Tuesday, January 8, 2013

An Interview with Author Louise Borden

I first learned about Louise Borden's thought-provoking, poetic, and well-written books when I was an undergraduate student at Illinois State University. I vividly remember walking over to the Normal Public Library to check out every Borden book in their collection. 

You can imagine my excitement when Louise agreed to an interview about her latest nonfiction title, His Name Was Raoul WallenbergThank you, Louise! 

Mr. Schu: You always select fascinating people to write about: Abraham Lincoln, H.A. and Margret Rey, Wilbur and Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, Bessie Coleman, and, most recently, Raoul Wallenberg. What draws you to a particular person and makes you want to tell his or her story? 

Louise Borden: In my nonfiction books, I write about people who have made a difference in the world and who inspire me in a deep way. I want to share their life stories with young readers and in doing that, show the lives of ordinary people who overcame obstacles and who sometimes had to stand alone in difficult times to pursue their dreams or to help others. Among those you have named in your question, four are pilots who embarked on their various paths as aviation pioneers.  My dad was an officer in the Army Air Corps during WWII, and served in a weather reconnaissance squadron in the Pacific.  Twenty years after the war, he owned a small Cessna, and my two sisters and I often flew with him. Ergo my interest in writing about pilots. 

John Harrison (from SEA CLOCKS) lived during the 18th century but his determination, and his belief in himself and in his amazing clocks that changed the world, continue to inspire me as I work alone at my desk, trying to find the right words and the right voice to tell a good story.

In my fictional books, I create characters from my imagination - but they too, must inspire me. Teachers or students in schools, or ordinary kids in wartime. These heroes in my stories are at the emotional heart of my writing. 

Imagine our world without Wilbur and Orville. . . or A. Lincoln. . . or Curious George.   If I say to myself, WOW. . . .what courage!  Or WOW, that is amazing!  it's usually the signal that I will someday find a way to write about that person.

Mr. Schu: What would you like anyone booktalking His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg to mention? 

Louise Borden: I believe that one person can make a difference in the world. Kids are often told this in various ways - by their parents or teachers. I wanted to contribute to that conversation by writing about Raoul, who is unknown to many Americans. His actions and his moral compass can shine a light on the unknown roads ahead of all of us. There are very few books written about RW for children. I felt that my style of line breaks and white space would help readers navigate the terrain of unfamiliar geography and historical events. 

What if RW had never gone to Budapest in July, 1944? 

How would the story of Budapest's Jewish families have played out?

Did his years as a student in America help to shape Raoul's outlook on life?

Did his travels have an impact on his world view?

I tried to include interesting details to draw kids in. . .Raoul's childhood, his schooling, his travels, etc.

When I was writing the book, I was never really thinking about the booktalking that would occur after RW was published. But your question, John, has led me to new thinking. Many terrific questions can arise in discussing the book with students.

And of course, writing about the mystery of Raoul's disappearance was very difficult. I was so immersed for years in the research and then the writing.  It took me almost two years to complete the text (after the research).  When I was almost finished with the text, I returned to Stockholm, and shared the manuscript with Nina and Gunnar.  "I'm almost there. . .but I still need to write the two ending chapters," I said, and Gunnar looked at me and smiled and  replied, "You have the hardest part of the book still ahead of you. . . "  Wise words from this wonderful friend. The ending was indeed the hardest to write. 

I hated to let go of 2012 in a way because it was the Centennial Year of RW's birth.

Mr. Schu: I rejoice when I get to the end of a top-notch nonfiction book and find useful backmatter. Thank you for including an author’s note, more about Raoul Wallenberg’s life story, photographs of you meeting with Nina and Gunnar Lagergren, a bibliography, archive sources, acknowledgements, and photo credits. Why do you think it is important for authors of nonfiction to include backmatter? 

Louise Borden: As a long ago history major in college, I always find that as the reader, I have questions at the end of some books, and often these answers can be given by the author in additional ways. I included more of John Harrison's life story (SEA CLOCKS) in back matter, and that seemed to work well, so I followed a similar path in writing the Wallenberg book.  Sometimes I've included a bibliography and other times not in various books. Each book has its own special life, yes?  Its own biography!  

Originally this book was to have been illustrated with art, and then we were going to include a timeline at the end of the book with tiny photos.   It turned out that my editors and I changed the focus and included the photos and documents within the body of the text. There have been many books about RW written for adults. Some include inaccurate information. I tried to rely mainly on primary documents, first hand accounts, and conversations with Nina, Gunnar and Guy, etc. By including these sources, a reader can expand his or her own reading, and find out more.

Just as the book was going into production almost two years ago, I located some great (recently declassified) documents at the National Archives re: mention of the confusion surrounding RW's disappearance in 1945, and some State Dept. memos, letter from Guy to our government asking for help in locating his brother, etc. But these do not appear in the book - we just didn't have the space and the production schedule was already delayed.

With the backmatter, I wanted kids/adults to have additional information and also show my path of research. I'm not a scholar or an academic. But I'm a reader, and an amateur detective. I love photographs, geography, and making connections with information.   Many interesting details of RW's life had to be left out. I read widely and deeply and then chose what I thought were the essential and authentic and accurate pieces of his life story and legacy.  

And totally by chance, while in Stockholm, Nina and I were together, touring a garden, and ran into Elena Anger, Per's widow. What serendipity!

Mr. Schu: Can you share what you’re working on now? 

Louise Borden: The reason I've been so delayed in answering your questions (ahem!  So sorry John!), beyond the flurry of the holidays, is that I've been immersed in finishing yet another WWII book (fictional/first person) that takes place in Italy.  And now that I've finished the umpteenth revision and pleased with that text, I will be returning to a project that took me to France in late September.   A dramatic escape story that is set in Brittany during World War II.    

Additionally I'm working on a picture book for the very young as well as waiting for BASEBALL IS. . . illustrated by Raul Colon, which should be going into production this year (Spring 2014 pub. date.)

Please finish these sentence starters: 

Reading is 
my window to other worlds, other times, and other lives. I can't imagine my life without reading.

Poetry, nonfiction, novels, photography, art, publishing, biographies, history, picture books: these are the subjects that line my shelves, and continue to bring happiness, curiosity, and always, new learning to my life.

Picture books are . . .

for every age of reader. 

They're the bright lights of humor, 

and comfort 
for even our youngest page turners. 

And picture books will always remain
a deep and dazzling
visual echo for grown-ups . . .
as we remember and share childhood,
tell our own stories,

and like a treasure in our pockets,

carry new words

into tomorrow.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me about my lifelong love of bookstores. (I was a part owner of an Indie for five years - long before Amazon.) During my travels, I always manage to find time to visit the local bookstores.   I also take photos and so I probably have over a hundred photos of stores in various cities, and of readers browsing in those bookstores.   Who knows what our future is with bricks and mortar stores, but I do know that as long as they exist, I'll be walking through their front doors,  grateful for the brave booksellers who are still in business. I have a Kindle, and an I Pad, but I continue to buy and collect elegantly designed, illustrated, and written print books. Along with writing, it's my beautiful obsession.

I am giving away a copy of His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg. 

Rules for the Giveaway 

1. It will run from 1/8 to 11:59 p.m. on 1/11. 

2. You must be at least 13. 

3. Please pay it forward. 

Borrow His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops

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