Author Interview: Don Mitchell on Liftoff: A Photobiography of John Glenn

Don Mitchell’s first book for young people is Liftoff: A Photobiography of John Glenn (National Geographic, 2006).

Don Mitchell on Don Mitchell: “I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and raised in Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, and California. My father’s career in marketing and sales in the automotive aftermarket kept our family moving around the country. I graduated from Georgetown University‘s School of Foreign Service and received a Master’s Degree in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I have worked for more than 22 years in the federal government, serving in the U.S. Senate as well as in the White House on the staff of the National Security Council. I live in Arlington, Virginia with my wife Grace, and our children Logan Adlai (age 4) and Ella Ruth (age 2).”

What about the writing life first called to you?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to read. I’ve also always loved to write and thought that being a writer would be a great career. After having written for others over the years, I thought it would be gratifying to write for publication under my own name.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

Books had a great impact on me as a child, not just as part of my education, but also as a source of entertainment as well as inspiration. I’ve always enjoyed browsing at book stores, and often find myself drawn to the children’s book section. Examining the latest children’s books brings back happy memories of the books I read as a young person.

As I became increasingly motivated over the last several years to write for publication, I thought more about writing for young readers. After my son was born, my wife and I became immersed in children’s literature, checking out many books from the local library and purchasing a fair number of books as well. We both enjoy reading to our children, and more importantly, they enjoy it. Writing for young people just evolved into a natural goal. To know that something you have written for a young person has the potential of making a positive impact on them at such a formative time in their life is an exciting idea to me.

Congratulations on the publication of Liftoff: A Photobiography of John Glenn (National Geographic, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Thanks. Like many others, I was an avid reader when I was growing up of the National Geographic magazine, and other publications from the National Geographic Society. Several years ago, when I was making an effort to write for publication, I came across National Geographic’s impressive photobiography series for young people. I had worked for John Glenn in his Washington, D.C. office for the final 15 years of his 24 years in the U.S. Senate, and I thought he would be a logical subject to propose adding to the series.

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

The books in the National Geographic photobiography series for young people follow a standard format. I drafted about 10 pages of a manuscript on John Glenn following that format and sent it off to National Geographic in August 2002. After several months, I heard back that it just wasn’t what they were looking for at that time. While I was disappointed in that response, which I assume is fairly common in the publishing business, I sent the manuscript to other publishing firms. While I received some encouraging comments, I was unable to find anyone interested in publishing the book I was proposing.

Then, out of the blue, on February 15, 2005 (not that I remember any details, mind you), I came home from work to find both a phone message and an e-mail message waiting for me from National Geographic editor Suzanne Patrick Fonda. She stated that, if I hadn’t sold the manuscript to another publisher and was still interested in publishing the work, National Geographic “would like to move forward with it at a rather rapid pace!” After carefully considering the matter for a nanosecond, I enthusiastically accepted the offer.

I really enjoyed working with the team of people who were involved in producing the book, and I was fortunate to have such a great experience as a first-time author at National Geographic. I live close to National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., so I was able to participate in some of the meetings where decisions were made about layout and the choice of images to be included in the book. I was grateful that my views were welcome and that I was given the opportunity to provide input into the process, even in areas outside my lane. It was a great learning experience and a lot of fun.

There was a professional and collegial atmosphere at National Geographic and I always felt that everyone on the project team was pulling in the same direction: Nancy Laties Feresten, Vice President, and Editor-in-Chief of Children’s Books; Marty Ittner, who designed the book; Janet Dustin, Illustrations Editor; Art Director David Seager; and Lori Epstein, to name just a few.

I was particularly fortunate to have Suzanne Patrick Fonda as the Project Editor for my book. Suzanne is a meticulous editor with a fine eye for detail. Always polite, responsive and patient with a rookie writer, her suggestions on the text invariably made it better. What more could you ask for?

Writing on evenings and weekends–and fortunate to have an extremely supportive and understanding spouse, I delivered the completed draft in several months. Then, it was a series of rewrites leading to the book being completed in early December 2005. I had a copy of the book in my hands in early 2006, and the book was released on September 12, 2006.

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

While I did a lot of research for this book, I was fortunate in not having to worry about the primary challenge for a biographer–getting to know the subject. Having worked for John Glenn for 15 years in the U.S. Senate, I had a great vantage point for observing who he is as a person and what he stands for. I’m quite comfortable with my interpretation of John Glenn’s life as embodied in this book. And my experience and observations are integrated throughout the book.

For example, when the shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff in January 1986 killing all seven astronauts on board, President Reagan asked Senator Glenn to attend the memorial service for the astronauts in Houston, Texas, and help comfort their families.

When he returned from Houston, Senator Glenn summoned all of us on his staff to his office to share his impressions of the service. He talked about how sad it was to comfort the grieving family members, and how dangerous it can be serving your nation. And he recalled how difficult it was to talk to his own children before his flight in Friendship 7 and prepare them for the possibility that he might not survive the mission.

When he described the “missing man” aerial formation of jet fighters at the memorial service, which is performed as a tribute to those who die in service to the nation, Senator Glenn got emotional–something I had never witnessed before or since.

He looked at the staff and counseled us: “If you ever have an opportunity to do something bigger than yourself, seize the opportunity.”

Some time after that, a friend and Glenn staff colleague made the decision to donate his kidney to his brother to save his brother’s life. Senator Glenn’s admonishment was on his mind as he made that decision. That inspirational call to duty and service was a theme throughout the book as it’s been throughout John Glenn’s life.

In another example, years ago I had watched an old re-run on television of Jimmy Stewart starring as aviator Charles Lindbergh in the film “The Spirit of St. Louis.” I asked Senator Glenn the next day in the office if he’d ever met Lindbergh. To my surprise, not only had he met Charles Lindbergh as a young Marine pilot, but Senator Glenn flew several combat missions with Lindbergh in the Pacific theater of operations during World War II. That anecdote found its way into the book as well.

Senator Glenn was also quite generous in taking the time from his hectic schedule (he turned 85 years old this year) to not only write the Foreword to the book, but also to help me clarify the facts of his life story.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

As a beginning children’s author who has just recently had my first book published, my advice should be taken with a grain of salt. But I think, first and foremost, it’s essential to read good writing. And it’s important to read as widely as you can, particularly in the area you’d like to write about (e.g., history, biography, fantasy, science fiction, nature).

As a general proposition, I don’t think you can do better than to read the works of E.B. White–and not just his classic work, The Elements of Style (with William Strunk, Jr.), and his classics for children: Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan. His essays and correspondence are true gems–witty, insightful, and beautifully written (e.g., “One Man’s Meat,” “The Second Tree from the Corner,” “Poems and Sketches of E.B. White,” and “Letters of E.B. White”). E.B. White sets a high standard for writing worth emulating.

Second, make a commitment to writing and get in the habit of writing–and rewriting–as regularly as you can. You’re always likely to do better at something the more you practice.

How about those authors building a career?

In addition to the above suggestions, if you aspire to write for young people, I think it’s essential to become a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI). I’ve found it to be an invaluable source of information about children’s literature and the publishing world. Participate in your regional chapter’s activities. Also, visit the websites of children’s authors and websites devoted to literature for young people, like Cynsations, for useful advice on the writing life and inspiration. If you want a career as a writer, work diligently to produce the kind of writing that you value reading. And don’t give up in the face of the inevitable rejections from agents and publishers. Persistence is the key to success in any endeavor.

What about biographers and/or those interested in creative non-fiction specifically?

As someone who loves history, I’ve always enjoyed reading biographies of historical figures, which to me have always made history come alive. It’s interesting to see how prominent individuals shaped, and were shaped by, their times. Biographies geared to adult readers are often voluminous. But the best biographies are more than just an endless recitation of chronological facts; they’re an interpretation of that life– what made that individual distinctive, and what motivated them to accomplish what they did in life.

Writing biographies for young people poses an additional challenge. The writer must present the subject’s life as fully and fairly as possible, but must usually do so within fairly constrained word limitations. You have to be able to choose from a wide array of facts about the subject’s life and select the most important information to convey the essence of the person’s life. Being able to compress this data into a compelling narrative takes practice. Again, reading great biographies is helpful preparation for writing biographies. And read biographies geared for young people by wonderful writers like Russell Freedman.

I’m an avid reader of obituaries, which distill the essence of a person’s life into a relatively few paragraphs. They’re a great way to learn the biographer’s art of compression. I think the best obituaries are published in The Times of London, which you can read online.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I’m fortunate to live in the Washington, D.C. area which offers so many family-friendly activities, many of them free. I like to spend time with my wife and children, exploring new places, taking long walks, visiting museums, the zoo, and local parks, and reading as much as I can.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I am currently working on a photobiography of Henry Ford for National Geographic, which is scheduled for release in the Fall of 2007.

Cynsational Notes

Liftoff: A Photobiography of John Glenn by Don Mitchell, foreward by John Glenn (National Geographic, 2006). From the promotional copy: “War hero, test pilot, American astronaut, and U.S. Senator–for John Glenn, serving his country has always been a joyous adventure. This superbly illustrated book follows the life trajectory of a very focused, highly competitive man, driven by a sense of duty to his country and an innate sense of obligation towards others. Readers will find themselves inspired to ‘liftoff’ to new heights of achievement.”

“It’s almost difficult to read in this day and age when messages are of fear, instead of hope and progress. Nonetheless, it’s a powerful message that will resonate with some young readers. Don Mitchell’s text is both straightforward and inspiring.” — The Edge of the Forest, A Children’s Literature Monthly, September 2006.

Read a Cynsations interview with Editor Nancy Feresten of National Geographic.