Catherine Reef writes award-winning biographies for young people. On her website she says, “I have so many ideas for books that I want to write, and I get most excited by what’s next. This is because I truly love my work.” A perfect subject for How Did You Write That, wouldn’t you agree? Here’s what she had to say about her latest book, Frida & Diego:
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Frida & Diego?
Catherine: I like to write about creative people. I had written biographies of poets, novelists, and composers — of E. E. Cummings, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ernest Hemingway, Leonard Bernstein, and others — but I had never written about a visual artist. And after completing my books on Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, I wanted to move away from England and the nineteenth century, to enjoy a change of scene. I considering several subjects before settling on Frida Kahlo. She was such a colorful figure, in every sense of the word, and she was a pioneering self-portraitist.
As I delved into Kahlo’s story, though, I became equally intrigued by her husband. Diego Rivera was larger than life-again, in every sense. He, too, was a significant artist, one of the most important muralists of the twentieth century. I also saw how tightly intertwined their stories were and how tumultuous their marriage was. Their intense love drew them together, drove them apart, and brought them together again. It didn’t always make them happy. But here is what fascinated me, and what I admired most about the pair: however much each one hurt and disappointed the other in love, they remained true to each other as artists. Rivera appreciated Kahlo’s talent, encouraged her, and championed her work, and she did the same for him. This was the beautiful story I wanted to tell.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Catherine: I began this project as I begin every book, with lots of reading, searching, and thinking. I needed to get a sense of the shape of the story I would be telling, which in this case was a complex one, rather like a double helix, with two life stories joined and twisted together. I started mentally pairing pictures with unwritten text, because it helps me to have an image of the finished book in mind as I work, even though it is bound to evolve. I also thought hard about how to enter my story. Would I simply start at the beginning, or would I write a brief opening chapter that introduced my subjects at a key point in their story, thus giving my readers some background that would be helpful as they moved into the book? In this case I settled on the latter approach. My readers encounter the two artists on a fateful day in 1928 when a very young Kahlo asks the established artist Rivera to look at her early paintings. Although the book would move back in time to explore their lives before this moment, this was when their combined story began.
Once I had done this preliminary work, I wrote a sample chapter. I am a very organized thinker, but it is in my nature to balk against regimentation on paper or in life. So I prepared a loosely structured outline of the rest of the book. This chapter and outline, along with a detailed cover letter, constituted the proposal. My editor and I had discussed this project, so she knew the proposal was coming. The chapter and outline were helpful to both of us, as they gave us something concrete to work from.
HDYWT: How did you organize your research?
Catherine: I am not someone who can write anywhere, and this is because of the way I organize and use my research. If I wanted to get work done at a writers’ retreat or coffee shop, or even in my backyard, I would have to lug along my laptop, a stack of folders and papers, and another stack of books, minimum — and then hope I hadn’t forgotten anything!
I organize my research notes roughly chronologically, and I place them in folders according to the way I plan to break my story into chapters. In another folder I stash images I have come across in my research that I may want to track down later, when I start choosing illustrations. In my office, arrayed behind me, are books I will need to pick up for quick reference and fact checking as I work. And within reach are some old friends: my trusty thesaurus, a world atlas, and several well-worn dictionaries.
Does it all look organized? Maybe not, but my system works for me.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Catherine: On a day devoted to research you will likely find me in a library or archive, examining primary sources. Too many times I have discovered inaccuracies in secondary sources: authors who present as fact material they haven’t bothered to check, quotes that turn out to have been fabricated or altered substantially from the original — I could give you a host of examples. Also, seeking out original sources leads to exciting surprises, from details other researchers have overlooked to opportunities to correct the historical record, if only in a small way. I’m always on the lookout for unpublished images as well.
A day of writing (and most days are writing days) is a quiet day at home. I spend many hours at my desk, but my day is hardly free of interruptions: chats with my husband, walks with our dog, or laundry and other chores that need my attention. Despite the fact that daily life draws me away from it, the writing gets done.
I like to promote my work is by speaking to others about it at conferences and other events, or through interviews. I have long been a student of literature and prose style, and I enjoy speaking to readers and writers of all ages about my books and about the craft of nonfiction, especially biography; I have a great deal to offer. But, truthfully, I’m convinced that the best way to promote my work is to do it, to make each book the best it can be.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Catherine: I live within commuting distance of the Library of Congress, which is an invaluable resource. Two or three times a month I spend a day there looking at manuscripts, rare books, prints and photographs, films, newspapers and periodicals, and other materials I might not find elsewhere. While researching Frida & Diego, for example, I was able to locate in the library’s collection the Venezuelan newspaper that printed the eulogy delivered by Andrés Iduarte at Kahlo’s funeral, and to read it in its entirety. I tracked down as well articles from the Mexican press and obscure Latin American and European books that clarified or expanded on what I had learned elsewhere.
I honestly never know what I will encounter in the library’s collections: old photographs with notes penciled on their backs in Walt Whitman’s hand; A. Philip Randolph’s unpublished memoir of his early years; the rare first edition of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, which was printed in series form; a photo album that was snatched from Adolf Hitler’s bookshelves at the close of World War II; affectionate correspondence between Leonard Bernstein and his friend Aaron Copland. I can’t imagine how I could live anywhere else and do the work I do!
Bonus question: What are the differences between writing for adults and writing for young readers?
Catherine: We writers all think about our audience. We consider what our readers are likely to know, or not know; what will interest them; what questions they might ask us, if they could. Addressing these concerns as a writer for young readers means that I may devote more space, proportionally, to historical background or cultural context than I would if writing for adults. I cannot assume, for example, that my audience is familiar with such terms as surrealism and cubism; that they knew who Stalin and the Rockefellers were; or that they have read about the rise of communism in the early decades of the twentieth century.
The challenge then is to weave this information into the narrative so that it becomes part of the story I am telling. I consider children’s and young adult nonfiction to be an art form. A nonfiction book to me is a work of literary art, and a biography is a portrait in words. So the last thing I want is for the portrait I have been so carefully creating to fade while I digress for too many informational paragraphs.
My books are heavily illustrated with photographs and historical prints. Illustrations are helpful to young readers who may feel discouraged at the sight of too many pages of unbroken text. More significantly, though, illustrations enrich the story I am telling. Through carefully chosen images and their captions I can present aspects of history that go beyond the scope of the narrative, or I can reveal another side to a biographical subject.
In closing I will say that I feel fortunate to write for young readers. There is no more important audience for literature than our young people, and they deserve the best books we can give them. I do my best for them every single day.
P. S.: Catherine’s next book Noah Webster: Man of Many Words is coming in August 2015. Be on the lookout!