The author was interviewed by Scholastic students.
How did you first become interested in writing for children?
I used to hear my father and other black men tell about their experiences in World War II. I was always amazed because I never heard stories like that in school, or read about them in books. One of my father's friends - a black guy - had been a pilot in WWII, and his leg was all messed up. He'd been shot down and in a prisoner-of-war camp for two years. I couldn't believe I'd never heard stories like that! So as a child, I knew that I wanted to tell young people in particular about these stories.
How do you do research? Do you use primary documents?
I use primary sources whenever I can. It's amazing, actually, how many there are. The National Archives has been a great resource. That's where I found most of my sources for my first book, Undying Glory. I try to use primary sources whenever I can. There's a nice library a block away from me. With interlibrary loan, I can get a lot of books that I can't find in most libraries - I can get books from state libraries or college libraries. That helps a lot, too.
What do you think is the difference between writing for children and writing for adults?
In a way I think that it's harder to write for children. You have to make sure that you understand exactly what the subject matter is so that you can make it as clear as possible. If you're writing for adults, you can repeat some things without understanding them completely yourself. As Hemingway said, you have to make things as simple as you can, as if you were telling a child, and then you write it down as well as you can.
One thing that's always bothered me about the children's books that I've read is that they censor the truth. For example, most of the biographies on Mark Twain for children say very little about slavery and cruelty, which were such an important part of his writing and his viewpoint. I don't feel you have to censor things for young people. Most writers seem to think that you do, as if you have to protect young people from the truth. I don't think you have to at all.
How important is it to be objective when you're writing about history?
It's very important. The truth has to be your number one guide. If you're not devoted to learning the complete truth, 100 percent, you do your readers a disservice. One problem that I have with so much historical writing is that many times historians didn't like all of what they discovered when researching, and so they choose not to share it all. That's wrong. A great example is the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings controversy. All of the evidence looked at objectively for over 100 years shows that he fathered at least one of her children. And yet this country's Pulitzer Prize-winning historians did not like the idea of Jefferson having a relationship with a woman he held in slavery. So they ignored the evidence and dismissed the stories. All writers have their own biases. But as a writer of history, what you have to be willing to do is put aside those biases when the truth demands it. That's what too many so-called historians don't do.
How did you feel when you learned that the Buffalo Soldiers were mostly excluded from the history books?
I felt how I did when I discovered that most black people had been excluded from history books. It just made me more determined to write about the people that had been excluded, so that kids today don't have those same gaps in their schooling that I had.
What made you become interested in the Buffalo Soldiers, and why did you choose to express that interest by writing a book?
I had heard about them when I was growing up, because a lot of black homes used to have pictures of the Buffalo Soldiers on their walls. Even though I had heard a lot about them, I never really knew who or what they were. As I got a little older, I learned more, and finally realized what an important role they had played in the West. And when I went through their records from the National Archives, I realized what an important and fascinating story it was. Again, it was about growing up and seeing all the John Wayne movies, and never realizing these guys existed!
Do you support the way that the Buffalo Soldiers thought about fighting for their country that hated them?
I try to put myself in the Buffalo Soldiers' position. It was right after the Civil War, and there was a tremendous backlash against the ending of slavery. In the South, black men, women, and children were lynched while the federal government did almost nothing to stop it. In the North, black people couldn't get jobs even though they were qualified to work at them. So the army was really one of the few occupations black men could enter that seemed to have a little dignity and security. It was one of the least bad choices they could make.
How long will it take for history books to be realistic and historically accurate?
It will probably take a couple thousand years (laughing). There seems to be such a fear of the truth about history. I think that history books basically will be accurate as soon as the larger society quits making such a big deal about race and class, because poor people in general have been given short shrift in our history books.
Do you think books have the power to change things?
I think books can be a powerful tool in helping to change things. I knew that especially when I was a kid. I was tremendously impressed by books - by learning things through books. If you look at history, you find that words matter. Words have helped change history. When Washington was getting ready to attack Trenton, he lined his soldiers up and had someone read from Thomas Paine's Common Sense about what they were fighting for. You can go from the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address to Frederick Douglass' autobiography - it goes on and on. Words matter. Words can change history.
What are the lessons that you want your readers to learn?
Well first of all, I'd like them to learn the subject matter about which I'm writing. But beyond that, I'd like them to learn the importance of just seeking out the truth. If they're students, I'd like them to learn the importance of going to as many sources as they can - especially primary sources.
Why did you want to write about Mark Twain?
I wanted to write about Mark Twain because I've always been fascinated by him. First of all, I think some of his writing is so hilarious. And some of it is so beautiful. Parts of Huckleberry Finn are just so poetic. I wanted to learn more about this guy who was both funny and serious, and sometimes offensive. He seemed so human. I couldn't think of a better way of doing that than writing about him, because that way I'd have to dig into his life and find out as much as I could. He started out as a reporter in Nevada - I used to be a reporter, too - and went through the things reporters go through. Then suddenly, he grew into this fantastic writer. So I just wanted to learn and understand more about him.
Who are your favorite children's book writers?
I actually don't read any children's authors! I really can't think of any I do read. I like to hear Virginia Hamilton talk, but I've never read anything by her! A lot of people think that Mark Twain is a children's writer, although I don't agree. But I guess if I had to pick a favorite children's writer, it would be him.
What kinds of books do you enjoy reading for yourself? Do you read a lot of history for fun?
I like to read. I read history. I read a lot about different countries. Right now I'm reading a book by Rockwell Kent about his years in Alaska, illustrated with his paintings. I also read a lot about the Civil War. I read all kind of books. I read a lot of fiction. I like South American fiction especially.
Are you working on a new book right now? What is it about?
I just finished a book on the history of African-American teachers. I don't know what it's going to be called. It's the second of two books - I just wrote another one on the history of African-American healers.
What is your most important goal as a writer?
My goal is to bring out as much of the truth of this country's history as I can - the parts that haven't been told, or told well. Now I'm researching a book about the battlefield history of black soldiers in the Civil War. That story has never been told, except for the 54th Regiment, and a little bit here and there. But that entire history has never been told. Lincoln said that without the black soldiers, the Union would've lost the war. So it's a tremendously important story, but somehow, with all the books on the Civil War, that story has been overlooked.
What were your feelings when you wrote Buffalo Soldiers? Was it hard for you to write the book?
It was the hardest book I've written. My background is part Native American, too. To go through these records - especially the National Archive records of what the soldiers did day by day, and to read reports of how they were chasing these poor people whose only crime was just trying to hold onto their land and maintain their freedom - I found it tremendously painful. So did a lot of the Buffalo Soldiers. Some of them deserted and fought alongside the Native Americans. So, it was a hard book to write. When I sent my editor the first draft, she said to me, "This is a great story about the Native Americans, but we need to talk about the Buffalo Soldiers." Because I had concentrated so much on the Native Americans, so much on their point of view, I had kind of lost track of the Buffalo Soldiers.
What was an average day for a Buffalo Soldier like?
I guess it would've been two kinds of days. One day would be in camp - they would get up very early, and then they would drill. They always had to do a lot of work around the camps and the forts, because they were in such poor condition. The Buffalo Soldiers were always called to do more in the way of cleaning them up and rebuilding them than the white soldiers were. The other kind of day was when they were out on patrol. They just rode and rode and rode, from sunup to sundown. In the National Archives records, they totaled how many miles each company had ridden. Often, in just one month, the soldiers had ridden seven or eight hundred miles.
I am very interested in writing historical events, but whenever I write, it never comes out exactly the way I want it to. Any words of advice?
Keep on truckin'! You just have to work at it. It's like any other skill. It's like becoming a carpenter - you can't build a great window right at the start. You just have to work at it. Look at some writing you like, and try and figure out how the writer did it. Just keep trying and working at it.
How does your writing process work?
My wife and I research a lot. I try to find out everything I can about a subject before I start writing. Sometimes when I start writing, after a chapter or two, I realize that I haven't found out everything I need to know. So then I do some more research. Before I start to write, I try to have a total grasp of the material - that way, I can do most of it in one draft. Then when I finish, I go back over it and I'm always amazed at how much isn't quite clear, and at how much I put in that doesn't really need to be there. Then I try to tighten it up as much as I can. One of the great things about writing is that if something's lousy, you don't have to keep it. You can just toss it. But basically, I just do one draft, go over it, do the second draft, and then send it to my editor. Then, we hassle over the second draft! There's usually not too much rewriting when my editor sends it back. I love about ninety percent of what she tells me to do, most of which involves cutting. The ten percent involves the bone, and that's what we hassle over. I can usually prove to her that we need that ten percent.
What is your favorite part about being a writer?
Writing! (Laughs.) I love to write. I have for almost all my life. When I was growing up and I would read a good book, I just couldn't believe what people could do with words. I thought, wow, I'd love to be able to do that. So I keep trying.
Did your parents influence your writing ability?
Yes, they both dealt with words. My mother was a librarian, and she started her mornings by reading. I would hang around the library and discover all kinds of books. My father was a Baptist minister, and I would watch how he put together his sermons. So I had a great respect for words from the time I was a kid.
Do you think writers are more in touch with their feelings than the average person?
I think it would sure help if writers were in touch with their feelings. I think most serious writers are. I think that if you're not sensitive to your own feelings, then you won't be sensitive to the world around you. To be a good writer, you need that sensitivity.
Who would you recognize as your mentor?
Years ago, there were a lot of writers whom I really admired - I guess they were inspirations to me. They were such an eclectic group. The first time I read Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, I couldn't believe a writer could make people and places come alive like that. Years ago when I first read Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, I got that same feeling. At the time, I knew very little about South Africa, and after reading Paton, I understood what was going on there and how it felt at an individual level. I've also been inspired by many other writers because of the quality of their writing - many books and essays by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and works by Toni Morrison.
What do you think a good topic for a young historical writer would be?
(Laughs.) Oh wow, that's kind of broad. I would say just about any aspect of this country's history that you're interested in. Basically, you can find something that's been overlooked or not told from the point of view that you might bring to it. I think that's especially true with black history - and Latino history, Native American history, the history of women in this society, and the history of people in this society that haven't had that much money.
Did you have any brothers or sisters, and did they influence your writing?
I have three older sisters who drove me crazy. But I guess they made me more sensitive. One of my older sisters gave me books once in a while, which I liked. But that was it.
If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
At one point I wanted to be a research scientist. I remember reading an article about some chemist going down to study these people in South America who were immune to something. I guess they didn't have heart disease. I thought, what a great life that would be - what a great way to spend a life. So when I went to college, I intended to major in chemistry. But my freshman English teacher, who had taught at Harvard and had come to Union College, told me I was the most talented student he'd ever had, and that it would be a shame if I didn't become a writer. Until then, I hadn't thought that it was possible, but he gave me the confidence to think that it was.
Thanks for talking to me today. It's been great.