What were you like as a kid?
Loud! And I often blurted out things without thinking. I also liked a variety of sports, including baseball, football, and track. By the way, running fast came in handy whenever I said something loud and stupid to one of the bigger kids.
Were you a good student?
At first, no. I didnít like to read for the longest time and barely passed most subjects. Then in seventh grade, I suddenly became interested in history and my grades began to improve. All except math, that is. Which is why I didnít become an accountant like my father and older brother.
What happened in seventh grade?
I had a fabulous teacher, Mr. Polito. He made history sound like one exciting adventure after another, filled with action, near escapes, and larger than life characters. I became so curious about the past that I began reading books that had nothing to do with schoolwork. After a while I was reading (and still read) historical fiction, mysteries, biographies, old and new fiction, as well as books about any subject that catches my fancy.
Did you know you wanted to be a writer when you were growing up?
No. In elementary school, I liked to write and illustrate my own comic books, though I usually got into trouble for this. Not only did I create these in class, they were always filled with mega-battle scenes and massive explosions, and I usually let the evil villains win in the end.
I wrote lots of poems and short stories in high school and college, some of which were published in school journals. I stopped writing when I went to work as a childrenís book editor (because I didnít have a great deal of confidence in my writing ability). But after editing (and sometimes rewriting) other peopleís manuscripts for seven or eight years, I decided to give my own writing another try. That was over twenty-five (gulp!) years and some thirty books ago.
Where do your book ideas come from?
Sometimes Iíll read something in a book or article that will spark an idea; other times Iíll see a photograph and wonder what happened just before the picture was taken. A friend once suggested that David Crockett had tried to escape the Alamo dressed as a woman, which led to research, which led to my eventually writing Inside the Alamo. Crockett, by the way, died with his pants on.
How long does it take to do a book?
It varies. It may take a year or two to do the research and another year to do a decent first draft (and in the case of my nonfiction, round up the illustrations). After this there are revisions and more revisions, and then the book has to be designed and scheduled to be printed. It helps to be patient in this business Ė and work on several projects at once!
Do you like writing books?
I love doing the research. Itís like being a detective Ė hunting out what really took place, trying to find those odd, interesting and sometimes bizarre details I like to include in my books. The actual writing is much harder for me. Iíll write a sentence, change it, erase it and start all over again. And I do this with every sentence and every paragraph I write!
Youíve written books like The Great Fire, Blizzard!, and An American Plague that deal with one sort of disaster or another. Is there something about disasters that you are drawn to?
Who can resist a giant fire or an unstoppable disease? I want my nonfiction to be as exciting and readable as any novel so Iím always searching for topics that are inherently dramatic. By the way, my friends sometimes call me the Master of Disaster.
What else do you write about?
Iím interested in just about anything relating to the history of our country Ė the colonial period, the Revolutionary War, Westward expansion, railroads, the Civil War, how our ancestors came to live hereÖ. History is an endless succession of fascinating stories just waiting to be discovered.
Is there anything your nonfiction books have in common?
Voices. A dramatic situation is nice, but history really comes alive when I can use the firsthand accounts Ė excerpts from letters, memoirs, journals, diaries, and recollections -- of people who were actually there. These voices help readers experience events as if they were actually there. Hopefully, they also not only shed light on those events, but also help us better understand who we are today.
Your nonfiction books often feature kids. Why?
Because kids Ė even very young kids Ė werenít just observers of the events that shaped our nationís history. They often participated in an active, heroic way and then wrote eloquently about their experiences. Unfortunately, many historians focus exclusively on the important adults involved Ė a president, general, scientist or other powerful individual Ė and never let us see who else was there.
What are you working on now?
More explosions. More killer germs! More cataclysmic events that startled our ancestors and changed our country. If youíre intrigued, hop aboard and hold on tight!