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Transcript from an interview with Deborah Heiligman

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

What Is a Butterfly?

First grade was when we were first allowed to check out books from the library. For some reason, we weren't allowed to do it in kindergarten. I will never forget that moment of walking into the library, and I can still smell the wood of Newlinburg Elementary School. I can still smell that sort of musty book smell, and I walked over to a shelf and I picked out a book, and it was a book called What Is a Butterfly? — which was nonfiction.

Up until that point, I had really only read — or been read to — story books. My favorites were The Little House and a book about twin girls who didn't want to look alike, and I really wished I had had a twin so I loved that book, and a book called Debbie Takes a Nap, which was put out by the Miss Frances Ding Dong School. It was propaganda to get people to take a nap and my mother bought it so I would take a nap, which I never ever did. But I loved the book because it had my name in it, Debbie.

So those were the books that I was used to, but then I found this book called What Is a Butterfly? And I took it home — I walked home from school — and my mom read it to me. And it was as if this whole world opened up to me because it taught me so much, right there in a book with pictures. I have a copy of it at home. I bought a copy, a used copy, because I had to own this book. After my mom read What Is a Butterfly? to me, I went back to my elementary school library and I returned it and I took out What Is a Tree? And then I took out What Is a Frog? What Is a Plant? And I was hooked. I was hooked on nonfiction. So from a very early age, I loved both, reading both fiction and nonfiction.

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Great teachers

There were so many teachers who influenced me with writing and with books. My fourth grade teacher, Miss Ryan, had such a love of books that she had special reading nooks. I am getting all worked up! I'm getting moved, but she had these reading nooks so that if you finished your work early, you could take whatever book you were reading and go into one of the reading nooks. And one of them was a big old claw-foot bathtub and that's what I loved. You could climb into the bathtub and read.

Another one was a table that had sort of a tablecloth draped over it so you could go under the table and be private. And it was under that table that I finished Charlotte's Web. And I remember feeling very happy that I was hidden because I was sobbing and I didn't want Steve Peters to see me crying. And I still remember that it was Steve Peters I didn't want to see me crying. But I loved that room. Sadly, the school caught on fire and burned down in the middle of the school year, and that room was gone. And I recently met up with some people who were in that class, and we were all traumatized by that because we kept our teacher and we kept our class, but we had to move schools.

Then the next year in fifth grade, I had this teacher named Miss Laudenslaker. And Miss Laudenslaker was very large and had a very deep looming voice. And some people were scared of her and I worshipped her. One of the reason I worshipped her was that she read out loud to us. Even today most, many fifth grade teachers do not read out loud to their children and I wish they would because there's nothing like having a book read out loud to you. And she read out loud From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg — and one of my all time favorite books along with Charlotte's Web, imprinted on me very early. It was such a wonderful experience.

I still remember two of my teachers who read aloud — Miss Cox and Miss Scott. I love the teachers who read aloud, and I just want to say one more thing… I had high school teachers who encouraged me so much in my writing and one of them just came into New York and had me meet her as she was in line getting into go see a Broadway show to sign her copy of Charles and Emma.

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Am I a writer?

I went to college — I went to Brown University — and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do and I wasn't sure what I wanted to major in. I discovered that I loved the classes in religious studies because those classes taught me how to ask questions and I love asking questions. You could call me nosy, but I love asking questions and I love learning just the right way to ask questions. Those classes also taught me how to write because I had to write many, many papers. I happened to have one teacher who mentored me and helped me with my writing both in the class and outside the class and she became a friend.

I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't think just a regular person like me who grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, could be a writer. All the people in college who were going to be writers were all Black and smoked cigarettes and used big words that I did not understand and drank endless cups of coffee. Well, I drank coffee. I would never smoke a cigarette — ever, ever — and I tend to use words that most people can understand. So I thought, "Well, I guess can't be a writer," but I still really wanted to be one.

I got a job right out of college working for a Jewish magazine, and sort of got in through the back door. I had done some freelance writing in college, but mostly I think I got the job because they thought I would be a good person to fetch the coffee. I did a pretty good job at doing that. But I also got to do some writing, and I loved that, but I wasn't doing enough writing. I knew now that I really wanted to be a writer. I was fortunate enough to meet a wonderful man who lived in New York and I wanted to move to New York to be with him.

I went looking for a job and I got an interview at Scholastic Magazines. There was a job opening on the fourth grade magazine called Scholastic News Explorer. I had never thought about writing for children. I thought, "Well, it would get me to New York, and then I could get a better job." So I got the interview. I got along very well with the editor and he gave me an assignment. Sometimes when you get a job, when you're applying for a job you have to do a trial assignment. And he gave me an assignment. It was to write about panda bears being endangered. It was an article about a little boy who went to Anwar Sadat's funeral. Anwar Sadat was the president, premier of Egypt. And I also had to come up with a list of ideas that I thought would be good articles for fourth graders.

I thought, "Well, I don't know. How am I going to know?" I went back up to Boston and I have to say that it was so easy for me. It was as if I was back in fourth grade. I just knew how to write those articles and I just came up with a list of — he said give me 10, 15 ideas. I think I had 30 ideas for articles just like that. And so I got the job. I never knew I wanted to write for children and the minute I started I loved it.

I also would say that working at Scholastic was a fantastic training ground because soon after I got there, the magazines were re-organized so I was writing for first graders all the way up to sixth graders. So we were writing for all these different editions and our deadlines were fast and furious so in the morning I would have to write about Ms. Pacman — that dates this — Ms. Pacman for first graders and second graders. And in the afternoon I would have to write about Rachel Carson and pesticides for fifth and sixth graders. So it was a great, great training ground and I had really good colleagues and editors there.

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Start with the questions

I write books for children of all ages. I write fiction and nonfiction. I write nonfiction for very small children, and now I've written a nonfiction book for teenagers and adults really. The process is really not that different. I tend to write about subjects I know nothing about. What I mean by that is when I start, I know nothing. So if you start with knowing nothing, you have so many questions to ask that you have to answer. I tend to start, believe it or not, with a dictionary and look up just the dictionary definition of the topic — whether it's butterfly, honeybees, Charles Darwin — and you get to know the basic facts. And then I go from there.

One of my favorite things always to do is to start with another children's book about the topic, because I know how hard children's book authors work to do their research. We do so much research to write children's books. It doesn't matter if it's for first graders or twelfth graders, we do a lot of research. Granted, we do more research for the older people because you put much more material in it, but you still have to understand it completely. So if I had written a book about Charles Darwin for second graders, I would still have to completely understand this theory of evolution, right? I wouldn't have read all the many volumes of letters and correspondence that I read, so it's really a matter of degree, but in fact, the process is really very similar.

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Never trust just one source

One of the big rules that I learned when I was working at Scholastic was never trust just one source when you're doing research…two, three if you can get it. It's my cardinal rule. I double, triple check my facts. I even sometimes hire a fact checker. I did that with Charles and Emma because I didn't want to make any mistakes. Whenever anybody is doing research, whether it's a published author or it's a child doing a report for school, you should always have more than one source for a fact.

Now we come to the question that everybody wants to know the answer to: what's better — a book or the Internet? Back in the day that I was working at Scholastic, there was no such thing as the Internet. We only used books, magazine articles, newspapers, interviews, interviews with experts, observation…all those great research tools that I'm afraid kids today might be losing — and adults, because we just go to the Internet.

Now there is wonderful information on the Internet, but you have to know what you can trust. Teachers are usually very good at telling kids what they can trust, and a lot of schools have filters. But sometimes you stumble upon a website and you're not sure because maybe you find a mistake because you've already read some books and there's a disagreement. What do you do if there's a disagreement? Well you have to go to another source. If you find a mistake on the website, you can't really trust the whole website.

Also with the book, if you find a mistake in a book it's hard to trust that book. Now I'm an author, I've made mistakes. We've had mistakes in some of my books that we then correct. Sometimes they're little mistakes. They're usually little mistakes. We hope there are no mistakes. But we try very hard to make it as accurate, as accurate as possible. I've always had experts read my manuscripts, more than one if I can, and I have fact checkers help me check facts. Editors can't always do that and they trust the author to do it, so that's what we do.

I was just talking to a group of kids and somebody said, "Well, do you trust Wikipedia?" I said, "Well, that's an interesting question." Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia where anybody can write an article. I think you can go to Wikipedia for some basic facts, but you can never totally trust those facts. I have a couple of funny experiences with Wikipedia. One time I read an article about Easter when I was doing my book on Celebrate Easter, and it said something about how people in Norwegian countries whip each other on Easter, and I said, "Well, obviously somebody made all this stuff up." It turned out it was true! But I had to verify that by talking to people and looking at books — not that I put that in my book about Easter, but then I had to know.

When I was working on Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, I went to the Wikipedia website about Emma Wedgewood who married Charles Darwin, just to double check how many siblings she had. And I knew right away the website was wrong. I went to one of my book sources, and I went to another book source, and I saw the Wikipedia was wrong. So you can go in and you can change it, so I went in and I changed it. 45 minutes later, I went back, someone had changed it back. I knew I was right! I went back in and I changed it again. The other person went back in and changed it. This went on for about 24 hours and I finally gave up. I feel terrible about it because people who go to that Wikipedia website are getting the wrong information.

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Treasure hunt

I've always been a kind of nosy person. I love to eavesdrop and I won't go so far as to open somebody else's mail, but if that weren't immoral, I think I would do it because I'm just curious. I'm curious about people and what makes people tick. I'm always wanting to know more about subjects. I think most people are nosy — maybe not quite as nosy as I am, but nosy. I think most kids are. Just go to a classroom of kids and you say, "I bet you'd want to know that I saw your teacher this weekend." "What was she wearing? What was she doing? Who was she with?" Right? We want to know.

We want to know things and we want to know the behind the scenes. So writing nonfiction books for me is a dream come true because I get to ask questions, I get to delve into people's lives. A librarian once gave me this great advice. When you start a research project, ask yourself, "What do I know and what do I need to know? What do I know?"

I wrote a book about honeybees. I actually started out writing a book about bees because I never really even thought about the fact that there were different kinds of bees. So what do I know? I know bees sting. I know bees make honey — some of them? I know — what do I need to know? I need to know what kind of bees are there. I need to know how they make honey. I need to know why they sting. I need to know do all bees sting?

So you make yourself all these questions. Then you go about answering them. Now you can answer them by reading a book. You can answer them by going on the Internet and go to a really good internet site, like a site from a museum, or a university, or a scientist's website. You can also ask an expert. Who would an expert be about honeybees? A bee keeper would be an expert. A scientist who studies honeybees would be an expert. You start asking these questions and you start finding the answers to the questions and you'll end up getting more questions because there will always be more questions.

So I found out that it was really mostly just honeybees who make honey — who make the kind of honey that we eat. So how do they do that? So then I researched how they did that, and I found out all kinds of things. For example, that all the worker bees in a honeybee hive are female; the male bees do no work at all. The male bees are there for one reason and one reason only and that's to mate with the queen. And they die and if they don't die they're kicked out of the hive because they get in the way. So whenever you see a bee sipping nectar from a flower, it's a girl bee. They're all girl bees out there. They're not the queen bee; there's only one queen bee in a hive. So you see how I can go on and on when I've found something out?

So that's what happens to me every time I do research. I get so excited and I just find out more and more and more — sort of like a treasure hunt. Research is like a treasure hunt. You find out one clue which leads you to a next clue, which leads you to the next clue, and eventually you have all this research that then you need to turn into a book.

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The story of a marriage

When I wrote Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, I was tackling a huge subject — Charles Darwin. There has been so much written about Charles Darwin. There are volumes and volumes and volumes of books about Charles Darwin. I did a book once about the Titanic — same kind of thing. How do you do all that research and how do you find your own story when something has been written about so much?

In the case of Charles and Emma, I was very lucky in that I found a piece of the story that nobody else had really written about, and that was this: Charles Darwin was the scientist who discovered evolution — evolution by natural selection. He came up with the idea, he worked for years and years and years on his book called The Origin of Species, and he is the person that we associate with evolution.

Well, a lot of people are concerned that evolution pushes God out of creation because some people feel that the story in the Bible — as it's told in the Bible — is literally true. And that the world was created by God in six days and all the creatures were created just like that. And they did not evolve. They do not change. Some people believe that. At the time that Charles Darwin was writing, a lot of people believed that. And he, Charles Darwin, was not saying God has nothing to do with it; he was just saying this is the process of creation, this is how it happened, how species changes over time, how species are created. He saw this beauty in it, but at the same time, he knew that it was going to upset some people.

Well, guess what? He fell in love with a very religious woman, Emma Wedgewood — his first cousin. He wanted to marry her, but he had a feeling she was going to be upset about his ideas about creation. When I heard first that Charles Darwin's wife Emma was religious and that she loved Charles very much and they had a very close marriage and that she was afraid that he would go to hell and that they would be separated for all eternity, it was as if fireworks had exploded over my head. I knew I had a book to write.

I thought, "What is the story of their marriage? How did they do that? How did that work? How did being married to Emma influence his work?" I had so many questions. So when I set out to do the research, I had a lot of work ahead of me. Not only was I tackling this huge subject — Charles Darwin and evolution — but I had to find out about his marriage.

Now, in fact, it turned out the first part was a lot harder, because when you stick yourself in research and you have all these books that you're reading or think you should be reading, it's overwhelming. And I realized early on that the main thing that I should be reading were primary sources. Primary sources are not books written about somebody, but actual letters written by a person or to a person, diary entries, notebook entries that Charles Darwin kept, little notes in date books that Emma wrote. So when I was doing my research for Charles and Emma, I used mostly primary sources.

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Peering into primary sources

I have so much to say about Charles and Emma. I could talk about Charles and Emma forever. Once I realized that I couldn't read everything ever written about Charles Darwin, and once I realized also that I did not want to read everything written about him, because I wanted to find the story myself and I started with primary sources, which is a very unusual place to start because usually you get deep background, and then you go to primary sources. But I got out of the library a two-volume, I'm getting teary just talking about it. I miss writing about them!

I got out of the library a two-volume book of letters collected by their daughter, Henrietta. She collected Emma's family letters that were written from the time she was a little girl until the time she died. And this is two-volume book, and with some of Henrietta's notations, but mostly just letters. And I sat down and I read those two volumes on my couch, straight through. And I didn't always know what I was reading because I hadn't done any of the deep background, but I felt that I was getting to know the people in the story.

I also read, right at the beginning, Charles Darwin's autobiography, which is wonderfully written. He was such a great writer. And this was an autobiography that he wrote for his children and grandchildren. He wasn't looking at it to publish it, so it was as honest as it could be. Emma did take a few things out before publishing it, a couple of things that he said that she thought might offend people; mostly about God and religion, but she didn't take out very much. She didn't take out the substance, just one or two lines. But I read the unexpurgated version. I read both of them actually, and I just identified so much with Charles and Emma and their marriage.

And I hope this isn't too personal, but my husband and I have a very close marriage. I read all of his manuscripts. I've been his first — and he would say — best editor, I'm his toughest editor probably other than he himself. He reads a lot of my things. We are very, very close. We hate to be apart. I majored in religious studies in college. When I met him he was writing about science. So you can see how it was a very, very personal story. I don't think we're anything like Charles and Emma.

In fact, I remember one moment when I read that her daughter said that Emma was not at all sentimental, and I thought, "Well, why isn't she sentimental?" And I realized, "Oh, wait. She's not me. That's okay. She's allowed not to be sentimental," because I was probably over-identifying with her at that point, but that was a good moment. I realized, "Okay. This is Emma Wedgewood Darwin. I've never met her — will never meet her. We're very different people."

However, I think that it was that connection that I had to them that helped me really see how much being married to Emma influenced Charles. It's all there to see. It's all there in the letters. It's in the letters that he wrote about her. It's in the letters she wrote to him about wishing that he would take another look at religion…these beautiful letters that she wrote to him about that, and he wrote on the bottom of one of them, "Know after I have died that I have kissed this many times and cried." Does that not say it all right there? I mean, it's such a beautiful story.

One of the great things about doing primary source research was there were pieces of a puzzle I could fit together. So I could look and see what a letter that Charles was writing on a particular day — because so many of his letters are already published either in books or online — and then I could go online, because they had just published this while I was working on the book, Emma's day diary where she wrote things down and I could see what was happening in the house at that time.

So if Charles was… When he was trying to decide whether he should publish a paper on his theory, because he had just heard that another man had the same idea. At that same moment, their last baby was dying, and one of their other children was deathly ill. She did not end up dying. I could go look and see… I could see the correspondence that he was having with his friends about this issue, and then I could look in Emma's date book and she was keeping track of the baby's symptoms. So it was pieces of a puzzle like that I could put together, and there were many, many more of those during their courtship period, what he was writing in his secret notebooks and what he was writing in letters to her, what she was saying to her aunt about him. It was so much fun to weave it all together. It's hard work, but it was fun to weave it all together and create this picture of their really great family life.

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Where do you start?

It's really hard to know when to stop gathering research and when to start writing because I love to do research. In some ways it's easier than the writing because it's just you keep finding things out. "Oh, this is cool," and you write a note about it. "This is cool! Oh, wow!" I do this thing, by the way, where I take oh, wow notes. I do this for all my books. You can't write every single thing down. So I tend to write down the things that make me go, "Oh, wow!" And so I call them my oh, wow notes.

With Charles and Emma, I had so many oh, wow notes and you can tell the book is long, but there are two things that make you start writing…well, maybe three things. One is you just have to start telling the story because you really want other people to know it. Two is you're overwhelmed with the amount of research. You want to write it down so you see what else you have to research to fill in holes. And the third thing is, you have an editor calling you saying, "When am I going to see that draft?" It's called a deadline. So all of those things made me start writing the book.

So a big question when you're writing a biography is where do you start? A very typical thing is to start with the eureka moment of the discovery of the science and then you go back to the childhood. I think a lot of biographies start that way. Some start right at the childhood, figuring you've already heard of the person. So I struggled about with where to start Charles and Emma, because I really wanted to be able to grab the reader, because it's so important to grab the reader on the first page.

It's really hard to know when to stop gathering research and when to start writing because I love to do research. In some ways it's easier than the writing because it's just you keep finding things out. "Oh, this is cool," and you write a note about it. "This is cool! Oh, wow!" I do this thing, by the way, where I take oh, wow notes. I do this for all my books. You can't write every single thing down. So I tend to write down the things that make me go, "Oh, wow!" And so I call them my oh, wow notes.

With Charles and Emma, I had so many oh, wow notes and you can tell the book is long, but there are two things that make you start writing…well, maybe three things. One is you just have to start telling the story because you really want other people to know it. Two is you're overwhelmed with the amount of research. You want to write it down so you see what else you have to research to fill in holes. And the third thing is, you have an editor calling you saying, "When am I going to see that draft?" It's called a deadline. So all of those things made me start writing the book.

So a big question when you're writing a biography is where do you start? A very typical thing is to start with the eureka moment of the discovery of the science and then you go back to the childhood. I think a lot of biographies start that way. Some start right at the childhood, figuring you've already heard of the person. So I struggled about with where to start Charles and Emma, because I really wanted to be able to grab the reader, because it's so important to grab the reader on the first page.

And there was so much to say, so much to say, so much to say…and I'm going to give credit to my husband, even though he says we shouldn't do this because you never really know where ideas come from, but I believe it was he who said, "You gotta start with the list." And I did. I had a God given beginning for my book and that was this list that Charles Darwin made.

He had just come back from his voyage around the world — this monumental voyage on the Beagle where he was traveling all over and he was so seasick that he kept getting off the ship as much as possible and he would go off exploring. And he loved natural history and he was picking up all kinds of fossils and dead animals, and beetles and live animals and insects and whatever he could do, and bringing them back to the boat. And he got home and he was already making a name for himself in science because he had sent back these specimens.

He was 28 and he was a healthy, vigorous young man. He was good looking, although he didn't like his nose. He was athletic. He was tall and he was getting attention from the ladies — especially this one family of sisters who were courting him. And he was thinking, "Wow! Should I get married or not?" He had so much work he wanted to do with his science because he was already having this idea of evolution by natural selection, and he knew he had a lot of work to do.

He needed to study his specimens. He needed to get other people to study his specimens. There were not enough hours in the day, he was charged up really for the first time in his life about something academic. He knew what he wanted to do with his life; yet he had these sort of feelings of romance that he could not ignore. So Charles Darwin was a very organized man. He wrote down everything, he wrote down all of his thoughts, always — thank you Charles for that — and he was a list maker. So I started Charles and Emma with that marry-not marry list.

And there was so much to say, so much to say, so much to say…and I'm going to give credit to my husband, even though he says we shouldn't do this because you never really know where ideas

"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift." — Kate DiCamillo