Article, Author Interviews, Book Resources

Fredrick McKissack Interview Transcript

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

How did you find out about the story of Black Hands, White Sails?

We were watching a program on the cable “History” channel about ships. It was explained that whalers were often men of color — African Americans, Cape Verdeans, West Indians, South Sea Islanders, and a wide variety of people from all over the world. We were interested in finding out more, so we took a trip to Nantucket and New Bedford where the 18th and 19th century whaling industry was centered. We discovered that whaling ships and whalers were also involved in the abolitionist movement and served as conductors on the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves make it to freedom. Many of the whalers were runaway slaves who went to sea to escape the bounty hunters who came North in search of fugitives. We thought this was a good story — a piece of American history that had been left out of the mainstream. So, we decided to make the topic a book project.

What compelled you to write books?

As a teacher Pat wanted to share the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar with her 8th grade students. She looked for a biography about Dunbar. But there wasn't a children's biography of him in the library. So she decided to write the book herself. It was written in 1971, but it didn't get published until 1984. Fred joined Pat in 1982, and we began writing other books together. Researching is an important part of writing non-fiction. This is the part that Fred does. Pat does most of the writing, but he checks behind her to make sure she has the facts straight.

How does it feel to make such good books?

Writing is enjoyable to us. But what pleases us most is when young readers enjoy our books. You are the ones who tell us if the books are good, and that's the thrill of it all — knowing that we have touched the lives of students all over the world.

How is the experience of writing a book together different from writing a book on your own? How did you collaborate on the book? What was the hardest thing about working together?

We work together every day so there isn't a time when we aren't in some way working “together.” There are degrees to which we participate in each other's projects. We collaborated on Black Hands, White Sails the same way we have all our books. Fred does the early research to determine the scope of the idea. What's been written on this subject? When? By whom? Once it is decided that we have a possible book, we submit a proposal to the publisher. After that is approved and contracts are signed and in order, then we outline the book, chapter by chapter. Then comes the long period of research. Fred spends hours on the phone, on the Net, in the library, writing and sending e-mails, etc. gathering information. Every book has a large laundry basket full of materials. While he's gathering materials, Pat is busy writing or finishing up the previous book. When enough material is gathered, Pat begins to write a “first draft.” It is the first time we tell the “story.”

Once the first draft is completed, Fred edits the manuscript and decides what needs to be further researched. For this book, we went to Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, New Bedford, Mystic Seaport, Sag Harbor, Boston, Plymouth, etc. to gather firsthand information about the subject. Looking at old captain's log books, sea records, and museum pieces was very special and brought us into the story even more.

The most difficult part of writing together is overlapping chores. We have to talk all the time to make sure we both have the same understanding of the project. If each one is thinking something different, then, as you can see, that would present a problem. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it can be problematic.

If only one could get to go to the awards ceremony for the book, which one would get to go?

Neither one. Why? Because Pat wouldn't dream of going without Fred and Fred wouldn't go without Pat. We are a team, and a team is just that — we come as a package, and those who give awards know that. Now, Pat has won awards for her work, and Fred has won awards that have honored his work. That's different. We go and cheer the other one's success. But when we share an award we share it 50-50. Think of it this way. If we get a bad review or don't win an award, that is certainly shared, then so should the rewards of our combined efforts.

Why did you decide to write a book together?

We have worked together since 1982. Actually we worked together in Fred's construction business long before we decided to write books as a team. We have an easy relationship that is based on respect and honesty. It's a natural.

How long did it take you to write Black Hands, White Sails?

It took us three years — including travel, research, writing, and rewriting.

How did you find out you won the Coretta Scott King award? How did you feel when you found out you had won?

We received a call on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday holiday from a member of the Coretta Scott King Award Committee and she informed us that our books was an honor book. We were sooooooooo happy, but we were also moved by the idea that it had happened on Dr. King's Day. We said a prayer of thanks. Then we shouted for joy. We called our family and good friends to share the good news. Then we went out for a breakfast celebration at I-HOP and continued to celebrate our good fortune combined with the King holiday of peace, love, forgiveness, and joy — with friends and family. It was a good day. And even though we have won the King award before, this book was special to us because of the brave men and women we wrote about.

Which book was the most challenging for you to research and which book was the most fun?

It may seem strange, but we find all of our books challenging and fun. Every new project is different and therefore, exciting in wonderful ways. The book we're working on at the moment is ALWAYS the most challenging and the most fun. Then we move on to a new project, and that one consumes us.

Why do you give the characters the names you have given them?

Naming a character is probably the most important part of writing a fictional book. Once Pat has named the character, then the character becomes clearer in her mind. Pat chose Clotee because she liked the sound of the name. She liked Sarah Jane because it is her grandmother's name.

Sometimes Pat's characters name themselves! Here is that story. When she was writing Mirandy and Brother Wind, she wanted to use Fred's grandmother's name, Miranda. But midway through the book, Pat mysteriously started typing Mirandy. It seems the little girl who wanted to dance with the wind decided to name herself Pat changed her name and the rest is history. The book was titled Mirandy and Brother Wind.

How do you come up with titles for your books?

Most times the “working title” becomes the actual title. When we begin a book we give the project a name, e.g. “Clotee,” or “Sarah Jane,” or “Christmas Book,” or “Flossie and the Fox.” When we finish the manuscript, we read it and sometimes the title is found in the text. For example Black Hands; White Sails was used in the introduction and we thought that sounded like a good title. The working title was The Story of African-American Whalers. That became the subtitle. We named another book A Needle for Nettie Jo. After looking at the title we decided that a needle is sometimes associated with the “ouch” of a doctor's needle. Needles are also associated with the drug culture. So we decided that might not be a good title. Besides, that title gave the whole story away. It tells the reader that Nettie Jo is going to get a sewing needle. So we changed it to Nettie Jo's Friends. It's not the best title in the world, but it worked better than the “working title.”

Sometimes when we can't think of a good title, our editor will come up with one.

Are you working on another book now?

We are working on several. We always do. While Fred is researching the possibility of a story, Pat is finishing another. One project we are completing now is a revision of our History of the Civil Right Movement in America from 1865 to the Present. The book was first printed in 1985, then updated in 1990. So, it is long overdue for a revision. The year 2000 seems to be a good time to do it. We are also working on another Dear America about an African-American girl in the Colonial period in Philadelphia, and a royal diary about an African queen. And finally we are working on another picture book. We're always busy, looking for new and interesting ideas to develop. That's the fun of it all.

If you weren't writers, what would you do for a living?

We would probably do what we were trained to do. Pat would be an English teacher and Fred would be a civil engineer. But even if we couldn't write for a living, Pat would go on telling stories and writing them, and Fred would never stop exploring the world around him.

How frequently do you write?

We write every day. We used to have an office away from our home. Now we have offices in our home. Writing requires a lot of patience and persistence, so we have to discipline ourselves to get up, dress, and “go to work” as though we are working for someone else. So, every day we get up about 8:00 a.m., dress, eat breakfast, and “go to work” — downstairs.

Now, some days are more productive than others. Some days Pat manages to write a page or two and that's it. Fred can spend hours on the telephone interviewing a person or listening to a tape of a recorded interview, but on another day he runs into dead ends all day long and progress is slow. Then at other times, Pat can finish a whole chapter in a day, and Fred can proof a galley.

Planning is out best friend. We have short weekly plans (one to seven days out), monthly, and yearly. We try to stay on schedule so we meet our goals. In order to do that we have to work some almost every day — even some weekends, but not all of them. We enjoy playing as much as we enjoy our work. All work and no play. . . is unhealthy.

Did you want to be writers when you were growing up?

We never thought that we BOTH could make a living writing. It was never a goal because we had no idea such a thing was possible. Pat has always liked writing. Fred has always enjoyed learning. The two are a good nonfiction writing match.

Where are some the favorite places you have traveled? Is there some place
you haven't been that you would like to visit?

We have traveled to many places, but the sight of our own home is one of the best in the world. You never realize how much your family and friends mean to you until you have been away for a while and return. We love traveling and will continue to go as many places as our health will permit, but HOME is always where the heart is.

Spain is very special to us. The people, the food, and the land holds special memories for us. We are looking forward to an upcoming trip to Egypt. We really want to see the pyramids.

We just finished reading your book A Million Fish . . . More or Less. Why did you pick this swamp for the setting? Did you ever live there or visit there?

I have visited New Orleans and the surrounding area for many years. While visiting Houma, Louisiana, I saw a “swamp” for the very first time. I had never heard of a Cypress Knee, and the huge stump they call Napoleon's Elbow is very interesting. Louisiana swamps are a haven for wildlife — all kinds of birds and animals. A large number of them feed on the fish found in the slow-moving bayous. Bayou means “a slow-moving river.” The people are also a “gumbo” of cultures. I tried in this story to highlight the many cultures that helped shape this part of the country — the Spanish, French, English, Caribbean, Native American, and African-American. What a mixture of languages, food, customs, and stories!

What was it like growing up in St. Louis?

St. Louis was a segregated city in the 1950s. Although our community was racially mixed and we kids played together after school, we attended segregated schools. We attended separate churches and skated in separate skating rinks, and attended different movies — one for whites and one for blacks. It seems foolish today, but that's the way it was before 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. In the school year 1954–55, I was the first and only black child in my sixth grade class. I missed all the friends I had attended school with all my life. Then when my parents divorced, I went to Nashville to live with my mother and grandparents. The schools there were segregated again. I never attended an integrated school again. St. Louis was integrated, but Nashville had a long way to go yet. All of that seems so long ago and so unnecessary. It makes me angry sometimes when I think about how unfair the system was, but I'm also glad that we live in a country where we have a document as wonderful as the Constitution. With it, we can make changes and improve what is unfair and unjust without the violence and bloodshed. The best lesson I learned during the civil rights movement of the 1960s was to express my anger about inequalities and injustices by voting.

Our first graders love Messy Bessey. Do you plan on writing more?

Yes, we plan to write more Messy Bessey books. Please look for these
titles:
Messy Bessey
Messy Bessey's Closet
Messy Bessey's Garden
Messy Bessey's School Desk
Messy Bessey's Birthday Sleep-over
Messy Bessey's Holidays
Messy Bessey's Family Reunion

What is your favorite book to read to celebrate Black History Month?

My favorite book to read for Black History Month is not the same every year. I try to read and/or learn about something or someone that I've not heard of before. This year I'm reading a biography of Hiram Revels, a senator from the state of Mississippi during the Reconstruction period. He was a very interesting man.

Which of your books was the most challenging for you to research and which book was the most fun?

The most challenging book that we've written is Black Hands, White Sails because we knew nothing about the subject. We saw black whalers of the 19th century featured on a history channel special. We wanted to know more — more led us to Boston, Mystic, Sag Harbor, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and other places. It was hard work, but it was also a lot of fun because we met so many interesting people. All of our books are challenging and fun. That's what makes writing such an exciting profession. Every new book is a new and wonderful experience. And just as no two books are the same, our experiences writing them are different as well.

Thanks so much for allowing us to spend this time answering your questions.
Keep reading and writing and expressing yourself with words — wonderful, magical, inspiring words!

  • Subjects:
    Achievement and Success, Cooperation and Teamwork, Arts and Creativity, Creativity and Imagination, African American
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