Describe your creative process?
I wake up, read the paper, hang out with my dog Coda, practice guitar and then go upstairs to my office and write until lunch. I am most creative in the morning.
What do you think draws readers to your work?
The chance to learn through stories. For example, I interviewed Claudette Colvin extensively so that my book about her would offer more than just the information that there was a bus protestor before Rosa Parks. It also conveyed how it felt to try to make changes in a racially divided city. With DUET I read somewhere that scientists had proved through experiments that mockingbirds could identify individual humans one from another. This was a terrifically important finding, but a pretty dry story. So I found and interviewed Cristine Stracey, a scientist whose work was central to the project. She turned out to be both a fine biologist and a good storyteller. And she sharpened the story a good bit!
Outside of writing, what do you like to do?
I love to learn about birds. I spend a lot of time behind binoculars. I practice guitar and harmonica. I love to hike. I travel a lot.
How did you initially get into writing?
I was encouraged by my high school English teacher, Grace Hine. “Do you think I’ll be a writer?" I once asked her. “Only if you need to,” she said. I guess I needed to.
What is a cause you care about?
So many causes. I support groups that use books—children’s literature—to welcome immigrant children. I support groups that protect plants, animals and ecosystems. I support Planned Parenthood.
Who are some authors who have inspired you?
Tom Wolfe, Munro Leaf, John R. Tunis, Harper Lee, Rachel Carson
Do you have advice for future and aspiring authors?
Write a lot, and show your work to others. Join or start a writer’s club at school. It’s scary to share your writing, but that’s the way to get better.
What does your working space look like? What do you need in order to be productive?
My office walls are lined with bookshelves overflowing with books and papers. A yellow paper-mache dragon is suspended over my head. Posters of my books are pinned to the walls. I can see a sliver of the ocean through my window.
Talk to us about music. What are your favorite songs for writing? How do you switch it up? Do you have a theme song for yourself as a writing professional?
I am like a mockingbird. I write songs, and learn to play by other musicians. In the late afternoon my wife and I sing harmonies to songs we call up on Alexa. We agree with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “without music life would be a mistake.”
How did the idea for this new book come to you?
A magazine editor hired me to write a piece about mockingbirds. I had always loved their song but didn’t really know much about them. After the article was published I wrote a proposal for a book about mockers. The research was fascinating. I was totally surprised by the power of their connection with humans. Now that I’m tuned into mockingbirds I hear them just about everywhere I go.
What was your biggest challenge in writing this book?
Waiting for the book to be published. I wanted to share this story with everyone the instant I was finished writing.
What about the Mockingbird do you find most interesting or inspiring?
Trying to interpret the components of the mockingbird’s song. The song is like a quilt stitched together with song fragments. I know the songs of many birds, and I’m always asking myself, “was that a chipping sparrow?” or “that one was a cardinal’s song, wasn’t it?” The song is fascinating.
What are your favorite facts and quotes from the book?
“I think of the mockingbird as our native jazz musician…No other area of the world, as far as I know, has a bird so devoted to improvisation.” --Earl Vickers
What has it been like working with Dunham Literary?
Exciting. We move at a rapid clip and exchange ideas liberally. And we get results!