Emily Arnold McCully is the author of the new children's book Clara, which focuses on a famous 18th century rhinoceros. Her many other books include Mirette on the High Wire and Marvelous Mattie. She lives in New York City and Columbia County, N.Y.
Q: How did you learn about Clara the rhinoceros, and was there anything that particularly surprised you about her story?
A: I learned about Clara when browsing the stacks of my local university library (a wonderful boon to have access to it--browsing yields wonderful discoveries not usually available when simply searching for titles on a computer).
The book, by Glynnis Ridley, a scholar, is a detailed examination of every aspect of Clara's journey. I saw a children's book embedded in its detail.
I was as innocent of information about the rhinoceros as those 18th century Europeans, so much surprised me. I was very impressed by the endurance of both Clara and the Captain, and by the effect she had on onlookers.
I had seen Longhi's paintings in Venice and always found them wonderfully evocative. They aren't really very accurate portraits, but they do convey the mystery and comic qualities of her appearances.
Q: How do you research your books, and is there a time period you've especially enjoyed looking into?
A: I prefer to research my stories with actual books, but increasingly, I have to use the internet (very carefully!) There are primary sources available, for instance, a broadside of an appearance by Clara in London.
I am most at home in the 18th and 19th centuries, but have researched medieval China (Beautiful Warrior) and closed off Japan (Manjiro). My mission is often to recover forgotten or little known girls and women who made significant contributions to the human story.
Q: You've written for a variety of age groups. Do you have a preference?
A: After having produced picture books for decades, I have lately written much longer books. Ida M. Tarbell is YA and I enjoyed writing it immensely, mostly because of the subject, also because I could pretty much include all that I wanted to--there was no restriction on length or complexity.
That's true also of a current biography of Ada Byron Lovelace, known as the first computer programmer.
That said, I'm at the moment illustrating a picture book about Caroline and William Herschel, sister and brother astronomers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In their case, the illustrations really do inform the story. A longer book would certainly be interesting, but not as effective, I think.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?
A: I read history and fiction mostly and have some favorites, but hate to single them out. I will say that no author has moved me more than Elena Ferrante, for her devastating depiction of the experiences of girls and women in my lifetime (even though set in Naples).
I admire many children's authors -and, sorry, don't want to be pinned down there, either!
Q: Can you say more about what you’re working on now?
A: I'm working on the Herschels, called Caroline's Comets, on the Ada book and on a fictionalized early life of Sacagawea's son, whose name was Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Also a picture book about the design and construction and history of the Lincoln Memorial.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb