Interview: Children’s Author Marianne J. Dyson

Marianne J. Dyson is a former NASA flight controller and the author of SPACE STATION SCIENCE: LIFE IN FREE FALL (Scholastic, 1999), which was named to Booklist’s Top 10 Youth Science Books list and selected as an Outstanding Trade Book by the National Science Teachers Association and the Children’s Book Council for 2000. It also was a 1999 Golden Kite Winner. This interview was conducted via email in April 2000.

What were you like as a child?

I grew up in Canton, Ohio. I was curious about everything and most likely to be found catching “crawdads in the crick” or launching handkerchief parachutes from the highest tree branch that would hold me. I guess I haven’t really changed very much!

What sorts of books did you enjoy as a girl? What books are your favorites today?

I mostly read two kinds of books in grade school: science fiction and spy books (I loved “The Man from UNCLE” and “Star Trek.”) My favorite author, and the one who influenced me the most, was Robert Heinlein. When I read, “Starman Jones” in fifth grade, I decided I would grow up to be an “astrogator.” My job at NASA came pretty close, though I would have preferred a starship console to one in Mission Control!

My favorite modern authors are Lois Bujold and Catherine Asaro who both write adventurous science fiction that keeps me guessing to the end. I read Science News every week, the newspaper every day, and squeeze in as much of Analog Science Fiction magazine as I can each month.

What inspired you to begin writing for children?

I wanted to share my love of space and science with everyone, young and old and in between. I still consider myself a writer for all ages, though I especially enjoy writing for middle grade students.

Could you tell us about your own path to publication?

When my boys were babies, my schedule was too crazy to support taking a regular class, so I signed up for the Children’s Institute of Literature’s magazine writing correspondence course. That led to my first professional sale, a nonfiction article on getting a job with NASA. I then joined some critique groups and went to my first science fiction convention where I learned that the signed rejection letter I had received was an invitation to send something else. Soon after that I sold my first poem, to Redbook, and my first two fiction stories, one to Child Life and one to Analog Science Fiction. As my aerospace consulting jobs diminished, I became editor of several space newsletters and an assignment writer for Odyssey magazine. I gradually made a career change from aerospace to writing.

Can you tell us a bit about the story behind SPACE STATION SCIENCE?

In the SCBWI Bulletin, there was a note that Scholastic was looking for writers with expertise in various subjects to write for an encyclopedia project. I sent a query including my experience with NASA as a flight controller, my degree in physics, and clips of my science articles and activities, many from Odyssey. Nancy Feresten called me two weeks later and asked that I send her an outline and sample chapter for a book on space station – one of the topics I had listed as being in my area of expertise. It took 6 months from my query to signing a contract.

How did you become interested in space?

Looking at the stars, reading science fiction, and watching Star Trek!

Do you think your work will center on this theme, or are there other areas you’re eager to explore as well?

Space exploration is my passion. Though I find all science fascinating, if I can talk my editors into it, all my books will have something to do with space!

What are the challenges of writing nonfiction? The rewards?

Coming from an environment where a typo in a checklist could endanger an astronaut’s life, I find the most difficult part of writing nonfiction is checking that every sentence and instruction is not only technically correct, but will not be misinterpreted by the readers. My most frustrating experiences as a writer have been with editors who would not provide galleys for me to check for these errors before rushing off to print. My most rewarding experiences have been interviewing my childhood heroes and learning new and fascinating things about the universe. Of course, having teachers at a conference line up to get copies of my book signed was about as rewarding as it gets!

What do you see as the current state of science-related nonfiction?

The market for science-related nonfiction is as large as the number of curious children out there. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many scientists who know how to write or are willing to write for the public, and especially not for children. Also, most writers are more interested in writing fiction than nonfiction, and the subset who write nonfiction are often intimidated by science. In my opinion, the combination of these factors has left huge gaps, and opportunities for writers, in the publishing of science news and information for children.

What inspired you to write about living in space as opposed to another space exploration theme?

Nothing inspires me more than the opportunity to live in space! I dream of viewing the stars from the Moon and building a cozy vacation home on this little spot in the Nirgal Vallis of Mars…

The book is beautifully designed with a wide variety of resources. What are your thoughts on the presentation. How did you decide what all to include?

The design and presentation were driven by the length (128 pages) and size (8.5 x 11) of the book which were determined through some mysterious financial marketing analysis process at Scholastic. Illustrator Dave Klug of course deserves an enormous amount of credit for bringing my stick figure diagrams to life! One chapter and several activities had to be cut from the final manuscript to make it fit. The history chapter was chosen because we felt the material was covered at least partially in other books, whereas the space station systems were not. The activities were cut more on the basis of which section they were in – we had to get the section openers on facing pages!

Your first book has generated much acclaim. How does this affect you as an author?

I’m hoping it will generate more offers to visit schools and libraries, so I can share my passion for space with more people! It also gives me hope that I can continue writing instead of getting a “day” job to pay for college for my children.

Can you share some of the responses from children to your writing? Adults?

My son tells me that children never notice or remember nonfiction authors, and although I’m still hoping he is wrong, I have yet to receive a fan letter or e-mail from a kid who has read my book. (I did get one student interview request, though!) I have received lots of responses from adults – most expressing surprise that a science book could be entertaining to read! Professional reviews have been terrific and are reprinted on my web site.

For you, what is the hardest part of being an author?

Marianne DysonThe hardest part of being a full-time author is living with the uncertainty of my next sale and the income it will provide. I have a deal with my husband that if I ever make more than he does in a year (we made the same salary before I left NASA), I can get a Persian kitten. I have a feeling that won’t happened until he retires!

What do you love about it?

I love setting my own hours — working until past midnight and sleeping in!

Where do you work now? How is the space conducive to productivity?

I have a corner of the upstairs set up as my office. Having it upstairs allows me to work when the rest of the family is home.

Do you have any future children’s books in the works? Can you tell us anything about them?

I went from outer space to cyberspace for my next book which is FINDING HOMEWORK HELP ON THE INTERNET. It will be out from Scholastic in August. My next book after that will be on a space topic, but until it is approved, I can’t say anything more. Then there’s this science fiction novel which I may some day have enough confidence in to send out!

What advice do you have for aspiring young authors (children and teens)?

I would advise young authors to seek out and take advantage of opportunities to serve in their communities, talk with all kinds of people about their lives and loves and beliefs, travel, and read books and magazines that stimulate dreams and conversations.

How about for grown-ups seeking to break into publishing?

I advise people to write about subjects that excite and intrigue them and first approach markets that publish what they most enjoy reading. I also strongly urge new writers to attend conventions in their subject area (to make the contacts useful for interviews and themes) as well as in their writing area (to meet editors and other authors) and to join professional writers organizations such as SCBWI and SFWA. I also urge writers not to give their work away. If it was worth writing, it is worth being paid for! If it is not worth being paid for, then it needs polishing until it is!

Is there anything you would like to add?

Ad Astra! (to the stars)