Sue’s books include nonfiction trade titles, including nonfiction titles with National Geographic, and a couple of compilations of poetry, images, and short stories. Her most recent books are WHEELS OF CHANGE: HOW WOMEN RODE THE BICYCLE TO FREEDOM (WITH A FEW FLAT TIRES ALONG THE WAY), and BASKETBALL BELLES.
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Most of your titles for children and young adults are nonfiction. They are full of interesting facts, anecdotes, and human-interest stories. Talk a little bit about your research process for a book such as WHEELS OF CHANGE. How do you know it is time to stop researching and start writing?
I research right through the writing process. When I start a book, I do preliminary research and work up an outline. Then I put all the research I’ve gathered in a folder for the chapter where it will be covered. Before I write each chapter, I read what I have in the folder and then figure out what else I need in order to tell the story in that chapter. My research usually takes me to libraries and places that are relevant to the story, but thanks to the Internet, I can do a lot of the follow-up research on my computer. The Library of Congress Historical American Newspapers collection (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov) was very helpful when I was writing Wheels of Change.
I noticed that in WINNING WAYS (1996) you mentioned the importance of the bicycle but in WHEELS OF CHANGE (2011) you were able to dig much deeper into connections between bicycling advancements and progress for women. Was there one particular story that clicked and made you want to know more?
I got a lot of ideas for future books while writing Winning Ways. There were three stories I discovered while working on the first book that led to Wheels of Change. First was the fact that Women’s Christian Temperance Union president Frances Willard wrote a best-selling book about how she learned to ride a bicycle in 1895. That seemed really significant to me. Then there was Susan B. Anthony’s quote that bicycling “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” There was also the rivalry between two women in New York, Jane Yatman and Jane Lindsay. That told me there was definitely a culture of women racing on bikes in the 1890s.
Many writers talk about finding a “child entry point” (or child-friendly connection to the topic) for their nonfiction. In WHEELS OF CHANGE you discuss your own bicycle use as a child in the introduction. Do you try to find a child entry point for each book? Do you think it is necessary?
I don’t specifically look for a “child entry point.” My writing is pretty organic. I start from the point of what interests me. I wasn’t a big book reader as a kid—I read newspapers religiously, but cringed whenever I had to read a book. So I figure if something can catch and hold my interest, I’m in good shape. That said, as a former journalist, I always try to write about people. That’s the hook I use. Start with anecdotal evidence and then pull back to talk about the larger picture.
While I was already familiar with Amelia Bloomer (young blog readers should take a look at Shana Corey’s YOU FORGOT YOUR SKIRT AMELIA BLOOMER) I found the discussion of clothing in WHEELS OF CHANGE so interesting because it parallels the same debates that women in some Islamic nations are having. Do you find in your research that humans repeat debates/conflicts through history or do we learn from our past?
I wish we learned from the past. As someone who majored in history and writes about history, I’m amazed at how few people actually recognize when history is repeating itself or acknowledge history at all. There are lessons to be learned from the past, but much of what kids are asked to remember in history is relatively insignificant. I wish history classes dealt more with examples of problems and solutions, like math classes do.
The wonderful photos and artifacts in WHEELS OF CHANGE overwhelmed me. You include beautifully illustrated advertising cards, posters, cigar tops, sheet music, and more. (Since my bike is a source of freedom for me, I was especially drawn to the women with wings.) How did these images influence the female bikers of the time? Did these ubiquitous images encourage more women to ride?
I think the images of female cyclists helped legitimize the sport for women in the 1890s. Of course, behind many of those images were bicycle manufacturers who had a vested interest in getting more women on bikes. When it became clear that there was a huge market in female cyclists, the manufacturers went all out to court them and in the process, produced some of the artifacts that we show in the book.
In many of your books that present a survey of historical events, you make an effort to include one or two mentions of African-American involvement. Obviously oppression was a huge factor limiting opportunities for women of color in sports. However, were there parallel groups of athletes? A negro league of girl baseball and/or basketball players for example? Would you consider writing a survey of the African-American woman in sports? Is there a lack of information, or do you feel it isn’t your story to tell?
There were parallel leagues for African-Americans in some sports. Black women played basketball on barnstorming teams and with local Y teams and AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) teams. And there was an African-American organization that held tennis tournaments for men and women. There was one woman I mentioned in Winning Ways named Ora Mae Washington who was a phenomenal tennis player and also an excellent basketball player. I would love for there to be a book about her. It would take a lot of research, especially for photos, because her exploits were hardly ever mentioned in the mainstream press. But they were reported in the black newspapers. As for a survey of African-American women in sports, Arthur Ashe wrote A Hard Road to Glory, an excellent 3-volume history of black men and women in sports, but there’s room for one that’s specific to women. I don’t think I’m necessarily the best person to write it, but that gets into a larger question about who should tell which stories. Would an African-American woman be a more suitable author for such a book than me, who’s white? What do your readers think?
Since you’ve written many books with National Geographic, does that publisher come to you with topics or are you proposing books to your editor?
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It works both ways. My editor proposed the Annie Oakley bio and the Olympics books. I proposed the Nellie Bly bio and Wheels of Change.
You spoke at the Bike Expo in New York City this year. I’m a cyclist myself and know that bike people can be pretty passionate about their sport. How was the event, and how are girls and women carving a place for themselves in the future of cycling?
Since writing Wheels of Change, I’ve come into contact with lots of cyclists. You’re right that they’re extremely passionate. I’ve loved seeing all the female cyclists who embody a spirit of adventure and athleticism that women in general just didn’t have 30 years ago. I had a packed house (actually, a packed tent) when I spoke at Bike Expo, and people stayed for the whole talk, which was amazing with all the distractions. I think it gives women today a sort of validation to know that women 120 years ago were just as passionate about cycling as they are.
Justine Siegel, men’s pro and collegiate baseball coach and founder of Baseball for All has said, "If you tell a girl she can't play baseball, what else will SHE think she can’t do…. [And what else] will BOYS think GIRLS CAN'T Do?” How does this quote resonate with you? Do you have a similar philosophy that guides your work?
One of my goals in my writing is to tell stories that were left out of history books when I was a kid, to give people—and especially women—credit for the part they played in American history and American culture. So I think telling women’s stories and giving boys and girls female role models can help broaden people’s ideas of what women can do. If you give kids evidence that women can do something, they will accept that. I’ve seen it when I’ve done appearances with women from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Boys are just as excited to meet the players as girls and treat them with the same respect they would give male players. If we tell women’s stories, we open up the possibilities for everybody.
On your website you write, “I admire the courage of ornery women who won’t take no for an answer. Their stories encourage me to try and be a little ornery myself.” What does ornery look like in your own life and how do you encourage it in the girls in your life?
I spend about 25 years working as an editor and editorial director at New York publishing houses, so I guess “ornery” for me has meant giving up the security of a salaried job and working on my own for the past 14 years. I love working as part of a team, with designers, editors, etc., but I don’t love having to follow all the rules that you have to follow in a “regular” job. I try to encourage the girls in my life to get a good foundation in school and work, like I did, but also to remember what’s important to them and not lose themselves in other people’s expectations.
Talk about ornery, I understand that roller derby is the topic of your next book due out in 2014. What is the focus of the book and what kind of research have you been doing? Have you brushed off your own skates and taken to the track? If not, what athletic pursuits keep you active these days?
I wasn’t much of a roller skater as a kid. I think my skates are buried somewhere in my parents’ basement and are not likely to be unearthed anytime soon. My book, currently titled Roller Derby Rivals, is a nonfiction picture book about the rivalry between two amazing skaters in 1948 named Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn and Gerry Murray. I focus on a 17-day period when Roller Derby took over New York City, selling out the arena and driving people to buy TVs just so they could watch it. I read all the newspaper coverage of that period and got the inside scoop on Derby history from Gary Powers, who runs the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame in Brooklyn, NY. I also got to go to the Hall’s annual induction, where I sat in the first row during an old-timer’s match and saw 60-year-old skaters flip over the railing right in front of me. It was awesome! As for me, I don’t do anything nearly as dangerous, but I work out at my gym four times a week and swim whenever I can.
What sporty girl book inspired you when you were younger?
I was inspired by R.R. Knudson’s books, especially Zanbanger, Zanballer, and You Are the Rain. She was one of the first novelists I read who focused on girls who were athletic. Otherwise, there was Nancy Drew, I guess, and during the Olympics, there were occasional articles on women in the sports pages. But when I was growing up in the 60s and early 70s, there weren’t many sporty books about girls.
What didn’t I ask that you’d like to tell our readers about?
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You asked a lot of great questions! I guess there are only two other things left to say. Number one is that my first book, A Whole New Ball Game: The Story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, is finally available as an eBook, which is great because the print edition is no longer available. And I’ve got two more new books in the works: a biography of Sally Ride, due out in Fall 2014, and a picture book about a pioneering female sportswriter of the 20th century, due out after that. I’ll keep everybody posted on my Web site, suemacy.com, and through my Twitter feed, @suemacy1.
Thanks so much for reading! If riding your bike makes you feel as if you are flying, don’t miss WHEELS OF CHANGE by Sue Macy. Comment below and I’ll enter your name in a drawing to give away not one but TWO sets of pink tire irons to help two wonderful readers change their bicycle tires.