Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of Maya Lin: Thinking With Her Hands, a new biography for kids about the architect. Rubin's many other books include The Quilts of Gee's Bend and Brown v. Board of Education. She lives in Malibu, California.
Q: Why did you decide to write a book for young readers about Maya Lin?
A: As always, I love to find a woman artist to write about who’s done something significant and important and is a role model. Someone kids would want to read about.
The book started so many years ago—my granddaughter, who’s now 12, was about 3. We went to hear [Maya Lin] speak. I had talked with my editor about it. We realized what she was working on, her whole ecological program. It was so on-target for elementary school upper grades. We know she would be a marvelous subject, and of course, [the book would involve] diversity.
When I started working on the book, I realized there are many features of her life that are relevant to today’s kids. Most kids don’t know what architecture is. I had the privilege of visiting her in her studio. It gave me a sense of the projects she’s working on. It helped to visualize what a studio is, and her process.
She emphasized that her work had three [parts]—artist, designer of monuments and architect, and all her outdoor work.
Q: How did you research her life, and what role did she play in your research?
A: She’s a very strong woman. She kind of outlined the book, She has two daughters—she understood the book. I thought, I would like to do one house. As a kid, I didn’t realize architects did more than houses. She said the Box House [in Colorado] was her favorite; it’s based on a Japanese puzzle toy. She talked about bringing the outdoors in. She so loves nature. The setting becomes a part of the project—a tree growing through the deck. It’s very Frank Lloyd Wright. In a sense, she outlined which projects she thought would be best.
And she was so cooperative, and so was her studio manager. We have a slim budget; I had no art budget. She said she would give me images gratis…
Her What Is Missing project is so dear to her heart. The Listening Cone in San Francisco seemed like a wonderful thing to show. I went there and curled up inside to take notes. I didn’t know [my husband] was taking a picture. I thought it would give a sense of the size. It’s one of the only times my picture appears in a book!
One of the most important things to me was to visit as many of her sites as I could. That’s an important part of the primary research. I spent hours at the Vietnam Memorial. Her process of deciding what she was trying to accomplish, the obstacles she faced once she won the contest—that was one area she didn’t want to talk about.
When I visited the Museum of Chinese in America, in New York, I thought, Whoa! She is very clear about saying she’s an American but this is her heritage, and she honored it in the museum, and it’s terrific for readers to talk about their heritage.
Q: Can you say more about how the book was organized, in terms of her projects and the variety of projects she’s undertaken?
A: I originally planned on each chapter being devoted to one of her projects. My editor wanted one chanter on her childhood, and each chapter heading should name a material integral to that project. I thought, no, it won’t tell what the project’s about.
So my wonderful agent George Nicholson, who handled the project with me before his death, and his colleague Erica Silverman, said why not combine both? I thought that was a good way of organizing the chapters—it calls attention to the medium and what the story is going to be about.
With Storm King [in Mountainville, New York], I thought, what is outdoor artwork? I need to see it! I went up the first time during a storm. I was the only person there. I had to leave because it was too dangerous. My husband and I went back. An artist was invited to do a project for the park—it was really thrilling! As part of my research, I wanted to visit as many as I could.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from her story?
A: Curiosity in knowing more. Wanting to see some of the projects for themselves. There may be others near where they are. Certainly I’d love for them to have new respect for diversity and how one woman honored her heritage and stood up to criticism.
And also an understanding of what a memorial is. What would kids do to remember [someone]? I also hoped they’d realize how much a woman can accomplish. There’s nothing a woman can’t do who has drive and spirit.
In the What Is Missing project she invites people to participate and notice what is missing. I noticed in our neighborhood we don’t have rabbits running around the way we used to. She invites everyone to send [observations]. Her work inspires so many ideas for what people can do.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just got the advance copy for a book coming out in March—Coco Chanel: Pearls, Perfume, and the Little Black Dress. It’s for age 10-12 and up. It was wonderful writing about her as a designer, and also she was so mean! None of this heroic stuff! She was a fabulously successful woman who rose from being very poor to being the head of a fashion empire.
And I’m doing a biography of Paul Robeson, the great singer, scholar, actor…and I’m doing a book on voting rights…
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: [Maya Lin] talked so much about what goes into her work. She says her writing is such an important part of her work. I would like readers to notice that, and hopefully read the book she wrote. She’s a marvelous writer, and is so dedicated to her work. And she’s married and is the mother of two daughters. She juggles everything.
One place I would like to visit and haven’t yet is the Langston Hughes Library [in Clinton, Tennessee]. When I’ve done other books on civil rights I have been sending the books to the library. I hope to visit some day.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin.