Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Author Interview: Darrin Lunde

Darrin Lunde is a museum mammalogist with the National Museum of Natural History which is part of the Smithsonian Institute. He divides his time between his full-time duties at the museum and creating books for young readers. I reviewed his latest book Monkey Colors, illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne (Charlesbridge, 2012) yesterday, (Click HERE to read the review) and I was fascinated to know more. So I’m thrilled that Darrin has taken time out of his busy life to speak with us today.

Welcome, Darrin!

Darrin Lunde and his son in NY State
What you were like as a child? Were you an avid reader? Writer? Adventurer?

I was a loner and an explorer.  I much preferred being away from people and exploring nature in solitude. I liked not having to worry about what other people might think if I wanted to do something strange like digging up worms or studying the invertebrates scurrying around under an upturned stone.   I did not grow up in the country, and so finding nature (and solitude) was always a challenge, but somehow I managed. I think the fact that nature was not something I could take for granted played a big part in my endless fascination with the subject.  Had I grown up in the country, nature might have lost its allure.

Strangely, I was not an avid reader, at least not the stereotypical kind sneaking a flashlight under the covers to read through the night. That was not me. I never really read books so much as I ‘mined’ them for information, flipping through at random, and switching between two or three books at a time until I had gleaned a satisfying mixture of information.  To this day I can’t really read anything straight through; I just get restless and start flipping around. I may eventually read all the words, but not in the order that they are presented.  

Then as now, I have always spent inordinate amounts of time organizing my books, and like some rogue librarian I am always regrouping them in different ways on my shelves. I remember there was a medical doctor in our neighborhood who had piled up his old medical books on the curb for the garbage truck, and although I can’t remember exactly who, someone in my family knew how much I loved books—any books—and scooped them all up for me.  What a windfall that was! There must have been twenty or thirty books altogether, and although I was never tempted to become a doctor, I had a great time reading about Giardia and intramuscular injections—what fun!

What do you like the most about being a mammalogist?

A mammalogist is anyone who studies mammals, but I like to distinguish myself as a museum mammalogist. Straight out of college, I started working for the American Museum of Natural History, and was there for twenty years before recently making a move to the National Museum of Natural History, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution. A lot of people still don’t realize it, but there is a lot of science that goes on behind the scenes in a natural history museum and most of that science is based on the enormous collections of specimens these institutions house. 

There are literally hundreds of thousands of mammal (bird, lizard, snake, and so on…) specimens all organized taxonomically and lined up neatly in drawers.  These specimens are a scientific resource in that they are very often at the base of the long stings of knowledge we have accumulated about animals. Like tracing all sources of energy back to the sun I like to say that we can trace all sources of knowledge about animals back to the specimens in a museum. 

If you don’t believe me, or if you don’t think the person out there studying animal behavior with a pair of binoculars has a museum collection to thank, think about the field guide the observer depends on to identify animals. Every living creature on Earth is named and described from museum specimens, and it has always been my enormous responsibility to take care of these very important collections. Really, it is my privilege and honor to have spent my entire adult life in two of the greatest natural history museums in the world, but then again as a child I was always obsessed with building up my own little boyhood natural history museums. 

I have never forgotten how horrible a feeling it is to be away from the wealth of information inherent in nature and somehow collections of animal specimens have always served me as a kind of strange insurance policy against my ever being bored. You can walk through the back rooms of my museum and open drawers containing the skulls of galagos from central Africa or pickled bats form Sri Lanka. I just love having all that kind of tangible matter from the real world of nature at my fingertips.

What led you to write for children?

At the time I was being asked to fact-check a lot of books about mammals that were written by other people (that's what happens when you are a mammal expert) and one day I just said to myself, "I can do this." And I did. The woman that illustrates many of my books was a resident scientific illustrator at the American Museum of Natural History (where I was working at the time) and she played a big role in introducing me to a few good editors. I owe Pat a great deal for helping me break into the field, and was thrilled when my editor chose Pat to illustrate my first few books.

What was the inspiration behind Monkey Colors?  

Monkey Colors is a book about the process of distinguishing different kinds of species. Since monkeys are diurnal, they use color to help distinguish themselves from other closely related species.  Nocturnal mammals like shrews are not so easy to tell apart.  They are mostly different shades of gray and not so easy for a primate like Homo sapiens to tell apart.   Shrews happen to distinguish themselves by smell, but scents are not easily stored in a museum drawer and so museum mammalogists like me have to use proxies like details in the morphology of molar teeth to tell apart different species of shrews.  Monkeys and color just seemed the most natural way to open up the subject of how we go about distinguishing species.

You’ve also written books for children on bumblebee bats and meerkats. How do you choose which subject to write about? Or does the subject find you?

Titles are very important to me, and all of my books come to me with a title that just seems to click with whatever theme I am thinking about.  In the case of Meet the Meerkat, I wanted to write a book about a small mammal that was very interesting but not necessarily well-known.  

There are more than five thousand different kinds of living mammals on planet Earth, and I felt as though the selection of books out there on mammals was way too limited. I wanted my readers to meet a very different kind of mammal, not just lions, elephants and pandas.  Meet the ??? ... Meet the ???... Meet the Meerkat!  Perfect!  This happened to be just before meerkats became popular on TV, but you get the idea, and I followed it up with similarly inspired books on bumblebee bats, baby belugas and mama wallaroos, and the list will go on for as long as someone will publish them.

Can you talk about your writing process? What comes first, the research or the writing?

The ideas are rooted in a bank of knowledge that is already in my head, and after jotting down a few lead-in sentences to set the tone, I usually move pretty quickly to a stage where I am trying to map out the overall “shape” of my book.  Picture books are great because they are typically only 32 pages, and so I can put a big piece of paper in front of me and literally map out how I want the book to unfold. At this stage I’m not so concerned with actual words and sentences so much as rhythm and overall structure.  After my first few sentences I sometimes try to hum out where the book is going before trying to match actual words to those sounds.  Sooner or later I’m humming less and writing more, and then I know it’s time to hit the library so that I can add a little more depth to my writing. There is always something to learn, even for a mammal expert. 

At this stage I’m not necessarily trying to load up my book with facts; rather I’m usually looking for bits of information that I might use to carry my story along. A good example from Hello, Bumblebee Bat would be where the text shifts to what the little bat fears, and that forest fire illustrated in the background came directly from my reading about how wild fires in Thailand are a major threat to this species.  

I don’t ever try to think about the specific subject of my next book, but there is always some hazy theme weighing on my mind.  There is just this nagging feeling I have about having something to say. I don’t try to force things; rather I just let it simmer for weeks or sometimes months at a time until something hits me. Sometimes nothing ever happens and the feeling just fades away over the years.  

My book After the Kill is a good example of something that simmered for a long time. I’m interested in the reality of nature, and I kept thinking about the anxious feeling you might get when people are afraid to tell you something.  It was a feeling like “knowing the dirty secret is far less painful than the angst of being aware but unknowing”. That anxious feeling kept coming to me in relation to the sometimes sanitized views of nature we present to our children (I hate when people do that).  I kept feeling like I wanted to tell some secret truth about the way nature really worked, and yet at the same time I didn’t want to seem ghoulishly honest.  

After the Kill does not dwell on death, rather it tells the story of the life-giving process that comes after the death of an animal. Children naturally sense this basic truth about nature, but in shielding them from it we make matters worse by creating angst.  After the Kill was meant to be that sigh of relief.   

Can you describe what an typical day looks like for Darrin Lunde, mammalogist/children’s author? Do you write early in the morning or late at night? Weekends only?

On a typical day I am behind the scenes at the Smithsonian Institution and VERY busy with the day-to-day business of running a mammal collection. I am working to keep hundreds of thousands of mammal specimens properly identified and organized so that visiting scientists can conduct their research. I also spend a great deal of time answering questions from various scientific agencies, students, and the general public. Over the course of my career I travelled to many remote parts of the world to study and collect mammal specimens, and I am often involved with helping young mammalogists get their start in the field.  

The only time I have to work on my books is after work, and usually very late at night. I usually try to devote at least one full weekend day to writing. It is very hard work but enjoyable when you look back.

Darrin and his daughter hiking in Maryland
What’s the best part about being a children’s author and writing for children?

I can write a lot of them. I have a lot of ideas and unlike with a longer-length book, I can juggle writing several children’s books at a time. I know I write better when I am working up several different book ideas all at once.  Ideas keep coming.  Most of them never end up published, but I no longer worry so much about what my next book is going to be. I just do what all writers everywhere do. I just keep writing.

What are you working on now?

The next book of mine that will come out is called Hello Mama Wallaroo. It’s the next in my “Hello somewhat unusually animal” series; however, what I really want to alert you to is the book that will come out just after that. The title is known to me and my editor but is otherwise still secret…but it’s a good one, perhaps my best and I just can’t wait to share it with you!

Thanks, Darrin!

You are most certainly welcome!

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