Friday, January 24, 2014

How Did You Get the Idea of This Book and Other Burning Questions Revealed

This week, Debbie Glade at Smart Books for Smart Kids reviewed my new book Women of Steel and Stone.  The review can be found here.
Following the review, she asked if I would mind answering a few questions for the readers of her website. The questions got me thinking about why I wrote the book, the process, STEM, and girls in engineering fields. I thought INK readers would like to read a part of that interview. The full interview can be read on the Smart Books for Smart Kids website. I'll post the link as soon as it is live on the site. I also added a few extra questions and answers for the readers here. All the questions and answers can be read on my new website Anna M. Lewis.

How did you get the idea to write this book?
My editor and I were going back and forth with proposal ideas in two different series - Activities for Kids and Women of Action.  My degree is in Product/Industrial Design and I took several design history classes in college, so design was an area that interested me.  Then, I found one website that listed the top 100 architects. There were only 2 women on the list – 2 women out of 100 architects. That didn’t sound right to me. I started researching women architects and found some amazing women whose stories hadn’t been told. From there, I also discovered several women engineers and landscape architects, and the book grew from there.

How did you come up with the women you featured in the book, and was it difficult to find the detailed information you needed about some of them? 
Each book in the Women of Action series has about 16 to 26 profiles, so I knew I had to have about that many women. My daughter's favorite number is 22, so I felt that I had to appease her and the karma gods and write about 22 women. That number worked perfectly.
In forming the list, I basically had 7 women per category; which meant, 2 of the first in the field, 2 of the most current, and 3 in the middle. As it turned out, all the women I chose had interesting stories to tell. Every chapter had to have a compelling story to pull the reader in; otherwise the book would just be a rehash of wiki pages and facts. Some of the background stories had to be dug out, and I was digging for days. When I found an interesting story about a woman, it was almost like finding gold. Sometimes, after fact checking, a great story turned out to be not true. A popular book on Julia Morgan tells how she was dusting the family stairs and said that when she was older that she wouldn't design houses with spindly staircase rods that little girls would have to dust, and then she ran outside to play with her brothers. Many other sources also cited that story. It took some digging but I found a transcript of an interview with several family members and co-workers. I read through the entire entire interview and at one point the interviewer asked the family if that was true. They said, "No, Julia never said that." Great story but I couldn't use it… but I found other great pieces to use in that transcript. Julia was hard to research. After she was misquoted early in her career, she never gave another interview. She even instructed her staff to destroy all her papers after she retired.

In the beginning, I asked the leaders and archivists of several engineering and architecture groups to review my list. I wanted to make sure that I didn't leave anyone out. Their suggestions were perfect.

Did it strike you when researching and writing the biographies that the accomplishments of these women from long ago would be equally as impressive in today's world as they were back then?
Three things stood out to me while writing the book. First, it has been over 125 years since Louise Bethune became the first female member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and women are still struggling to get noticed in that field. Second, all the women in my book had very supportive parents. Third, all the women chose architecture, engineering, and landscape architecture because they were drawn to those fields.
To answer your question, yes. But also, it also surprised me that after 125 years, things haven’t changed much. Women are still having a difficult time in those fields. The recent petition that sought to highlight Denise Scott Brown’s accomplishments with the inclusion of her name on her husband's 1981 Pritzker Prize put this issue into the spotlight. While media took great note, the Pritzker Committee turned down the request.
In building our future, we need all our students involved in creating wonderful things.

Considering the limitations women in the 1800s and early 1900s had wearing such binding, layered clothing with long dresses and corsets, do you think just the change in the way we dress has made it more possible for women to work in male dominated fields?
I don’t think the change in clothing was a large factor. Julia Morgan used to hike up her long skirt and climb up scaffolding, sometimes three stories high. Actually, the invention of the bicycle was a huge factor in the changes of a woman’s role in society. She was able to go to so many more places – without a chaperone, and her clothing loosened to allow her to ride. Society accepted this change with a few protests. 
Honestly, the women in my book and their strong-willed desire to do something that they wanted to do broke down the barriers and showed that women could work in the same fields as men.
What's your next writing project?
I’ve been going back and forth with my editor. I’ve been trying to decide if I want to write another Women of Action book or an Activities for Kids book. I’m also working with two other publishers on some fun ideas.

What do you most like to do when you are not working?
When I’m working, it doesn’t really feel like work. I love to read, which in a way is working. Actually, I have a pile of books that I can’t wait to get my hands on.
Besides writing, I’ve been doing some illustration work, which is like playing to me. I’ve been having fun learning how to use the Wacom tablet to create digital images.

Questions I added:

Did you have a special process while writing the book?
While doing the research, I had a box of grey folders and I made a folder for every woman. I also made a folder for my intro and chapter intros. I made copies of every quote for easy access when I compiled the Notes section. I also bought quite a few of my research books, a little while after I started racking up some library fines. (It's amazing how those due dates can slip by you when you are deep in work.) The actual books came in handy during the year-long editing process, when I had to check sources multiple times.
Towards the end, I made a spiffy excel spread sheet to keep track of all of my 22 women, images, permissions, word count, etc. 

Did you have a personal connection to this book?
Yes, my father passed away suddenly the day after I got the go ahead to work on the proposal. My father ran a medium-sized engineering practice in Cincinnati for over 50 years. His firm oversaw the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) on many major construction projects. The last few years of his life he taught engineering at the University of Cincinnati. I think that he would have approved of this book. 

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