Friday, October 21, 2005

Author Interview: Marc Aronson on The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence

The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence by Marc Aronson (Clarion, 2005)(ages 12-up). From the catalog copy:

"This extensively researched and groundbreaking account by Sibert medalist Marc Aronson centers on events in the mid-18th century that enabled Americans to give up their loyalty to England and form their own nation. Shedding new light on familiar aspects of American history, such as the Boston Tea Party, and ending with the aftermath of the American Revolution, Aronson approaches the events that shaped our country from a fresh angle and connects them to issues that still exist in modern times. Also developed throughout is the pioneering idea that the struggle for American independence was actually part of a larger conflict that spanned the globe, reaching across Europe to India.

"Packed with dramatic events, battles, and memorable figures such as George Washington and Tom Paine in America and Robert Clive in India, this insightful narrative provides a multi-layered portrait of how our nation came to be, while discovering anew the themes, images, and fascinating personalities that run through our entire history. Cast of characters, maps, endnotes and bibliography, Internet resources, timeline, index."

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Two, really. For one thing, I did ask myself a simple question: why did the Brits send the tea that the Americans tossed into Boston harbor? I had never read anything about that, their motivation. The answer did transform how I saw American history. But maybe it did that because I had written two books on colonial America, Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado, and then John Winthrop, Oliver Cromwell and The Land of Promise, I wanted the three books to be a real trilogy, just like a fantasy trilogy -- after all, the transition from New World to Independence is exactly like the plot line of Star Wars, or the Philip Pullman trilogy, or the Tolkien -- it is about the transition from one age, one era, one kind of ruler and world organization, to another -- with all of the gains and losses typically found in fiction. Since the first two books are global in their approach to American history, I wanted to treat even the runup to the Revolution the same way. I am so glad I did.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

It took about a year to research and write. Some key moments came, actually, while doing photo research in London, I learned a great deal looking at images. But I can still recall the most exciting moment. I love footnotes -- reading them and writing them. I was trying to understand one crucial moment in my story -- the completely forgotten global credit crisis of 1772. I had found a footnote that cited an article published in 1960 in The Journal of Economic History. I went to 42nd St. library, found the article, and printed it out. That article linked together events in North America, the Caribbean, Scotland, London, Amsterdam, and India. It provided the perfect lynch pin that showed me I had hooked a big, big fish.

The big fish is the discovery that the explanation of why Americans fought for their independence which we all learned in school, and which is in every adult book, is Flatland. That is, it is two-dimensional. It pretends that the world began at our shores. I discovered that good old American history makes no sense until you add in the East India Company, and the riots in London. We always lived in a globalized world. And when you add in the connections I found, suddenly both our past and our present makes sense.

Then there was the opposite moment. I was all done, and I saw a new British book that took a global approach to the period just after the one I discuss. Reading it, I came upon a footnote. The author credited a paper given at Cambridge University in England that sounded like exactly the same thing as my book. I emailed Cambridge to ask about the paper -- which I assumed had been given by a grad student. No, it was given by a professor with a joint appointment at Harvard, who has an institute of her own. Not only that, she is married to Nobel Prize winning economist, whose work also fits this area. In fact she, Dr. Emma Rothschild, is writing about exactly the same topic. But she was very gracious in reading my work, and hers is a couple of years away. In fact she is giving a series of talks at Princeton this spring -- on the Johnstone family, who are major actors in my book.

So, the good news is she thinks I'm right. And, given the timing of the books, for once young readers will get the information well before adults. The bad news is, well, I wish I were the only one to have figured all this out.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

All of the books about India in the mid to late eighteenth century that I read were written by Brits (or Indians) for a Brit or Indian audience. They assume you are well-versed in their history. I had to read enough just to follow their arguments. Then I had to figure out what they were leaving out, when they were right or wrong, and how all of this looked from an American point of view. Then again, there was the problem that on an 18th century British map of a key battle, the river had a name that is no longer used. The delta of the Ganges is the largest delta in the world. I had to pore over geological surveys of the delta, searching for every twisting stream, to find the modern name of that old river.

More globally, what are the challenges today in publishing trade non-fiction for young readers?

The challenge is that literature for young readers is defined as leisure reading -- it is by definition that which is not for school. Now I personally find nonfiction to be leisure reading. But the assumption of the chains, most librarians, many teachers, etc. is that nonfiction is assigned in class, it could not possibly be for leisure. So here are the options: write NF that seems more like leisure reading; write NF that is entirely for school; raise consciousness and get people to change their views; win a prize. Those are your only options. Or, well, what I do is write as well as I can, then I hire a great woman to write teachers guides which I put up on my website: marcaronson.com that way I write what I like, and teachers can find ways to use the books in class.

What are the encouraging signs?

Encouraging signs are that because publishers have to take such high returns in fiction, they are beginning to recognize the value in nonfiction; Jonathan Hunt wrote a wonderful piece in The Horn Book about the fine nonfiction we have, and how the prize committees are lagging behind. It is the area in which generally overpublished children's books can grow.

I heard from one reviewer that she was concerned about where this new book would fit into school curricula, since schools generally do not take the international approach to the founding fathers that I am urging. That made it all the more pleasing to get this initial response from a school in Long Island: I had sent one galley to a librarian there, who shared it with her AP teachers, and also those involved with the IB -- the program that allows teenagers throughout the world to take a similar course of study. Those teachers found it so much in line with their approach that they purchased hardcover copies for every student, I believe that is 70 books. So that tells me that even within the constraints of budgets and tests, teachers are hungry for fresh perspectives not found in textbooks. And then the central organization for AP teachers nationwide asked me to write up my research for their website. Not bad for a book that hadn't even reached print yet.

In publishing, you wear two hats--writer and editor. How do you balance the two? How do they fuel (or detract from) one another?

It can be crazy-making when some author is being very demanding with me-- the editor, and then I, the anxious author, become very demanding of my own editor. It is like standing in a hall of facing mirrors. On the other hand, Jim Giblin began as an editor, and still edits; Jim Murphy was his assistant and an editor in his own right. So clearly being an editor can help you to think about what makes a good book. And since a large part of the challenge in nonfiction has to do with structure, being an editor is especially helpful. You get used to thinking about how to shape ideas into the best structure for your readers.

One key lesson I learned as an editor is that books need great art, and even if the author has to pay a lot for permissions, s/he will see the reward for that in sales. As a result, I always overspend on images.

There's a lot of talk these days about the "emerging crossover market" (YA/adult). Some people are advocating for double shelving. Some for getting rid of YA as a marketing niche. Some for holding firm to the YA market/label. Where do you stand and why?

I would be happy to see cross-shelving in adult and YA. I think getting rid of YA would be silly. Here's one obvious reason: adult publishing is extremely front-list driven. You have no time at all to make your mark before the next book takes your shelf space. Okay, if we published YA as adult, where do we think those books would get the media attention to drive sales? Book reviews are cutting back their pages, and especially of fiction. Do we imagine they would suddenly add space for YA books? Sure, some books can do fine on media tie-ins, but I hardly imagine that those who favor YA as adult want to restrict YA to those few books that have huge marketing budgets. And the library-media that now reviews YA explicitly cannot review much adult (Booklist does review adult/ya crossover fiction, but that is it). So we would be casting YA to the front-list lions with no way it could get enough attention to keep the books alive.

And to add one last point -- I would love those who advocate YA/adult crossover to include nonfiction. But that is another story.

Cynsational News & Links

I'll be the featured guest author next week (October 23-29, 2005) on realwritingteachers@yahoogroups.com, a discussion group of 650 plus writing teachers, children's authors, librarians, homeschoolers, etc. who discuss reading and writing strategies, resources, etc. Owner/Moderator Robert A. Redmond encourages interested parties to join. Learn more about realwritingteachers.

Facing the Facts: Frances Wilson calls for the abolition of author photographs from The Guardian. October 15, 2005.

Meet Lori Marie Carlson from CBC Magazine. October 2005. Read a recent cynsations author interview with Lori about her YA anthology Red Hot Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Being Young And Latino in the United States (Henry Holt, 2005). Note that Lori also is the anthologist of Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today (HarperCollins, 2005), which features my story, "A Real-Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate."

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