Lukas Cooke, our young blogger interested in nature and the environment, recently had the opportunity to read one of Patricia Newman’s books, Plastic Ahoy!: Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and then talk to the author about her books, her writing process and being a published author.
Read the interview below!
Lukas Cooke: What inspired you to become an author, specifically to write about saving the natural world?
Patricia Newman: My husband’s mother first suggested I try writing. I remember the exact moment. I was reading picture books to my one-year old son and four-year old daughter on the sofa. Before that I’d never considered writing as a job.
My first books had nothing to do with the natural world. I wrote about railroading slang in Jingle the Brass and fighter pilot slang in Nugget on the Flight Deck. I also wrote several books that editors asked me to write. Through all that writing and researching, I hiked, visited nature centers and zoos, recycled, composted, and saved water, and yet it never occurred to me to write about our environment.
An article in my local newspaper planted the initial seed. I read about a group of young scientists who set sail for the North Pacific to study plastic. I was hooked!
LC: Did you always dream of becoming a writer? If not, what did you originally plan to be your career?
PN: Not at all! I knew I wanted to work with kids and I taught math for a while. Then I wrote computer code for a software company. I also worked for Cornell University, my alma mater, raising money, talking to high school students, and meeting alumni. Although my various jobs required that I communicate through writing, I’d never thought of it as a career. I think I was afraid to share. You see in fifth grade I was bullied. At the time, sharing stories seemed like painting a target on my back.
Something about becoming an adult and a parent made the bullies of my childhood powerless. I’m glad I changed my mind, but I’m sorry it took me so long to figure it out.
LC: What is your favorite tip for new or aspiring writers?
PN: Read. All writers are readers. It’s how we soak up the elements of good dialogue or a page-turning plot. It’s how we discover what annoys us about certain stories. (Have you ever read a book where you disagreed with how the character acted?) Reading improves our vocabulary so we can describe settings. It helps us understand that people are complicated so we create characters with complex emotions. Reading stimulates ideas and exercises the imagination. We uncover fascinating aspects of the world. I read because I’m curious. There’s no limit on knowing. Pack it in and let it shape who you will become.
LC: It seems like a lot of research went into writing your books. Can you describe the process of how you do the research for a book you’re writing?
PN: My books start with a kernel, such as the article about scientists sailing to the North Pacific to study plastic (Plastic, Ahoy!); my daughter’s job as an undergraduate with the Elephant Listening Project at Cornell University (Eavesdropping on Elephants); or a group of girls in a Kenyan village who can’t go to school (Neema’s Reason to Smile).
From there I read—online, books, magazines, newspapers—anything my library or the Internet spits out on my topic of choice. I watch videos. I listen to speeches about my topic. I want to be sure the idea is book-worthy and will appeal to kids. I also look at published children’s books to see if anyone else has already written about my topic.
Next, I contact the people I’d like to interview. In the case of Neema’s Reason to Smile, I interviewed two women closely involved with a school similar to the one in the book. In the case of my science nonfiction, I interview scientists.
These people have jobs to do so they don’t have an unlimited amount of time to spend with me. If they don’t have the time or the interest in working with me, the idea dies. I know that sounds sad, but believe me, there are plenty more ideas to take its place!
For Neema’s Reason to Smile I conducted several hours of interviews and watched video of real life kids who go to the school I was writing about. I also reread my travel diary from my long-ago trip to Kenya to remind myself of the smells and colors and light of Africa. I wrote the entire picture book before submitting to publishers.
But my environmental science nonfiction is longer. Instead of writing the entire book, I write a proposal to sell my idea to an editor. The proposal includes an overview of my idea, a chapter outline with a brief explanation of what I plan to include in each chapter, and a section on the competition—what’s already out there on the subject and how my book will be different.
Once I receive an editor’s go-ahead, I begin researching in earnest. Sometimes I travel, sometimes I don’t. For Sea Otter Heroes my daughter, Elise, and I went to the Elkhorn Slough near Monterey Bay in California. Brent Hughes, the scientist I interviewed, took us on an amazing boat trip down the slough. We saw a lot of marine life, including sea otters, seals, pelicans, herons, jellies, and crabs. I interviewed Brent and some of his colleagues. Elise took photos and asked her own questions.
For Zoo Scientists to the Rescue photographer Annie Crawley and I visited three zoos in the US. We interviewed the scientists and took behind-the-scenes tours with them. We touched a rhino and watched an orangutan baby climb all over her mother.
Traveling is a blast AND hard work. Scientists are extremely busy and can generally only speak to me for a day, so I have to be organized. I’ve read enough about their story to be able to prepare detailed questions. When I work with Annie, we also set up specific shots because half of every book is visual.
Back at home, I listen to many hours of recorded interviews and ask follow-up questions via email. I also pore over scientific studies to understand the smallest details, for instance, how to construct a sea otter-proof cage or how to measure if a rhino is sleeping.
Then I write many, many drafts before sending the manuscript to my editor. She reads it and returns it with comments. A lot of comments. I reorganize and rewrite at least three different drafts before we’re ready to talk about the photos or illustrations.
LC: In reading your book Plastic Ahoy!, it appears you had a lot of input from scientists. Can you describe the process, and what you felt like being able to work with them?
PN: When I interview scientists, I definitely feel star-struck. These people are amazing thinkers, doers, achievers, and I get to spend time with them! They make a difference in the health of our world. I want to know how they do it, and I want to share that know-how with readers. Science is about people asking questions and discovering answers. Kids do that every day. Doing what comes naturally can be a launching pad for a career in science.
Scientists often talk and write using words I don’t understand. They have a specialized vocabulary that comes with their training. I need to do some homework before I visit or chat with them on the phone. I don’t want them to feel as if I’m wasting their time and I want to use the time I have with them as efficiently as possible.
So, I read. A lot. Not only to understand the basic terms, but to ask questions that go deeper than the surface. Questions that get to the heart of what’s going through their minds as they solve a scientific mystery. Questions that get to the heart of their passion for science.
As an author, it’s my job to translate difficult scientific concepts into language that kids can understand. I ask detailed questions, such as how long did that take? How many times did you fail? What materials did you use? My favorite question for every scientist is, “How would you explain what you do to a 4th grader?”
LC: Also while reading Plastic Ahoy!, it seemed a lot like a firsthand account of the ship “New Horizon”’s trip to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The research that Miriam, Darcy, and Chelsea did also seemed to come from a witness. Were you aboard “New Horizon” during the voyage? If so, what did it feel like?
PN: I love that you noticed this detail. I was not aboard New Horizon, but Annie Crawley was the official photographer for the expedition. I interviewed Annie as well as the scientists to understand specifics of the journey, such as the ship’s layout, how long they worked, what a typical day was like. I asked for weather reports, wildlife they spotted, how much it cost to charter the research vessel, and a lot more.
I combined these notes with the many time I’ve been at sea. I remembered the way the sun rose on the water, how the swells sounded, the wind, the smell of the salty water. Nothing ever goes to waste for authors. We somehow manage to use our life experiences in many of the books we write.
LC: What is your favorite part about being an author?
PN: The creative process is one of my favorite parts. It’s hard work that requires a lot of research and deep thinking about how to distill a mountain of material into the truth that I want to tell. The creative process also involves failure. Although I never (repeat that, never) get it right the first time, it’s rewarding because I end up with a book that only I could write.
With all that said, my absolute favorite part is the day my book arrives on my doorstep. I open it like a long-awaited birthday present and do a little happy dance when I hold it in my hands for the first time!
Thank you so much to Patricia Newman for doing the interview with Stone Soup, and to Lucas for asking great questions! Check out Patricia’s website to read more about her books, plus watch videos about her books Eavesdropping on Elephants and Sea Otter Heroes.
Have you read any of these books, or do you want to ask Lucas about his experience as an interviewer? Leave a comment below!