17 Jan

Interview and four-book giveaway with Karen Blumenthal and Cynthia Levinson

The research and writing efforts that Karen Blumenthal and Cynthia Levinson put into their mid-2015 nonfiction publications — Tommy: The Gun That Changed America and Watch Out for Flying Kids!: How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community, respectively — would have been plenty impressive on their own.

But this month has seen the release of a follow-up by each of these lauded Texas authors, and that’s not where the similarities stop. Cynthia and Karen’s latest books have a biographical subject in common. Arriving just before voting begins in the presidential primaries and caucuses, Cynthia’s Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can is geared toward middle-grade readers while Karen’s Hillary Rodham Clinton: A Woman Living History is aimed toward young adults.

(Here’s a quick example of how the target age of each book’s audience is considered in the text: When referring to an Arkansas legal case — involving a can of pork and beans — that Clinton was involved in during the 1970s, Cynthia refers to the “rear end of a rat.” In her book for older readers, Karen gets to use “rat’s ass.”)

I wanted to know how Karen and Cynthia — both of them friends of mine — had each approached working on two highly timely nonfiction books, one right after the other. They offered great answers to my questions, and they also offered giveaway copies of their books.

Later this week, four subscribers to my Bartography Express newsletter will win Karen’s Tommy (Roaring Brook) or A Woman Living History (Feiwel & Friends) or Cynthia’s Watch Out for Flying Kids! (Peachtree) or Do All the Good You Can (HarperCollins). There’s still time to sign up on my home page before the new edition of Bartography Express goes out. But in the meantime…

Chris: Your Hillary Rodham Clinton books are timely because of her campaign, but Tommy and Watch Out for Flying Kids! are relevant to current issues as well. How did events that transpired while you were working on your 2015 books shape how those projects turned out?

Cynthia and Flying Kids

Cynthia: Watch Out for Flying Kids opens in 2006 and ends in 2012, which turned out to be a critical time for both circuses and for world events. As you know, the book focuses on programs that work toward social justice through circus arts. The two featured are the St. Louis Arches, which brings together inner-city and suburban kids in greater St. Louis, and the Galilee Circus, which is comprised of Israeli Arabs and Jews in northern Israel. As I did in We’ve Got a Job, I feature specific youngsters—in this case, two black kids and three whites in St. Louis and two Arabs and two Jews in Israel. When they combine forces every other year, alternately here and abroad, they are about as diverse a group as you can imagine, and they’re all newsworthy.

I think of the research and writing of this book as being a journalistic rather than an archival effort because there is no secondary literature on youth social circus. In fact, I could have used Karen’s expertise as a newspaper reporter! Major aspects of the story unfolded practically in real time as I was interviewing the kids and their coaches. Although Circus is the vehicle, the book is equally about the politics and history of the urban Midwest and the Middle East and also about the young troupers’ abilities to overcome longstanding (even ancient) animosities.

In 2006, hostilities between Arabs and Jews burst out in the Second Lebanon War, a month-long conflict that directly affected all four of the Israelis. Fortunately, racial tensions, though building, were not yet so grave in St. Louis. However, in the summer of 2012, the Arches, who were visiting their partners in the Galilee, got stuck there for an additional week when the Federal Aviation Administration halted flights out of Israel because of warfare between Gaza and the southern part of the country. Just weeks after the Americans finally returned home, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, just a few miles from where the Arches’ director and some of the performers live. This tragedy led to protests and violence there.

As a result, Watch Out for Flying Kids is book-ended with current events.

Karen: Like Cynthia, I was well aware of current events while writing Tommy: The Gun that Changed America, and those events gave the project a real sense of urgency. The book was inspired by an email from my editor, Deirdre Langeland, in the aftermath of the terrible Newtown tragedy. But even as I was writing, there were others — a shooting at the Washington Navy Yard and another on the campus of the University of California-Santa Barbara. Then, just before the book came out, Dylan Roof senselessly murdered nine people during a church prayer meeting. There have been several more since then.

Karen and Tommy

I wanted to tell a true story from history to try to provide some context for the concern about these shootings and the heated debates about what to do — or not do. Each of these tragedies was wrenching, but I had to keep my focus on the history of how America once responded to a dangerous gun on the streets. All those events made me feel that a book like this was even more important for kids who want to understand what the gun debate is all about.

What’s significant to me is what hasn’t changed: Then, as now, the largest number of gun deaths are from suicides. Then, as now, the vast majority of gun injuries and fatalities come from handguns, even though mass shootings grab the headlines. And then, as now, we struggle to find the right balance between individual rights and community safety.

All that said, the breaking news around Hillary Clinton made writing that book even more difficult. But I don’t think you asked that!

Chris: I didn’t, but let’s go ahead and bring writing about Hillary Clinton into the conversation. Was there any cross-pollination between your Hillary books and your non-Hillary books? Did either of you have times when your two books jockeyed for your attention?

Karen: Hmmm. Not really. Of course, I’m often reading proofs and working on photo permissions while researching the next book. But there wasn’t real overlap here. I find biography to be different from a narrative story. With biography, you really want to get to know someone — not just what she’s done, but what she’s like and what she likes. You just want to know everything about her. If I do it right, I’ll hear the subject in my head.

Cynthia: Comparing Watch Out for Flying Kids! with my Hillary bio, I’d say that my experience is similar, though not identical, to Karen’s. The subjects and locations of the two books are different so those aspects did not cross-pollinate. On the other hand, Watch Out for Flying Kids! is not only a narrative story, it’s also composed of capsule biographies of nine kids. Thus, there are structural and procedural similarities. I literally heard the kids’ voices in my head because I listened to my recorded interviews with them! Even when I read the transcripts, I could hear them speaking to me and recall where we sat — or, where I sat while they juggled or tumbled — at the time.

Still, the two books required vastly different methods. Writing a soup-to-nuts biography of one person, especially one who is personally unavailable to the writer, is trickier in ways than writing portions of nine bios. Without direct access to the subject, writers have to use go-arounds to get the information, whereas as I could communicate with the circus performers—assuming they answered their phones when my number popped up on their screens. In addition, the arc of the two narratives is different. With Watch Out for Flying Kids!, which takes place over six years, a classic story arc materialized; with a full life-span to cover, that might not happen.

There was substantive overlap, however, between Do All the Good You Can and my earlier book, We’ve Got a Job. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appears in both books — as a major figure in the Birmingham marches and as a bit player but inspiring one for Hillary when she met him in high school. I even mention the protests in Birmingham in my bio of Hillary as examples of political events that were beginning to catch her attention.

The commonality among all three books is their focus on different ways of doing good—circus, racial protests, and Hillary’s many activities, some of which accomplish good results and others of which backfire. I don’t know if that theme says more about her or about me.

As for the timeline, “jockey” is hardly the word to describe the tussle between meeting the deadlines for Do All the Good You Can and for Watch Out for Flying Kids! The release date of the latter was delayed because of Peachtree’s publication schedule. So editing, photo researching, fact-checking, etc. of that ran smack into researching and writing the other. Also, I had only seven months from soup to nuts, that is, from agreeing to write the Hillary bio to turning in the manuscript. (Actually, I stretched it to eight.) It was a very intense time!

Chris: Karen, what have been the biggest differences for you between researching and writing about a single, famous person — Hillary Clinton, in this case — and creating a book about a more expansive, less individualistic subject such as guns and gun control? How much of that depends on the deadline?

Karen: Such a challenging question!

So much depends on what’s available on the subject. Researching a famous person like Hillary Clinton is daunting Woman Living Historybecause there is SO much about her. I make an effort to at least look at every book I can find about my subject, even those out of print. But there were dozens about Hillary or about the Clintons and I couldn’t get to all of them. So I focused on finding as many primary sources as possible–oral histories, her high school and college newspapers, videos of appearances, and interviews and interview transcripts, as well as hundreds of newspaper and magazine stories.

It was very hard not to get lost in the weeds–and admittedly, sometimes I did. At times, the research was overwhelming and the book length grew and grew. I blew through my deadline, and at one point, I almost gave up. Luckily, I have a very supportive network, including my husband, my agent Susan Cohen, and my editors.

Tommy was such a different project. In a sense, it was a biography of a gun. But the gun story was actually a smaller story that influenced several bigger stories around it: Guns and gun laws in our culture, the rise of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, the impact of Prohibition gangsters and Depression outlaws, and even how the military develops guns. There were only a few books about the Tommy gun per se, so I did a lot of research in several different areas. My stack included books on Capone, Hoover, and the NRA’s Americans and Their Guns.

Behind all of this is a central theme: trying to make sense of very controversial or complex subjects for young people. Often we see or hear about something or someone in only one way when reality is a lot more complicated than that.

Chris: On that note, Cynthia and Karen, I’ve got one last question: How do the portraits of Hillary Clinton that emerged from your researching and writing about her compare to the public figure you thought you knew when you got started?

Cynthia: Hillary has been a public figure since Bill was elected to state office in Arkansas when she was 31 years old. Over three-plus decades, the information, mis-information, gossip, innuendoes, inquiries, and revelations have proliferated to the extent that it’s hard to have a fixed perspective on her image. In addition, given how much and how long she’s been in the news, she has become more and more private and self-protective. Although her reaction is understandable, it’s also confounded the problem because the press becomes hungrier, more probing, and more speculative in the absence of facts. All of this is to say that my image of her before I started researching and writing the book was muddled and contradictory.

Do All the Good You CanSo, for me the question is, What did I learn that was new and that helped put her into perspective? Certainly, her religious faith, which several of her staff and friends strongly emphasized, was a revelation (as it were!) to me. I came to believe that it’s sincere, deeply motivating, and — relevant to your question — private. Her Methodism has rarely been a part of the public conversation about her; she doesn’t wear her religion on her sleeve.

Speaking of her friends — and also relevant to your question — several also told me that they don’t recognize the person they read about in the press. That is, the Hillary they know is not the Hillary as she’s conveyed. Their perspective was missing from the public impression. Because they know her well, at least in one aspect of her life, I wanted to portray her in, at least in part, that way, too. As a result, I wrote in the Acknowledgments that I wanted to bring her to life in the book as “a warm, funny, thoughtful” person. I also wrote that she is a “humanly flawed” person. Given her extraordinary accomplishments, her well-publicized missteps, and the mixed press she receives, it can be hard to remember that she is a feeling human being.

I hope that the examples I give of all of these these aspects — warmth, humor, thoughtfulness, and yes, human errors — fill in and round out what people think they know about her.

Karen: I’ve never covered politics, so I had only a very public view of Hillary Clinton. My editor’s only request was, “make her human.”

It turned out to be harder than I thought. When she writes about herself, she’s almost clinical. She doesn’t talk about herself much. And the press and pundits love to focus on the warts. Politicians — virtually all of them — shape their public persona based on polls. So it is hard to see the real person there.

But the more I read and watched and listened, the more a fuller person emerged. Over and over, people talked about her sense of humor and empathy in small settings. Like Cynthia, I was intrigued and surprised to discover her devotion to her Methodist faith. her conversations with her friend Diane Blair, you could feel her frustration with the endless scrutiny, her passion, her commitment to contribute to the world — and even her love for Bill. Of course, there was plenty of political posturing as well. And she definitely has made some decisions that make you want to question her judgment. But I came to the conclusion that in addition to a big brain, there was also a real heart there.

People ask me if I like her. To be honest, when you spend so much time researching someone, they become like a specimen, not something you like or dislike. She is fascinating, accomplished and hard to understand. And human. I hope that comes through.

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