Author Interview: Jane Sutcliffe, Historian and Biographer

The White House is BurningToday’s guest is Jane Sutcliffe, the author of more than two dozen nonfiction books for young readers. Her titles range from picture books to middle-grade, with biographies profiling presidents, figures from entertainment, business, and sports, and more. Her most recent publications are The White House Is Burning (Charlesbridge, 2014), about one horrific day in the War of 1812, Stone Giant (Charlesbridge, 2013), about Michelangelo’s creation of David, and a biography of U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz (Chester Nimitz and the Sea, Pelican Publishing Co., 2013). Thanks, Jane, for sharing some wicked cool history stuff today!

What sparked your love of history and biography?

When I was in fifth grade I had a history textbook that I remember very clearly. It was an anthology of biographies of famous people, like Walt Disney and Marian Anderson. We got the book on the first day of school and we were supposed to cover it in the next ten months. By that night I had read every chapter. There was something about reading about all these fascinating people and about what they had done that I found irresistible. After that I think I read every biography in the local library. I can still picture the long low shelf where they were stacked. I was so thrilled when I had the opportunity to write my own biographies of Walt Disney and Marian Anderson many years later. It was a way of paying respect to those people whose lives had so influenced my own.

Tell us a little about your newest book, The White House Is Burning. What inspired you to delve into this sometimes-overlooked bit of history?

I think the overlooked bits are the most fascinating. History is full of amazing stories and I love shedding a little light on them.

Here is what happened. A few years after 9-11, I was watching a special on the anniversary of the tragedy. The announcer happened to compare that day to other tragedies in American history, like Pearl Harbor and the burning of the White House in 1814. It caught my attention. I knew from school history courses that the White House had been burned by the British, but hearing about it in that context made me realize that, for the people who lived through it, that event was as terrible for them as 9-11 was for us. I started doing a little reading and started turning up these amazing first-person accounts of what happened that day. And it was not just the burning. There was a battle, an invasion, a hurricane, a tornado, and an explosion—all packed into one 26 hour period. There was a trash-talking villain and a pretty heroine, a fool, and an unsung hero. Talk about wicked cool! How could I not write about it?

In The White House Is Burning, you intertwine first-person accounts from both the American and British points of view with the narrative, which gives the book a real “you are there” feeling. How important is it to you to feel as though you’re walking in the shoes of your subjects? How do you achieve that feeling?

Even though I get excited about history, I know that to some people reading about the past sounds about as exciting as day-old mashed potatoes. So I try to spice it up. One way is by letting real people tell the story in their own words. These were living breathing ordinary people who had witnessed something extraordinary, and felt compelled to write about what they had seen. So I let the reader experience the shock and grief of that day through their words.

I also challenged the reader to think of the events of August 24, 1814 as if they were happening in the present day. I wrote an introduction that asks: What if you turned on your TV today and saw breaking news of the White House in flames? It’s hard not to feel stunned and horrified when you see it happening right in front of you. Those are the same emotions the residents of Washington experienced two hundred years ago.

You’ve written about historical figures from Sacagawea to President Obama. Of all the persons you’ve written about, do you have any favorites? Why?

I am frequently asked this question when I do school visits. My standard answer is that it’s as hard to choose a favorite biography subject as it is to choose a favorite friend. But I’ll tell you a secret: I do have two favorites. They are John and Abigail Adams. John Adams kept a diary his entire life and wrote in detail about his experiences and observations. Abigail was a gifted letter writer, and she and her husband kept up a steady correspondence through a number of long absences. Their writings document two amazing lives and made it easier for me to understand who they were and what motivated them. It also made it easier for me to include some great quotes and anecdotes.

I’ve found that research can be very addictive, and it’s sometimes hard to know when to stop. How do you decide when to stop doing the research and start writing?

I couldn’t agree more. Research is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, too. You never know where you’re going to find that perfect little bit of information that’s going to make your book shine, so it’s tempting to want to look at just one more source, and then one more after that. Of course, it’s also a great way to put off writing and still feel like you’re accomplishing something. And it’s just so much fun! My rule of thumb—when I’ve consulted so many primary sources that I start to find errors in my secondary sources, it’s time to start writing.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?

Time. Always time. There is never enough time to write all the books I’d love to write. I’d spend every day writing if I could, but I don’t think my family would be very happy with me. So, like everyone else, I try to balance what I have to do with what I want to do. I do try to write something every day, though. I once heard writer and historian David McCullough compare his writing schedule to rolling a tire down the road. As long as you keep hitting it just a little, he said, the tire will keep rolling. It’s when you stop that the tire falls over. I try to keep my writing from falling over.

What are you working on now?

I’m so glad you asked. My next picture book, Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk will be released by Charlesbridge in March 2016. And I’m also working on a picture book biography of Edward Hitchcock, a scientist who researched dinosaur footprints before the word “dinosaur” was even coined. His theory was that these mysterious footprints had been made by giant extinct birds. His ideas came to be regarded as kind of loony. But as they discover more and more about the relationship between birds and dinosaurs, modern paleontologists are beginning to appreciate just how right he was, and I’m so excited to be able to tell his story!

Cool! Edward Hitchcock is from my neck of the woods, here in Western Massachusetts, where we have a treasure trove of dinosaur footprints along the Connecticut River Valley. That’s terrific that you’re working on his bio–I’m looking forward to reading it!

Thanks, Jane, for sharing!

Readers who want to find out more about Jane and her books can go to her website.

1 Comment

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One Response to Author Interview: Jane Sutcliffe, Historian and Biographer

  1. I’d never hear of Edward Hitchcock, but now I can’t wait to read about him!

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