By Bree Bender
Award-winning author Martha Brockenbrough has written more than a dozen books for children and teens. Her work covers a wide range of topics from biographies to masterful fairytale retellings, nonfiction to fiction. Her work is insightful, thought-provoking, and industry changing. I had the incredible opportunity to chat with her about books, writing, and the life of being an author. Welcome, Martha!
What is your favorite part about writing nonfiction? What’s the most challenging part?
Oh, how I love nonfiction. The world is an infinite source of wonder and we are all intimately connected, not only as human beings but as one type of animal in a world humming with life. There is so much joy for me in learning these things and understanding a tiny bit more about the vast web of life. To learn that and be able to share that joy and wonder is a thrill. (And some of my forthcoming books lean very hard into wonder.)
The most challenging part depends on the book. On some subjects, there isn’t enough information. Or you can’t find what you need to fill in important blanks. For some subjects, there is so much information that narrowing what you’ll use is extremely difficult. I do like the challenges, though. The book and its readers depend on me, and I really like delivering for them.
A follow-up question to the above, how do you choose which nonfiction titles to pursue?
There’s the intersection of what I’m interested in, what’s missing in the marketplace, and what I can do in a way that feels suited to me. Sometimes one book will lead into the next. Unpresidented, A Biography of Donald Trump (MacMillan, 2018) came directly out of Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary (MacMillan, 2017). Trump was the demagogue Hamilton feared, and I wanted to see how and why it happened—and what it would mean to this nation. Hamilton was right (as was so often the case).
You recently co-wrote a nonfiction picture book with Grace Lin called I Am an American: The Wong Kim Ark Story (Little Brown, 2021). Can you talk about what drew you to this story and the process of co-writing with Lin?
Seattle is a vibrant city for authors, and I was at a book launch for A Chinaman’s Chance (PubilicAffairs Books, 2014), a memoir about my friend Eric Liu and his family and their experience as immigrants to and emigrants from the United States. In his talk, he mentioned Wong Kim Ark, to whom we owe our birthright citizenship. I’d never heard of him. When I looked to see if there were any children’s books, I didn’t find any. I read a whole bunch of books about the Chinese immigrant experience and was deeply drawn to the stories, which are threaded with resourcefulness, grit, and community. But I didn’t want to write it all on my own because I am not Chinese and don’t have the necessary lived experience.
I happened to be seated next to Grace on a book festival van ride and I mentioned the story to her. She’d never heard of Wong Kim Ark. I offered the idea to her, but she said she’d rather write it together because she hadn’t done research like this before. And so we did, and my wish to avoid writing this by myself turns out to be a sound one. The whole heart of the book—I am an American—is all Grace.
This is a book about the right of a brown-skinned young man to assert his belonging in a white supremacist nation, and that’s definitely not what I first thought it was about. I thought it was about calling a place home. There’s a difference between the two, and Grace’s understanding, informed by her life, is the right one. It goes to show that you can know all of the facts and still not grasp the heart. This is why white people like me should take great care with the representation of marginalized identities.
What advice would you give to writers looking to tackle a nonfiction project?
Research. At every step. What has been written on this subject so far and for whom? If it has been covered before, what’s missing? Build a model in your head of the subject. If it’s narrative, build a timeline and make note of other things happening in the world at the same time. If it’s not narrative, reduce it to smaller subtopics that you can understand deeply. Keep track of where you found everything. Your future self-will thank you.
When researching a nonfiction projects, what are the most important things for a writer to remember?
Primary sources are great but they can have bias. You want to understand everything about your subject, but that’s largely so that you know what’s vital for readers to understand. Don’t forget to build a full picture. A person isn’t just their timeline. They are a body affected by weather. A mind and heart affected by news and popular culture. Consider human beings through many lenses that you can support with references (photos, weather reports, video clips, etc.).
If and when you’re talking with a real human being, respect their time. Don’t ask anything they’ve answered for other people. Do your basic research so that you can ask interesting and insightful questions. Always when you can get a story about something, whether that’s a scientific discovery or a natural process or leader of some sort.
Your latest novel, Into the Bloodred Woods (Scholastic, 2021), is a different take on the fairy tale genre. What advice would you give to writers looking to shake up the traditional fairy tale?
I am proud of the book, which is exactly what I set out to write—something that wove a number of fairytales together, subverting them, so that I could say something about the nature of stories we’ve been told and archetypes that we’ve come to believe in. Sometimes it’s good to question all of that so you can really get beneath power structures so ingrained we don’t even realize they’re there.
I love fairytale retellings and don’t think they all need to shake things up, although that can be fun and invigorating if that aligns with your vision as an artist. The best advice I can give is for a writer to find a fairytale or two that really resonated when you were younger. To understand what you internalized from that narrative and how it has influenced your beliefs about who you are and what is possible for you. And then to see whether that’s a belief you want to discard or amplify. That’s a good story for you to tell.
If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?
Have faith that reading a lot, studying books you love, and being willing to revise relentlessly will grant you the books you always hoped to write.
What are you working on next?
I just finished line edits on a middle grade mystery set on the Washington Coast. I’ve also got a couple of nonfiction picture books on the horizon, a chapter book series launching in April, a big nonfiction book due in a few months about a topic I’ll share later, and an idea for a new YA novel that’s ready to burst out of my heart. Deadlines first, though!
Martha Brockenbrough is the author of two books for adults and numerous books for young readers (with several others on the way), including YA fiction and nonfiction, picture books, and a forthcoming chapter book series. A faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts, she’s also the founder of National Grammar Day (every March 4), and she’s written game questions for Cranium and Trivial Pursuit.
The former editor of MSN.com, Martha has interviewed lots of celebrities, including the Jonas Brothers and Slash. Her work has been published in a variety of places, including The New York Times. She also wrote an educational humor column for the online encyclopedia Encarta for nine years. She lives in Seattle with her family.
Bree Bender is a life-long Oregonian who holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the Oregon Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators 2020 Scholarship prize for the Middle Grade and Young Adult novel category. When she’s not writing, you can find her on Instagram @BreeBenderWrites or on Twitter @BreeRBender.