I went to a Catholic wedding recently. I’m Jewish, and I’ve gone to many weddings in my life, Jewish and Christian, but this was only my second Catholic wedding. The first was when my beloved fourth grade teacher got married at the end of the year. (She is the teacher, by the way, who affirmed my love of books by, among other things, having a bathtub in the classroom for us to read in—-dry and dressed, of course.) I remember only a few things about Miss Ryan’s wedding: it was in a huge cathedral and I sat in the back. Miss Ryan looked beautiful. When I saw her afterward she said to me, "Are you surprised to see your teacher as a bride?" I shook my head no, even though I knew that was not the right answer. She looked like a princess every day. (I have confirmed this fact with former classmates.)
Anyway, to get back on topic (see, teachers, what a huge influence you have on us kids!)--I am fascinated by religion—I majored in religious studies in college, I wrote a series of books for National Geographic “Holidays Around the World,” and I wrote about the religious differences between Charles and Emma Darwin. So maybe that’s why as I sat in the beautiful service, I knew I had to get more information. Or maybe it’s that I write non-fiction books for kids as a living, and I’m always wool gathering, always looking for the truth. So last Saturday I came as a happy friend of the mother of the groom, but I was also there, apparently, as a researcher. What was much of the assembled saying in response to the priest? What was the priest saying to himself over the wine while the soloist sang? What is that altar for, as opposed to that one? I watched as people went up for Communion and I wondered why some took the cracker from the priest’s hand and others had him put it directly into their mouths. When the service was over, and everyone else filed out, I got my husband (who writes non-fiction for grown-ups) and a (lapsed Catholic) friend to go up to the priest with me. To say we interviewed him would be stretching it. We didn’t pull out tape recorders or notebooks, though we had notebooks with us, as we always do, and I was tempted. We asked him lots of questions, which he answered willingly and with enthusiasm. (I forgot to ask him about the communion cracker taking. I will have to look that up. Or maybe someone here will tell me first.) We talked to him for a good twenty minutes, which really enhanced the experience for me. I don’t know if I will ever use this in a book, or where I will go with it, but I am so glad I asked the questions. The priest was glad, too.
When you write non-fiction, it’s very hard to turn off the need to know. And why should we? You can never tell when something might spark an idea for a book, or fit into the one you’re writing, or might write years later, or end up as deep background for something else. When I went to Down House in 1999 I didn’t know I was going to write a book on Charles and Emma Darwin. But I loved what I was seeing and so I took notes, took mental and actual snapshots, asked questions of the tour guides, and bought a great book from the gift shop. Because I had that non-fiction writer's head on that day, I had a leg up when I sat down to write Charles and Emma years later.
But to be honest, I almost always have that head on. I take notes when I go to museums, when I see something of particular interest on a street corner, or in the country. I questions of everyone I meet: scientists, painters, architects, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, cab drivers, chefs. It turns out Charles Darwin posed questions to many different people while he was figuring out his idea of evolution by natural selection. He thought it best to go right to the experts: farmers, pigeon fanciers, his hairdresser, his friends who gardened, Emma, his children, the vicar in Downe. He wrote their answers in his notebooks and used them later as examples in his argument. I'm no Charles Darwin, but if it was good enough for him, it's good enough for me. And you.
When I told my son I was working on this blog post, I said I thought it could be really helpful for teachers. They could tell their students that real authors ask questions wherever they go, and so should they. It’s a great way to learn. Aaron nodded, and said, in his 23-year-old understated way, “Some of us live our lives this way just because it’s fun.” Yup.