Meet the author: Susan Wise Bauer
A MindyWithrow.com exclusive! This month is a significant one for Dr. Susan Wise Bauer, who successfully defended her Ph.D. dissertation last week and whose ninth book, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, releases March 26 (already available at Amazon). So I asked her to tell me and my lit-loving readers a little more about her new book series, her research strategies, and how she balances family, farm, and fans!
Susan, congratulations on the publication of The History of the Ancient World! Let’s talk about this series first. Who is the intended audience?
The book is designed for an intelligent general audience—for readers who enjoy history, but don’t necessarily have a sense of the order and relationship between historical events. While I was working on the manuscript, I had dozens of Eureka! moments when I suddenly placed a personality or event I’d known about for years into historical context, and suddenly felt that I understood it for the first time.
Here’s a minor example: I was working through Sargon II’s battles against the Urartu (the mountain people who lived north of his empire—Mount Ararat lay in their territory) when I came across Sargon’s own description of his enemy. The paragraph that eventually made it into The History of the Ancient World reads:
Urartian soldiers could easily come down from their high places, attack, and then retreat back into the passes over which their fortresses loomed; marching into the mountains after them was a much more difficult proposition. And the Urartu had developed into a sophisticated and well-guarded kingdom. Sargon’s own accounts speak, admiringly, of the Urartian king Rusas and the network of canals and wells which he built; of the herds of well-bred and guarded horses, raised in protected valleys until they were needed for war; of the splendid efficiency of Urartian communication, with watchtowers built high on mountain peaks, guarding heaps of fuel that could be lit at a moment’s notice. One beacon, lit, flared up on its mountaintop into an enormous bonfire that appeared as a spark to the next distant post, where the next bonfire could then be lit. They shone like “stars on mountaintops,” in Sargon’s own words, and spread news of invasion faster than a messenger could ride. [51.11]
Remember that great scene in the Peter Jackson film of Return of the King where the beacon fires are lit and you can see them flaring up from peak to peak? That’s right: Sargon II wrote about it first. Little discoveries like this are one of the wonderful pleasures of history.
What factors led you to pursue this particular project?
After my first book with Norton, The Well-Trained Mind, I realized I wasn’t happy with any of the K-12 history resources I was recommending. I decided to write my own four-volume chronological world history, targeted at K-8; I formed my own publishing company, Peace Hill Press, to produce the book, and Norton agreed to distribute it for me.
In 2003, my editor at Norton, Starling Lawrence, called me and said, “You know, I snagged a copy of The Story of the World from the mailroom and I’ve been reading it. This is very good!”
Me: Er, thanks.
SL: Have you thought about writing one for adults?
Me: A history book?
SL: Yes, a history of the world.
Me: You mean the whole world?
SL: Yes, of course.
Me: In one volume?
SL: No, in four volumes.
Me [thinking that it took Will Durant something like 28 years to do this]: A four-volume history of the world? Well…
SL: Fine, write a letter telling me how you’d do it and we’ll take it from there.
So I called my agent and said, “Star Lawrence thinks I should write a history of the world.”
Agent: The whole world?
Me: Er, yes.
Agent: Sounds like a great idea. Good follow up to the last book. How long would it take you?
Me [having no idea]:…Eight years?
Agent: OK, send me a letter telling me how you’d do it and I’ll take it up with Norton.
So then I go talk to my husband.
Me: Rich and Star Lawrence think I should write a history of the world.
Husband: The WHOLE world?
Me: It’ll take eight years. At least.
Husband: Is that all?
What is your basic process for crafting one of these volumes from concept to complete draft?
I read and read and read, and then write and write and write (almost a million words, for the History of the Ancient World), and then go back and dig out the story hiding in all those words. This means I cut a whole lot of work out and never use it—but that’s part of the process.
How much do you use the internet in your research?
I tend to use Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica (I try to consult both to guard against error) to double-check dates of reigns, battles, and so forth. I also make use of the William & Mary access to JSTOR, the online electronic archive of scholarly journals, and of other university archives—it’s wonderful to see how many ancient works are now available in etext format.
Who was more excited to see your author’s copies arrive—you or your kids?
My thirteen-year-old says, “What are author’s copies?” (No kidding.) Mom’s books are just part of life—it’s what I do, and it doesn’t seem particularly extraordinary to them.
How do you define “the writing life”?
I have control over my own schedule, my own work, my own life. That’s very important to me. (The flip side of this is that when something goes drastically wrong, it’s almost always my fault—but I feel that’s a fair trade-off.)
Do you consciously practice certain writing techniques?
I consciously try to write first drafts without paying too much attention to quality. That’s because of my own particular hang-ups: I want everything to be perfect, so I over-research to a ridiculous degree, and polish and polish and polish as I go. If I don’t force myself to do imperfect first drafts, I never finish.
Where is your favorite place to write? Time of day?
Last year, my father turned an old chicken shed on our farm into a separate timber-framed office for me. Until then, I’d used a little room in our attic. There were points to being the madwoman in the attic, but I had so many books in piles that there was only a narrow path between the door and my desk. My new office is close to the house, but because it’s a separate building, I can’t hear the children thumping and yelling while I’m working.
As far as time of day—I probably do my best work first thing in the morning, and on mornings when I don’t go running, I enjoy going down before sunrise with a cup of coffee and getting right to work. But this is a job for me; I keep to a pretty strict schedule, and when it’s time for me to write, I sit down and get started.
How do you make time for research and writing when you’re also homeschooling your children, teaching at William and Mary, finishing your doctorate, running a family farm and publishing company, and active in your church community? Do you keep office hours? Burn the midnight oil? Make your kids take 4-hour naps?
No, just two-hour naps.
There are four intersecting answers to this question. First: I enjoy my work, and I work at a naturally quick pace. Everyone’s got a different natural tempo; my parents say I was born on fast-forward.
Second: Although I’ve done all of those things at various times, I don’t think I’ve ever done them all simultaneously. When my children were smaller I taught more and wrote less, and didn’t have a publishing company. Now that I’ve got a publishing company and a busier writing career, I’ve taken a teaching leave from William and Mary (I’m a “research associate” right now, which means I can keep my faculty privileges without teaching—I couldn’t function without my year-long-checkout-no-limit-no-overdue-fees faculty card). I’m still active in my church community, but I’ve limited my involvement to one major volunteer role and I’m getting more ruthless about declining every other opportunity. And as for the doctorate—well, I’m thirty-eight, and I’ve just finished my dissertation defense, which is not exactly fast-track. It takes longer when you’re leading a regular grown-up life.
Third: I have a lot of help. My husband has a flexible schedule and does a good part of the home schooling; we divide our work and family responsibilities between us. We both parent, we both work, I do the cooking and he does the grocery shopping. My mother has taught all of the children how to read and continues to work with the younger two. My father manages the farm and is the CEO of the publishing company—I handle the creative end, and he handles the business end. Plus my mother and I share a housekeeper, and I have a personal assistant who comes in once a week to get me organized and do all the random things (from dry cleaning to library runs) that I haven’t gotten around to. No working wife and mother does it all—she hires help, or else decides what to leave undone.
Fourth: I am the Schedule Queen. I have a master family calendar that I keep both in a Daytimer and on my iCal—the iCal also has all my work deadlines on it, so that I don’t schedule a family vacation and a manuscript delivery for the same week. Our days run on a very regular pattern: the kids always know what they’re supposed to be doing, which parent is on kid duty and which is working, and what the next part of the day holds. Unless I’m on vacation, I’m up by 6 AM, go running, shower, and either get to work or start on my day with the kids by 8 AM. We have lunch, regular afternoon alone time/rest time, regular bedtimes. That may sound a little Von Trappish, but it sure lends itself to peace and order. (Also we have one day a week where we all sit around in our bathrobes and eat popcorn for breakfast if we feel like it.)
Have you ever written fiction?
I’ve actually published two novels, but I’ve pulled back to re-evaluate the type of fiction I want to do. I’ve written one novel recently and drafted out two more, and I hope to have all three finished in the next three or four years, so that my agent can help me position them properly. Right now I enjoy working on the fiction without the pressure of a deadline—that makes fiction the candy to my bread-and-butter work.
Do you have a favorite reference work? Favorite novel?
Favorite reference work: my Roget’s Thesaurus. Favorite novel: how about a list of authors instead? A. S. Byatt, Josephine Tey, P. D. James, Ian McEwan, Phillip K. Dick…
How many library cards do you have?
I have three in my name (the William & Mary one is a faculty card with unlimited checkout—right now it’s got something like 300 books on it—not sure where they all are…) The kids all have cards too; plus I’ve snitched my parents’ cards so that we can get extra books out.
Where does the name Peace Hill Press come from?
Peace Hill is the farm my mother inherited from foster parents. We live there now—it’s a cooperative venture between my parents and my husband and me. It’s one of the original names on colonial-era maps of Charles City County; our farm sits on the hill where a peace treaty was signed between the Native American residents and the colonial settlers.
Thanks, Susan, and happy writing. We’ll be waiting for volume 2!