FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
I am most productive at night, from 10 or 11 till 2 in the morning. I ascribe this to the fact that I was born at 7:30 p.m. I think I’m just naturally a night person. However, since I work at home now, I am usually at my computer most of the day, from 10:30 in the morning (after the gym) till 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. till 6 or 7. My second most productive time is late morning, when thoughts of lunch inspire me to get things done.
I usually write in my office, a room on the second floor of my two-story condominium. My desk is in an alcove and faces two windows, out of which I can see trees, squirrels, the sky, and the end of my dead-end street. Every day at dusk, my two cats jump up on the desk for a close-up look at the birds that flutter in the trees—’and make a racket!—’as the sun goes down.
Why do you write?
Writing empowers me. It helps me to communicate with other people and get my ideas across. It also helps me satisfy my curiosity. I love learning about people who led interesting lives, seeing their old diaries and photographs of them in action, piecing together their stories. For me, there’s nothing as exciting as sitting in an out-of-the-way library digging through a box of somebody’s collected papers. I never know what I’ll discover. Once, I touched a lock of Amelia Earhart’s hair. Her mother had saved it in her baby book, which was with her other papers at the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That was so cool!
How do you get your ideas?
Most of my ideas come from research. I’ll see an article in a newspaper or a paragraph in a book that piques my curiosity, and start looking for more information. I first learned about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League when I found a one-page description of it in a book about firsts in women’s history. I was a big baseball fan, so I couldn’t believe I never knew women had played professional baseball. (This was in 1981, before the movie, A League of Their Own.) I headed straight to the library and stayed there until I collected a stack of articles about the league.
Of course, not every idea can turn into a book. I use my instincts to decide which topics to pursue. I preferred reading newspapers to books when I was a kid, but I do remember that feeling of excitement when I found a book that really drew me in. Now I use that same standard for the topics I choose. If a subject really grabs me, I know I’ll be able to communicate my enthusiasm through my writing. And hopefully, even reluctant readers will get as excited about the topic as I am.
How do you do your research?
I love doing research. I feel like a detective, putting together clues to answer questions about people’s lives. Whenever I start the research for a new book, I drive down to Princeton University, which is about an hour from my home. I went to college at Princeton, and the Firestone Library there has a wonderful collection of historic and contemporary source material. A day or two at Princeton is usually enough to give me a good foundation for my research. Next, I try to connect with my subject in some way. For A Whole New Ball Game, that meant sending out a questionnaire to more than 100 players, attending reunions, and doing lots of interviews. For Bull’s-Eye, it meant traveling to Annie Oakley’s hometown of Greenville, Ohio, and meeting her grandniece. I also read people’s scrapbooks, letters, diaries, and articles about them in newspapers. The more perspectives I can get on a subject, the better.
When I research a subject, I spend a lot of time looking for photographs. Often I start at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, which has a wonderful archive of hundreds of thousands of pictures. (You can see many of them at the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.) From there, I contact any people, museums, or historical societies that have collections related to my topic. And finally, I’ll search the Web sites of photo agencies that collect photographs and basically rent them out to authors and publishers.
A few years ago, I also started checking eBay to find photographs, postcards, and other memorabilia that might work in my books. That’s how I got the Annie Oakley comic book in Bull’s-Eye. And occasionally I take my own photographs for my books. A Whole New Ball Game contains three shots I took of ballplayers at a reunion, and Bylines contains my photograph of Nellie Bly’s childhood home in Apollo, Pennsylvania, as well as my shot of her grave in the Bronx, New York.
Although I was born in New York City, I’ve lived in New Jersey my entire life. I grew up in Clifton, a city just 25 minutes from midtown Manhattan. My parents still live there, so I get to visit the house I grew up in all the time. I also went to college in New Jersey—at Princeton—and now live in Englewood, about 25 minutes from my parents. I love being close to New York City, but I also love the quieter, slower life of the suburbs.
The first person I ever knew who worked in the writing field was my mother. When I was growing up, she was the editor of a newsletter that her women’s group put out. She was a fulltime mom and a volunteer editor, but watching her work on the newsletter and then seeing it come out in print made an impression on me. I still love the smell and feel of newly printed pages.
I also used to read The New York Times and my local newspaper everyday, and I really admired one reporter in particular named Judy Klemesrud. She wrote feature articles about things from everyday life, such as what people were naming their babies then versus what they’d named them 20 years before. I used to love reading her articles, and when I worked for my local paper starting the summer after 11th grade, I often wrote local versions of her feature articles. She was my first favorite writer.
Another influence was my dad’s uncle, George Macy, who started publishing companies called Heritage Press and the Limited Editions Club in the 1920s and 30s. He died when I was very young, but we had lots of his beautiful books around the house. They made a big impression on me.
Did you do much writing when you were a kid?
When I was in junior high, I joined the school newspaper. In eighth grade I was made feature editor, and in ninth, I was editor-in-chief. That was when I really got into journalism and writing non-fiction. The newspaper’s advisor was my eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Irons. After my first book, A Whole New Ball Game, came out in 1993, I told a reporter that Mrs. Irons had really taught me a lot about writing for publication. Someone sent the article he wrote to Mrs. Irons, who was 90 years old at the time. She called me and we had a great conversation, and I sent her a copy of my book. This was about 25 years after I’d finished junior high, but it still meant a lot to me that she wrote back and complimented my writing. She also asked me what I was writing next. I felt like I was back in eighth grade and had a homework assignment to write another book, so I wrote one!
You write a lot about sports. Did you play sports as a kid?
When I was growing up, my father used to play softball with all the kids in the neighborhood. He would pitch a rubber softball to us in our driveway and we would try to hit it across the street. My proudest moment was when I smacked a line drive that shattered the little pane of glass in our neighbor’s lamppost. We had to pay to have it fixed, but it was worth the money.
I also played softball and volleyball at summer camp, and was even named the camp’s Best Athlete one year. But my junior high and high school didn’t have girls’ sports teams. I graduated from high school in June 1972—the same week that the United States government passed Title IX. That law has led to a huge increase in opportunities for girls in school sports, but I just missed out.
What books did you read when you were young?
When I was in elementary school, I read lots of books from the Scholastic Book Clubs. There were biographies such as Helen Keller’s Teacher by Margaret Davidson, novels such as Julie’s Heritage by Catherine Marshall, and science fiction books such as Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey and The Mad Scientists’ Club by Bertrand Brinley. I used to love bringing in money to order books, and I can still remember the excitement on the days when the boxes of books arrived at school. In junior high, my favorite book was A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I also read lots of non-fiction—biographies, books about social problems, even books about probability and other types of math!
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
I would love to compose music. Not the words of the music, but the actual notes and chords. I love Broadway musicals, and whenever I see one, I come away in awe of the people who can string notes together and come up with melodies that transport me to another world. But I took piano lessons for eight years, and the one thing I learned is that I have no innate musical talent. So I must be content to listen to great music, rather than write it.
Another field that’s always interested me is photography. I use lots of photographs in my books, and I’ve spoken to many photographers about their adventures. I could happily embark on a second career as a photographer. I think I might have the ability to be a civil engineer, too, although I didn’t take enough physics to find out. But it would be neat to design buildings, roads, and bridges.