Monday, March 28, 2011

An Interview with Lori Mortensen

Today I am pleased to have Lori Mortensen - - as a guest interviewee. A prolific and award-winning author who writes in a variety of genres for children, Lori Mortensen is also an instructor for The Institute of Children’s Literature.

Q: I loved the pictures you took while writing In the Trees, Honeybees. Was that your first time taking pictures for a book you wrote?

A: Thanks! Yes, that was the first time I’d taken photos for a writing project. Luckily, I’d taken photography classes in high school and college so I was confident I’d get something. The question was—what? It was thrilling to creep around the bee hives and see what I’d discover. I felt like Sherlock Holmes, except instead of holding a magnifying glass, I had a camera.

Q: In an article you wrote for Dawn Publications, you told how researching and writing a book about honeybees led you to discovering how interesting the bumblebees were in Fort Bragg. Have you started a book about bumblebees yet?

A: No, I haven’t, but that doesn’t mean I won’t down the road. To me, what’s exciting about writing is following wherever my curiosity takes me. Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of fiction. (In fact, I’ve got two rhyming picture books coming out Fall 2012. “Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg” with Clarion, and “Over the Moon,” with HarperCollins.) When I’ve finished this current stint of fiction, I’ll return to nonfiction again.

Q: Tina Vasquez wrote a wonderful review of Come See the Earth Turn: The Story of Leon Foucault in her blog, The Children’s Book Review. Since so much historical research as well as scientific explanation was involved, how long did it take for you to write this book?

A: Writing is always a lengthy process, and it’s especially true for nonfiction. This particular project took about two years. Once Tricycle (now Random House) bought it, it took another year to reach publication.

Q: What was the hardest part of writing this book?

A: As with most biographies written for children, one of the most challenging aspects is finding so much wonderful information and only being able to use a small portion of it in the finished product. Because of the limited word count, I must be very selective. In the end, I believe only the best remains. For this particular book, it was also challenging to take complex scientific ideas and explain them simply and clearly. A good example of this is the passage about the lathe. My editor and I went back and forth about the wording of this important passage.

Q: In the “about the author” bio for Come See the Earth Turn: The Story of Leon Foucault (via Powell’s Books), you mention your early exposure to the thrill of discovery from your chemist father’s experiments. Did he have a special lab at home? Or were these “kitchen” experiments he did?

A: Both. While my father often used equipment such as Bunsen burners, graduated cylinders, and test tubes in his garage “lab,” his experiments also found their way into the household—much to my mother’s dismay! Although she always supported my father’s investigative nature, she wasn’t a fan of weeds simmering on her stovetop or discovering—the hard way—that he’d disconnected the water hose to the washing machine for one of his experiments. Water went everywhere—lol

Q. While reading an ICL interview (March, 2009), I was surprised to learn that you didn’t have an agent. Is this still true?

A: Happily, no. I’ve got a wonderful agent, Kendra Marcus, with Bookstop Literary Agency.

Q: You’ve written a number of biographies for children -- Harriet Tubman: Hero of the Underground Railroad, Marie Curie: Prize-Winning Scientist, and George Washington Carver, Teacher, Scientist, and Inventor, to name a few. What sparks your interest in writing about a particular individual, as opposed, say, about someone else?

A: Yes, I love writing biographies. Interestingly, an editor at Picture Window Books asked me to write those books, so at first, I knew little about them. But when I delved into the research, I discovered each of them were fascinating, extraordinary people. As I found each nugget of information, I couldn’t wait to put it in the book for young readers to discover as well. For example, Marie Curie’s research exposed her to so much radiation, her notebooks are still radioactive today. (Who knew!?) George Washington Carver never accepted money for all of his work with peanuts. He felt God hadn’t charged him for the knowledge, so he wouldn’t either. (Extraordinary!) One of my favorite “finds” was a line written below Amelia Earhart’s yearbook picture—“the girl in brown who walks alone.” All of these tidbits, so small, but so telling. When I’m fascinated by a subject, I believe my readers will be too.

Q: In nonfiction, do you prefer historical subjects or scientific subjects? Or is your interest about fifty-fifty?

A: I don’t have a preference. I go wherever my curiosity takes me. In Foucault’s case it was both since he was historical and scientific.

Q: It seems you write everything, really: fiction, nonfiction, poems. Have you ever considered writing a poetry collection?

A: I have, but I haven’t put anything together yet. But who knows? I might down the road.

Q: In the Monsters, Mysterious Encounters, and Innovator Series, did KidHaven Press choose the subjects, or were they your choices?

A: An editor at KidHaven gave me a choice of titles and I selected what I thought were the most interesting.

Q: What do you think about leprechauns or basilisks? Any historical phenomena that might have inspired the folklore?

A: They’re fascinating subjects, aren’t they? The purpose of these series was to offer readers both sides of the coin so they could see the pros and cons of each position themselves. I think these particular books do a great job of that and encourage the readers to really think about the possibilities.

Q: You wear many writing-related hats! You also are an instructor for The Institute of Children’s Literature. How did you start teaching for them? And how much time to you spend wearing that particular hat?

A: I’ve been an instructor for The Institute of Children’s Literature since 2006. My work there is particular satisfying because I was once a student many years ago. Today, I spent about one day a week responding to student work.

Q: You have said you don’t illustrate your books. How did you start writing for the Stone Arch Graphic Novel series, and who illustrates those books?

A: Stone Arch Books is part of Capstone Press, which includes Picture Window Books. So as I worked with editors there, I also got opportunities to work with other editors on other projects. Rémy Simard illustrated my particular graphic novel books.

Q: In the Trees, Honeybees, won no less than seven awards. Come See the Earth Turn won a Mom’s Choice Award Honoring Excellence. Harriet Tubman: Hero of the Underground Railroad won a Bank Street College of Education's Best Children's Book of the Year Award in 2008. Has winning awards affected your approach to writing?

A: Winning an award is always nice, but it doesn’t influence my writing. Awards are elusive, so I write because I love what I’m writing about, not because of how it may be noticed or rewarded later on.

Q: Do publishers approach you now to write for them? Or do you simply shop around for an engaging subject to write about and then look for a publisher?

A: Yes to both. Sometimes editors contact me to work on certain projects. Other times, I work on my own projects and send them out through my agent.

Q: From interviews I’ve read, you seem a disciplined writer. Does writing get easier for you as you go along? Or is it always a new challenge?

A: I wish it did get easier—lol! What gets easier after all this time is that I’ll come up with something. I’m always amazed how I can start with a very ordinary idea (or let’s face an awful idea!), and then through the process of revision, it turns into something wonderful. (At least that’s what I think when I’m done with it.)

Q: You’ve mentioned you belong to three writing groups. Are they for different genres? Any of them online? How often do they meet?

A: Two of them are online and are composed of wonderful writing friends I’ve made over the years. And yes, it’s very helpful for the group to be focused on the same genre—essential really. The other one is my local SCBWI group that meets every other month.

Q: What is the most important tip you would give a new writer?

A: Read the genre what you want to write and don’t give up. Persistence is what counts in the end.

Q: You’ve said you were interested in dancing, and taught dance education. Was this ballet? Tap? Did you ever perform professionally?

A: I began dancing in high school, and then earned my Bachelor Degree in Professional Dance at BYU with an emphasis on modern and jazz.. While I never joined an independent dance company, I toured with BYU and taught at high schools and community centers.

Q: Do you have any hobbies (outside of reading) that you turn to in order to “fill the well” and renew your creativity?

A: Lately, I’ve been making my own Greek yogurt, whole wheat bread, and sewing some clothes. I’ve found that getting away from the computer is just as important as sticking with it when I’m working on a project. Getting away puts everything into perspective.

Thank you for such a generous interview, Lori!

Come See the Earth Turn: The Story of Leon Foucault -- published through Random House/Tricycle Press 2010 In the Trees, Honey Bees! -- published by Dawn Publications, 2009

To learn more about Lori’s books, visit her website:

(Her personal contact information is also on her website.)


Rosi said...

What a wonderful and inspiring interview! Thanks for posting this. Now, I have to get back to my writing!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

She certainly inspired me. I really enjoyed her perspective on things!

writing and living by Richard P Hughes said...

Interesting and informative interview.

Kenda Turner said...

Lori, great to be introduced to you and your work, and Elizabeth, great interview! I enjoyed this. I'll be checking out some of these titles. I was once an Institute of Children's Writers student, too. Great to read of Lori's successes, and reinvestments to other ICW students, after she completed the course...

Angelica R. Jackson said...

Now I feel like I know so much more of the author behind the books! See you both on Saturday, if you're coming to the conference.

Lori Mortensen said...

Thanks for everyone's comments. (It was a pleasure, Elizabeth!)And yes, I'm excited about the upcoming SCBWI conference in Rocklin, CA. See you there, Angelica.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Thanks for this wonderful interview with Lori. Her books sound fascinating.I will be checking out her books.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Oooh, I wish I were going to be at the conference, but my hubby and I will be on vacation all of April. Angelica, I hope you will blog about it.

Richard, Kenda, and Rachna, glad you enjoyed the interview.

Lori, Thanks again!

Mini Mishra said...

Great Interview.

Why don't you run a contest on the top ten literary blogs? Blogs that teach and inspire.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Mini Mishra, thanks for a great idea! I'll think about it.