Deborah Heiligman is the author of numerous picture books, such as Fun Dog, Sun Dog, and non-fiction books, like the National Book Award nominee Charles and Emma: the Darwin’s Leap of Faith. We are extremely excited to be able to post this interview with her.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing?
When I was growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 70s, authors didn’t come into schools or visit libraries, and so I didn’t know that real people became writers. I thought writers were either old men with really long gray beards or people who were rich and lived in mansions, like movie stars. So I didn’t think that I could ever grow up to be a real author. But I always loved writing, and was told I was good at it. It was just easy for me, most of the time. I was one of those kids who LIKED to write school reports! If I look back I think I can see the first inkling that I might grow up to do this, although I didn’t know it at the time for sure. We had to write a report on how the digestive system worked. So I did my research and then I wrote the report from the point of view of a chocolate chip cookie. I made a round cover out of brown construction paper, drew black chocolate chips on it, and then cut out a bite. I hope I got an A, but I don’t remember. I guess it was satisfying enough to have written it that way!
If you weren’t a writer, what would your job be?
Either a movie star or Queen of the World. O.K., you mean really? Probably a social worker (which is what I almost became), or another job in which I could help people directly. I’d say teacher or a school librarian, but I would not be very good at that for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I would find it very hard to make up lessons plans. I would just want to go in and play with the kids, see what happened. I’d get fired, wouldn’t I? Maybe I could be a librarian at a public library, though. I could see doing that for sure. Maybe I could be a librarian AND a movie star? I think I’ll stick with writing and visiting children in schools and libraries.
How long did it take from starting to write to having your first book published? Did you get many rejections?
I had beginner’s luck. I had already been writing for children for a few years. My second job after college was working at Scholastic News, the classroom newspapers. So although writing books is quite different that writing short articles, Scholastic News was great training ground. So I did have some experience writing for kids. But I knew I wanted to write children’s books after I had my first son. He LOVED, LOVED, LOVED to be read to, and we spent much of our day doing that. So one day I took a nap and woke up with an idea. INTO THE NIGHT, my first book, was bought by the second editor who saw it. After that I had a bunch of rejections, though. I made a file labeled, “promising rejections.” I still have it.
Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?
Yes and yes. I hate to let a book go. But then either I have a deadline and the editor says, “give it to me now!” and so I do, or I just can’t stand working on the book any more because I know that I’m not making progress and I send it in and ask for help. But I had a lot of trouble letting go of Charles and Emma. When I had to send in my first full draft I was so scared, I called my agent on his cell phone, and said, “Will you hold my hand while I hit send?” And he said, “Deborah, I’m in the doctor’s office. I’m on the examining room table. I don’t have any clothes on.” And I said, “O.K.. but could you hold my hand while I hit send?”
For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?
The hardest part is figuring out how to tell the story. Which really only happens when you figure out what the story is. So with Charles and Emma, the story was about their marriage. Once I really got that, then I knew how to write the book.
As someone who writes fiction, non-fiction, easy readers, picture books, do you have a favorite type of book to write?
I love writing all kinds of books—fiction, non-fiction, long, short, for big kids and little kids. It may not be the best thing for my career—the Powers that Be like branding and all that. But it is the best thing for me and my work satisfaction to write all kinds of books on all kinds of topics.
How do you get ideas for a book—do you come up with everything yourself, are you assigned topics by an editor, or does it change from book to book?
I come up with some ideas, and sometimes editors come to me with ideas. Very often it’s a give and take. And yes, it does vary from book to book. I have a new book coming out in a few years about the mathematician Paul Erdos. That one came about because both of my sons came home from school talking about him. I passed calculus by the skin of my teeth, so for me to write a book about a mathematician is kind of a miracle.
It seems like everyone has written about Charles Darwin over the past few years—some in picture books, some in fictionalized novels, some in comic book form, even. Where did you get the idea for Charles and Emma—for writing it as a joint biography of the two of them, and exploring what they meant and did for each other?
The book really is a love letter to my husband, Jonathan Weiner. When I first met Jon, I had just graduated from college with a major in religious studies. He was a young science writer. We started talking immediately—about science and religion and writing and pretty much everything else—and we haven’t stopped talking since. One day, about eight years ago, Jon said to me, “You know, Charles Darwin’s wife was religious.” I looked at him. He continued, “And they loved each other very much. She was afraid he would go to hell and they wouldn’t be together for eternity.” If bells had chimed right then or fireworks had exploded in the sky above us at that moment, I would not have been surprised. I knew right then I had a book to write. The more I thought about it, and researched their life together, the more I knew that Charles’s relationship with Emma was central to his work. I was thrilled to find out that this was a story that really had never been told.
What do you think Charles and Emma Darwin would be like if they lived today—do you think they would be a big celebrity couple, almost pop-culture figures, or quiet, little-noticed academics?
What a great question! I think they’d probably be a lot like they were then. They were homebodies, especially Charles. But they loved people and had lots of visitors all the time, especially after he was famous. I imagine they’d have someone on their staff, though, who was their representative out in the world, just like Thomas Huxley and others were back then. I’m sure they’d have someone on Twitter for them. I’d guess their son Frank would tweet for Charles and their daughter Etty would tweet for Emma. Who knows? Maybe Emma would do all the tweeting. She was awfully witty and smart. I bet she could say brilliant things in 140 characters or less.
Did you like the Darwins that you learned about? Would you invite them over for dinner, say?
I would love to have them over for dinner! What would I make? You know how Charles was so sick all the time? Some people say it was lactose intolerance. And I don’t eat meat, and don’t like to cook it. So I’d have to think of something for all of us. I think it might take me a little while to “get” Emma—they say she could appear stern at first. But she was so brilliant and incisive; we’d probably talk about books and get on great. And Charles would make us laugh. Oh, boy, would Charles and my husband have a lot to talk about. I wish we really could have them over for dinner! Could you help me arrange that, please?
Did you learn anything about the Darwins that surprised you?
I knew very little about them when I started researching the book. So in the beginning everything surprised me! It surprised me that Charles was athletic and fit when he was young, because I had heard that he was so sick as an adult. It also surprised me that Emma was not sentimental (that’s what her daughter said), mostly because I am, and I had started to identify greatly with her. But now I feel like I know them so well, nothing surprises me.
Charles and Emma is being cataloged in libraries as a Young Adult biography, which is a pretty unusual area (many YA sections don’t collect non-fiction). Did you plan to write the book for this age-group all along, or did it start out as a children’s book?
I’ve always wanted to write it for teenagers. I spent a few days thinking about whether I “should” do it for adults, and I decided that I was going to write the book I wanted to write, and that was a book for teenagers. Fortunately two things have happened: adults are reading it as well (I get emails from adults all the time, one of my favorite fan letters was from an 87-year-old woman); and now more people ARE writing non-fiction for YA and there’s even a new ALA award, the YALSA award for excellence in non-fiction! So I’m going to write another YA non-fiction book!
Are you working on a new book right now? If so, can you tell us anything about it? Do you have any cool plot ideas for the future?
Aha! I just answered that. But I’m not ready to talk about my new non-fiction idea, though. Too new… I’m also working on a YA novel. But ditto there. Sorry.
Do you have any subjects (fiction or non-fiction) that you’ve always wanted to write about, but haven’t?
Yes. I have a drawer full of ideas, and computer files of ideas, and I get new ideas all the time. What I write next depends on what starts pulling at me the hardest.
What advice would you give to young writers?
Read. Read voraciously and widely. Read stuff you like. Read stuff you don’t like. Read classics. Read “junk.” Read, read, read. And also: ask lots of questions, keep your eyes and ears open, and lastly, but most importantly, live. And love.
Who is YOUR favorite author or book?
My favorite author is my husband, Jonathan Weiner. And he didn’t make me say that. But it’s a lot harder to choose a favorite book. I have so many. Can I please not answer this question? Thank you.
What are your hobbies when you aren’t writing?
I read, hang out with my family and friends, run, play squash, cook, eat, walk in New York City, travel, and I am still looking for that one thing that could be called a real hobby.
Thank you SO very much to Deborah Heiligman for her wonderful interview! If you’d like to know more about her, you can visit her website, or her blog, or check out I.N.K.: Interesting Non-fiction for Kids, a blog written by a number of non-fiction children’s authors. we can’t wait to see what new books she has in store!