Sunday, 07 December 2008 11:57
1. What was your inspiration for writing a biography on George Catlin?
Having written books about a musician, a dancer, and an aspiring actress, I was interested in writing next about a visual artist. My husband, an artist (and soon to be published children's book author!), suggested Catlin. I was immediately attracted to his paintings of American Indians, and thought kids would be, too. Reading about him, I discovered he was much more than an artist--he was a grand adventurer. His extraordinary life touched on an amazing array of topics.
2. What type of research did you do for the book and when did you feel you had enough information?
I was lucky, in that Catlin wrote many books about his adventures. So my research started there. After that I read all the scholarly books about him, as well as books and articles on American history and art history. Everyone at my local library came to know me very well, especially the librarian who's responsible for interlibrary loans! I also spent time in the New York Public Library, consulting the original 19th-century editions of Catlin's books.
When I felt I had a pretty good grasp of the outlines of the story, I started to write. The research continued right up until about 4 months before publication date, when I was still fine-tuning the maps.
Of course, because this is a book about an artist, I had to do a lot of visual research, too. I visited Catlin's "Indian Gallery" twice, and interviewed curators at the Smithsonian and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. These are art historians who are Catlin specialists, and I was able to ask them questions that hadn't been answered in the books. I also found a lot of visual material online.
I looked at thousands of images to find the right illustrations for the book. I wanted to include not just Catlin's paintings, but works by other artists of his time, as well as historical documents, prints, and photographs. I even had to track down Catlin's descendants to get permission for one painting. In the end I chose 100 pictures from 18 different museums, libraries, and historical societies.
3. How much did you know about George Catlin before you began your research? And were there any interesting aspects you learned about his life that you weren't able to include in the book?
I knew very little about Catlin. Learning about him was a wonderful process of discovery that took me in many different directions. For example, Catlin began his painting career in Philadelphia in the 1820's. What was the art scene like there? What were the influences on him? I wanted to know who the important artists were, why they painted certain subjects, and what was the artistic philosophy of the time. Ten years later, Catlin is traveling up the Missouri with a bunch of trappers and traders, visiting and painting Indian tribes. Which tribes? What were they like? How did they react to him? Later still, he's living in London, sharing an exhibition hall with P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb, and hobnobbing with Queen Victoria. Then, in the 1850's, he's searching for lost gold mines in Brazil, boating up the Amazon to paint indigenous peoples, hunting flamingos in the Pampas of Argentina.
Because Catlin lived so long and traveled so widely, there was an unbelievable amount of information to sort through. I spent hours and hours looking for just the right details that would make the story come alive. Organizing it into a coherent narrative was a huge job. And yes, as you might expect, there were many interesting facts--and images--that didn't make it into the book. For example, we didn't have room to include Catlin's beautiful portrait of the Seminole leader, Osceola.
4. Knowing and understanding our history is important for our future. As someone who is interested in people and history, what would you say to get a reluctant child interesting in reading about history?
People make the mistake of thinking that history is just a bunch of facts and dates. Most kids (though not all) will find a bunch of facts and dates boring. But stories--stories are intriguing. If a child is interested in sports, why not read a biography of Babe Ruth or Babe Didrickson? If a child is fascinated by bridges, find a good book about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. And for those kids who do like to pore over facts and dates, a beautifully designed timeline with lots of visual information might be just the ticket.
5. Are you working on a new project now?
My next project is a picture book biography. It's a musical subject, but I can't say more about it just yet. After that I'd like to write another novel. At the moment I'm also doing volunteer work for PEN, the international writers' organization that champions freedom of expression.
Last Updated ( Sunday, 07 December 2008 17:49 )