Transcript from an interview with Sneed Collard

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Sneed Collard. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Sneed Collard

Meet Sneed Collard

My name is Sneed Collard. As it says on my books, Sneed B. Collard, III, and I make my home in Missoula, Montana where I've lived for the last 12 years. I've been a writer now for 25 years — write many different kinds of things — a lot of science books, everything ranging from Animal Dads and Teeth and Wings on up to older books such as The Prairie Builders or Reign of the Sea Dragons and The Science Warriors, which will be coming out in the fall of '08.

I also do other kinds of books. I'm writing a whole series of biographies called The American Heroes series from Benchmark Publishing. I have two novels out. One's called Dog Sense. Another one's called Flash Point. I have a third novel coming out in Spring of '09 called Double Eagle.

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A budding scientist

My parents were both biologists and surrounded me with science all of the time. In fact, one of the first words they ever taught me was ctenophore, which is kind of a comb jelly in the ocean and they said, "T…NO…FOUR." That was one of the first words I learned growing up. I was always just surrounded by animals and science.

My parents got divorced when I was about eight years old and actually, I even got more inundated because my mom married one of the world's experts in fireflies after that, so now three of my four parents are scientists! I was always interested in a whole variety of animals and probably thought, at some point, that being a scientist was a really cool thing to do.

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California dreaming

I grew up in Santa Barbara, California, in a little kind of a student ghetto called Isla Vista right next to it, and I didn't realize what an idyllic place this was when I was a kid. We lived three or four blocks from the beach. I and any of the other neighborhood kids just could go wherever we wanted to. We explored vacant lots. We'd ride down to the beach. Plus, it had an incredible elementary school — Isla Vista Elementary School that I still think must've been one of the best schools in the country because every teacher I just remember vividly. They did really imaginative things with us, too. They'd just haul us out on these impromptu field trips.

I remember my third grade teacher. Her field trip once was to take us down to the railroad tracks and just talk to all the hobos that were down there. I try to imagine a teacher doing that today and there's just no way. That was really a wonderful place to be a kid. I was around all these other kids whose parents were students at the university and so we didn't realize it, but we were really getting a lot of education outside of school, as well.

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The path to publishing

I probably had a very idealized view of what college should be. I thought, "I'll take a little psychology. I'll take some philosophy and this and that." Of course, we all have to declare a major eventually, and when that time came, I really didn't hesitate to declare marine science emphasis in biology at Berkeley.

That was great. I felt very comfortable doing that. I spent summers at marine labs like Bodega Bay in northern California, or Friday Harbor Marine Lab up in Pugent Sound. After I graduated, I was determined to get a job in biology because I knew there weren't many jobs like that and I really wanted to work in the field I'd studied. I think I applied for 30 jobs my senior year, and I only got offered one of them and it was for the California Department of Fish and Game, basically going along the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains electro-shocking fish. We'd go into these streams with these huge backpack electro-shockers and we'd just zap these fish and they'd float up and you'd catch them and count them and weigh them, and then turn them loose again.

I did this field work for about four months; but really by the end of that, I was realizing that I probably didn't want to continue biology as a career. Not only because I saw how demanding physically it could be in the field, but also the kind of biologist I wanted to be no longer existed. I wanted to be a biologist like you might've had 50, 60 years ago where you could just go out and look at anything you wanted, and there was not this huge pressure to publish or to specialize. I knew I really didn't want to specialize in just one thing the rest of my life.

It was really while I was working for Cal Fish and Game that I just decided one day — oh, I'll be a writer. I had no idea what I wanted to write at first. I tried some short stories. I took a screen-writing class and wrote a really bad screen play. I wrote an adult novel that was equally awful, but I also really knew I needed a way to support myself, too. My stepfather — one of the best things he ever did for me was suggest this masters in Scientific Instrumentation Program at UC Santa Barbara. The great thing about this program is they actually trained you to do something practical. Basically they taught you how to take individual computer components and build instruments with it.

Well, I knew I didn't want to do that. I didn't have any aptitude for it, but I learned enough to get good at troubleshooting computers and I learned how to program computers. I was lucky enough to get a job after that as a computer consultant for a biologist at UC Santa Barbara. This was a perfect situation for me because now I could continue to hang in there with biologists and learn about their work, but I also could make enough money to write. Whenever I got a raise at work, I would cut my hours so I could write more. Fortunately I had a boss who knew what I was up to and wasn't really opposed to that. Tt also gave me a wealth of contacts and material for writing.

After a couple of years, I thought, "Maybe I should try writing some science for young people." I wrote this little science article about this deep sea shrimp called "nathathousiate" (ph.) and I sent it in to Highlights for Children magazine. Got a very nice letter back telling me all the things that were wrong with it, but they would like to see it again if I could improve it. I revised it and I sent it into them again. Three months later they rejected it again. Well, it took me about two years to sell that one little science article, but that was really the beginning of my whole science writing career.

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First-hand research

Once Animal Dads was a success, I started thinking about other ways to do this, so I wrote books like Beaks about bird beaks. I wrote a book called Animals Asleep about all the different ways animals sleep. My two new books, Teeth and Wings, are also those kind of whimsical books.

If you read through those, they're really just collections of interesting critters I've seen on my travels or doing research for other books. I still do a lot of travel — I travel to other places as well to do research — and it's just kind of become a routine for me. And one that's very satisfying because being out in the field not only gives you a real gut impression for what things are like that helps you write, as you know.

It also gives you unique information that you can't find anywhere else. I mean, slogging through a tropical rain forest with a scientist, or going in a deep-sea submersible to the ocean bottom with a scientist you're going to get perspectives from not only the environment but the scientist that you just won't get.

Often the scientists' human sides really come out when they're out in that field because every scientist I know is much happier in the field than they are back in the lab, but most of them have to spend most of their lives in the lab. Once they're out in the field, it's like ecological release and they're happier and they're telling stories and they're showing you all kinds of really cool stuff that they might not think about just sitting in their office.

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Life deep down in the sea

I was hired a few years ago to write a series of four books about scientists and their work and I wanted to write about one of my stepfather's ex-graduate students, whose name was Dr. Edith Whitter. She studies marine bioluminescence — these animals that make their own light — and she uses deep-sea submersibles to observe them and to learn about them in their natural habitats.

When I decided to write about her, I called her up and I said, "Well, can I go down in one of these submersibles with you?" She said, "Well, do you have $23,000? Because that's how much it costs to rent one of these things for a single day." Well, of course, I didn't have that kind of funds and my publishers weren't going to pay for it. I thought, "Okay. I'll just have to research this by reading her scientific articles and calling her on the phone — things like that." But about a month after that, I got a call from Edie and she said, "Sneed, you won't believe this! I just got three extra days of submersible time I don't know what to do with. How would you like to go out on a cruise with me?" I said, "Are you kidding? Just tell me when and where."

I flew down to the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, Florida, where she worked, and she gave me bad news. She said, "There's a big storm off the coast. It's way too rough to go out. But if you can hang out for a few days, the storm may get better."

I decided, "Okay. I'd better hang out here." Fortunately, the storm cleared off and I and several other students and writers went out on this amazing ship out to the Bahamas. We spent three days diving in this deep-sea submersible down to 3,000 feet deep. Going down in the submersible is just unlike anything in our normal day-to-day experiences.

We as humans think, "We go outside and there are trees and grass and blue sky, but most of the planet is not like that. Most of the planet is this very dark, cold world." I mean, even from the moment you start descending in this submersible — and it's that little cramped submersible; you're in a very tight space — but from the moment you start doing that, things change, and they change dramatically.

The light just starts getting filtered out of the water. By 400 feet deep it's kind of this eerie dusky blue. By a thousand feet deep, it's pitch black. You see all this marine snow, which is this kind of combination of mucous and bacteria just kind of floating down into the deep sea and that's the major food source for deep sea animals.

You go deeper and you start seeing these amazing fish go by the porthole as you go down. I distinctly remember this fish about this long called a viper fish with these incredible sharp teeth and these big eyes and this little bioluminescent thing that waved in front of it to attract prey to come close to it. Suddenly you're at the bottom 3,000 feet down and you look out and it really looks like a lunar landscape.

You see just this white — almost ash or mud — everywhere. You think, "Oh, my gosh! It's just desolate." You start looking closer and you see tracks of animals everywhere. You might notice a brittle star over here sitting here. This tripod fish sitting over here. Maybe little comb jellies or ctenophore — these jelly animals are kind of bobbing around outside the submersible. Or fish that are attracted to the lights of the submersible.

One interesting thing about it is that these animals are so different than animals up to the surface. For instance, you might see a lot of starfish, but they're kind of adapted. Some of them are kind of adapted to catch this marine snow coming down because that's what they eat or the fish have really big eyes so they can see any bioluminescence that happens to go off.

Bioluminescence is a real key to how these animals survive — a lot of them. They use it to lure prey, to attract mates, to avoid being eaten; but they only use it when they have to because any time you light up you risk getting eaten by a predator. One of the fun things we did coming up on one of the dives is they turned out all the lights of the submersible; and we went through a layer of bioluminescent jelly animals.

Whenever they'd hit the submersible they'd light up; and so it looked like this glowing blue snow going by the portholes or the bell on the front. It was just spectacular, and I wish everyone could do it because it just changes your view of what the earth is like. You're down there and you think, "Oh, this is what most of the world is like; not where we live." For me it just reinforced the urgency for taking care of the places that we do have to live.

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Sea dragons

I started reading about these ancient marine reptiles. Everyone knows about dinosaurs, but very few people realize that in the oceans at the same time were these incredible reptiles — many of them just as large as the dinosaurs and every bit as ferocious if not much more ferocious — because they were all predators unlike the dinosaurs, some of which were grazers or whatever.

I started thinking, "Why aren't these animals on the radar? So many kids like dinosaurs. You would think they would really love these things, too." I wrote up a proposal, sent it to one publisher, got rejected. I had an editor at Houghton Mifflin, who was really interested in it; but then she left and went to Charlesbridge Publishing.

She called me up when she got there and she said, "Sneed, I still want to do this book." I started researching about these ancient marine reptiles which included things like ichthyosaurs, which looked like dolphins, but they were reptiles. A great example of convergent evolution, they were built for speed because they had to pursue squid and other high speed prey.

A beautiful example of evolution where it can take two totally different groups of animals — mammals and reptiles. I looked into those and these animals with kind of squat little bodies and really long necks called the elasmasaur, which are kind of a plesiosaur. What else happened was — researching the book — is I started getting into the stories of their discoveries.

It turns out, these ancient marine reptiles, or sea dragons, were much more popular and had been discovered before dinosaurs. Back in the early 1800s, every one was crazy about these ancient marine reptiles. When dinosaurs came along, they just fell off the map, basically. You learn a lot of these interesting stories about the early scientists who were studying these things. One woman was named Mary Anning and she was just an amazing fossil hunter. She discovered the first plesiosaur in England. She discovered the first terradactyl fossil and just really advanced science very far.

In America, there were two scientists who were constantly competing, who could make the best find of these giant marine reptiles? There's a funny story there. One of them discovered this giant plesiosaur and a elasmasaur with the long necks. He was so anxious to get it on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Natural History.

They assembled it all and he put the head on the tip of the tail by mistake. Well, who do you think discovered this? Well, his archrival who walked into the door one day and he's looking at this thing. He said, "Beautiful find, but why did you put the head at the tail?" Once word got out, his credibility was just shot forever after that. It was fun to write about this natural history of these animals, but also about the process of discovery in many interesting little stories that you find out about them.

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You don't need a lab coat!

Science is a tough one because a lot of people feel very intimidated by science. There is this stereotype of scientists locked away in their laboratories, or of being so shockingly brilliant that they can't even talk to real people — the rest of us. There are scientists like that, but I've also found that scientists are also… Once you get past this facade that they have to maintain because they're in academics or whatever, they are real people and the reason they become scientists is because they're just passionate about learning new things and discovering new things about our planet.

One of the things that made me go into science writing initially was I realized there are enough scientists to save the planet, but if nobody understands what those scientists know, it's not going to make a difference. Because politicians are not elected by scientists, they are elected by the general public.

If the general public doesn't understand enough science to recognize how quickly the earth is deteriorating or how we need to manage our natural resources, they're not going to hold politicians accountable for making responsible decisions that protect resources not only for our generation, but for future generations. My goal from the very get-go was to help transmit this knowledge that scientists had to the general public and in such a way that wasn't intimidating. Now have I achieved that? I'm not sure. I hope so because one thing — the real key point for scientists, or for young people, is to have someone introduce them to it.

Yet parents and teachers often feel like, "Well, how can I share science with young people? I don't know how to do this because I don't know any science." One of the beauties of science books, especially for young people, is you don't have to have any prior knowledge of science to share and discover. You can sit down with a five-year-old and read them a book like Teeth, or whatever the topic happens to be and you can learn in that process along with them. One of the goals I've always had is to make accessible science books for young people.

The other thing in education that I believe is changing slowly — and I hope changes much more rapidly — is science has always been considered this subject over here. You know, "Oh, it's a specialty. If we have time to get to it, we'll go look at it." What kids really need to know is reading and writing and math, which is true to some extent.

They do need to know those things, but science is not this thing over here. Science is part of everything we are and everything we do. It affects our economy. It affects our relationships. It affects what we want to eat. It affects who we're attracted to in life. Every aspect of our lives is part of science. Understanding science to me is understanding ourselves and my wish for teachers is to not just pick a cutesy little fiction picture book to teach reading and writing, pick up a science book and use that to teach literacy. Right away they're going to grab all these reluctant readers who never wanted to read before.

It'll start imparting this sense among children that science is not something unattainable or unapproachable; it's part of everyday life. If I've achieved anything in my career, it's the hope that I've written books that are being picked up by people who've never picked up a science book before, and who want to just share that sense of discovery with young people.

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"A book is a gift you can open again and again." — Garrison Keillor