Why did you choose to write about American history? Did you study it in school?
I didn't like it when I was in school. The way they taught history in schools was not appealing. They stressed wars and dates. They left the people out. I was attracted to history by the need to know about the people. In China I went to a British school and we just learned about kings and queens. Back in America, I had the regular social studies curriculum.
Did you read a lot as a child? What kinds of books did you read? Historical fiction?
When I lived in China, there were no libraries. My mother bought books for me and they were mostly the classics. I read Peter Pan, The Secret Garden, the Rosemary books, and Kipling's Just So Stories was one of my favorites. No, I didn't read historical fiction. It didn't exist where I was growing up in China. I valued them no matter how I got them. One of the most important things in my childhood were the new books that came in. I feel sorry for kids today who have so many other options like television that they may not value books as much as they could enjoy them.
Did you always want to be a writer when you were growing up?
Always. I remember when I was 5 years old I announced that was what I was going to be. I was right.
As a child, did you daydream a lot?
Sure I did. I daydreamed a lot. Probably that was one reason I didn't do well in math. I just daydreamed through it. It's not a good idea!
Did anyone in particular inspire you to become a writer? Parents? Teachers?
My teachers didn't. My mother had been a Latin teacher, and she was always very fascinated with words. She and I shared books and responded to them. She didn't urge me to try myself, but it was a bonding experience about books.
Did you take any classes to learn how to write?
In college I took all the composition that was offered, but not specifically towards publishing. Nothing like that.
How old were you when you published your first book?
I was in my thirties, after my kids were both in school. Then I had time to really work. I had been writing, but not being accepted until that time. People generally have some rejections before they begin getting published.
On average, how long does it take you to write a book from start to finish?
At least a year. It usually takes me a year to do the research and get it all down. Then it goes to the publisher, and there's a little revising, but usually not much. Then the publisher keeps it for about a year before it's out, because it has to be illustrated.
As an adult, how are you able to get inside the kid's head and write for them?
It's not at all hard. It's very much a part of me. When you grow up, you don't have to leave your childhood behind — you just add some grown-up thinking to it. I think it's too bad about people who think that's a whole separate thing and never use it.
Do you usually assign a title to your books once they're complete, or before you start?
It works either way. Sometimes I have to fuss around with it a lot. It's not just one way.
How many books have you written all together?
I'm not exactly sure. It's a little over 50. I've been writing a long time!
Do you ever get writer's block? What do you do when this happens?
I've never really had writer's block. I've had times when it's difficult to go on. Usually I find that the problem is that I need to go back and do more research. I need to go back and find out what I really want to say instead of just ramble. The hardest part is to start a new book.
How do you choose the subjects you want to write about?
I never feel I do the choosing. I feel they, the people I'm writing about choose me. For instance, when I was writing about the Constitution, I looked around at all the delegates and I thought, “Which one will speak to me?” I'd like to write about that one. Then I felt a nudge at my elbow, and a voice said, “I'm next.” It was James Madison. He wasn't the type I thought I'd like, but I began to write about him and I knew I wanted to make him the subject of a book.
Have you ever been dissatisfied with one of your books after you finished writing it?
No. There are some books I think have more substance than others. I haven't disliked what I've done.
Do you ever think about writing about people living in the present day?
I don't want to write about present-day people because I can't really delve into them yet. You don't have their whole pasts available, and you don't want to investigate their secret lives and hurt them while they're living.
Have you ever written any books that are not historical?
Yes, in the beginning I did more fiction. I did a book of fantasy called Magic to Burn. My very first book was a picture book about cats called Fishhead. My own autobiography about my life in China as a child-Homesick-is not exactly history, but it is true. I never can tell what I'm going to do next, so I might do more fictional stories. I don't know.
What time period in America is the most interesting to you?
I love them all, but the American Revolution especially. I feel as if I know those people, because I've done so much on them. I realize what a huge decision it was to break free of England, and I was all for that.
Do you have to do a lot of research for your books? Where do you do it?
Yes, I do a great deal of research. I think it's the most fun! I read everything I can find that's been written about my subject. I go to primary sources-letters. I read what the subject's friends thought of him or her. I almost always go to the place or places the person lived.
How much time do you spend revising your writing?
I revise as I go along. So, it's rather slow writing because I write by pen. Then at the end of the day, I put it on the computer. The next day, I read over what I've done and polish it. I may do lots of revisions or none at all.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
The research. I love it! I love digging down and finding little, out-of-the-way nuggets of information that are funny, amazing, etc. It's the out-of-the-way things that attract me and that I want as part of the book. For instance, when I wrote about King George, I couldn't get over that he was such an oddball kind of man. So many things were funny. For example, after he decided who to marry based on looking at pictures, he made her wedding dress himself. She didn't know anything about it. At the wedding it kept slipping off her shoulders. When he was crowned that day, they were going to make a big deal and have all the lights light at the same time. But sparks went off and hit everyone and it was a big mess.
Those are the kinds of things I like to learn and write about. I also love when the book is finished. It seems that I have it in my mind all the time trying to work out the next sentence. I'm living with the book and it's nice when it's finished and that I can do some other things just for recreation-until I start the next book.
Can you go into further detail about your quotation “by the law of averages one would think there would be a certain percent of sentences that would turn out right the first time. None of mine seem to though.”
Well, that's right. That's the process of writing. I think many writers must find that. When you write something and go back to look at it the next day, it just doesn't ring right. My writing, when you look at the first version, is a mess of crossing out. I write it longhand first and then put it on the computer. Last summer I visited Laura Ingalls Wilder's home and saw the original versions of the Little House books. She never crossed out a single word. I couldn't believe it.
What other authors do you like?
I like Natalie Babbitt very much. There are so many I like. One of my favorite books is Alan Arkin's The Lemming Condition. Lois Lowry is another great author. I like Katherine Paterson, too. There are so many writers that I like so much, I hesitate to pick them all out. I don't want to forget anyone!
Out of all the characters in all your books, is there one who has become your favorite? If so, who?
I'm crazy about Lafayette. I've just finished his book, so I've been living with him for a while. He really is my favorite. I could find nothing wrong in him. I always put in the faults of my characters, but for Lafayette, I couldn't find any. He was just so principled. He loved democracy and he loved America. When he came back to visit America, he visited every state. I don't think anyone has ever been welcomed the way he was. When he went back to France, he had a trunk-full of American soil, because he said, “I want to be buried under American soil.” I'm so afraid that boys and girls don't study Lafayette in school any more. He was so loved by Americans that we really shouldn't forget him.
Is there anything that you feel all these historical people have in common?
The only historical person that I wrote about who really made me mad was Benedict Arnold, because he was so foolish as to betray his country. Most of the people I've written about are people who loved America and whom we should get to know.
Can you tell me more about your great-great-grandmother, Ann Hamilton?
I can't tell you very much. I know Washington did stop and have dinner with the Hamiltons. I know she did marry David Scott. I know as an old lady, she visited her daughter in Ohio and got sick, died, and was buried there. I was once in the town where she died. I looked up the church, went to the cemetery, and there she was. All the family members in the book The Cabin Faced West are real.
From the book Homesick you had a friend named Andrea. Do you still consult with her now that you're in America?
I lost track of her at one point in my life, and I found her after Homesick came out. Someone called me and told me she knew Andrea and gave me her phone number. I called her and we were both so excited to get together again. Now I see her and write to her and we're back to being good friends.
Why did you choose to write about Teddy Roosevelt instead of another president?
I had just finished writing a book about James Madison. I'm a great admirer of James Madison. I like him very much, but he was a very controlled man. When I finished that book I wanted to try someone with a little more flair. I thought Teddy Roosevelt would be fun to tackle-and he was.
Is Teddy Roosevelt your favorite president? If not, who is?
No. I wouldn't put him my favorite. He liked war too much to be my favorite. My very favorite was Washington. He had absolute integrity and he was just wonderful. When Lafayette came to America, Washington more or less adopted him as his son. Since Lafayette had lost his father at a young age, they had a very close relationship.
We just read The Double Life of Pocahontas. We really liked it. How long did it take you to write it?
It takes about a year to do a book. There was a lot of checking of research on that particular book. That story has been told so many times inaccurately. In my books I want to make sure that everything is the way it really happened. When you see quotation marks in any of my books, I only do that if I know that someone really said it-I don't make it up. But Pocahontas didn't keep a diary or a journal, so sometimes I had to say “she must have” or “she might have.” I had to make what I would call an educated guess.
Did you find it difficult to write about such a serious subject in your book Traitor?
Oh, that was fun. Just before that, I had written Early Thunder, which was a fictional story that took place in Salem, Massachusetts, right before the Revolution. It was around the time of the bicentennial. And a TV station called me and they wanted to make it into a movie. But they changed their minds because there was no chase in the story! So I thought of the story of Benedict Arnold, and there was a chase in that story, so I decided to tell it. It's a tragic story, because Arnold was very, very brave. But he was brought down by greed and pride, and it was very, very sad. But the plot was so interesting. It was a made-to-order plot, and I liked that.
In the book The Cabin Faced West, did Daniel ever get married?
I wish I knew! He went off to Kentucky. My family was embroiled in the Whiskey Rebellion. And both of those brothers were very active in it. David stayed in western Pennsylvania and became master of the Hamilton house. Daniel went to Kentucky and disappeared, as far as I know.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time as a child?
I was an only child and I didn't have other children near me lots of the time, so I spent a lot of time with adults. I grew up in China, and there are many wonderful things about that country that you don't find in America. But I missed America terribly as a child.
Where were you born?
I was born in China, in the city of Wuhan. We moved to America when I was 13. It was very exciting for me to move, but I missed China-and I still do. I wish there were an easier way of getting back and forth. I've been back three times, and I don't suppose I'll go again, but I would like to.
What was it like growing up in a foreign country?
It was very much of a colonial experience for us as foreigners. We didn't live like ordinary Chinese people. We had servants, and I had a nursemaid who became a very good friend. We celebrated many of the Chinese holidays, like the New Year. But a lot was the same as in America — we ate American food and celebrated Christmas. I went to a British school there, which I despised. The teachers weren't friendly, and some of the kids were bullies. There was a Scottish boy in particular who made fun of Americans and made my life miserable.
Have you ever gone back to China to see your old neighborhood or friends?
Yes, I've been back twice and they were wonderful trips. I found my old house and I knocked on the door. I told them who I was and that I lived there for 13 years. They invited me in and I had a wonderful time. I found my old church. It's now a practice hall for gymnastics. Those high ceilings were great for the high wire and things like that. I didn't see anyone I knew. I didn't know many children. I found my old school. It's now a rest house for geologists. I have no idea why geologists need to rest.
Do you speak and write Chinese?
I speak Chinese fairly well. I can get along in an ordinary conversation. I don't write it.
What did your father do in China?
My father was one of the men who was sent to China to start the YMCA there. The YMCA spread quickly. Actually, it was the YMCA that introduced Ping-Pong to the Chinese.
Would you like to live in China now?
No, I wouldn't like to live there, but I would like to visit much more often.
In your book Homesick, you talk often about the Chinese not wanting to “lose face.” Why do you think that this was so important, and is it still that way in China?
Sure, it's still that way-and not just in China, either. Anyone hates to be embarrassed and humiliated. It's part of the Chinese culture. Every culture has its own peculiarities. So when you're talking to someone in China, you don't want to say anything to make them lose face-because you don't want to embarrass them.
What was Christmas like growing up in China?
Well, it was just like an American Christmas, because my parents tried hard to make it that way. We had a tree, with candles on them — not electric lights. We kept a big bucket of sand next to the tree in case a fire started. At the beginning of Christmas, the servants would line up and my father would give them money in a red envelope to signify happiness. But that was about the only difference from an American Christmas. I always figured if Santa could make it to America, he could make it to China!
Was it difficult adjusting to life in America after growing up in China?
The China I grew up in was a colonial China. I went to a British school and there were separate compounds for each different culture (e.g., French, English, etc.). I wasn't with Chinese children very much. Although my parents had many Chinese friends whom I came to know well. I don't think the adjustment was hard. I looked forward to it so much. I couldn't wait to get to America. In many ways, I suppose I was naive about it, but that was all right.
What was your favorite subject when you were in school?
English, writing, and reading. I was never good in math, and I never liked it. I didn't like the way that history was taught-I always suspected there was more there. And there was! I was taught a surface kind of history. But the most important thing is to get below the surface, and that's what I like to do in my writing.
Are you married? Do you have any children? If so, do they give you ideas for stories?
My children are grown and married. I have two grandsons. My children have always been interested in what I write and would give their ideas. My daughter, especially, is close to me on my career. I think she'd like to write, but she's a photographer. There is a book I wrote about my life, and my daughter's photography is in it. It's called Surprising Myself. It's been used a lot in classrooms.
When you first started writing, did you have any doubts about whether you could do it?
Of course I had doubts! I sometimes have doubts even today when I start a book. In the beginning, I always did. I keep at it though. I used to teach a class in writing children's books, and the way I summed up whether they'd make it or not, was whether they had perseverance.
Has writing become easier for you now than it was when you first started out?
Yes, writing has become easier because I used to get discouraged when I thought about a whole length of a book. It was scary to think about how much I had to write when I first sat down! And it's still a little scary, but not as much as it used to be.
What do you like best about being a writer? If you hadn't been a writer, what do you think you would have done?
I would like to have been an archaeologist. I've been recently working on a book about the Lost Colony. It's a mystery how those people disappeared, and they're still looking for clues. I went to North Carolina to see the dig. Although I couldn't help with the dig, I could sift through the dirt looking for clues. I loved that. The part I like best about writing is that I get excited about the person I'm writing about and to get it down on paper, but the research is really the best part.
Do you travel a lot as a writer? Where do you go?
I am invited to speak at schools and teacher conferences, so, I travel quite a bit. I also travel for research. It takes up a good bit of time. I enjoy getting to know my readers when I travel to speak to them. I enjoy traveling - the further, the better. The furthest I've traveled is to Alaska and Hawaii. Hawaii was for speaking and in Alaska I worked with native children on the Bering Sea for two weeks.
Have you visited any of the places you've written about?
I always try to go to the historical sites and see where the people I'm writing about lived. Even when I wrote about George III, I visited London and saw some of the things he owned. When I wrote about Patrick Henry, I went to every house he lived in and waded in the stream he fished in. Going to the site makes me feel much closer to the people I'm writing about.
Is there anything you wish you could change about any of your books?
Hmm. After a book has been out a good while, I don't re-read it and think about it. I'm on to the next book. I have never gone back and wanted to change things. At the time I wrote the book, I had a vision that made it what it is.
Which of the books that you have written are you most proud of?
Oh, I'm most proud of Homesick because it's the story of my childhood in China. It was such a different childhood, and so I wanted to get it down in words and not let it slip away. Homesick is for children and is required reading for lots of fifth graders. I get a lot of feedback on that book and all my books. Kids respond to Homesick in different ways. Some are moved by the birth and death of my sister. Some are fond of my Chinese amah (nurse) and want to know more about her. When I speak to kids, I have a pair of the nurse's shoes from her bound feet to show those who are interested.
What was the one thing that inspired you the most to become the author that you are today?
I knew this from the time I was 5 years old. I always knew what I wanted to do. When my children were debating what they wanted to do in life, it struck me as strange because I had always known what I wanted. If I had chosen anything else, I would loved to have been an archaeologist. It's the same as writing though-digging into the past!
How do you come up with such funny titles for your books?
I'm glad that you think the titles are funny! I want readers to think about the funny things that happened in the past, and enjoy them. In some of my older books, the “question” books, my children helped me come up with the titles. We'd sit around the table and come up with good titles. But I think questions are a good way to lead into books. My latest book, on Lafayette, is a question, too: Why Not, Lafayette?
What is your best-selling book?
I think it's Homesick, which is my own story of living in China. It's won the most awards, and is the best-selling. It's often read aloud by teachers in fifth grade. That seems to be where it ends up. There are lots of things that children can identify with, even though China is far away. The experience of being homesick is one that children can relate to and identify with.
Did you choose Tomie dePaola as an illustrator? How many books has he illustrated for you?
He has illustrated four books for me. Authors don't usually have a choice of illustrator. But after the publishers say who they like, they ask me if it's okay. They always let me see the first draft of the illustrations. I need to detect historical inaccuracies and there often are. I like Tomie dePaola's style. He did a great job with King George. He wouldn't have been right for James Madison. He's fun and Madison is serious.
How do you make history come alive for young children?
I make it come alive for me. If it's alive for me, it's going to be alive for children. I think I try to find the details that are interesting and that appeal to children. When I wrote about Washington's mother, there were so many details. I find what interests me. If it's overly political and confusing, I don't put it in.
Have you written any books for adults?
I've written one for adults. It was a study of the people from Massachusetts who were in the Revolution. The main character was Mercy Warren, who wrote a history of the American Revolution. It was one of the first histories done. She also wrote plays making fun of the Tories. She was an interesting character. She had a man's mind, but a woman's emotions.
What impact have computers made on your writing? Do you carry a laptop with you to write your ideas when you travel?
I don't carry a laptop. I still write by hand and transcribe on the computer. I appreciate the computer as being more efficient than the typewriter. I use the Internet, but I'm not that good at it. I need more practice. My 13 year-old grandson helps me when I run into trouble. He tells me what to do.
Do you ever use the Internet to do research for your books?
I have had my computer not so long, so I'm not that familiar with it yet. I have done some research on the Internet, and I hope to do more as I become more familiar with the Internet and my new computer!
Do you think technology will change the way people read in the future?
I hope people continue to read books. I hear people say that books won't be as important, but I don't believe that.
If you had a great-great-granddaughter writing a book about your life, what would be the title?
Well, when I wrote about myself and called it Homesick, it really had a double meaning. It meant my homesickness for America when I was in China, and it also meant that I'm still homesick for China when I'm in America. I don't know what my great-grandchildren would call my biography. I think my children and I feel I've never quite grown up, so maybe something like She Never Grew Up.
Do you consider your books nonfiction or historical fiction?
They're not fiction — I know! I don't even put anything in quotation marks unless I have a source for it! I don't like to see people fictionalizing actual people from history. So whenever you see something in one of my books in quotation marks, you know it was actually said.
What people living today do you think will make for good stories in 200 years?
It's hard to answer. There are good and bad stories. I would write about the senator George Mitchell. There are many people in public life I'd write about, like Martin Luther King, Jr.
How do you feel when you see your books in a library or bookstore?
I feel great when I see them there! It pleases me very much. It's when I go to a library or bookstore and they're NOT there-well, that's when I feel sad.
If someone could only read one of your books, which one would you want them to read?
Homesick is the one.
Have any of your books been made into movies or plays? If so, did you like them?
None have been. Homesick was considered once for a movie, but was dropped. I think it would be very hard to represent China of the 1920s. Most of my books have been put on audiotape. Homesick was put on videotape.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I like to read a lot. Five years ago I had an operation and have been in a wheelchair ever since, so I can't swim in the ocean or walk along the sand any more.
What types of books do you recommend for kids to read?
It depends on what kinds of books they like. Lots of kids like reading true stories. Lots of them like fantasy. It doesn't matter as long as they're reading good books. I wouldn't advise them. They have to shop around and find what they like.
Do you have any advice and/or tips on writing?
I advise children to keep a diary and to write not just what happens but what they feel. If you've read a book-give your opinion about it. If something makes you happy, sad, excited-write it all down. I think children too often write what they think their teachers or parents want. Children should feel they're writing out of themselves.
Are you friends with any other children's book authors?
Yes, I am. Lots of them, when you come to think of it. Jean Craighead George is a friend; Katherine Paterson is a good friend.
Do you ever visit schools?
Yes, I do quite a lot. I enjoy talking to classes. I enjoy their response. Those that have read Homesick already know me, and they are ready to talk about it. That's fun.
Are you working on any books now?
Yes. You may have seen in the newspapers about Leonardo Da Vinci's horse. Leonardo was commissioned to create a horse that would be four times the size of a real horse. He had created a clay model, but hadn't created the sculpture when the French invaded and saw it as a great target, so they shot it full of arrows and it was never built. Recently a businessman in America learned about this and raised money to have a sculptor create a horse and it was given to the city of Milan. This horse meant so much to Leonardo that it is said that when he was dying he wept for his lost horse, so it's nice that we gave it to Italy as a present. That's a fun book to work on.
What are your hobbies and interests?
I like to go to the beach and the ocean. I love the ocean. I like to swim and snorkel, but five years ago I had an unsuccessful operation on my back and so my days of swimming are over. I still love to look at the ocean. I can't get enough of it. And, of course, I read. I spend a great deal of my time reading. I read everything!
Do you enjoy answering all these questions?
Yes, sure. I'm interested to know what people want to know.
What is your philosophy in life? Do you have any favorite sayings?
Ever since I have been in a wheelchair, I have learned that “Try, try again” is a really good motto. Whenever I find something difficult to do, I just persevere, and I usually get it to a certain extent.
What is the message you would like to give to children today?
I think it's a message about time. Time, the past, is not over. It continues in us. We make use of it. We will also make use of the present as we move into the future. So many kids automatically go “ugh” when they hear history. They don't realize that the past was once the present and that they can find themselves there. That's what I'd like them to do.
Jean, do you have any final words for the audience?
I hope kids get turned on by American history and history in general! I think it's hard to read a daily newspaper without finding news of the past. I was glad I had a chance to talk about accuracy, because I feel strongly about that. I think we had great questions, and I had fun answering them. Thank you!