Writers on writing

"Writers on writing" Continued...

Issue: "2010 Books Issue," July 3, 2010

Q: Some critics do not seem to know what to do with your 12 books, since they are not ironic or cynical. Forgiveness, redemption: This is not the language that the world traffics in. The easy way is ironic aloofness. The hard way, which I think is much more valuable, is how do you find redemption, how do you find worth and value to life. That is not ironic. It is not cynical. People are not sure what to do with that.

Q: What do you think about Christian fiction generally? Christian fiction needs to be tougher. It does not need to have more sex, drugs, and alcohol. It has to offer a real portrait of the terror that believers have to confront and nonbelievers live in every day.
-interview by Henry Bleattler

Part two: Writing with children

Susan Wise Bauer also teaches-at The College of William and Mary, where she received her Ph.D. in American Studies-but adds to that the homeschooling of four children. She finds time to write history books that children and adults enjoy reading.

Q: Sounds like your days are busy. What is a normal day for you? We have a master schedule that says what everyone is doing at each hour of each day and that includes which adult is in the house, what each child is supposed to be doing, who is responsible for the kids. My husband and I both do a lot of our work at home so part of our arrangement is that when the children erupt from their rooms at eight o'clock until after lunch, I am on duty. Anything that happens is my problem so that my husband can work.

Q: And after lunch? We swap off. But, as anyone who has kids will tell you, it is not always that neat. It's also something that changes as our children grow older.

Q: More work or less work as your children have gotten older? The homeschooling duties have increased. I have a lot of help. We have a joint household. My husband and I live in the farmhouse where my parents live and we divided it into two. A laundry room joins the two halves of the house. We meet over the washing machine.

Q: Your latest publication, The History of the Medieval World, is volume two of a projected four-volume series in world history. What led you to tackle this seemingly immense project? As a homeschooling mother I could not find a good world history resource. There were plenty of American history resources, especially for elementary students, but nothing that was global in scope. I thought, "Oh, I will write one myself." So, I did. I wrote a four-volume world history for children. One day my editor at Norton calls me up and said, "You should do this for grownups. You should write a history of the world." . . . I said, "I am not a professional historian. I teach writing."

Q: How did he respond? He said, "I would not ask a historian to do something like this." I had no idea what he was talking about until I got into the project and I realized that if you are a dedicated professional historian with a passion for one particular country and topic, you could never do a global narrative because you would feel that you were shorting that area in which you have expertise.

Q: You write with lots of specific detail. One of my role models, historian Barbara Tuchman, said she distrusts historians who make broad sweeping generalizations about human nature. If you cannot find a specific story to illustrate whatever broad generalization you are about to make, you should not make the assumption. I found myself, especially with the first book, reading lots of sources that said things like, "the ancient Greeks prized philosophy." I would think, "Where is the story? Where is the person? Where is the book? How do we know this?" I was always trying to ground those general assumptions in a story. When you are working with ancient cultures there is a limited set of stories which are very old which you use to try to figure out what was actually going on there.

Q: You started studying Latin at the age of 10. You can also read French, Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. What has been the importance of language in terms of research and writing? Most practically, it means that you are not dependent on others to find out what is being written in other cultures. Anytime you are dependent on a translator, you are absorbing the translator's point of view and the author's. It is very difficult to pull those two apart. I wish I had better fluency in more languages than I do, especially working on a world history. It has been quite frustrating to try to deal with primary sources in Sanskrit, which at this point in my life I am never going to learn. To try and figure out what is being said there and what is being imported by the translator is almost impossible to do.


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