Posted by: nancyisanders | October 22, 2010

Author Interview: Mary Kay Carson

Meet Author Mary Kay Carson
Web site: Mary Kay Carson
Twitter: @marykaycarson

Mary Kay Carson began her writing career working on the classroom magazine SuperScience at Scholastic in New York City in 1991. She has been a full-time freelance writer for the past fifteen years and is now the author of more than forty books for kids and teachers about wildlife, space, weather, nature, American history, and other science and social studies topics. Carson also writes articles and educational materials for both students and teachers and gives presentations at schools and libraries about space, animals, history, and writing.

Other recent non-fiction titles include Emi and the Rhino Scientist; Exploring the Solar System, recipient of the 2009 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Children’s Literature Award; Inside Tornadoes; and the Far-Out Guide to the Solar System series.

Mary Kay is married to photographer Tom Uhlman. The couple often collaborates on projects and Uhlman is the photographer of both their Scientists in the Field books, Emi and the Rhino Scientist and The Bat Scientist. They live in a hundred-year-old home amid an oasis of urban greenspace in Cincinnati with their dog, Ruby, where they wait each summer evening for the bats to begin circling above their backyard pond.

Featured Book:
The Bat Scientists

by Mary Kay Carson
with photographs by Tom Uhlman
(Houghton Mifflin, 2010)

Q: Describe a highlight for you personally while you were writing this book.
It has to be watching the evening emergence of millions of Mexican free-tailed bats at Bracken Bat Cave in Texas while we were down there researching the book. My photographer husband and I went to the cave one evening to get to know the area a little before our scheduled next day trip into the inside of the cave. We had the place to ourselves pretty much and were sitting near the mouth of the cave when the bats started flying out. All of the sudden we found ourselves in the middle of a tornado of bats as they started flying out of the cave. A stream of bats circled to gain speed and flew up to join a ribbon of flying animals all the way to the horizon. Truly amazing!

Q: Share the journey you’ve taken as a writer.
I wasn’t one of those kids who wrote her own stories and always wanted to be a writer. I was a science major with no interest in writing until my mid-20s, truthfully. It wasn’t until I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer overseas that I began to appreciate and enjoy writing. When I returned to the US, I looked into science writing programs and ended up at New York University. From there I was hired by Scholastic to write for SuperScience, a classroom magazine for grades 4-6. The magazine really hooked me on writing for kids. It’s soooo much more fun than writing for big people! And as a science writer, it allows me the freedom of being a generalist. Right now I’m writing about the Titanic, weather, and salamanders. Science writers for grown-ups usually specialize in one subject to build credibility. While I liked working at Scholastic, I did not like living in New York. So I left and went freelance, supplementing my income with teaching English at night for a few years. That was more than 15 years ago.

Q: What is one word of advice you received as a writer that you would like to pass on to others?
Play dumb. (Is that two words of advice?) This advice was given to me as an interviewing tip early in my science-writing-for-kids career. You want to be able to quote scientists explaining the basics. Whether the scientist thinks you’re smart or not isn’t important. So even if you know a lot about genetics, swallow your pride and play dumb and ask: “DNA, hmmm. Now what is DNA exactly?” That’s how you’ll get usable quotes.

Q: Share one goal you have as a children’s writer and the steps you are taking to achieve it.
I’d really like to write in some different genres—nonfiction picture books, a fact/fiction series like Magic School Bus, and even (gulp!) a middle grade novel someday. Making a living as a writer is not very conducive to writing on spec. It often feels like wasting time. But as pointed out in Nancy’s fabulous book, Yes! You Can Learn How To Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career, that’s no excuse and can be a recipe for burnout. So I try to block out specific hours each week on my calendar (with a special red pen) for working on my picture book or writing queries about a series.

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