What can you say about your newest book?
My new book, The World Turned Upside Down, tells the incredible true story of the last major conflict of the American Revolution. The Marquis de Lafayette, a nineteen-year-old French man, is a key character is the quest to save Virginia from a British invasion. He recruits an enslaved man named James to go undercover into British lines. Meanwhile General Washington is negotiating with the French general Rochambeau and they finally devise a plan to trap the British, but it requires many pieces of a puzzle coming together. They must keep a big secret and fool the British to make them think an attack will take place in New York.
What is your writing process?
It starts with identifying a good story that rests on solid historical evidence. With nonfiction, an abundance of source material is vital. I look for colorful characters who can tell the story from multiple perspectives. I determine a narrative arc, turning points, climax of the story, elements like that. As a trained historian and educator, I also strive to find ways to reveal the historical process – the critical thinking involved in telling a story. Are there conflicting viewpoints in the evidence? Why did I make the conclusions I did? I want my readers to gain an understanding of and appreciation for the complexity of history.
What inspires you to write specific books?
Ideas come from many places. For A Grizzly in the Mail, three answers: First, my friends, upon hearing my various adventures with Lewis & Clark, encouraged me to write about them. I realized if I didn’t record the stories, I would forget them. I had such a good time writing that I decided to write about some of the other fun projects I’d worked on. Second, I decided that my stories could serve a nobler cause by showing a little of the history research process and hopefully demonstrating that the pursuit of history can be fun, an adventure. History should not be about rote memorization of facts, but more like detective work. Third, I’m hoping that Grizzly will inspire other public historians to write about their projects. First Flight Around the World resulted from working on an exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum and learning the story of the Douglas World Cruiser Chicago. It was just the kind of adventure story I wanted to read when I was young. Few people know of the flight, so I determined to change that. Writing a book is a huge commitment and the author must be passionate about the topic!
Did you really receive a grizzly bear in the mail?
Yes, read about it in chapter 12 of A Grizzly in the Mail. While I was expecting the package from Alaska, what actually came was very unexpected…and smelly!
What was your favorite project?
The Lewis and Clark exhibition. I had the luxury of working on one topic for three years and could dig deep into its many layers. The team I worked with was top-rate and of course, the story. The strong narrative of the saga of exploration against many odds and through rich, complex cultures was totally fascinating to me. With each new project I step into a new world, so to speak, but Lewis and Clark was more literal than other times.
What is your favorite adventure in Grizzly?
So many to choose from! I suppose it would be the story from the title. Not many people can say they received a grizzly in the mail. A close second is my attempts to ride a highwheel bicycle. That was a day I won’t soon forget. Planting and picking cotton surrounded by an audience of museum visitors was fun, too.
Of all of the museums you have worked at, which is your favorite?
They are each different in their own way and truly one-of-a-kind. I can’t choose one.
Favorite time period?
Every historian gets this question on a regular basis. I can honestly get interested in any time period. There are fun stories from any time in the past. Certainly periods of war tend to provide more points of drama and tension and amazing heroics, but history is about change over time and that fascinates me.
Why don’t some people like history?
My theory is it starts in the classroom. At some point in their education people who “hate” history were forced to memorize dates and names and failed to see the fun of discovery and exploration that is part of a historian’s job. Some people claim they just don’t care about what happened in the past, but it helps to understand how everything about the present is informed by what happened before. As I say in Grizzly, I’m convinced that anyone can learn to enjoy some aspect of studying the past.
What advice do you have for aspiring historians or people trying to pursue a museum career?
I am living proof that students of history can get a job in the history field. The key components are: a graduate degree—for most professional history jobs, it helps to have a master’s degree in a history-related area; perseverance with a capital P; internships—don’t hesitate to work at unpaid internships if you can afford it, even a day or two a week, or volunteer as a docent, show that you want to be at work in the field; informational interviews —network, network, network, many people get jobs through networking and meeting new people through interviews. For me, an informational interview led to a career at the Smithsonian. Also, be flexible and willing to move or work at a place you may not think will lead anywhere.