Author Feature: Amy Butler Greenfield

Publisher Biography: “Amy Butler Greenfield has a passion for dusty archives, ancient maps, and wild adventures of bygone days. Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in the Adirondacks, and she studied imperial Spain, the ancient Americas, and Renaissance Europe as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford. She now lives with her husband near Boston, where she writes award-winning books about history and adventure for both children and adults.” See Amy’s other author site.

Amy Butler Greenfield on Amy Butler Greenfield: “Although I was born in Philadelphia, I did most of my growing up in the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York State. We lived in a small town where no one locked their doors, and everyone seemed to know my name. My family–my parents, my two brothers, and I–lived in a big old Victorian house heated mostly by woodstove, and we raised chickens in the barns out back. There was always plenty of work to be done, but when I’d finished with stacking wood, weeding the garden, feeding the hens, and any other chores, I had an enormous amount of freedom. In that town, at that time, it was safe for us kids to roam on our own. My friends and I climbed the mountains around us, swam in ice-cold lakes, and skated and skied through the long winter days.

“I also spent many afternoons reading my heart out in our local Carnegie library. In the summer I wrote plays, and my brothers and friends performed them in a theater we rigged up in one of the barns. I also wrote stories and poems, and I was a passionate diary-keeper. I’ve loved books and writing as long as I can remember.

“But if I had a writer’s imagination, I was also a rather practical soul, and writing didn’t seem like a good career option to me. Stories about starving writers scared me off. I’m quite fond of eating, so I figured I’d better look into careers where paying the grocery bill wouldn’t be such a challenge.

“Eventually I turned to something else I loved–history–and I decided to become a college teacher. But a few months after I started my Ph.D. dissertation, I suddenly became very ill with an autoimmune disease called lupus. For a while I was so ill that wasn’t clear whether I would survive, or whether I’d have much of a life if I did.

“I guess serious illness often leads people to revelation. At any rate, that’s what happened to me. When I got the diagnosis, I realized, to my surprise, that I had no real regrets about not having finished the dissertation. But what cut me to the quick was that I had never tried to write the kinds of books I truly loved–the novels and sweeping histories that I adored.

“My heart doesn’t always speak so clearly, but when it does I try to listen. Fortunately, I did survive that first terrible flare, and although I continue to struggle with the illness, I feel very lucky that writing is a big part of my life now.”

Could you tell us about your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Very few sprints, and many stumbles!

When I first got serious about writing, I was too ill to use a pen or to type, so my husband taught me how to use voice recognition software. Back then the software was pretty primitive. You had to dictate word by word, and sometimes even letter by letter, using the alpha-bravo alphabet. It amazes me now that I stuck with it–but slowly, one hard word at a time, I began to write my first book.

I wrote two books that way, and eventually I sent them out to a handful of editors and agents. They garnered some interest, but were ultimately rejected. I didn’t realize at the time that some of these counted as “good” rejections, with personal comments, and that I ought to feel encouraged. Instead, I wondered if those rejections were a sign that I should give up. But when it came right down to it, I couldn’t imagine not writing. Soon an idea for a new novel came to me, and I began writing Virginia Bound (Clarion, 2003)(excerpt), which became my first published book. (It’s published under my maiden name, Amy Butler, but the Library of Congress now files it under my full name–a bit of a cataloguing headache.)

You write for young readers and adults. What appeals to you about each audience? What are the challenges inherent in each?

I love writing for curious people of all ages. With young readers (and in the case of Virginia Bound, I’m talking about kids aged 9 to 13), you have the delight of introducing them to a new time and place, often for the very first time, but it can be a challenge to hold their attention. With adults, I have more freedom to follow a fascinating diversion and to write at greater length about an intriguing subject. I also don’t need to stop as often to ask myself whether a particular word or phrase is one that my audience is likely to understand.

That said, I don’t think there is anything quite like having a child become completely wrapped up in the world you created. Books have such a profound impact at that age–you can live, breathe, and dream them. The best ones become part of your character, part of your core, in a way they almost never do once you are grown up.

What was your initial inspiration for writing your latest book, A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire (HarperCollins, 2005)?

Oddly enough I came to it by way of chocolate (which I figure is a pretty good way to come to just about anything). In the 1990s, I was researching the early history of chocolate for a thesis I was doing at Oxford, and I traveled to Seville to investigate some ship registers in the Archive of the Indies, Spain’s immense treasure-house of documents concerning the Spanish-American empire. While I was in Seville, I kept stumbling across evidence of the Renaissance trade in Mexican cochineal, the most potent natural red dye on earth. Gradually I realized that tons of cochineal had crossed the Atlantic and poured into Seville, where the dark red dye was unloaded on the city docks.

I have a visual imagination, and I love color, so this fascinated me. It also amazed me that something so precious could have been forgotten by the modern world. I thought that someday I’d like to write a book about it.

A long while later, during a snowbound New England winter, the idea of that book came back to me. That year we were hit with snowstorm after snowstorm, until it felt as though the whole world had turned white. One day in the midst of that colorless season, I found myself staring at the red geraniums on my kitchen windowsill, and I thought, “What if that were it? What if that were all the red we had in the world?” And all at once I started to understand how hungry people could be for a color. I could even imagine why they might risk their lives for it. And that got me thinking about cochineal again.

As soon as the next storm passed, I started digging through research libraries for more details, to see if there might be a story there. And what a story it was! Four centuries of desire, rivalry, and empire, all centered on this potent red dye. Researching the story and finding a way to write it was a wonderful adventure.

Your first book, Virginia Bound (Clarion, 2003), is a historical young adult novel set in London and Virginia in 1627. Could you tell us more about that title?

Virginia Bound is the story of Rob Brackett, a 13-year-old orphan who is kidnapped from London in 1627 and shipped to Virginia, where the Jamestown Colony is hungry for more laborers. Rob is sold as an indentured servant to a harsh master named Holt, who expects him to labor day and night in the tobacco fields. Rob’s only companion is an Indian girl named Mattoume, also kidnapped and also forced to slave for Holt. Together they plot their escape, a desperate plan that puts their fragile friendship-and their lives-in grave danger.

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

When I was studying for my Ph. D. exams in 1994, I ran across a paragraph in an old history book that mentioned how “divers idle yonge people” had been taken off the streets of London and shipped to Virginia as indentured servants in the early 1600s.

I’d never heard of this before, but when I did more research, I discovered that it was true. Hundreds of English orphans, some of them as young as seven years old, were loaded onto ships and sent to Virginia against their will.

When I started writing fiction a few years later, the story still haunted me, and I realized that it would make a good starting point for a novel.

I wrote the first draft of Virginia Bound in 1999, then revised it several times before sending it out. An agent took me on in 2000, and the second editor who saw the manuscript asked me to revise the novel on spec in early 2001. I agreed with most of her suggestions and had some ideas of my own for improvement, so I did a very intense reworking of the book that winter, then sent the manuscript back to her at Clarion Books. She bought the revised version later that year. After that, I did another round of revision (and several passes for copyedits and proofs) before the book came out in 2003.

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

RESEARCH: Early Virginian records are sparse, so we don’t know much about what became of the orphans who were sent there. Were they homesick? Were they scared? What happened to them in Virginia? To imagine what the answers might be, I needed to find out everything I could about seventeenth-century London orphans and early colonial Virginia. I dug through research libraries, searching for court records, letters, explorers’ surveys-anything that would shed light on the time and place I was writing about. I was also lucky enough to have a friend working for Colonial Williamsburg, who sent me archaeological reports and a wonderful map of the James River coastline and settlements as they appeared in the early 1600s.

If colonial records from the period are scarce, sources about the Native history of the region are even harder to find, but I didn’t want to write about colonization without writing about the people whose land was invaded. I was largely housebound at the time, so I couldn’t travel to Virginia myself, but I read everything I could find by Native historians. I also stumbled into some great sources while reading a book by Michael Dorris, which recommended three wonderful books by Helen Rountree. She spent many years researching the history of the Powhatan people, and her books are packed with the kind of details that bring fiction alive.

LITERARY: When I first started writing, my biggest stumbling block was plot. ow does a writer make things happen? It was a mystery to me. Gradually I started to realize that conflict was the key. If the conflict is genuine, and the stakes are high, the plot can start to emerge directly out of the characters and their situation.

But even if you have the makings of a good plot, historical fiction has a tendency to drag. (And I say this as a huge fan of the genre.) The main problem, I find, is that we writers are tempted to pack in too many research details. (Often those details are very hard won, so it’s so hard to let go of them!) In Virginia Bound, I worked very hard to make the research serve the story, rather than the other way around, because I wanted to keep the momentum going. I was surprised and delighted when almost every reviewer praised the book as a page-turner. That was what I was aiming at, but while I was writing I wasn’t sure if I’d hit my mark.

PSYCHOLOGICAL: Writing about colonization is like holding a lightning rod in your hand. My book is set just after the time of Pocahontas, and my main character, Rob, arrives in Virginia at a time when relations between colonists and Native people are steadily deteriorating.

The history of what happened then is so bitter and so contested that there is no way to write about it in a way that satisfies everyone. At the time I was writing, feelings were running especially high, in part because of Disney’s “Pocahontas,” which had hit the screen a few years before. Like many other people, I was outraged that Disney had turned this woman’s powerful and disturbing story into a feel-good romance that had colonization as the happy ending.

In my own book, I wanted to be honest about what had really happened, and to do that I relied on the historical record. Documents from the time, as well as Powhatan historical tradition, clearly reveal both the devastation that colonization wreaked on the Powhatans and the strength and courage with which they resisted. Sources also show that not all colonists regarded the Powhatans as their enemies, and that some colonists, especially indentured servants, formed alliances with them.

What happened in Virginia in the 1620s was a complicated and crucial turning point in our history, and I wanted to illuminate the complexities and hopes and tragedies of the time in a way that young readers could understand. It was a challenging task. (I talk about some of the specific dilemmas on my website, .) Several times I nearly gave up on the book, but something kept calling me back. I felt I needed to try and do justice to Rob and Mattoume, and to the real people who had suffered and triumphed in early Virginia.

LOGISTICAL: I was still very sick when I wrote the early drafts, and I had to dictate most of what I wrote. Only later on, during revision, was I able to do much typing. For a long time, too, I was mostly housebound. Going to the library was both a treat and an enormous and exhausting undertaking. Simply pulling books off the shelf was a painful proposition. I look back and I’m amazed that I wrote the book at all.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Read widely, both to yourself and out loud, and try to figure out why certain stories appeal to you. Take them apart and learn how they work. Write, rewrite, and then rewrite some more. Most importantly, learn to know your own heart, and follow your deepest instincts. That’s where the stories you really need to write will come from, and they’ll be the stories that you, and you alone, can tell.

How about those building a career?

I am still trying to figure this one out myself. I’m very much a believer in doing what you love, and trusting that the money will follow. So far it has, but I know there’s no way to guarantee that it will in the future. I guess that career-wise, what I care about most is doing work that matters to me, work that allows me to share my passions with readers. It’d be wonderful to sell a million copies while I was at it, but that’s out of my control.

Obviously, you do a lot of research for your books. Do you love it or consider it a chore? Do you have any stories of research coups to share? Any tips for fellow researchers?

I adore research. In fact I am a research junkie-the kind of person who will read ten books or talk to ten people just to locate one shy but vital fact. Sometimes the chase is exasperating, but more often it exhilarates me.

My biggest tip would be to get as close to the horse’s mouth as you can. Original documents-diaries, letters, reports-can be a gold mine for fiction and nonfiction writers alike. How do you find them? What works for me to following up on footnotes, looking for books and bibliographies in university libraries and archives, and talking to librarians and other people who are likely to steer me in the right direction.

As a reader, what are your favorite recent children’s/YA books and why?

My favorite middle-grade read of 2006 is Rules by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic, 2006)(author interview), a funny, brave, and deeply poignant book about a girl whose brother has autism. The book tackles some of the toughest questions that life can hand us, and it does this beautifully, with great sensitivity and humor. I love the fact that it doesn’t offer easy answers.

I’m a big fan of Katherine Sturtevant‘s At the Sign of the Star (FSG, 2000), a book about Meg Moore, a bookseller’s daughter in seventeenth-century London who has writerly ambitions, as well as an impossible stepmother. The sequel, A True and Faithful Narrative (FSG, 2006), has just been published. Because it takes place when Meg is sixteen, it’s really a YA book, and it, too, is a delight. All the characters are true to their times, romance is in the air, and over the course of the story Meg discovers the full power of words and of her own writing.

As someone with a passion for seventeenth-century fiction (no doubt owing to my reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond [by Elizabeth George Speare (Laurel Leaf, 1978)(excerpt) at an impressionable age), I’ve also enjoyed Celia Rees‘s books, especially Witch Child (Candlewick, 2001)(excerpt).

Moving into modern times, I was bowled over by Mary E. Pearson‘s A Room on Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005)(author interview)(recommendation). The story is so immediate, every detail so acutely and vividly observed, that by the middle of the first chapter I felt almost as though I had become Zoe, and I couldn’t set the book down till I reached the very last page.

A. M. Jenkins’s newest novel, Beating Heart: A Ghost Story (HarperCollins, 2006)(excerpt), is another story that grabbed me immediately. It’s a ghost story that starts with the voice of the ghost herself, and it builds to a heart-pounding climax. As in all her books, Jenkins works magic with words here.

Nancy Werlin‘s Double Helix (Dial, 2004)(excerpt) was another book that I couldn’t put down, and I’ve just read an early copy of her newest book, The Rules of Survival (Dial, Fall 2006)(excerpt), which hit me even harder. As a young reader, I loved the brooding suspense, gripping plots, and emotional tension I found in Jane Eyre and other gothic novels, and if Werlin’s books had been around when I was a teen I would have loved them for exactly the same reasons. Her plots are intricate and cathartic, featuring strong characters in the grip of strong emotions, and I’ve yet to read one that didn’t at some point move me to tears.

What can your fans look forward to next?

More history and historical fiction, including another book for young readers! I wish I could say more, but I’m one of those writers who needs to keep very quiet about works in progress. Especially in the early stages, I seem to work best and most happily in secret.

Cynsational Notes

A Perfect Red won the PEN/Albrand Award for the best first nonfiction book of 2005. It was also a Washington Post Best Book of 2005 and a History Book Club Editor’s Pick, and it will soon be available in six languages.

A Perfect Red – the history of cochineal by Michael O’Connor from Three Monkeys Online.

Virginia Bound was selected as one of the Best Books of the Year by the Bank Street College of Education and was a finalist for the Julia Ward Howe Prize for best children’s fiction by a New England author.