I was in sixth grade, for a class assignment. My story was about a boy who built his own rocket and zoomed to a faraway planet, where he had adventures with strange creatures. Some of my classmates and I got to share our books with a first-grade class. I can still remember how my heart thumped when I stood in front of the little kids and read my book to them, and the thrill I felt when their eyes widened at the scary parts and they laughed at the funny parts.
I began writing professionally about 25 years ago, selling recipe columns to a magazine called “Working Mother.” Cooking and testing recipes and then writing them up was great fun, although I think I probably spent more money on ingredients than I was paid for the articles. A few years later I took a job as a copy editor with Time-Life Books, and I eventually began writing for them on topics ranging from vegetable cookery to the Civil War to UFOs. That helped me learn to be versatile, a valuable skill for a children’s book writer, or any writer for that matter.
If you weren’t a writer, what your job be?
I’ve worked as an editor before, so I might do that again, in part because it would help me stay connected with the many wonderful and creative people in the children’s book world. But I think I might also like to teach. I’ve recently become a volunteer ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher for adults, and I really enjoy the interaction with the students, who come from all over the world. Sometimes I fantasize about opening a cozy family diner that would only serve breakfast and lunch. I would make delicious soups and stews and become friends with all the customers. Maybe I’d compile my recipes into a cookbook, and then…oh wait, I’m back to writing.
How long did it take from starting to write to having the book published? Did you get many rejections?
About 12 years ago I was lucky enough to be asked to write my first children’s book by an editor at National Geographic, who had learned about my work from another editor at Time-Life. Called Sky, that book was all about the weather and the atmosphere. It was part of a series called Nature Library, and it was the first of many series-type nonfiction books that National Geographic hired me to write. Eventually I began proposing my own book ideas to my editor there, some of which she’s taken on and some of which she’s declined. She’s also given me some great ideas for books, including Helen’s Eyes and Earth in the Hot Seat. It usually takes at least a year and a half from the time I start my research for a book to the time that published books are available.
Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?
I start editing the minute I start typing, which makes it darn difficult to finish a sentence, much less a paragraph. Then I go back and revise the paragraph. The whole process starts again with the first sentence of the second paragraph–and then I might go back and revise the first paragraph again, and so on. As you can imagine, this nonstop editing approach makes writing a very slow business for me. I’ve tried and tried to let the words flow, to just get my ideas down in a crummy first draft, as so many writing teachers rightly recommend. But that annoying editor inside of me refuses to let go. Because of this I write fewer full-length drafts than many other writers I know. One trick I’ve started playing with myself, however, is to exceed the length I’m aiming for by at least 30 percent. Then I go back and prune the manuscript down to size.
For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?
Moving on from the research to actually writing the book is the most difficult part for me. Forcing myself to tackle the first chapter is always my biggest challenge, especially when there are so many other tempting things to do, like going for a bike ride by the river…or reading the newspaper…or making soup…or doing more research.
I love to do the research for a book. For Exploring Caves, I got to explore a wild cave in northwest Georgia with two expert cavers. To gather information for Inventing the Future, I went to Thomas Edison’s laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. I went to Helen Keller’s birthplace in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and to the Perkins School for the Blind History Museum in Watertown, Massachusetts, to research Helen’s Eyes, my biography of Annie Sullivan. Sometimes I go to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., which isn’t far from my home. But I often go no farther than than my wonderful local public library, which I can bike to. And of course I can do internet research at home.
I love to keep digging for information, especially when I’m working on a biography. The more I learn about someone, the closer I feel to him or her personally, and this keeps me going. Author Deborah Heiligman describes this as “falling in love with dead people.” Annie Sullivan really crawled under my skin–in fact she pestered me. During a low point while I was working on Helen’s Eyes, I considered requesting that the release date of the book be pushed forward a year to give me more time to write the manuscript. And then when I was on my walk one morning, a very impatient voice broke into my thoughts. The voice was female, with a light Irish accent, and it upbraided me for being such a pitiful procrastinator: “Sure, if you’ll stop lingering over the newspaper every morning for hours wasting time on things you don’t even remember reading about later, then you’ll have time to write my story. And be sure you do it well.” From that point on I wanted to please Annie, and every time I started to slack off, I could hear her tart tongue chiding me. My excuses seemed pretty lame, especially in light of all that she and her famous student overcame and accomplished in their lifetimes. And so I finished her book.
How do you get your ideas?
As a nonfiction writer, I’m always looking for new ideas. Sometimes I get them from reading an article in a newspaper, magazine, or book. Visiting a museum or a historic site and talking with friends and family members are other great ways to get ideas. So is getting out in nature and taking the time to watch the world around you. My husband inspired me to write Genius, my biography of Albert Einstein, when he told me that he was born in Princeton Hospital in New Jersey on the same day that Einstein died there!
Do you have any subjects that you’ve always wanted to write about, but haven’t?
Lately I’ve found myself drawn to the rich history of my birthplace of Memphis, Tennessee, from the city’s role in the civil rights movement to its legendary music scene. I’m hoping a book will spring from my explorations–and from conversations with my relatives who still live there and witnessed a lot of the city’s history for themselves.
What advice would you give to young writers?
Read, of course! Read books, read magazines, read comic books, read newspapers, read the sports page, read anything and everything. Think about what you read, why you like one thing and why you don’t care for something else. Keep a journal and write in it regularly. And keep your eyes and ears and mind open. The best writers are careful observers. You might want to keep a small notebook with you at all times, so that you can jot down notes about anything interesting that you see or hear or feel or smell or taste. Finally, get outdoors and explore nature. Watch ants march in and out of an anthill, listen to birds chirping, feel the rain on your face, smell the flowers…you get the idea.
Are you working on a new book right now? If so, can you tell us anything about it?
I’m currently doing research at Mount Vernon, a historic estate that’s only about five miles from my home in Alexandria, Virginia. This might help you guess the person who plays a prominent role in my next book!
Who is YOUR favorite author or book?
E.B. White is one of my favorites. I adore Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, and his Elements of Style, which I first read in high school, is still my Bible for good, clear writing. Two memoirs I’ve read recently and highly recommend are The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson and Knucklehead by Jon Scieszka. Both are hilarious. I also read a lot of mysteries. Lately I’ve been enjoying Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries, which are set in Venice.
What are your hobbies when you aren’t writing?
I sing with a choral society and read a lot for pleasure. I like to explore the museums in Washington, D.C. I go on long walks in my neighborhood almost every day and I hike in the mountains as often as I can. I especially enjoy cooking for my family and friends, and then sitting down to eat and talk and laugh with them.
A big Thank You to Marfe Ferguson Delano! If you’d like to learn more about her, you can visit her website http://www.marfebooks.com/, check out her blog posts at INK: Interesting Non-fiction for Kids, and the related database for teachers, Ink Think Tank