Author Interview: Carla Killough McClafferty on Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium

Carla Killough McClafferty, award-winning author of nonfiction middle grade books, is not one of those people who always knew they wanted to be a writer. She backed into the field from a background in science. She has two books out with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, The Head Bone’s Connected to the Neck Bone: The Weird, Wacky and Wonderful X-ray (2001) and Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie & Radium (2006). Her third book with FSG will be released in September 2008 titled In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry. Also, she is widely published in magazines including Cricket, ASK, Clubhouse, and The Upper Room. Carla is the regional advisor for SCBWI Arkansas.

What were you like as a young reader?

I have always loved books. One of my earliest memories is my mother bribing me with a Golden Book.

When I was small, I made a habit of going to sleep in my parent’s bed every night. I’d go to bed when my Mama went to bed, then my Daddy would have to carry my sleeping form to my own bed before he turned in. E

ventually the time came when they tried to convince me that I should start out the night in my own bed. I disapproved of this plan since I liked things just as they were. It was only when my mother promised me that if I went to bed by myself that she would buy me a couple of a Golden Books. The lofty goal of having the rare privilege to get books of my own did the trick. From that point on, I started out the night in my own bed.

For most of my growing up years, the small town where I grew up did not yet have a public library. So when I was about twelve, I started borrowing books from my neighbor. I read books by Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney. Then in my teen years, I read countless paperback romances. Today when I go on vacation, for something fun to read, I’ll take along a paperback romance.

Why did you decide to commit to creating youth literature?

My first book was a nonfiction Christian Inspirational. After that, I wanted to write something totally different. I took the writer’s adage to “write what you know” to heart.

Since I am a Radiologic Technologist and knew the world of X-rays, I thought it would be a great topic for a nonfiction book for young readers. That resulted in The Head Bone’s Connected to the Neck Bone: The Weird, Wacky and Wonderful X-ray. The second book, Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium, came out of the first book. Next, I chose to set aside the world of science to write about refugees in France during World War II for a book titled In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry.

What education prepared you for your career today?

I do not have the traditional background of a degree in English or journalism, I come to writing with a science background. Honestly, the only thing that prepared me for a career in children’s books is the fact that I’ve been a voracious reader all of my life. I believe that if an editor loves your work, they couldn’t care less about your background.

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

My first book came about as a result of personal tragedy in my life. When my youngest son, Corey, was fourteen months old, he fell off of the swing in our back yard. He died from a head injury as a result of that very minor fall. I was devastated.

It caused a crisis of faith in my life as I experienced a difficult Spiritual battle. Ultimately, God brought me through the anger, doubt and bitterness and back to a place of peace with my God and my life. I knew that God was leading me to write about my experience, but I absolutely refused to do it for about two years.

Finally, I knew this was a book I had to write. But I didn’t know how. I didn’t know anything about writing, or publishing, or even where to start. But I’ve learned that when God tells me to do something, He shows me the way to accomplish it. So, I wrote the book. It was the first thing I had ever written (with the exception of a really bad poem in the third grade). It was published under the title of Forgiving God.

After this book, I wanted to continue writing. It was at that point that I started writing nonfiction middle grade books. I’ve been writing middle grade nonfiction ever since.

Congratulations on the success of Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium (FSG, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The book has been well received and has gotten some nice recognition including being chosen as the 2007 IRA Children’s Book Award Winner in the intermediate nonfiction category, also it was a 2007 NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor Book.

Originally I had Marie Curie as a chapter in my first book, The Head Bone’s Connected to the Neck Bone: The Weird, Wacky and Wonderful X-ray because of Curie’s work with mobile X-ray units in World War I. However, at the very end of the editing process, one of the copy editors at FSG suggested that I take out the chapter on Marie Curie. Even though I focused on Curie’s work with X-rays, of course, I had to explain that she and her husband discovered radium, which is why she is famous. The copy editor felt that it didn’t fit in with the rest of the book because radioactivity is very different from traditional X-rays. They left it up to me, I could either take it out or leave it and they would back me up either way.

At first, I was angry about her suggestion because the book was finished. But after I cooled off a couple of days and really thought it over, I understood her point. I told FSG that I would take Marie Curie out of that book, if they let me write a book about Marie Curie. And they did! I signed a contract with them for this book before I wrote it. This is very unusual because Head Bone did not yet have a sales record or even any reviews. So, with a signed contract in hand for a book about Marie Curie, I began the research which became Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium.

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

Something Out of Nothing took five years. I signed the contract in 2001. The book came out in 2006. I researched for a year, then wrote for a year, and it generally takes a year to edit and go through the production process. That makes three years. The other two years was spent waiting for my editor.

Another facet of this particular book is that it contains a lot of science, therefore the editing was complicated. Many bemoan the fact that there is less editing than in the years past. This is not true at FSG, they edit ferociously and expertly. I’m blessed to be the recipient of great editing.

What were the challenges (literary, artistic, research, and/or logistical) in bringing the story to life? How did you decide to address each?

The biggest challenge for me was that it took place during another year of personal tragedy. At the same time I started the research, my mother was diagnosed with liver cancer. The year was filled with doctors, chemotherapy, and hospitals.

My bag of research went with me everywhere I went. I would work while waiting for her in the therapy waiting room, or at her hospital bedside through many long nights when I couldn’t sleep. The research was a way to get my mind off of what was happening to my mother for a little while. My beloved mother passed away about a year after her diagnosis, at the same time that I was finishing the research for the book.

After her death, I started writing the manuscript. In many ways, I see that my experiences influenced the book. When writing about the sorrows of Marie Curie’s life, I felt her grief. Perhaps I better understood how tragedy may have affected her life. I hope that it made Marie Curie real to my readers.

If you could go back to visit yourself when you were a beginner, what advice would you offer?

Because I do a lot of research, I’d offer advice on how to do it more effectively. I learned how to research and then to organize that research the hard way, by trial and error–lots of error. Each nonfiction author must find a system that works for them.

What advice do you have for those writing non-fiction?

You must chose to write about a topic you are genuinely interested in. You must think about it for too long to choose something you don’t like. Also, you need to read great nonfiction books by other authors. You can learn a lot by studying how another author puts their story together. I believe nonfiction is better today than ever before.

Are you an active member of a local youth writing community? If so, could you tell us about it?

There isn’t any sort of organized youth writing community here. However, I’ve read the manuscript of a teenage writer I know personally. I’ve tried to encourage her and give her some pointers.

I’m also the SCBWI regional advisor in Arkansas, which means I have the privilege of pointing many beginning writers in the right direction.

Do you have a critique group? If not, who are your early readers?

Yes, I have a critique group which includes my friend, well-known author Darcy Pattison (author interview). My critique group is helpful to me in many ways including the social aspect of sharing with others who know what the writing life is like. Every writer should have some sort of critique group.

Do you offer speaking programs for schools, writing groups, etc.? Could you fill us in?

Yes, I love to speak to any sort of group. As a matter of fact, I would very much like to expand my speaking schedule. I’m a speaker at both the local and national level. I’ve done presentations at the annual SCBWI conference in LA, at the national NCTE conference, and nonfiction writing workshops. I enjoy speaking to writers, teacher groups, and students.

When speaking to students, I usually close with a slide show of X-rays of all sorts of interesting things such as broken arms, Barbie dolls, monkeys, cantaloupes and chocolate chip cookies. It is always a big hit because I encourage them to holler out what they think each object is. They love it.

How do you balance your writing life with the responsibilities (promotion, submissions) of being an author?

Sooner or later every author finds out that having a career in publishing is not only about the writing. It also includes marketing yourself as an author and speaker. I’ve found that I could spend all my time marketing, but if I do, I’ll soon run out of books to market. For me, I try to do as much marketing as seems reasonable for my books. And for me it goes in spurts. I’ll do a lot of marketing, then I’ll stop for a while. Like everything in life, there must be a balance.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I’m active in my church where I have several different commitments including teaching a women’s class. I love to prepare lessons, and I love to teach. Which I find uses many of the same skills as writing nonfiction for young readers.

I spend as much time as possible with my family. My two wonderful children are in their busy twenties, which means that anytime they are available, my husband and I make ourselves available for them. I also spend as much time as possible with my two sisters and their families.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m very excited about my next book that will be released in September 2008 by FSG. The title is In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry. It is about a Harvard educated American journalist who went to Marseilles, France, in 1940, where he helped more than 2000 Jews out of Europe before the Nazis could get them.

Varian Fry is basically the “American Schindler.” He was the first American to be named at the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as Righteous Among the Nations. This powerful, true story has never been told to young readers before. I’m thrilled to be the one to bring it to life for a new generation of Americans.